Summer: An Opportunity to Reflect

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Educators, parents and others concerned about the welfare of our children will converge on Washington, DC on July 28-31 for the Save Our Schools March. “The Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action is a grassroots movement dedicated to restoring educator, parent, student, and community influence over education policy and practice.” (http://www.saveourschoolsmarch.org/) The organizers are demanding four things:

  • Equitable funding for all school communities
  • An end to high stakes testing used for the purpose of student, teacher, and school evaluation.
  • Teacher, family and community leadership in forming public education policies.
  • Curriculum developed for and by local communities

The March is in response to education policy that is being put into law across the country:

  • Expanding high stakes testing
  • Connecting teacher and school evaluations to student test results
  • Firing staff in low performing schools
  • Giving for profit organizations the go ahead to run charter schools

Law is different than policy–it is far harder to reverse or change.  Putting so much educational policy into statue is a new strategy.

Maine’s Commissioner of Education, Stephen Bowen, has said that Maine schools must transform themselves so as not to become irrelevant.  I couldn’t agree with him more.  I stated in my book Teaming Rocks!Middle grades classrooms that fail to provide students with 21st century learning tools that push beyond the classroom walls to explore, collaborate, and create will be obsolete.” (NMSA, 2010, p. 144)

Change is afoot in education in Maine and across the country. It is not a time to be passive and uninvolved. We all might use this summer to reflect on our professional beliefs about teaching and learning.  We also need to  read  what research has to say about learning and then compare those principles with our own beliefs. Transformation comes from soul-searching.

Many critics of today’s teachers claim that anyone who disagrees with their policies is only interested in maintaining the status quo and thus depriving many children of a good future.  As a teacher who was never interested in supporting the  status quo, I can quite agree with the sentiment that the status quo is not a good state of affairs for a lot of students.  However, I don’t recall reading their definition of status quo.  Many national policy makers and businessmen have jumped to wrong-headed solutions without asking searching questions.  Thankfully, in Maine, our new Commissioner seems to be avoiding that route.

My definition of an unacceptable status quo includes (among other things):

  • Many students are unable to access a rich and intellectually challenging curriculum.
  • Curriculum and instruction is teacher-centered rather than student-centered.
  • Educators who feel that offering students “an opportunity to learn” rather than feeling they have a moral responsibility to ensure students learn is an acceptable attitude.
  • Too many schools  do not access the full and powerful learning potential of the MLTI laptops and thus fail to engage their students in 21st century learning.
  • The connections between healthy relationships and a nurturing culture to learning is ignored.
  • The arts, the social studies, and health and wellness are relegated to second-class citizenship.

The list above is certainly not inclusive, and I know that readers will have their own lists of things that ought to change. Each of us needs to think deeply about how to ensure our public schools do not become irrelevant.  They are a mainstay of our culture and the best hope for many children.  However, we cannot think just in the abstract about “schools”. We need to look deep inside ourselves.  Olympia Dukakis, the actress, offers us an insight, “Most of us are not real eager to grow, myself included. We try to be happy by staying in the status quo. But if we’re not willing to be honest with ourselves about what we feel, we don’t evolve.

Rereading the Bright Futures Report (http://www.maine.gov/education/ml/) is a great way to begin the process of reflection.  Its 12 Core Practices are not the status quo in most of Maine’s middle grades.  If they were, we would be well on the road to responsive, student-centered 21st century schools:

Learning and Teaching Practices in Maine’s Middle Level Schools

1. Students have access to curriculum that is relevant, challenging, integrative, and
exploratory and is organized and executed to maximize accessibility for all students.

2. Teachers use research-based instructional practices in their classrooms that are
effective in increasing the learning and achievement of young adolescents.

3. Teachers in all content areas use teaching and learning practices that are anchored in
21st century literacies.

4. Students have access to one-to-one computing technology integrated throughout the
curriculum allowing them to acquire the critical thinking skills related to information,
media, and technology.  

5. All middle level students experience learning opportunities that emphasize creativity
and innovation.  

School Practices to Support Learning and Teaching in Maine’s Middle Level Schools

6. School leaders, using a collaborative and democratic leadership model, focus on
establishing an environment that supports the learning needs of young adolescents.

7. Faculty, administration, and students collaboratively build a safe and caring climate
that nurtures the individual while creating a sense of community where everyone is
valued.

8. Students benefit from organizational structures within the middle grades that
maximize the sense of community, support meaningful relationships, and optimize
curriculum delivery.

9. Students have access to a co-curricular program that encourages all students to
participate, develop skills, be a member of a team or activity, and simply have fun.

10. Teachers’ professional development is an ongoing process that is embedded into the
daily life of the school.

11. Parents are actively involved in the life of the school and their child’s education.

12. Teachers, administrators, and staff who are responsible for the education of young
adolescents are knowledgeable about their developmental needs and appreciate them
for their uniqueness.

I’ll end this post with a quote from Diane Ravitch: “Now is a time to speak and act. Now is a time to think about how we will one day be judged.  Not by test scores, not by data, but by the consequences of our actions.” (http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/Bridging-Differences/)

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4 Responses to “Summer: An Opportunity to Reflect”

  1. NancyEH Says:

    Even if they were to stay exactly as is, I disagree that Maine schools (or any other U.S. public schools) will become “irrelevant” unless there is a wholesale privatization. The term “irrelevant” is wrong in this context.

    Although there may be need for some Maine schools to transform to become more a part of the 21st century, I doubt that all of them need to do so. Until Mr. Bowen makes and announces some critical decisions about what “transformed” means in his administration, it will be hard to tell which schools are which.

  2. Jill Spencer Says:

    Nancy,

    Thanks for commenting! I hope you’re correct and that public schools never become irrelevant or obsolete. However, I had a student many years ago predict that public schools would for the most part be replaced by online learning. I laughed. Yet today it is possible to access courses, tutors, interactive websites online and earn degrees. Schools need to figure out how to incorporate these possibilities and make them even more compelling through the instructional processes of a highly skilled and creative teaching staff. I too await Commissioner Bowen’s policy decisions. We live and teach in interesting times.

  3. Jim Burke Says:

    Thank you, Jill, for this perspective. Refreshing.

  4. Jill Spencer Says:

    Thanks for checking in, Jim!

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