Refusing to Trust Our Good Teachers

This week NPR ran a story on Maryland teachers attending summer school academies to learn best practices for teaching to the new Common Core standards. The story focused on a couple basic concepts that are now being emphasized that have the potential to make classrooms in general, more dynamic and interesting for gifted learners. The number of books and stories the students will read each year has dropped. Instead, teachers will push students to delve deeply into longer, extended texts. Instead of explaining upfront the context, influence, and importance of a novel, teachers will hold back and let students discover and work through the text on their own. Then teachers will fill in the gaps after the student have had a chance to think about and struggle with the concepts presented. Complex ideas and themes will be introduced at a younger age.

All of this seems like a great way to teach. Gifted students in particular will enjoy digging in to challenging literature and struggling to define, discuss, and defend themes and meanings within stories. Unfortunately, two glaring problems with the way the Common Core standards are being enacted may doom this latest education reform.

First, we are still treating our students as all equally academically capable. One of our nation’s hallmarks is the idea that anyone can achieve anything. Everyone should have the same opportunities but that does not mean that everyone has the same ability. Each of us knows that vast individual differences exist. No matter how good a school is, no matter how effective the teachers, not all students are capable of the same academic achievements. We ignore this in our setting of academic standards and policies. We have artificially devalued important knowledge, abilities and skill sets that are necessary for our country to grow and thrive and overvalued cerebral labor. Our singular focus on college as the only worthwhile path after high school has blinded us to the needs of students who are not college bound but still require a solid education that will help them succeed in other areas. New standards and rigorous testing will not fix this. Solid manufacturing and blue-collar jobs were a critical component of the successful middle class that strengthened our nation in the mid part of the last century. By honestly recognizing that not every student can or should go to college, we free ourselves to examine how we are preparing all students for the future. We then must confront the insanely warped distribution of income that has evolved over the last 20 years in the US, but that is not for this post.

Second, while I love the idea of encouraging more in-depth examination of subjects, high-stakes standardized testing eliminates most of the intellectual benefit. Learning does not occur in a straight line. Good teachers know that even bright students can struggle at times and there is value in the struggle. Not understanding something right away and being given the space to work through it leads to a better grasp of the material once it “clicks.” Our best teachers know this and will challenge students to try a bit harder, to re-examine their initial conclusions, to think at a deeper level and eventually, to learn more. Much of learning comes from the process of failing and re-trying. We used to give students and teachers the time and space for this to occur but no longer. We are impatient and we want the security of a test that objectively tells us that the teachers are doing their jobs and that the students are learning. The funny thing is that students don’t need to see test results to know if a teacher is exceptional. It is usually obvious during the first hour of the first day. Good teachers have an energy, thoughtfulness, and engagement that is obvious to anyone in their classrooms. Sadly, I feel we have fewer of these teachers than we did when I was a student. Low pay and less respect has pushed potentially excellent teachers into other careers. Dedicated teachers who earn higher levels of education such as masters degrees frequently find themselves priced out of the K-12 market.

Despite all this, there are still excellent teachers in our schools. Teachers driven by a passion that, for now at least, is sustaining them in the face of ever-increasing bureaucracy and unrealistic expectations. Testing is not teaching and our educational policies need to start doing a better job of supporting and trusting our good teachers.