In reviewing the over 60 blogs I've posted in this past year on The Huffington Post, I wondered if there was a pattern in my series of observations that I could present as the "messages" for the year. If there are any, they would be in my critiques of some of the mistaken ideas about what constitutes "educational reform," and the damage these ideas are doing to our public school system, particularly standardized testing, charter schooling and getting rid of "bad" teachers by magically producing "great teachers" as panaceas to the "crisis" in the schools. The reason I put quotation marks around the word "crisis" whenever I use it in connection to education is that I don't believe there is a "crisis" in education nearly as much as there is in our economy which is moving the United States in the direction of a Third World economy as much of the Third World -- as China, India and Brazil used to be -- moves their citizens in the direction that we once occupied.
The "crisis" in education has been going on for more than 50 years, so to use that word to describe it is somewhat misleading which, I believe, was its intention in being used in the first place. That standardized testing would still be considered a legitimate way of measuring student learning when it has been abundantly discredited for its fraudulent use and demoralizing effects on teaching leads me to believe that the same people who have insisted that our public education is in "crisis" are the ones who advance standardized testing as a way out of the "crisis."
That charter schools are still being offered as an "advancement" over public schools while the surveys of their performance show that most are no better and many are far inferior to non-charter public schools is another example of insisting on a solution that makes the problem worse. I won't go into the many reasons that most -- certainly not all -- charter schools are another distraction from dealing with the real problems which young learners have in getting a genuine education since there are abundant sources of information that show the limitations of charter schools, "Waiting for Superman" notwithstanding.
And Bill Gates' latest project of videotaping teachers around the country to find out what makes a "great teacher" and how to clone them illustrates once more the mistaken notion that the educational system can be "fixed" in a vacuum that ignores poverty, dysfunctional families, narrowed opportunities for teachers to use their experiences because of standardized tests, and a society that really has no respect for education--just "global competitionism."
But I wanted to end the year on a positive note -- calling attention to a program that has given hope to inner-city young learners in Los Angeles, through those often-discredited and increasingly marginalized tools for learning: the arts. Inner-City Arts, an organization that's been around for almost twenty years, improves learning in many subjects through the nurturing and supportive programs that give children the opportunity to create things for themselves, or master skills that lead them to the self-confidence they need to believe they can learn as well as want to learn.
According to a description of the program:
"Inner-City Arts, located in an impoverished Los Angeles neighborhood, offers a creative refuge for at-risk children who may not otherwise have access to the arts. The product of a partnership between founders Bob Bates and Irwin Jaeger, public school administrators, and the local community, the organization provides free art classes taught by professional artists to about ten thousand children annually. It was created partly to offset the effects of Proposition 13, an amendment to the state constitution in 1978 that resulted in severe tax caps and virtually eliminated arts education from many California public schools.
"After occupying small, temporary spaces for several years, Inner-City Arts teamed up with Michael Maltzan to retrofit and repurpose an abandoned garage in Los Angeles's Skid Row neighborhood . . . . Maltzan, through his decade-and-a-half involvement with the project, demonstrates the potential of architecture to inspire creativity and realize promise in the context of an almost utopian micro-city."
According to the schools' promotional material, young learners who entered this program in ninth grade had a graduation rate of over 90 percent compared to the 48 percent graduation rate of the neighborhood schools. Meanwhile, because of budget cuts today, arts and liberal arts programs in general are being eliminated at colleges throughout the country. For instance, SUNY Geneseo is terminating its studio arts program because of budget cuts. And the track record of the Bloomberg Administration in terms of arts programs in NYC schools has not been encouraging. With the impending budget cuts, the situation may become even worse.
I am not claiming that arts programs for inner-city children are the panacea for improving learning in the public schools of America. But if one were to consider the way in which the arts are taught, that is, when the creativity and natural curiosity of the young learner is nurtured, not stifled by a bureaucratic and corporatist view of how to acquire knowledge, then it's clear that the educational establishment is going in the very opposite direction of where it needs to go.
As for the search for the "great teacher," I believe that there may be "great" teachers but they are not widely available any more than are "great" lawyers, doctors or politicians. What we need are: "great neighborhoods," "great parents," who earn "great wages," in a country whose people have "great respect for learning," and schools with "great facilities," allowing good teachers to use "great teaching methods," producing the "great students" that have "great jobs," and "great lives" ahead of them. As far as "bad teachers" are concerned, getting them out of the classroom as soon as possible depends on more than the protections for all their members offered by unions: it depends on "good principals" who know what "good teaching" really means and how to mentor "bad teachers" into having the chance of becoming "good teachers."
And now, what you all have been waiting for: My "wish list" predictions for Education in 2011: