Once a really long time ago, when I was young, inexperienced, and clearly did not have an appreciation for the finer things in life, I went to a work conference with my husband. His employer put us up at a very nice hotel and paid for dinner at an expensive restaurant. This would have been fantastic if my husband and I were the kind of people who were used to really nice hotels and gourmet food. The trouble was that we were pretty normal, just out of school, somewhat poor people. For us, any place with a real menu where you sit down before ordering was considered nice. We honestly didn’t even know what half the food on the menu was. Everything came in small, decorative portions and left us still hungry. Now does this mean the chef was a bad cook? Of course not. He or she was probably amazing. The thing is, the food wasn’t right for us. No amount of garnish, changing the plate it was served on, or changing the order each course was served could change the fact that the food was not what we were used to and we felt out of our element. Now let’s see how my little story about our experience relates to education.
Test scores at my school are nothing to be proud of. New teaching methods come and they go and despite our high hopes and effort, our scores stay just about the same year after year. We set SMART goals, create mission and vision statements, PLC, and get trained in just about every new method there is but not much changes. Sadly, the story of my school is the story of most of the rest of the schools in America. Need proof? Check out the NAEP scores. America has flat lined.
Does this mean we are bad teachers? No. We are darn good at what we have been taught to do. We are masters of Kagan strategies, rulers of Thinking Maps, and professionals at everything AVID. All of these have helped us engage kids and feel like better teachers but none of these things have helped our test scores. (I find little value in tests that measure things that have little value, but then again, we should be getting a little better, right?)
Could it be that we are like the cook at the fancy restaurant? We are good at what we do but totally missing the mark when it comes to what most of our kids need?
I have been reading a thought provoking book called What Schools Could Be: Insights and Inspiration form Teachers Across America by Ted Dintersmith which has left me with a deeply frustrating understanding that much of what we do to improve our teaching is just dancing around what really needs to be done. When all is said and done, we never actually change how we teach. It is like the chef changing the plate the food is served on, adding snappy music, and letting people socialize while they eat. It may be more fun, yet the food is the same. The problem is that the same old teaching didn’t work for over half of our kids before and it doesn’t work now.
So what is the answer? Is it project based learning? Maybe. (After reading the Dintersmith’s book I would actually say it probably is but who knows for sure.) The deal is that there is no one right answer. Each population of students has different needs. The way we are teaching at my school might be just what a more middle class set of students would thrive with, but if it isn’t working with our low income, high ELL population, it just isn’t right for us (just like that gourmet macaroni and cheese thing I ordered because I figured I knew what it was – not!)
Is real change happening out there? The answer is yes. Dintersmith’s book is full of examples of entire schools with the courage to make real changes and get real results. The entire country of Finland is making the change to project based learning and they already have the most successful educational system in the world. That should tell us something. America, we’ve got to stop doing the same thing and expecting different results. Maybe it is time we do something insanely different instead of just doing something insane.
So here is the challenge. Ask yourself, if you knew totally changing how you taught would help more of your students, would you do it? Are you ready to be honest with yourself about what real change means? Are you ready to put away worksheets that keep kids “working” but not learning? Are you brave enough to be the one at your school to be the change you want to see for all kids? When enough teachers in our schools can answer yes to these questions, that is when we may actually see real progress.
Image retrieved from http://www.witn.com/home/headlines/Poor-Schools-Say-North-Carolina-Abandoned-Education-Commitment-258703281.html