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Not the school you remember

Fri, Apr 12th, 2013
Posted in All Commentary

By Eric Leitzen

There’s something making the rounds out there on them there interwebs: it’s a resignation letter from a teacher of nearly thirty years. In it, the teacher says a “long train of failures” in decisions not by his school, but by a larger educational body that has lead him to conclude that his profession, in his words “has left me” and that “It no longer exists.” He’s speaking to something in the educational world that is called the Common Core Approach and the STEM Movement, and it is the belief of this now viral resigning teacher that these ideas have switched our thoughts on education from one that used to be based on the process of learning to one that is now based solely on the results of tests. As an educator myself, these are issues that come up often in our little part of the world, and the issue has begun a sort of Jets/Sharks divide between proponents and detractors.

Speaking of Jets and Sharks… I have decided that twenty years is long enough to let a frustration fester, and though I will continue to support Canadian hockey teams on principal, I will be considering myself a fan of the Minnesota Wild from here on out. Now back to your regularly scheduled rambling.

Now, STEM is a simple acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math; as you can probably assume, this movement centers around the focused education in these four subjects. As we are becoming a more technological society and we seem to be having some lack of skilled engineering and labor, this idea seems only natural. The Common Core Standards is an initiative that tries to unite the requirements of several different state education systems under a system of standard-based, mandatory testing. It’s an attempt to make sure that a child in Vermont is getting the same basic ideas in education as a child in Oregon. Once again, on the surface this isn’t a bad idea: Japan has nationalized curricula and they are consistently a very high performing country when it comes to education. So why all the frustration and blowback?

There’s two main arguments against this new education movement: one, it cuts down on the freedom to be creative and/or deviate from a prescribed course or curriculum, which teachers find understandably confining. As a substitute teacher, I’m often stuck with a list of things to get through with my students for that day, whether they like it or not (here’s a hint: they don’t) and sometimes the natural movement of the class, even if it’s for the better, has to be wrangled back onto what is written down for the day. I mean, you don’t want to be known as that sub who doesn’t listen to the plans he’s been given, do you? That means teachers will think you don’t like their ideas, which won’t want you to fill in, which means you won’t get hired, which means you’re back to selling hot dogs in Siberia to make ends meet. It can certainly seem like a rock-and-a-hard-place situation when your students want to discuss String Theory and the very makeup of the universe since time began… and they’re supposed to be answering question 3. True story.

Secondly, teachers find it frustrating because it tends to crush the more classically “liberal arts” style of classes and the teaching of them. You can be a modern-day Socrates, asking students what they think and how they feel about the ethical implications of Hiroshima or Nagasaki when everything comes down to answering questions on a test or focusing instead on the science or engineering of the bombs. We drop bomb, it end war, fill in bubble C, got it? Just recently, a group of 35 teachers and administrators in the Georgia area were arrested on the suspicion of cheating to get their students scores on standardized test flying high. Good test scores means no threat of funding cuts or government intervention, which often leads to desperate times and more desperate measures. All of this seems to fly directly in the face of the high-minded ideals that most people get into teaching for: the pure essence of education, the beautiful dance and drama of critical thinking, the Lord-of-the-Rings-style quest to instill not only facts and figures, but a lifelong love of learning into what will be the next generation of elites. There’s no time for that in this rush-rush world, so says the new movements, they are here to learn and they only need the important stuff, case closed.

Now, as a good Moderator, I can see both sides of the story. I’ve been in some classes where I loathed the final bell every day, because it meant I would have to stop pumping some of these students so full of knowledge and the desire to learn and all that other ephemeral, teacher-y stuff. In other classes, I found myself looking to the clock in the hopes it would make time go faster. Yes, teachers pray for the bell sometimes, too… especially when it’s clear that nobody in the classroom wants what you’re selling. In my next column, I’ll go ahead and look at how we can turn our education system around and once again make it the envy of the world while still managing to satisfy both those who see hard Math and Science as the way forward, and those who believe there is still merit in the classical forms of education. In fact, it’s perfect that I’m writing this to Fillmore County at large, because in my opinion this country could serve as the perfect crucible in which to test a new style of American education.

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