This realization also connected with many of the feelings and reactions I had to Linda Darling-Hammond's keynote speech. With another dose of gratitude to Mark, I'm going to borrow his second NCTE reflection format to help me process my thoughts about the keynote. During Darling-Hammond's speech, as with many other sessions I attended, I bounced back and forth between Twitter and my notebook. Here are some of the statements and observations I made during Darling-Hammond's keynote address and my thoughts.
Linda Darling-Hammond reaffirmed my own thoughts as to the purpose of education. These are the reasons I left a corporate job to teach. I knew I felt this way, even when I was working on my MA in English, but I've often struggled these ideas into put into words.
- "The most fundamental act of empowerment is the act of communication."
- "The power of literature is such that thoughts who would oppress others restrict access to the book."
- "The path to power is through the book and the mastery of language."
Two of Darling-Hammond's statements about the job I do is captured the challenges I face as a high school teacher:
- "The job is actually to enable learning for a very diverse set of learners"
- "The most important skill is learning to learn--that is the heart of what we do as a profession."
Part of the problem in our system is that we're focusing on the wrong things. We've lost sight of the green light as a nation. Rather than the empowerment through language and learning to learn that should be the heart of all we do, so many of my colleagues focus on the test. That makes emotional sense because at my school like so many others has been designated a failing school. But the reality is that test-taking skills aren't relevant for the world beyond the classroom walls.
As Darling-Hammond so aptly observed, "multiple choice is not what we do in the real world." The demand for routine skills is down and non-routine skills is up. Yet, the easiest skills to test are also the easiest to digitize and outsource--we're not teaching what kids need to know. Darling-Hammond argues, "20th century teaching cannot meet 21st century demands." But our educational policy is still "framed by the image of a teacher who can say what they know and students write it down." I struggle with the urge to lecture just to get more "done." But what am I really getting done if I'm racing through the breadth of my curriculum without achieving any depth? Coverage leads to routine skills, not thinking, and not learning to learn.
There is a disconnect between what Darling-Hammond calls the Bureaucratic and Professional models of education. In a bureaucratic model, the focus is on "doing things right." In a professional model, the emphasis is on "doing the right things". Our current test and score method is about doing things right--and it's getting us nowhere.
- "The frame that is being brought to the teachers of this country is unforgivable and don't you forgive it."
- "Of course we have an achievement gap. We have an opportunity gap."
- "We cannot fire our way to Finland. We have to do what Finland does." (probably the most tweeted comment of the entire keynote.)
The elephant in the room that policy makers don't want to address is poverty. The richest districts in the country spend more than 10x more than the poorest districts in this country, according to Darling-Hammond's figures. Even in my wealthy, large, suburban school, almost 20% of our students receive free and reduced lunch. I'm not trying to minimize the struggles of the families at my school, but we're the lucky ones, relatively speaking. We as a nation need to address this division between the haves and have nots before we get to the teaching issues. Darling-Hammond noted that the achievement gap was closing when national policy focused more on mitigating poverty. How can I expect students to be ready to learn if they have worked to support their families, provided child care for their younger siblings, or not even had a decent meal? Really, the bubble test doesn't take care of a family and grades don't matter when basic needs aren't being met. That's Maslow's hierarchy of needs at its most basic.
However, I don't think education is doomed. Perhaps I, too, could be accused of having "an extraordinary gift for hope" (Fitzgerald),but I think we can change the focus of education in this country. For me, it starts in this blog and in the thoughtful reflections I make on what works for my kids, keeping in mind that the heart that Darling-Hammond framework of empowerment and language mastery that Darling-Hammond so clearly articulated.
My green light is the idea that I'm teaching my students so that no one will ever be able to take advantage of them. I may not reach all of them, and I can't solve the poverty problem on my own. But I can teach many of my students to think beyond the bubbles. Maybe, if enough of my colleagues and I teach enough kids the skills that matter, those kids will look beyond the obvious answers and address the elephant in the room.