10/31/2012 05:50 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2012

Creating Lifelong Learners No More

If you had walked into my fourth grade classroom during Morning Meeting last Thursday, you may have been impressed at the conversation taking place. Students were posed the question "If you had a dollar in your pocket and passed a homeless person, would you give it to them?" They first brainstormed in writing, then discussed, leading the discussion themselves. Lila commented that homeless people often have drug and alcohol problems, so they would probably waste the money. Oscar said that you should give it to them with restrictions, or buy them some chips instead. Isabella mentioned that everyone should be given a chance, and after all, some of us have so much and its only one dollar.

The conversation was a microcosm of the debate we are having on a national level around how much our wealthiest individuals and corporations should support our poorest ones. Students expressed their opinions, gave evidence, and shifted their point of view based on others' ideas. Later in the day, students watched clips from the recent presidential debates, then broke into study groups to discuss what our class' position should be on the economy, healthcare, the military, and education policy.

I think most people would agree that these were worthwhile discussions. Yet I am no longer sure that our country's public education system would value, or even condone, this lesson.

I recently took a look at my school's NYC School Progress Report from last year, the city's home-grown school report card, which was published last month. The reports are based 25 percent on Math and ELA scores, 60 percent on improvement on Math and ELA scores, and 15 percent on a school environment survey.

I am in my first year at my current school. After struggling mightily last year, it is my new school environment that has been the largest factor in my improvement as a teacher this year. The school features supportive administration, extensive collaboration among teachers, engaged students and parents, and strong relationships between all involved in the school. We received a C on the Progress Report.

At my former school, there were many dedicated staff members. Yet teachers and students' angry voices rang out through the hallways, the PA system constantly interrupted classwork, and the administration took a punitive, "gotcha" approach to working with teachers. It is located in a poor neighborhood, but poverty is no excuse for a toxic school environment. This school earned a B.

Perhaps the largest difference between the two schools lies in the way students learn. My former school largely features a heavy-handed, fill-up-the-vial approach to teaching, where sitting in desks watching Smartboard and power point lessons is the norm -- for restless nine-year olds. At my current school, students have opportunities to work in partnerships and teams, problem solve, author essays and books, and build reading lives. As a result, they are far more actively engaged.

It seems to me that the schools which emphasize creating lifelong learners receive uniformly low scores on their report cards. Looking across New York City, schools I have visited support this idea. The Bronx Community Charter School was founded on the principle that children learn best when they are "active participants in their own learning," and the school devotes an hour each Thursday morning to a powerful whole school community meeting. The school received a D. Over the last few years, P.S. 277 in the Bronx pioneered "inquiry rooms" as a place for students to look at issues in their community. The project started after a student's relative was killed by a stray bullet, and culminated with student-led presentations on gun violence to variety of stakeholders in the area. It earned a C. Promise Academy II, a Harlem Children's Zone School which takes a more progressive approach to teaching reading and writing than many of its charter school competitors, also received a C.

From these examples, one could conclude that it isn't worthwhile to have study groups and active learning, practices which build the love of learning, critical thinking, and intellectual curiosity. Yet I think educators on all sides could conclude that these are the exact skills we are trying to develop in our future generations.

A vast chasm exists between the way teachers and schools are incentivized to teach, and the way we should be teaching in order for students to develop 21st century skills. In a meeting with a Broad Prize-semifinalist school district, Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap, sat with district officials, parents, and other stakeholders to help decide on a couple skills that their students truly needed develop before they left high school. These skills were one, the ability to think critically and problem solve, and two, the ability to learn actively and independently. After visiting a variety of top-rated schools and classrooms, officials realized that in this highly decorated district, students were practically never were taught in ways that would help develop these skills.

I am conscious of the ways I need to incorporate mainstream ideas about best practices into my teaching. I frequently assess students, give regular and targeted feedback, and use data to inform my instruction. I can see the positives in these initiatives, as they hold all parties more accountable for the success of our students.

And yet I wonder -- does debating social justice issues directly improve student test scores? Will building informed citizens boost my school's Progress Report? I fear the answer is no.

This past Saturday, over 1,000 teachers packed the Riverside Church to work with the Columbia Teachers College Reading and Writing Project to improve their literacy teaching. Tony Wagner spoke, and near the end of his remarks he joked that pretty soon, a low score on the report card will be the mark of high-quality teaching.

I don't think he was joking. Isn't that a scary thought?