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Listening, Learning, And Understanding

I had a conversation with my son right after dinner because when we were done, he’d promptly gone outside to the redneck fridge and grabbed an Uncrustable. If you’re unfamiliar, an Uncrustable is a frozen pre-made peanut butter and jelly sandwich with no crust. Kids LOVE them. Earlier, I’d clearly heard his Mom say, “No Uncrustables before or after dinner, honey. It’s best to save them for when you must rush out the door and haven’t eaten yet. That way, you won’t go hungry.” That’s a very motherly, nice, and reasonable approach, right? Easily understood, I’d add.

Back to our post-dinner conversation: “Why would you grab this sandwich after dinner when you were just reminded not to?” He said, “I don’t know. I guess I was not listening.” I said, “But you knew she said it and even acknowledged it, correct?” “Yes, Dad.” Suddenly, a light bulb appeared in my head, and I said: “Son, why do you think your Mom took the time to say that?” Just then, a remarkable thing happened; he explained that if he kept eating them, they would all be gone when he really needed one. This teenage kid went from listening to understanding. Behold, a Christmas miracle!

That got me thinking. I’ve spent a lot of time working with/battling the Lee County School District. I do so because when our kids began school, at least a few schools around town had A ratings, and several had B’s. Then, it seemed the District’s approach and the quality of education changed. They started moving principals, administrators, and teachers all around the county. It seems the thinking was to move effective administrators to failing schools to bring them up. After two to three years, sure enough, scores improved, and this solid administrator was then yanked out and sent to another failing school. That meant stability was gone again, so kids and teachers had to re-adjust to yet another new environment. It was like a principal Whack-A-Mole approach to fixing education. Also, think about how the families of the school that had a great administrator removed feel about the rationale their principal was doing too good of a job for too long. I know exactly how they feel. Around 2010, the elementary school we’d chosen for our kids had consistent A ratings, and get this: a 100+ person list for teachers waiting to teach there. It’s pretty much been C’s since then, and the school, like many others, faces an ongoing critical teacher shortage. Teaching is hard enough. Why would the District continually do this and make it harder?

Another challenge is that schools must use standardized tests that determine the school’s and teachers’ relative success or failure. If we base their “success” solely on these tests, it stands to reason that the schools would focus on these tests alone, and I cannot blame them for that. If I were a principal, I would do the exact same. Well, time has passed, and the results are becoming clear: our students are performing worse, and I see no signs of a change in direction on the horizon. These tests don’t accurately assess the school and, I argue, force schools to not focus on educating children but instead focus singularly on programming children for the standardized test. It’s a cycle that must end.

It seems that Departments of Education across America simply aren’t listening to the chorus of data clearly showing this decline. It’s also clear they don’t understand the predicament they’ve put the entire school system into. A funny reality is that as some people age, they get cranky and say stuff like, “Things were better back in my day.” Regarding education, I totally agree with that statement, which I guess also means that I’m officially old! However, in this case, I have mountains of data to objectively back up my cranky position. Sometimes, problems that are seemingly incredibly complex can be solved by simple solutions. I say there is a solution – the critical hiccup is whether the powers that be are willing to try to understand where they’ve gone wrong.

My simple solution is to acknowledge that our educational system switched from teaching methods that fostered a real understanding of subject matters to only teaching with the goal of kids passing standardized tests. This shifts teachers from real teaching to focus on whatever the standardized test requires that school year instead. We’ve all taken a math test where we knew just enough to pass, but that knowledge was gone from our brains in weeks. Pretty much everyone remembers that one special teacher. They believed in you and, no matter the subject somehow made learning fun and, dare I say, enjoyable. If we could focus on figuring out what makes those teachers so magical and, in turn, develop an educational best practices kit to share with all teachers, kids would no longer learn just enough to pass. Because of this, they’d truly understand the subject and have a lifetime of knowledge instead of a few weeks of passing familiarity. The current system gives them no real-world education because their learned skills only center around performance on a bureaucratically designed exam. Let’s work towards ditching these standardized tests. Let’s begin to allow high-performing administrators to stay in their schools. Let’s also allow them to mentor assistant principals in how they do their jobs so well and then send these well-trained administrators off to the schools that need help. This ensures the high-performing school stays that way, and then the school that needs help has an emerging new leader taught by the best. If good principals can stay put, it stands to reason, so will the teachers. Teachers can again buy homes near where they teach without fear of being re-assigned across the county, and, in a few years, we’ll begin to have real community schools that are thriving again. Let’s stop this focus on a goal of standardization and begin to focus on what really counts: educating our kids with the knowledge and skills that give them the best chances to have a fulfilling and successful life. Education has to stop “listening” to these standards, begin teaching again, and pursue the true goal of education, which is for kids to truly understand what they’ve been taught.

Goodlad & Swank

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