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Guest Post By Laura Groves
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We’ve all heard the problems. Low scores. Too much testing. Parenting (or lack thereof). But what about solutions? We know there are lots of educational reforms that we’d like to chuck out the window, but what should we do? The solutions are simple and led by teacher observation and intuition: tracking by ability and interest, accountability for students and parents, expected discipline, and most importantly, teacher autonomy.
First, tracking. Tracking means placing students in classes with similar learners. It’s been taboo for many years, its proponents believing that heterogeneous grouping stimulates the lower achieving student to rise to a higher level and increases social abilities. This just hasn’t worked. Teachers try to “differentiate,” to use the buzz word, basically teaching a varied curriculum in every class and to every student, and in trying to be a jack of all trades in one 45 minute period are stretched to their breaking points, never completely successful with any student. Tracking, on the other hand would allow teachers to individualize with students who need support for academics and behavior in smaller classes and would allow students who can work more independently excel with some direction in larger classes. Allowing students to excel instead of shooting for the middle would increase our national achievement level, and smaller classes for those who need more individual help would assist those students in finding their successes without fear of embarrassment around higher achieving students.
Once students see that we are actually interested in starting where they are, we need to develop more accountability. Students need to be held to a higher standard - doing their work, bringing their supplies, achieving to their potentials - and their grades should accurately reflect their individual achievements. Teachers are forced to pass students who haven't been successful and teach down to raise grades. We have harder standardized tests, but grades do not parallel test scores because teachers get "the talk" from administration at all levels if they fail too many students, regardless of what the students have or have not done. The Gear Up Program was a great incentive for parental support, student preparation, and successful achievement. Work to reinstate something similar or tax breaks that have similar requirements. (See WV SB 56 which increases Temporary Assistance for Needy Families based on student achievement.) Politicians, administrators, and principals (along with parents and teachers) should be working to ensure that every student has mastered certain curriculum before passing. No more passing based on age, size, or behavior. If they don't learn, they don't go on; if they learn quicker, they should accelerate. If they cannot learn due to a learning disability, an alternate program should be put into place with those smaller classes that I mentioned above.
Discipline is in a similar state to academics. At every level, educators and administrators are shamed if there are too many discipline referrals and suspensions. Instead of curbing misbehavior, we are hiding infractions and often misleading the powers that be that our schools are safe. We rename bomb threats as graffiti, have conferences instead of in school suspension, and allow students with the most violent records to continue to commit crimes and threaten the safety of students and teachers because they have a piece of paper with some letters on it. I honestly heard from a friend of mine that her son's biggest issues are because the school will NOT discipline him because he has a behavior disorder. The kids with the biggest discipline problems are getting the least discipline because it might look bad on record. Superintendents, principals, and teachers need to be encouraged and expected to appropriately and consistently discipline students, not scared into thinking that they're tyrannical or that the problems are their fault. Every student who misbehaves has a story, many of them horrific and tragic. Some adults find those stories to be good excuses for not disciplining. Honestly, those students will need more direction to solve their problems, not less. Let's not strive to just look good and safe on paper; let's truly make our schools safe by enforcing policies that teach appropriate behavior. For those students who have multiple discipline infractions, alternative educational programs should be used and well-funded.
As for teacher autonomy, politicians and administrators need to understand that teachers are trained to do their jobs and most of us became teachers in order to inspire students and be those amazing, picture perfect role models as seen in movies like Mr. Holland's Opus and Rocket Boys. Unfortunately, our morale and desire to inspire are on downward spirals due to government mandates and policies that push appearance over reality. I certainly believe that basic common standards are a good idea. There are things that students should know, understand, and be able to do at every level in every course, and students should not pass until those items are mastered. But how teachers go about teaching those skills should be up to them. How teachers choose to inspire learning is an art, and should be discovered, praised, and shared, not stifled in the name of “productive workers” and standardized testing. They should determine texts and resources needed, grading policies, and discipline when needed, and principals, administrators, and politicians should support them.
Teachers will rise to the occasion when given the opportunity, but the more we're bashed and given mandates and dictates, the less creative and inspirational we will be. In turn, if teachers are comfortable and supported in the classroom students will learn more and be more creative and inventive on their own.
We all know the problems. It’s time for solutions. Don’t like these? Doesn’t matter. What does matter is the kids. Those little beings that we want to become what? Executive presidents? Factory drones? How about hard workers in every field? Ethical decision makers in their homes and workplaces? Caring people? Human beings? Teachers, next to parents, are the closest link to these works of clay who need direction and molding. Allow each teacher to use his/her skills, talents, and, yes, education, to make the moment to moment changes that allow our children to flourish on this earth.