American Schools Still Have Bragging Rights
By Rich Ognibene
I have a confession to make: I think America's public schools are not so bad.
I'd go so far as to say that they're actually pretty good.
Every day in schools across our country, students, teachers and principals are doing amazing things. Kids are using technology in their classrooms to communicate with people around the globe. They are more accepting of human differences in race, religion, physical ability, gender-identity and sexual orientation. They are way more talented athletically and musically than my generation.
Likewise, teachers are going the extra mile to help kids succeed: they feed hungry students, comfort kids in crisis, and differentiate instruction to meet varied learning styles. Beyond the classroom, we in the National Network of State Teachers of the Year work tirelessly to promote teacher leadership and advocate for changes that will help kids and elevate our profession. Yes, not every student, teacher or school is where they need to be. In particular, we must address the racism, poverty and funding inequality that devastate urban students and fracture our society. But much good is still going on.
There, I've said it. The hardest part of change is admitting the problem. Now that I've taken the first step, let me say we do have a problem in education. Our problem is how we speak about America's schools, like they are systemically failing our children. We espouse a narrative of crisis because it's effective for garnering attention; unfortunately, the incessant negative tone of our national dialogue has a corrosive effect on the teachers and administrators who are trying to make a difference. And it deters good people from entering our profession. If we want to help public schools change, it's time to focus on the positive and reduce the hyperbole of wholesale failure.
America has always had a complicated relationship with its public schools. Stop 100 people at the mall and ask them about their child's teacher, and you will hear affection in the vast majority of responses. Dare to suggest that a small school close and merge with another school 10 miles away, and you will hear passionate loyalty. Yet we still perceive our national system to be inferior. This perception is amplified when other nations threaten our economic and political preeminence. In the 1960s, when my dad began teaching, the existential threat was the Soviet Union and we were criticized for being lousy at math and science. In the 1980s, when I began teaching, the existential threat was Japan and we were a "nation a risk, drowning in a rising tide of mediocrity." Today's existential threats include China, Singapore and Finland.
While the nature of the threats may vary, our response is remarkably consistent: policymakers decide that the current curricula, standards and practices are inadequate. Everything must be changed. NOW. Standards must be raised! Test scores must be analyzed! Teachers must be held accountable! College prep programs must be more rigorous! Most of these suggestions include the magical belief that a get-tough approach combined with intense measurement of humans will solve complex political, social and economic issues.
I'm not averse to change. I freely admit that there are kernels of truth in the above suggestions. Every profession, including teaching, can find ways to improve. However, what gets lost in all of this reform are three important facts:
1) American schools do many things quite well.
2) Changing human behavior is an inherently slow, difficult process requiring trust and collaboration. Think about trying to change our diet, work habits or relationship patterns. Significant change is rarely externally imposed.
3) Schools are large brick buildings filled with people--living breathing human beings--who have a range of cognitive abilities and myriad affective needs. Thus changing schools is changing collective human behavior. And if changing individual behavior is hard, changing collective behavior is exponentially so.
Given these realities, if we want to improve academic outcomes we must start from the premise that schools are filled with good people--not perfect, but good--trying to do the best that they can. These people must be treated with respect and fully engaged in the process of change. Rather than trying to reform schools, let's work together and try to improve them. Rather than prepackaged lessons for tests of dubious validity, let's ask principals, teachers, parents and students what changes might help their school. Schools reflect the challenges of their communities, they don't cause them. So the answers for improvement will vary from school to school. And they will include elected leaders addressing difficult societal issues--most notably poverty--that profoundly affect learning.
In my 30 years of teaching, I've seen miraculous changes occur. The boy who hates science suddenly becomes engaged because a teacher takes the time to attend his hockey game. The girl who struggles with anxiety relaxes because a counselor finds a peer ambassador to befriend her. The teacher who needs help with instruction improves because a principal praises her strengths and coaches her on areas of improvement. None of this is quick or easy. Unlike the movies, change doesn't happen after an inspirational speech or an epiphany or a standardized test, for that matter. It happens because of sustained effort toward improvement. And sustained effort only takes place in an atmosphere collaboration, trust and love. If elected officials, policy-makers and analysts truly want to improve public schools, they must start by praising our strengths and asking those of us in the arena what changes might help. That may not feel as satisfying as imposing get-tough rules for teachers and schools, but in the end it will provide far better results for our kids.
Richard Ognibene is the 2008 New York Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). He teaches chemistry and physics at Fairport High School in Fairport, New York.