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“Where I Stand” (Maria)

November 25, 2010

Here is my long-delayed, wordy response to September’s survey.  As today is Thanksgiving, I express my thanks for the educational opportunities I have had in my life.

“Where I Stand” (A School Reform Survey)

Name & role: Maria, bilingual early educator, advocate for families.

What “reform” means to me, and why I think it’s important: When I use the word reform, I am thinking about systems that need to be adjusted thoughtfully and with great purpose.  We need to better align our resources regarding the public school system to ensure that all children (and families) have access to quality public education in order to engage them as thinkers and citizens.

Where I Stand on…

The purpose(s) of schooling: Schooling should be a means of educating all of our students in a manner that allows them to be thoughtful, empowered, fully-participating and successful members of society.  Insistence on the acquisition of facts without proper context is not our role; children need to be able to use the knowledge they acquire and mold it and apply it in a meaningful way. We need to provide students, especially those at risk, with opportunities to develop skills we can’t necessarily measure in a tidy way. This includes effective self expression, an ability to engage in inquiry and critical thinking, creativity, flexibility, social competence.   I also think schooling should acquaint students with notions of justice and democracy and how to be an engaged citizen.

The school reform discussion (general thoughts): The current discussion has shuffled teachers to the back of the room.  There is an increasing noise coming from external influences who have proclaimed themselves experts in the field, either by decree or by virtue of minimal, dubious experience.  Simultaneously, there is an increasing movement to discredit teachers’ voices.  In part this is achieved by demonizing teachers’ unions and branding them anti-reform.  That said, I recognize an urgency for change and I know that there are teachers who are not meeting students’ needs.  I also know that leadership frequently does not intervene appropriately to address needed changes.  Are there teachers who truly should not be in the classroom?  Sure.  But most teachers, including those who are having difficulties, truly want to be successful and would welcome support that would enable them to do so. 

How to create high-quality learning environments: Students need to be engaged in the learning process and it is important that we develop their ability to do so.  I believe in structuring a classroom that is conducive to meeting varied individual needs, so students should be self-directed rather than wholly dependent on the teacher. Therefore, classroom environments should be engaging and responsive to child interest, providing them options to explore and to practice skills, freeing up the teacher for differentiated instruction.   I advocate for emphasis on language and vocabulary development, a focus  on critical thinking, questioning, discovery, and social/personal responsibility.  In creating a high-quality learning environment we must consider the child’s future adulthood, bearing in mind what we want them to know and take with them forever.

Recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers: Respect of teachers in general would be an enormous step in the right direction.  Ensure healthy working environments that foster trust and enable people to ask questions, adjust practice and to grow.  Leaders should have understanding of education and provide meaningful professional development as well as a sense of how to bring out the best in people combined with an understanding of when, and how to intervene.   True educators want to work for schools and systems concerned with depth of purpose, rather than with appearance of compliance.  New teachers should be properly, deliberately mentored, yet they are all too frequently simply thrust into a classroom and expected to have at it and be immediately good at it.  (Do we expect surgeons or criminal attorneys to synthesize and apply similarly complex knowledge after four-to-five years of study?)

In addition to emphasizing an overall respect for the profession which is sorely lacking in this social climate, we should look at proper compensation.  We can’t continue to rely on pure altruism of the individual to attract and retain the best and the brightest to our neediest schools.  Comparably low starting pay in education is enough to dissuade many a young graduate with student loans to pay off or a family to support.  (Also, most teachers, especially new ones, put in well over 40 hours of work a week, which tends to lower one’s “hourly rate” as well as ability for a balanced life.)

Accountability: Start at the top, please.  Why do the people least connected with the kids get paid the most and receive the most acclaim when scores go up (and sometimes even when they don’t) yet are so seldom held accountable for struggling schools? What does administration do to ensure success?  We have a number of punitive measures in this country that tend to focus on what teachers should be doing, assuming that primarily it’s the teachers who need to improve,  and we observe administrators getting kudos for being tough on teachers.   We should all really be focusing on how to help children succeed and in many schools that necessarily includes addressing some of the challenges to learning associated with poverty.  Time spent in adversarial interactions between teachers and leaders could be put to better use in designing meaningful collaboration that benefits everyone, particularly the students.

Standardized testing: Evaluating progress is important, but assessing students must involve an informative process.  State administered (high-stakes) tests are summative rather than formative and they don’t help us tailor instruction with current students. I am wary of the trend to weigh so heavily in favor of so-called accountability through standardized testing that we have de-emphasized skills that help children to develop as critical thinkers and lovers-of-learning.  We can look at (appropriate) data to inform ourselves about student needs but we also need to bear in mind that children, like most people, are not formulaic entities but rather complex organisms.

School choice: I’m not opposed to choice, nor am I opposed to the notion of charters, though I think my opinion would depend on the caliber of the charter itself.  Such schools can serve a number of purposes and fill roles that traditional schools don’t. However, I do have questions about the implications of choice and wonder whether it has left some neighborhood schools with fewer parents inclined to rattle cages when necessary.  

Power & agency (Who should be in charge of schools? Who should have the most decision-making power?): I think control should be local.  School models that work in one setting are not guaranteed to show the same success in other settings. Buildings and the employees in them should have a certain level of control in addressing the particular needs of the community.  This of course assumes that leadership and staff have a healthy, trusting, collaborative work environment and that they are attentive to the community’s needs.

What I’d like to understand better: Just about everything.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 27, 2010 7:22 pm

    Maria,

    You bring up excellent points, but the problem for a long time has been how to get there. For example, your high-quality learning envirnment describes what one is, but the big problem is how to create one in the system we have? What are the leanest, most direct steps to help an individual teacher demonstrate new results in a higher-quality classroom? From top to bottom, everyone should support these lean, direct steps clearly linked to classroom instruction. The status quo hides in the shadow of ambiguity regarding these steps. Who does what to create continual cycles that begin with a standards-based problem, has teachers create and adapt research-based solutions, and then analyze results has to be clear. And then the system should do everything possible to support these teacher-driven cycles. And the system unwilling or unable to support this work should be held accountable.

    • mariasallee permalink*
      November 28, 2010 1:12 pm

      Preston,

      I agree with you on the underlying nature of why we have seen little lasting change for the better, despite all of the frenetic energy and dialogue thrown in the direction of solving the problems of education. As teachers we talk about working smarter, not harder. It is maddening when elements of the systems that manage and oversee us seem more inclined to create obstacles to real progress. I, too, would also to see systems streamlined to support us or held more accountable for the injustices that routinely occur in our educational system, most notably in our nation’s poorest neighborhoods. Thanks for your comment, I wish I had a road map for the type of change you describe.

  2. Frederika permalink
    December 4, 2010 10:06 am

    Maria: You refer to the “September survey.” What survey? Can you provide a few more details?

  3. mariasallee permalink*
    December 4, 2010 10:21 am

    Yes, Frederika, it’s the school reform
    survey created and posted by Sabrina at the end of September. I am using her format (in bold) to better define my own position on these issues and encourage others to do the same. See the post at
    https://failingschools.wordpress.com/2010/09/30/what-i-stand-for-sabrina/

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