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Students First and Other Lies

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 The recent formation of Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst.org is a reminder to many educators of how many times we've heard that claim in its various forms:  
  • We're going to put students first.
  • It's all about the kids.
  • Nothing is more important to us than educating the next generation.
Such statements have become clichés--but have they ever, on any consistent basis, been true?   One need only spend a few hours in most inner-city schools to answer that question. To be sure, some teachers and administrators sometimes actually can manage to put students needs ahead of all else--though there isn't much of an institutional mechanism to require it. In fact, putting students first often requires us to break the rules.   Current calls for "reform" and "accountability," including those of StudentsFirst.org, claim that compelling teachers and administrators to put students first requires firing teachers deemed ineffective and assumes that standardized test data can make such determinations and therefore protect students from miseducation.   There may be a place for standardized testing to monitor the progress of students but these multiple choice measurements--and the often abstruse data they generate--do not ensure quality instruction or positive learning experiences for students. They tend to encourage the opposite.   My own students seem to know that the tests aren't for them. They also understand that the manner in which their teachers are treated by the education hierarchy is in direct proportion to the manner in which they--the students--are regarded. If teachers are respected then students understand that such respect is for them as well. When they see their teachers being marginalized, undervalued, and insulted then students--those with enough awareness to notice--take that personally. And why shouldn't they?   SOME OTHER LIES WE OUGHT TO BE HONEST ABOUT   1. More money won't solve anything   That money is ill-spent in schools and school districts--and departments of education--is no revelation. From meaningless professional development to useless equipment and inflated text books and supplies--to name just a few examples--the wasting of these funds not only leaves less to be spent in ways that actually impact students but also erodes tax-payer confidence and creates the misimpression that increased funding for schools won't improve things.   Effective teachers and administrators know two essential truths about education spending:  
  • We can (and many of us have) gotten results with very little in the way of resources or other support.
  • Increasing our resources, providing us with more favorable conditions in which to teach and learn, better equipment and materials and so forth--in short, spending money wisely on what we need--will result in even better instruction
.   2. School choice will improve education for everyone   The creation, beginning in the 1970s, of public school alternatives to traditional neighborhood schools--including the recent proliferation of charters--has helped some students to a better education. But the exodus out of neighborhood schools has made the educational prospects worse for those left behind. Creating more parental choices might help more children--and no one should deny the importance of helping improve education for even one more child--but such measures aren't going to repair the struggling schools. Nor will giving vouchers to parents to subsidize private schools for their children. School choice as a solution is, at best, grossly insufficient--unless every school on the choice menu becomes a viable one.   3. Purging the disruptive students will fix things   There is certainly a logical nd perhaps even a moral argument for removing the most disruptive students from our schools. What right do they have to sabotage the education of others? Can we really afford to invest so much of our time and other resources on a few recalcitrant children when so many willing ones have such dire needs?   But removing behavioral problems does not necessarily eliminate disruption. As a rookie teacher, I found that out when I lost my three most disruptive students--to various offenses outside my classroom--and almost immediately other students, previously quiet and relatively well-behaved, stepped into the void and took over the class. The problem was me.   Since then I've figured out how to keep students from taking over but have witnessed this same dynamic play itself out in the classrooms of other mostly inexperienced teachers. I have also seen many of the most challenging students stay in school and gain a little maturity and self-control.   4. Some children just don't want to learn   There are children and teenagers who do seem entirely uninterested in an education. Some of them will proudly declare it. In the triage environment in which some schools must operate, it is understandable to want to focus one's efforts on those with an expressed interest in trying to succeed. But we ought never surrender completely to the seeming self-determination of failure.   Which leads to the most important truth in all of this--the reason we really should keep trying to find a way for all of us to put students first all the time. That truth is the great untapped potential of our students.   Our collective fervor--our passion in this discourse and beyond--ought to be directed at realizing that potential.