Recently I got better connected to conversations on public education in the United States. I got my Twitter account up and started following people talking about our K-12 schools. You might know how that story goes. I knew a few people I wanted to follow, and then this person connected to that person and before I knew it I found it was hard to keep up.
My entire Twitter experience is all about professional engagement. My head is spinning with all of the information, but I have very little chance to be grounded in those conversations here in my school where we can craft solutions, visions, and help shape the course of a student’s day, month, year, life. Follow Diane Ravitch’s blog alone and your head will probably spin too.
One of the people I follow who makes a great deal of sense to me is Pasi Sahlberg. I had the opportunity to be a part of a one-day “Finnish Lessons” seminar with him at UW a couple of years ago, and I saw him again last year at the Teaching and Learning Conference in Washington, DC. He makes a number of compelling arguments about how schools in the United States could revolutionize their approach to teaching and learning. There are many societal issues that are out of reach for schools to take on, so I’d like to focus on one that seems accessible and almost desperately necessary for teacher survival:
Real time to do the real work of crafting individualized instruction, thoughtfully evaluating student work, and deepening professionalism and community through structured school and district-based learning communities.
Rather than an environment of unhealthy competition, Finland schools seemingly focus their energy on collaboration and sharing (strange, I know). Teaching is not standardized, but flows from the teacher’s expertise as the needs of the classroom dictate. Teachers are also not isolated in this work, but often work with other experienced certificated teachers in the same classroom at the same time. We need schools in the U.S. to invest in cooperation. We need to invest in people. Think about these statistical points Pasi makes.
- Finland spends 10 times what we do in the U.S. on improving people.
- Finland spends 30 times more in improving people than it does testing kids.
We spend a ridiculous amount of our money on testing. We don’t trust the people running our schools or teaching our children, so it seems like a crazy idea to invest in them, I guess. Also – what if we invest in them and then they leave the profession? Because in the U.S. about 50% of teachers leave the profession before their 5th year teaching. Do I sense causality here?
Right now my time at school is pretty much structured to allow me to survive the teaching day. Teachers are even busy at home with what we didn’t get accomplished in the minimal and incessantly interrupted planning time we have in our workday.
You’d think teachers should/would/could have a voice in the conversation about the direction of public education, but there’s so little left a the end of the day that most teachers just can’t do it. We need leadership here.
The other day I watched a video of Jia Lee speak at the Senate hearings on NCLB and I was struck by her moral position on the issue of federally mandated testing – and that she is going to back up her beliefs with action. She refuses to administer tests that diminish her students and their learning. She asked a question so basic, I think it’s worth asking again.
What is the purpose of public education in a democratic society?
This question makes me slow down and think. I’m processing… we live in a democracy (representative, I guess you call it) and public education serves a purpose in that society – a function of it’s ideals, values, and vision. What is that purpose? What is the ultimate destination? Am I oriented towards those goals down here on the ground – in the actual classroom (or at my kitchen table) where I write this? I’m not so sure.
Surly I can have a deeper sense of my work than trying to get my students to reach standard in a wide array of individual skills, that will be measured by an outside assessment on a platform (a computer) that is almost completely foreign to the teaching environment (pencil, paper, face-to-face discourse, friends, mentors) where my students learn. But this is where our focus lies day in and day out. This seems to be the extent of the vision. At least it’s where we spend our money and time.
So what is the purpose of public education in a democracy? Maybe it begins with an investment in people. The greater the investment, the greater the return. We can pay lip service to the high and lofty goals of public education in our democratic society, but without the development of teachers and the engagement of teachers in the process of defining and redefining what public education is, it will always fall short its true promise.