Saturday, December 11, 2010

What do these things have in Common?

On Tuesday I sat beside my granddaughter while she worked on her night’s homework for the better part of an hour. She is a high-achieving 4th grader attending a public school in a moderately affluent suburban district. She carefully followed the instructions she had copied into her organizer. First she took her math text out of her bulging backpack and proceeded to locate the page from which she was to copy a bar graph and a matching line graph. She filled in the 2 missing numbers in the bar graph by locating them in the line graph. Then she proceeded to answer the 3 questions that required her to repeat the information reported in the graphs.

Next, she wrote her week’s 20 spelling words 3 times each. One quick glance was sufficient, she was already in charge of the spelling. When she finished writing the 60 words she retrieved her reading book, an anthology of abridged pieces of children’s literature accompanied by the questions the publisher wanted to ask, and flipped to the glossary. My granddaughter is an avid reader, I was curious, so I asked. Yes, she knew the meanings of her list of words. She copied the glossary definitions into her notebook. 

Last was the reading assignment, a 2 page selection which consisted of a humorous series of exaggerations similar to those found in tall tales. The follow-up exercise required that she answer 5 questions under the heading “Judgements”. She had to judge if the comical sentences taken from the selection were, in her judgement, real or not real statements. (Ex. Tom was so tall that when his hat fell from his head it took three days before it hit the ground.) We shared a moment of confusion. The answers were so obvious, had we missed something? We both had higher expectations for the act of making judgements. 

On Wednesday afternoon I had lunch with a former school superintendent, who in the  years following her retirement from that position, had been a project manager for a private company that did long-term instructional reform in urban school districts. Here are just 3 of the surprises and challenges she shared with me in talking about that work: She came across classrooms in which teachers adhere to text books that, for example, devote exactly one page to both the American and French Revolutions;  a special needs student that learned to read only after being removed from his school’s special needs class where he was not being taught to read; seeing a successful district-wide initiative to raise student achievement and implement  teaching practices that promote higher- level thinking terminated because the incoming superintendent wanted to distance himself from the previous administrator.
On Wednesday night I gave a power point presentation on the topic of women and poverty in developing countries, based on what I had seen and learned while attending  a microcredit conference in Nairobi. The gender studies class of 25 undergraduate students was engaged, curious and thoughtful. However, the paucity of vocabulary and concepts was painfully evident throughout the classroom when the students were asked to express themselves verbally and in writing. Drawing conclusions and applying evidence to their answers was equally challenging.

On Thursday morning I read the transcript of President Obama’s economics speech given in Kansas in which he focused on the endangered middle class of America. He spoke of the “demands of the moment”. This is what he said:                    . 
The world is shifting to an innovation economy and nobody does innovation better than America. Nobody has a greater diversity of talent and ingenuity. No one’s workers or entrepreneurs are more driven or more daring. The things that have always been our strengths match up perfectly with the demands of the moment.

But we need to meet the moment. We’ve got to up our game. We need to remember that we can only do that together. It starts by making education a national mission -- a national mission. Government and businesses, parents and citizens. In this economy, a higher education is the surest route to the middle class. 

What do these things have in common? I think they all point to the need for many of our  schools to adjust course and get real about what their mission is. The time has passed for “playing” school and requiring students to do the shallow, school-like work of copying exercises and completing mindless worksheets. We know better. We can’t afford to have schools that continue to paint by the numbers instead of doing the much more challenging work of envisioning, designing, observing, reflecting, and refining instruction with the integrity and the inherent value of their students in mind.  Most schools are so caught up in what ever race it is they are trying to win that they are rushing past the content of their students’ education and leaving their students bereft of understanding, perspective, and the habits of mind necessary for real world work. It takes very artful prioritizing to get out of that bind. We need school leaders whose first allegiance is to the students that have been entrusted to them not to self-promotion and politically expedient choices. We need school board members who remember why they are giving up their evenings  several nights a month. 

What does it take to meet the demands of the moment? Well there are many ways to get there from here but there is one non-negotiable reality. Schools have to be held accountable to their communities, not just for the bottom-line, high-stakes test scores but for the challenging work of cultivating self-efficacy, essential life-long learning strategies, critical analysis,  self-direction, collaboration skills and problem solving ability. Without that kind of education we will never have the human capital that is capable of delivering in an innovation economy.