November 18, 2018

Back to Basics

Spectator
By Stephen Tuttle | Aug. 25, 2018

Schools will soon be in session again. The criticism should start shortly thereafter.   
 
At some point in our not too distant past, public schools and their teachers became villains. We don't know exactly when that happened but we do know how: Politicians and their appointees decided they knew more about education than did classroom teachers. And while they were at it, they demonized public education for their own gain.
 
That hasn't worked out so well.
 
Politicians making curriculum decisions and then mandating them legislatively, as has happened in every state, is a mistake that repeats itself with every new state and federal administration: New standards, new tests, new “best practices,” new programs, and new requirements for teachers. Different under Granholm than under Snyder and different under Bush and then Obama and now Trump.
 
We must do these things, we're told, for our children. We are, after all, falling behind China, Japan, South Korea, and most other countries with homogeneous and regimented societies. We're behind in science and math, and we must develop a more stringent core curriculum. The education sky is falling.
 
The previous curriculum is never quite good enough for the new folks in power. Never.
They — unlike their predecessors, of course — have a real commitment to our children and education. Only they don't.  
 
When the recession hit bottom in 2008, politicians saw public education not as the shining hope of our future but as a budget line that was ripe for cutting. States collectively cut education funding by billions. Despite the economy's recovery, 38 states are still spending below their 2008 levels, a cumulative decrease of nearly $6 billion.  
 
The federal government is also spending less, and if Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has her way, public education is likely to take another hit from the feds.
 
More money isn't necessarily the answer, but not enough doesn't work at all — especially since almost everything a school needs has increased in cost. Ever-increasing expenses with decreased revenue has never proved an especially successful template.
 
The politicians haven't been much classroom help, either. New governor, new legislature, new standards, new test. New president, new Congress, new standards, new test. As a bonus, many states have decided teachers should be paid according to those test scores. “Performance-based” they call it. Uh-huh.
 
Imagine your pay depends on the performance of 25 10-year-old students. Every year you get a new batch. This year there's a new curriculum mandated by somebody. Unfortunately, your new students have been taught the old curriculum for their short school careers. But now they're going to be tested based on the new standards. Your paycheck depends on it. Your school's future might even depend on it in some extreme cases.
 
That teacher will “teach to the test” not because he or she wants to but because he or she has no choice. Teachers didn't used to teach to the test; the test determined what they needed to teach. But The Test, mandated by politicians, is now the end-all and be-all.
 
All of this is counterintuitive to good teachers. They understand students learn at a different pace and all have their own individual issues and needs. They'd like to work with those students who are struggling, but The Test awaits.  
 
There isn't anything wrong with standardized tests in the abstract. Their creation always begins with the best of intentions, usually guided by educators. But somebody has to decide what it is the students should know by certain grade levels, and that's almost always where politicians intrude.
 
The current rage is science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The future, we're told, is all about hi-tech, so our students should be prepared for that world. So they should take more STEM classes.
 
Not everybody agrees. Mark Cuban, tech billionaire and owner of the NBA Dallas Mavericks, says it's already too late for that. He believes artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics will do most tech jobs in the future. Computers already design and program other computers and industrial robots.
 
Cuban suggests we should be teaching students philosophy and ethics because the next generation will be dealing with how to limit AI and figuring out how and where people will work in an increasingly automated world.
 
If he's right, we're sending our 10-year-olds in the wrong direction. At best, we're being presumptuous by assuming we know what career paths might exist in two decades.
 
Improvements would follow if we create consistent standards of basic learning that last more than a single administration, allow educators to establish those standards absent interference from the politicians, use those tests as a guide instead of a reward/punishment system, then get out of the way of teachers.
 
Let teachers teach, let students learn, and keep politicians out of the classroom. Those are the basics to which we should return.
 

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