What is the ideal school? If you could design a school, what would it look like? This past Sunday evening, the CBS “news magazine” 60 Minutes aired a segment by Katie Couric that brought to light a possible response to those questions. It also addressed questions regarding a very contemporary belief about what is wrong with schools. However, it left me questioning if we will ever come to a consensus on what the ideal school really is.
Titled “The $125,000 Question“, Couric introduces us to The Equity Project Charter School (http://www.tepcharter.org/), a “New York City charter school founded on the idea of hiring the best teachers by paying them $125,000, while denying them tenure.” (from 60 Minutes website) Seems like a good plan, right?
The Equity Project Charter School is based on the notion of paying teachers commensurate of their ability: find the absolute best teachers and pay them well. With a rigorous hiring process complete with an audition, regular evaluations by administration and colleagues, video lesson study, and termination if they fail to meet expectations, the teachers are pushed to pursue perfection. A perfection that is based on one understanding of what good teaching is.
As I sat watching the 60 Minutes segment, I wanted to be supportive of the school’s goals. I wanted to see how this school employed cutting edge instructional strategies to transform learning to meet the growing demands expected of 21st century citizens. However, that wasn’t what we witnessed.
What we saw were traditional classrooms where these “best-of-the-best” teachers employed rote-and-drill practices with laser precision in order to achieve one hundred percent compliance from students. We saw students engaged in tasks that are based on what the multitude of Americans recall from their own time in the classroom, back when basic skills and literacy were enough to drive our economy. It looks good on national television to an ignorant public to witness one teacher with that kind of control over a group of students. What it was not was the classroom that reflects the messy nature of constructive learning. Students were not working in cooperative settings with small group tasks.There was no substantive conversation. There was no shred of 21st Century Skills. Teachers and best practice were portrayed as the same old “sage on the stage” that we all remember.
Unfortunately, I was unable to support this school’s practices. I became disappointed at what I witnessed. Giving a revolutionary idea the benefit of a doubt, I probed their website for evidence of instructional practices reflective of the kind of education our 21st century students need. As I thumbed through their website looking for evidence of breakthrough pedagogy, I was unable to identify practices resembling what I’ve seen from what I would consider “awesome” teaching. It seems as though the broadcast ignores the critical thinking and creative problem-solving that we expect from our students; as though creativity and innovation are unnecessary and that memorization and drilling are what make sound education. It should be noted that this school was unable to outperform their counterparts in NYC…
And then there’s the bit at the end about the problem of teachers’ unions and the protection of “bad teaching”. The current mood in America is that teachers’ unions are stripping America of it’s education by promoting the tenure of educators that fail to meet the performance standards that are expected in other sectors of the workforce. This is reflected in the 60 Minutes segment, leading more to believe that the solution to the problem is eliminating the right to protect teachers from dismissal. Additionally, the situation in the legislature in the Midwestern states of Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio over stripping teachers of their collective bargaining rights leaves people questioning the seemingly luxurious benefits packages and the lavish lifestyles of teachers. For a poke at this, I enjoyed a clip from the Daily Show over the national frenzy over Wisconsin, “Angry Curds“, that highlights the growing movement against teachers’ collective bargaining ability.
While I can agree with the notion that unions have perhaps focused more on the plight of educators rather than on protecting the sanctity of education, blaming unions and teachers for the state of our current educational crisis is an ignorant assessment of the problem. There are issues that we ignore that have a far greater impact on student learning and achievement than teacher quality. Poverty and home life rank as paramount in this list. Please take the time to view a Daily Show Interview with Diane Ravitch. I dare you to read her book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System“.
If you ignore hype and media and allow yourself to see a larger picture, what you’ll find is that our educational system has reached its breaking point and the controversy is a response to an upheaval that is yet without direction, a reaction to the collective sense that the system as it exists can no longer function to meet the needs of the 21st century. What the controversy lacks is the collective first step: identifying the PURPOSE of our educational system. Once purpose has been clearly established, defined, and has unanimous support of the civic body, then a clear plan can be designed for the innovative future America has in store.
Seems simple enough. Why make it any more complex than that?