How to fix education

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by bledsoe on August 6, 2011

If you haven't already, you should definitely read Ellie Herman's recent article in the LA Times called The Myth of the Extraordinary Teacher, which includes this memorable observation:

"We can't demand that teachers be excellent in conditions that preclude excellence."

Like most people, I've read about a million books, articles, and blog posts that offer a million different opinions on how to fix education.  We need more charter schools, we need vouchers, we need to get rid of the bad teachers, we need to pay teachers more, we need to use this or that teaching approach, we need to train teachers differently, we need to make the school day longer, we need to abolish the Department of Education; the list is endless, and everyone seems to have an opinion.

As a classroom teacher I get to be a part of a lot of conversations about how to fix education.  Somebody finds out I'm a teacher and they'll ask what I think about this or that education issue, and often they'll tell me what they think should be done to improve schools or teaching or the education system, and often those thoughts will be expressed very passionately.

I've come to understand that people's views on "how to fix education" are strongly influenced by their personal experience with education.  Almost all of us have had an experience with schooling.  For most of us it started around the age of five with preschool or kindergarten and continued thru the age of eighteen when we graduated from high school, plus maybe some more via college if we happened to go that route.

And every one of us had some very memorable and formative experiences (both good and bad) during that time, and every one of us could tell you how our schooling experience could have been better.  And I suspect every one of us is right.  If I hadn't taken 7th grade science from that lousy science teacher, or if more of my classes had been like my 10th-grade geometry class, or if more of my teachers had taught using that unconventional style that my 12th grade English teacher used, man that would have been GREAT.

Which is to say, it would have been great for me.

Because the fact is, my schooling experience was the experience of a single student: me.  And as much as I may have hated my 7th grade science class, there were probably some kids who loved it; and as much as I loved my 10th-grade geometry class there were undoubtedly some kids who hated it.  And that's not just a statement about how awful or awesome my 7th grade science or 10th grade geometry classes were, its also a statement about what kind of student I was.

I was always good at school, and I had parents who insisted that I take school seriously and who supported me in doing so.  Not only that but I had, and still have, particular learning styles and work habits that made certain classroom environments more or less effective for me.  These weren't things that my school or teachers provided, they were traits that I showed up at school with.  And every one of my classmates showed up with a completely different set of traits, so they all had a different take on how good or bad those classes were for them.

It wasn't until I became a teacher that I got a glimpse of just how varied are those traits that students bring with them into their classrooms.  I have students who come from stable, supportive homes, and I have students who come from horribly chaotic and dysfunctional homes.  I have students who are hard workers and I have students who refuse to do anything but sleep and check their Facebook page.  I have students who have remarkably quick and insightful minds, and I have students who struggle with the most basic concepts.  I have students who are relatively ordinary "kids" and I have students who already have children of their own or who work full time to pay their own rent because their parents kicked them out of the house.

Like all classroom teachers, Ellie Herman realizes that the trick isn't just to improve schools for the kind of student that you were, the trick is to improve schools for all students.  And that's really, really tough.  And it's even tougher when people continue to insist that all we need are for teachers to be extraordinary while they simultaneously go about creating conditions that work against teachers being extraordinary.

Image by Tinker*Tailor loves Lalka via Flickr.

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