Things educators know about schooling that the public needs to know
By Julio C. Nuñez on Oct 28, 2015 01:49 PM
It has been 32 years since "A Nation at Risk" was published. The report, issued in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education, established the beliefs that schools across the nation were failing and that we needed to demand more of our teachers and our students.
"A Nation at Risk" was the blueprint for our country's hyperfocus on "measurable growth" that education stakeholders experience today. It catalyzed a shift in the U.S. concept of education. Outcomes, not input, would determine the quality of instruction. Standards, not knowledge, would dictate what gets taught, how, and for how long. Students’ “seat time” would be favored over other activities that required physical engagement.
Many of the report's tenets were institutionalized in 2001 through the No Child Left Behind Act and further validated by the Race to the Top initiative in 2009, under the premise that these policies were necessary for the United States to maintain its competitive nature. The results have been mixed.
The idea that U.S. schools would have to overhaul curricula and expectations based on ideas plucked primarily from the business world did not resonate well with educators. To this day, teachers who leave the profession cite the emphasis on accountability as the reason: Why make students demonstrate growth from one lesson to the next, when all available research shows that cognitive development is far more complex, different for each child, and in many cases, difficult to measure?
The effects of such policies are far more prevalent in urban public schools, where poverty is clustered. Here are some truths that are self-evident to educators, but might not be as clear to the public at large.
1. Predictability is a luxury seldom experienced in urban districts. From year to year, districts in major cities have to contend with whether they will have adequate funds to maintain buildings, academic programs, staffing levels, roll out new initiatives, or planning that goes beyond 180 days. This has been the norm for my district, where the conversations in spring and summer turn to how much money is left to begin the following year, how big the hole in the budget is, and who will be laid off or what will be cut.
2. Class size matters. Educators know that if there is one proven strategy that helps students gain skills and knowledge, it is small class sizes. Contrary to popular belief, maintaining small class sizes pays for itself. This is well-documented in the National Education Association’s 2008 policy brief "Class Size Matters: A Proven Reform Strategy." The NEA’s report showed that a cost-benefit analysis of the famous STAR project estimates that reducing class sizes from 22 to 15 in grades K-3 results in a $2 return on every $1 spent. Currently, the three kindergarten classrooms in my school average 25 students, and the two 1st grades stand at over 30.
3. Standardized assessments are a poor predictor of success or ability. Daily, students experience ups and downs that affect their participation in the classroom. It is no different on testing days. The added stress that some children feel to perform during assessment periods paradoxically leads them in the opposite direction. Further complicating the accuracy of results is the disconnect between what is taught in a given year and the single way in which accrued knowledge is assessed – predominantly through questions with only one right answer or open-ended responses that leave little or no room for creativity. This method of assessment does not cater to English language learners, special education students, or any child who is not a linear thinker.
4. Poverty is a factor. Among educators, the study about the 30 million word gap by age 3 that underprivileged children face, by University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, is widely known. The researchers’ findings shed light on the acute disparities between the number of words spoken and the types of messages heard by children of families from different socio-economic backgrounds. Children from low-income households would have heard 30 million fewer words than children from "professional" or wealthier families. Additionally, the messages children in low-income households heard were negative directives or discouragements. This disparity alone is evident once children enter the classroom, while undertaking academic tasks, or in simple interaction with peers. Moreover, the difficulties in gaining access to quality health care and proper nutrition further exacerbate their academic challenges.
5. Building teacher capacity is key. Each given year, a teacher might see administrators visit their classrooms twice or three times. If they’re lucky, they may receive some timely feedback. Rarely are they told how to improve. Building their capacity could be done not only through meaningful administrative feedback, but also through self-reflection protocols, student feedback, peer coaching, and teacher-led professional development. Colleges of education could also revamp their teacher preparation programs to include one-year internships in partnership with local school districts. This would result in a strong teacher candidate pool aware of the challenges they are likely to face in the classroom and some tools for mitigating them.
6. Diversity enriches the educational experience, but it is dwindling. UCLA’s Civil Rights Project’s report "Brown at 60: Great Progress, a Long Retreat and an Uncertain Future" found that “Black and Latino students tend to be in schools with a substantial majority of poor children, while white and Asian students typically attend middle class schools.” It also found that “Segregation is by far the most serious in the central cities of the largest metropolitan areas; the states of New York, Illinois and California are the top three worst for isolating black students.”
7. Unmeasured growth happens. Soft skills and character development run parallel to a child’s academic development. However, these skills do not register anywhere except with the teacher, and sometimes with the parents. This past year, one of my school’s kindergarten teachers invested extra time and care for one of her most challenging students. This child lacked the most basic skills to communicate thoughts and ideas, and did not understand the need for norms. At the end of the year, the progress that the student had made was monumental. He went from running in the hallway whenever he felt frustrated in communicating his needs to engaging in thoughtful conversation with peers. If we were to judge this child’s progress only by his report card, it would be concerning to any parent. However, just because the progress is not reflected on paper does not mean it does not happen.
8. Teaching is an act of selflessness. That’s it.
Our society has evolved to make children think their self-worth is attached to how many As they receive, how many Advanced Placement and honors courses they complete, or how many extracurricular activities they accumulate on their résumé.
Every day, the United States loses teachers who get frustrated with a narrow view of their profession. Students drop out because what they are being taught does not bear any resemblance to their present or future challenges, and the dwindling resources committed to public education send mixed signals to Americans and the rest of the world about our priorities.
The perspectives of educators and students are missing from educational policies. If policymakers continue to discourage or ignore the valuable feedback that educators are desperately trying to give them, we will surely move from "a nation at risk" to a nation in peril.
Julio C. Nuñez is vice principal of Julia de Burgos Elementary in North Philadelphia and is a doctoral student in educational leadership at Temple University.