This I Believe

Posted on June 23, 2014

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Each year, the ninth graders in my high school are asked to write a belief essay, inspired by the This I Believe organization. I’ve worked with students to publish their essays, both in text and in voice recordings, on a school website. As I read and listened to their essays, I was impressed with how these 14 and 15-year-olds could identify and articulate their core beliefs. They inspired me to think a bit about what I truly believe about education. I’ve been in education for four decades and  I have often been asked to write something about my “philosophy of education,”  but those little essays were usually something I put together in hopes of landing a job. I said what I was expected to say. I think it’s time for an honest inventory of what I truly believe about education as an institution and teaching as a profession. I have strong opinions about most education issues and my thinking often changes based on new ideas or new evidence. But in the last week or so I’ve tried to identify my most basic beliefs, the convictions that I’ve built my career on, and these are the five that surfaced:

Schools must be public. I find the recent movement toward privatizing schools very disturbing. I once worked in a Job Corps center that was run by a corporation, so I know what happens when you try to run a school like a business and all decisions are made to benefit the company rather than the students. Vouchers and charter schools are just steps toward privatization. I understand the allure of charter schools for some parents and teachers. We’ve all wanted to run our own schools, free of the restrictions and mandates that are placed on public schools. But if charter schools are better without those restrictions and mandates, why don’t we just remove them from the public schools?

School sign

Photo Credit: OliBac via Compfight cc

Teaching is messy. No matter what the consultants, pundits, reformers, or your next door neighbor may say, there’s no one right way to do it. What works today may not work tomorrow.  What works with one student may not work with another. To be effective, we have to make our best guesses about what may work, provide learning opportunities, assess, and revise. As Dylan Wiliam says, “Our daily experience as  teachers is a failure, which makes it the best job in the world.” Nothing I have experienced or read has convinced me that there’s a direct causal relationship between teaching and learning. We as teachers can influence and guide learning, but we cannot control it. I believe learning is complex and cannot be measured quantitatively. This is not to say that I don’t believe in assessment. On the contrary, I devote a lot of time to  trying to figure out what students know and can do, and I’m constantly surprised (positively and negatively). Testing can sometimes help us make decisions about what to try next, but test scores should never be used to compare schools, evaluate teachers, or close doors for students.

Teachers must be curriculum designers. Perhaps the worst idea to come out of the education reform movement is the scripted lesson. Delivering a lesson by following a recipe is not teaching. I’ve attended many national conferences in the past decade or so, and nothing depresses me more than to walk through the exhibits and see so many vendors selling packaged curricula and lessons guaranteed to solve all our pedagogical problems and get our kids to meet the standards. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t ever purchase materials or use someone else’s lesson, but it’s the teacher who should be making the decision about when that’s appropriate, and the teacher should be free to adapt this material to meet the needs of her students. I’ve heard many administrators (and teachers) use the “we don’t have to reinvent the wheel” argument for using canned lessons, but I don’t buy it. When a teacher designs a lesson or unit, he’s invested in it, and his students sense that and are more likely to be engaged. I’ve also heard administrators argue that teachers don’t know how to design curriculum and that job should be left to the experts. If that’s the case, those teachers should learn how to do it and become the experts. As professional educators we must be scholars and lifelong learners who stay on top of new ideas and technologies, and who are better able to make content and pedagogical decisions than a consultant or a vendor.

Some students will never meet some standards. I’m not against the standards movement in education. I believe standards are helpful for goal setting, curriculum design, and assessment. But standards are just someone’s best guess at what students should know and be able to do. To say that all students must meet all standards is to deny the diversity our students demonstrate every day.  I believe the mandate for proficiency-based diplomas is an opportunity for us to closely examine how we assess student learning and to determine what a high school diploma truly represents. A diploma should mean that the student is ready for the next stage in life, whether that’s college or the workplace. I believe that a checklist of standards met or not met cannot tell us this. The diploma awarders should take into consideration everything that is known about that student and then make a judgement. That’s really the best we can do.

To stay in the game, you have to play by the rules (most of the time). This may sound hypocritical, but I often do things that appear to be counter to my beliefs. I follow school policies and procedures that I don’t agree with. I have taught content that I believe to be unnecessary and a waste of time. I voice my opinion when I think it will make a difference, and keep my mouth shut when I know it won’t. I make compromises when necessary. Generally, I follow the rules because I want to continue to teach, and I want to do it in public schools. There may come a day when I decide that schools and the teaching profession have become something that I can no longer, in good conscience, be a part of. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened yet. I believe I can still do some good.

Posted in: Reflection