Monday, March 12, 2012

One Bad Apple: File Under Problems Not Addressed by NCLB

It may be a testament to public education that not until my daughters were in 8th grade that we encountered a teacher whose practices were so fundamentally unsound that I was forced to take action.

From kindergarten until now, my daughters have had a series of teachers whose professional abilities ranged from the solidly competent to the level of breathtaking mastery. (This includes the year we spent in Las Vegas--we lived in the suburbs, and our school was known for its academic rigor. Had we stayed, the girls would have attended a high school that is ranked by The Washington Post as one of the top 100 high schools in the country. You may be surprised to hear that.) Once in a rare while, I've had occasion to talk to a teacher about a tiny worry, but I've never felt my children were in other than able hands, educationally speaking. I trusted the teachers; I respected their methods; I often admired their patience and dedication; I appreciated their desire to bring out the best in my children (there is a lot of best to bring out in those two); and nearly always, I came to like my daughters' teachers a great deal.

I think of my daughters' kindergarten teacher, whose heart burned with her passion to teach tiny ones to read. That little lady was on fire! She demanded a lot from those tiny savages children--and she got a lot out of them. I think of one daughter's third and fourth grade teacher (she taught both grades), who instinctively understood my daughter's reserved and quiet temperament, and whose directions were unfailingly given in the most gentle manner possible. I think of all those talented, young, energetic, creative fifth grade teachers who worked so hard to prepare their students for the challenges of middle school. We had so many wonderful teachers. Looking back, I only wish I had said so more frequently to them and to their principals. (It's not too late. Some letters may be in order.)

As parent, there is no greater trust, is there? To give over the reins of authority over one's children to another adult? Yet we do it, every day, we send our children off to school where they are subject to the will (and, unfortunately, sometimes the whim) of others.

We trust that if we send our children to what is considered a good school--and what measure have we, other than test scores?--everything will be okay. But if one analyzed the longitudinal data from such a school, I doubt whether the scores would allow us to diagnose unsound teaching practices therein. Rather, we'd follow this cohort from K all the way to 12, the majority of whom are average to good students, the majority of whom are high SES, the majority of whom take music lessons and go to soccer or gymnastics or Irish dance or what have you, the majority of whom take for granted they will go on to college (and not just any college; you see them wearing the sweatshirts from their parents' alma maters and so you know this train is bound for glory) and I propose that their scores would remain relatively stable. We wouldn't see spikes for the best teachers; we wouldn't see dips for the worst. And so bad instruction may never be diagnosed, unless there be push back from parents. And yet, how many parents feel comfortable offering such push back? (Reasonable parents, you know, I'm not talking about the ones--and yes, I know such ones exist--that are like the leaky faucet in the constancy of the expression of their unhappiness about every little dang thing, every pebble in the path, every cloud on the horizon, every smudge on the window pane.)

I've seen grown men and women, giants in their fields, bright folks accustomed to wearing the mantle of authority in their chosen professions, shrink before the stern gaze of a classroom teacher or that of a principal.  The jargon of pedagogy intimidates them. Years of K-12 education haunt them. Nor does it increase one's sense of personal power to fold one's adult-sized body into those creaky little desk chairs. And experience unfortunately builds a false sense of confidence, so that a very bad teacher may teach very badly for 15 years and then use that 15 years of bad teaching to justify the continuation of bad practices.

For me, this is when the professional meets the personal. After six months of observation of very bad teaching, I decided to homeschool my two daughters. Just through the end of the year, and then they'll go on to high school. What an adventure, eh.

The unfortunate part is that this teacher will go on teaching, will rest in undeserved complacency, will feel comfortable that the unsound practices are good because the test scores (for which this teacher deserves no credit) remain high, and will be able to continue to ignore parents' complaints that what this teacher is doing is hurting the students.

UPDATE: What are my two star students doing today, you may ask? I am administering a pretest to obtain a measure of baseline performance. Then once we conclude our homeschooling adventure, I'll administer an equivalent parallel test form as a post-test in order to evaluate the effectiveness of my instruction. I'll probably write about it, both here and for a wider audience in another venue.

UPDATE: Correction to maintain consistency in verb tense in first paragraph. Ah, error-free publishing, that elusive goal.

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