Education Policy Should Honor the Obvious
I offer here a short list of seven things that have become obvious, from my position as a teacher. If only our education policies might be constrained by the requirement that they honor the obvious!
1. Children do not learn well when they are under stress. This single fact is enough to explain so many things. If we were to design an ideal learning environment, there would be great attention paid to relieving all involved of unnecessary tension. A recent study found that first grade students in classrooms affected by budget cuts suffer because of the stress their teacher experiences in trying to meet their needs. Children who live in poverty experience stress at home due to insecurity around food, housing, and violence in their neighborhoods and homes. The very least we should do to address their needs is to make their schools a refuge from stress.
2. Tests, and high stakes attached to them, are very poor levers for increasing learning. We have exit exams that have reduced graduation rates, especially for minority students, but failed to increase real learning.
This study from the National Academy of Sciences found that when there are high stakes attached to tests, the scores on those tests tend to rise, but real learning, as measured on low stakes tests, has not increased. When you make people's jobs and pay depend on those scores, they will figure out how to get the scores up. But the underlying learning is going to suffer, as instruction is narrowly focused on preparing for the tests.
3. It takes time to learn to be an excellent teacher. Therefore it is unwise to invest large amounts of resources in programs that target young college graduates and ask them for a short, two-year-long commitment. We need to make the teaching profession a solid one, with opportunities for growth, that attracts bright people who want to stay and build their careers. Our high-needs schools especially need such expert teachers, and are suffering due to high turnover. The answer to this turnover is not more poorly-trained interns to fill the empty classrooms. It should be careful investment in programs to improve conditions, increase collaboration and build stability.
4. Programs like the Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA) in California, that deliver smaller class sizes and time for teachers to collaborate together and do work like this, yield much stronger results. Programs like this require us to invest time, money and trust in our teachers and students. But teachers who engage in this work feel empowered, and I believe this is the best possible antidote to stress.
5. When unemployment levels are high, and opportunities are few, students struggle to see the purpose in their education. I do not have a study for this one. Just my own observations after working in the Oakland schools for the past 24 years. Students are profoundly affected by the economic and social environment in which they live. There need to be visible, viable pathways to successful careers in order to keep students motivated and on track. There is a strong connection between the opportunities our students will find when they graduate and their level of engagement and motivation while they are in school. Teachers struggle to motivate their students when they are surrounded by communities that have been left to rot. We need to uplift our schools and our communities together. No school is an island.
6. The people in charge of education policy in this country are dangerously out of touch with these obvious things. We have policies that increase stress on students and teachers by raising class sizes and pressures to perform on tests. We are planning to expand our investments in testing and data systems at the same time we decrease funding for classrooms. School performance is treated as a phenomenon in isolation from the economic and social conditions that surround our students, and schools are expected to compensate for the economic decline these communities have endured.
7. The teachers, parents and students will need to take a visible, public stand to turn education policy in a better direction. We are gathering together in Washington, DC, for the free Save Our Schools march and rally on July 30th. There will be a conference on the two days preceding as well, and registration is now open.
What do you think? What else should be obvious regarding our schools?