Click here to go to the Home Page Education is an Evolving Science (Or at least it should be) By Joe Navarro, BC Guest Commentator

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I often hear people say that when you think about education you should remember when you were in school and you will appreciate the things that go into education.  In some surveys about education that I've seen recently, I noticed that when asked in general what people think of education, most say that the education system is operating poorly.  But when asked what they think of their own children's education the majority think it is very good.

If I went by my own experiences as a child, I would say that education was doing poorly.  I was hit in school by teachers, spent a lot of time in the principal's office and eventually expelled.  Yet, after being involved with my own children's education, I decided to enroll in college and become a teacher. I taught for 16 years in primary grades.  I'm a high school push-out, with a G.E.D., BA in creative writing and MA in Mexican American Studies/Education Emphasis.  

Society changes and so should educational theory and practice.  When I began my studies to become an elementary school teacher we learned about concepts like the importance of teaching to the whole child; mastery of subjects; child centered education; whole language balanced with phonics; multicultural education; bilingual/bicultural education; teaching children to become analytical thinkers and problem solvers; the importance of inquiry and exploration; motivating students to become intrinsic learners; meeting the individual and diverse needs of children; recognizing that every child learns differently at his/her own pace; and, creating a safe learning environment for children.  These were the concepts that motivated me to make a commitment to making the learning experience positive for children so they will continue to be enthusiastic about learning.

As the years progressed, a trend began to take root in American education, which in the name of reform, assumed the character of a business model in schooling.  This trend also became known as the standardization movement.  While arguing that we (in the most economically, scientifically and militarily powerful nation on earth) were not competitive with the rest of the world, the "reformers" painted an apocalyptic picture of the U.S. education system.  This opened the door for capitalists from the National Business Roundtable, National Chamber of Commerce, Bill Gates and others to redirect education.  They used their money and influence to reform the education system based on running schools like businesses, encouraging charter schools to be run by not-for-profit businesses, promoting vouchers to take money from public schools to be spent on private schools, which ultimately were efforts to undermine public education.

Establishing tough standards that required all children to progress at the same levels based on their chronological age forced all children everywhere to be tested rigorously. This set the stage for discrediting public education.  How is this possible?  

Let's look at recent comments by Arne Duncan the Secretary of Education, who recently expressed concerns in Education Week that its possible that more than 80% of students will probably fail to achieve their Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals this year, because the bar has been increased too quickly and too high.  President Obama also recently raised a concern that children are being tested too much.

Unfortunately, schools are becoming test obsessed.  At schools you study the data to find out how you did last year, then you categorize your students in groups of who did well, who could do better and who will not bring up your test scores.  Then you spend money on released questions from past tests so you can practice taking tests, then you buy more test practicing materials, you teach kids how to recognize and contextualize test questions.  Then after months of this, you spend a couple of weeks taking the tests in late Spring.  Of course you don't get the results until Augusts, so it doesn't help your teaching.

Testing has become less a way of measuring student achievement and more of a way to discredit public education.  I have never met a teacher who opposes assessments.  But I know many teachers who believe that tests drive education and undermine it in the process.  The limited focus on subjects to be tested causes schools to ignore other subjects like art, music, P.E., science, social studies and teaching children life skills.

Education scholar, Alfie Kohn argues that tough does not necessarily mean better.  The standards that are chosen may be tough in California, but are they the standards that our children actually need?  You can read the standard on the CDE website for every grade level.  There are lots of standards.  But I remember taking some college courses where I was deluged with information, so I studied, primarily through rote memorization (just as many of our students are forced to do today) and passed the tests.  Now ask me what I learned.  Rote memorization is not the same as mastery of subjects.  It ends up being a lot of useless information that many kids do not remember.

Additionally, testing is done in English (only).  For immigrant children and U.S. citizen children of immigrant parents who speak another language primarily, this is a major challenge.  Yet they are expected to perform at the same levels as English dominant children.  There are multiple factors that affect student performance in tests and in learning.  A combination of socioeconomic, linguistic and other factors such as access to books, computers, travel et. cetera affect learning.  That's why some people cynically look at test scores and declare that test scores = zip codes.  The truth is that people who are economically disadvantaged and people of color are still lagging behind of social experiments like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race To The Top (RTTT).

Educators are the social scientists of education, yet teachers are not invited to the table where education reform is decided.  Education reform is dictated by business leaders and high-profile politicians, who use education as platform issues but do not understand to children learn or how to teach children.  We often hear that education is a priority, then elected bodies at the state and federal levels cut school funding, forcing teachers to teach with extremely limited resources and often in old worn out facilities.  Political rhetoric about education is not the same as having a sensible curriculum with sensible standards and fully funded schools.

Education is a science.  It is complex.  Education reform should include educators, because educators devise meaningful instruments to measure students' progress and how to teach children.  It is complex and requires partnerships between parents, educators, community and students; and, it should include a genuine vision of achieving social equality.  Having said that, recognizing the complexity in everything, it must also be said that sometimes teachers are part of the problem, and when necessary they should be removed.  However, we have an education system, which means that schooling is institutionalized, from teacher preparation to the curriculum and standards that teachers must teach. 

If the majority of teachers are teaching the standards and curriculum that are required by federal, state and local mandates, and children are still failing, then it must be acknowledged that there is something wrong with the standards and curriculum. Guest Commentator, Joe Navarro, is a 21st century Chicano activist teacher and poet. Click here to contact Mr. Navarro.

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Apr 14, 2011 - Issue 422
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