Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Ray of Hope in Education

Musings from the Greenhabilitator...

I don't mean to brag, but my husband is a pretty fly guy.

After college, he was in sales for years and was pretty successful at it. He made decent money, but he was miserable. Then he went back to school for his true love, which is teaching. He got his teaching degree, then his Master's in Education and has been teaching in inner-city schools ever since. Yeah, no hope of ever paying off those student loans!

It's not that he can't get a job at a "good" school, he's just never tried. I guess he's the Mr. Kotter of our generation -- he goes where he feels he's needed most. Usually that's a flailing school with low test scores, a high percentage of free or reduced lunches, and a high ESL population.

Between having three kids of my own, a teacher for a husband, and moderating the School & Learning boards on iVillage, I find myself thinking or talking about education for a huge portion of my day, every day. Unfortunately one of the most common themes is how our education system is failing our children.

I really look at the education system the same way I look at other systems or institutions in our country. Take employment, for example. Generations ago, a person would work for the same company for 20 years. We don't do this anymore and, as a result, companies have changed the way they attract employees, hire, the benefits and incentives they provide, and so on. Our needs have changed, and employment has changed to meet those needs.

Education is no different. The face of our student population in the US is different than it was 100 years ago. The way children are raised today is different. Their family make up, the social and emotional issues they deal with, the pressures they face, their financial statuses -- everything -- is different. So why are we still teaching the same way? Education must evolve into what we need it to be today if we want our children to be successful.

I can only imagine how frustrated my husband and other teachers feel when they can see a broken system, or a better way to do things, but still have to conform. And I was so happy to know that someone else "gets it" when I read Dwight D. Jones' article For education reform to occur, we must actually re-form education in a local paper yesterday. Jones is the Commissioner of Education with the Colorado Department of Education so, if it's important for anyone to "get it", it's definitely him!

In the article, Jones quotes Arthur Levine, who is the former President of Columbia University's Teachers College, in saying that today's system is like an assembly line:
"...all students [are put] through a common process tied to the clock. Children progress based on the amount of time they spend being taught in a classroom, with all students required to master the same body of knowledge in the same period of time. Given what we know today, this approach no longer makes sense."
Can I get an "Amen"?

He goes on to talk about Adams School District 50 where who else but my very fly hubby teaches. His school, Metz Elementary, was the pilot school for a new teaching style last year. Hubby calls it "standards based" and the school uses a "leveling" system rather than grades. So he may teach a Level 4 Math class, which has 3rd, 4th and 5th graders in it. As each child masters a standard, they able to progress to the next level, regardless of what grade they are in. Jones explains it (much more eloquently!) like this:
"In District 50, students progress not by the amount of time they've spent in a seat, but by their demonstration of competency in coursework. The district has defined precisely what students should know and be able to do from one level to the next in all subjects. Expectations are consistent from classroom to classroom, school to school. Teachers know exactly what to teach and what students are to learn, using a scoring guide to make sure students have "gotten it" before they move on.

Under their teacher's guidance, students track their own progress at their own pace, while receiving the time and help they need to master the content. In the elementary schools, teachers group students by performance, not age, for reading, writing and math. Middle school students are grouped similarly for language arts, math, science and social studies."
So, theoretically, a student could buzz through many levels of a subject he's strong in, but go slower in his weaker subjects. A student who is advanced could graduate years early. One who needs more assistance can go at his own pace and progress through the levels as he masters them.

I just can't tell you how happy I am - as a parent, as someone interested in education, and as someone concerned about the future of our country - to see this being implemented. District 50 is going into this full of steam, with the training, support and knowledge of experts around the country and the dedication of its staff and administration. I hope they'll pave the way for more education "re-formation" around the country.

Now if I could just get them to start recycling. Baby steps...


Amy Pickledpigsfeet said...

That sounds like such a wonderful program! That's how I do things in our homeschool. If the public schools around here would switch to a similar program where it's mastery based I'd love it. Heck I'd even go back to teaching!

Stephanie said...

Ditto to the above comment! I found teaching in the public school so frustrating. And one of my favorite things about homeschooling is that students can work at their own pace until the concept is mastered. Good to hear someone in the public system not only gets it, but is doing something about it!

Green Bean said...

Dude, your husband is SO fly! There is so much to be said for having a career where you make change instead of just make money.

That is indeed a ray of hope. My son goes to a public Charter School that has somewhat similar strategies. The classes are multi age and the kids are grouped by ability not grade. I think it's just the tip of changing how we teach. As a Californian - with one of the worst public school systems in the country - I desperately want to see education completely re-formed.

Elizabeth said...

Oh, awesome. Thank you for posting this. It gives me such hope, you have no idea. I'm an ESL teacher in an adult school in the SF Bay Area, but I still worry about our K-12 educational system in this country. Props to your super fly husband and his district!

BTW, have you ever read a book called The Teaching Gap? It's a fascinating and inspiring look at a study of teaching methods in different countries and at what those methods can show us about learning and teaching.

Green Fundraising Ideas said...

I talk with school staff and PTA members all day, everyday. I hear their perspective on the way we educate our children, and many of them echo the same that you described in your post. (and not because teachers aren't hard working folks, cause they are.) As a former educator (well, I still dabble in Community College teaching...sorta former), I can speak first-hand to how very difficult it is to teach (and **reach**).

I have not heard of the level-based system, but do agree with you that it sounds wonderful. Hopefully it will prove to be a huge success and spread far and wide!

Thanks for the info!


Daisy said...

I, too, teach in a low-income school. We teachers are frustrated by the growing Test-Test- and Test some more mentality; we'd rather spend our time teaching. We'll reach more children's needs that way.

Anonymous said...

It really is time for change in the education system. My youngest just graduated from high school and I cannot tell you how glad I am to be done with the school system. "One size fits all" is an archaic way of thinking and it's time for change.

panamamama said...

I really love that idea.


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