Thursday, December 31, 2009

PLN 2009: Looking Back at My Personal/Professional Learning Network

As the Year 2009 comes to a close, I'm thinking about how wide my Personal/Professional Learning Network is compared to its reach in previous years.  It's  grown much larger than 1984 student teaching files in manilla folders and much more digital than a decade ago as we began 21st Century learning, just getting the hang of email before the Web 2.0 wave.  Still the ideas of colleagues, experts, and students are the lynchpins of my PLN.
I've included incoming and outgoing directions of the learning-teaching dynamic.  Of course, I learn as much by teaching, if not more than anything else. For Auld Lang Syne, my friends.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

$4 Billion Race

I've read several articles in recent weeks about the $4 billion that the U.S. government is planning to spend on the department of education's "Race to the Top" program. Looking up from the magazine articles or the online reports, I see my administrators scurrying off to meetings on this very topic. Talk is about funding, hustling, standards, performance pay, incentives, and how this is all going to look.

To this country boy it already doesn't look good.

I've never known throwing money at people to bring out the best in them. I'm all for a fair wage for an honest day's work. As an English teacher I coach students through about 2,000 pages of essays and research papers a year. Helping students read critically and write effectively, I figure I do my fair share. But it's not just about English teachers. What all teachers do day-in-day-out is vital to our collective, democratic future. It's important work to be valued and compensated handsomely, but not to be pimped and whored with pay incentives and extortion of headlines of "failed schools."

Some fifty years ago, my uncle, a farmer, had a cheeky motto: "You can buy better, but you can't pay any more." He had it printed on yardsticks and we all got a chuckle out of the nonsense. Nowadays, I'm beginning to see the joke, but I'm not laughing.

This is what I mean: I am passionate about my students, their future, and the discipline we share. But those are the reasons I teach. I'm not some salesperson who will teach longer, faster, more to reach a quota. I already work 80 hours a week on my craft. In the past year I've garnered top honors in my state for my teaching and National Board certification without pecuniary incentive or end-of-the-year bonus. Throwing money at me won't provide me with more time and motivation, especially as more of what is being asked is to be devoid-of-passion standards that have little to do with my students, their future, and the discipline. Rather so called "initiatives" will work to sap it from all authentic meaning and purpose with bubble test items: What is the best meaning of the word "craft" in this paragraph? A boat, B writing, C art, D work.

Throwing money at educators, won't bring out the best in them or in their students. We've seen what money has done to the standard of living in our culture; we've seen what a concern for "how it looks" has done for "what it is" and "how it feels," sacrificing style for substance, standards for understanding. Now we are asking teachers, some of our most optimistic and idealistic citizens--those workers who have been shown to be the least motivated by pay incentives--to go for the buck a.k.a. to race for the top. Ostensibly, to be the best. It doesn't make sense. We know from experience in every sector--but most notably of late the financial sector where dollar signs reign--we know, the most idealistic will be maligned, the lesser will fall for the bribe, and the least of these will cheat for it.

Placing more pressure, attention, and importance on poor measurements of students is a miscarriage of pedagogical planning. The tests show more about social, economic, and cultural advantage and disadvantage than about intelligence, and less about purposeful learning or teacher value-added effect. Moreover, the tests are skewed to favor certain verbal and math skills and are mute on others.

Much knowledge and skills so important to our students future defy being boxed in on such tests. Would not only the students that are born to excel in these vital disciplines be discouraged from pursuing and developing their given talents, but also the teachers who teach these subject be denied the incentives? What might happen to our country's lead in creativity, innovation, sports, arts, entertainment industries--none of which are tested by standardized tests? (Could that be a reason they are so good?)

These questions about varying disciplines point to the problem of teaching teams and collaboration among professionals. Merit pay promises to make competitors of us all. Why should one teacher share the strategies that are going to give her an edge on the year-end bonus even if it means greater learning for all students? It's taken the decades of my experience to see teachers become less territorial and open to team-planning; this "race" is poised to undermine such joint efforts posthaste and take us back a generation.

A parent of one of my students recently asked me what can we do? I'm not sure there's much to be done so long as lobbyists for the testing companies loiter in our capitol buildings, so long as the politicians long for a simplistic message, so long as citizens are fooled to by test results, and so long as universites do not stem the tide with better research and measures that can offer the alternatives. The last of these is probably our best hope. We need policy makers to reverse the trend. But in my more fearful moments, I worry that many policy makers are in fact hoping that we teach less not more to our students. It's insidious.

I'm not under the illusion that there's much I can do about this save quit teaching, and little that will solve. So I'll keep teaching to the test as nominal as possible, stay in the race so to speak, but try to do as much as possible to teach around the test in effort to serve students' futures. I don't have $4 billion to reward schools that help students innovate, create, and solve, let alone the billion that will be spent on misinformation about "racing to the top." Nor am I under the illusion that that those schools, teachers, and students that will be acclaimed as the top will be substantially better than the ones below--they'll only get paid off for spending so much time prepping for a test. A short term gain for a loss of a generation of learning.

The ones who don't make it will be maligned but what will be worse is the learning lost in teaching to the test that they failed. It's a lose-lose proposition. With $4 billion on this Race to the Top, my uncle's adage sadly takes on new meaning.

"You can buy better, but you can't pay any more."