Monday, October 12, 2009

Two of Many Considerations

Several of the staff here at DSEA are sifting through Race To The Top guidelines and the related Delaware Department of Education Strategic Plan. We are trying to define DSEA positions so that initiatives that follow will be of benefit, not burden to students and educators.

In the middle of this task it occurred to me that the foundation for much of what is labeled reform, is very unstable indeed. In this post, I will only touch on two shaky pillars; one that US education is an unmitigated failure and two that the root cause of the failure is bad teachers, somehow functioning in a vacuum from society at large.

First, the very idea that American education is failing is subjective. Upon what is success or failure measured, a standardized test score? It is ironic that many of today's decision makers were probably never tested beyond something like the Iowa Basic in their school days. However, today, the standardized test is king. I should say, remains king, even after national politicians spent last campaign season agreeing with educators that the tests are of dubious value.

Also, efforts to substantiate the idea of failed US schools have included numerous articles comparing American math and science scores to other nations. Only math and science are examined because that's now the only part of education that matters (according to the non-educators who play the tune to which we all dance). In any case, these comparisons are not so much studies looking at similar students with similar variables as they are simplistic listing of scores of same aged students. In short, when the rest of the world has the same inclusiveness in education as the US, perhaps something approaching an "apples to apples" comparison might take place. Until that time, it is just more emotionalism to drive an agenda.

If one buys the story that US education is terrible, then the next item for one to purchase is that teachers are responsible for the failure. No other profession accepts the sole responsibility for client outcome, but educators are expected to do so. For example, try not paying your gym trainer if you fail to lose weight.

Reasonable arguments expounding upon the variables outside of the control of educators that might impact student performance could fill enough pages for a doctoral dissertation. For the sake of a simple blog, and even simpler blogger, let us look at one, the current socio-economic environment of children.

The socio-economic environment of children is very stressed in our current era. There is little acknowledgment of the economic environment in which children are educated.

The coming year of 2010 will find 26.6% of all American children living in poverty, according the Economic Policy Institute.

Food security is a US Department of Agriculture assessment which means that everyone in a household has access to enough food for an active and healthy life. The last year for which USDA food security figures are available is 2007, before the economic downturn. We know that in 2007 13 million households were food insecure. According to the USDA in 2007 16% of all the US households with children experienced food insecurity.

Furthermore, the health care crisis of which so much has been publicized also impacts children. According to Kids Count in Delaware, using a three year average, more than 10% of our children are without health insurance.

Put all of this together and many children face formidable odds against learning regardless of the intention, skill, training, or technique of the teacher. Kids who are hungry, sick, with parents working multiple jobs, with dubious housing, and with the family stress of poverty, are going to have problems in school.

None of this commentary is to say that educators are not willing to change, or that we don't welcome new ideas and the funding to experiment. However, we need a realistic definition of success and failure and we need to be conscious that the world of our children has changed, and not for the better.

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