What is it they agree on?by Marc Severson on Sep. 04, 2011, under Education
As usual given a three day weekend and time to myself I spent it reading what others are writing about in my profession. Doesn’t everyone? In actuality my interest was piqued because I spoke with an old friend last week. He was once the co-owner / co-director with his wife of my favorite school of all time. Having since moved to Colorado I don’t get to talk to him nearly as much as I used to. Which is a shame, because after my baby brother, no one makes me laugh as much as my friend in Colorado, and I need as much laughter as I can gather.
It’s like Langston Hughes said, “You have to laugh . . . to keep from crying.”
My friend’s school was a preschool/ kindergarten and I know about preschools because I worked in a bunch of them. It wasn’t that I was fickle, I was a resource teacher in Special Education, early intervention for identified 0-5 year olds. Each year I would move to a new school. Interestingly, I never worked in a bad school. There were a lot of different approaches to early childhood education, probably a surprising number to the uninitiated, but I found that the children were the first concern in each school and that it mattered little if the school was more traditional or innovative in their approach, they still looked at each child and tried their best to supply for their needs and those of their family. It’s what good preschools do.
But that was a long time ago. Since the mid 80s I have worked in public schools, seven of them in various capacities. I have also visited many others. I still can’t think of a bad school. I can think of some bad teachers, though not too many; a few bad principals, mostly because they were just too inexperienced; and a bunch of real bad ideas. High stakes testing is first among them.
Like I said earlier I was reading as well as listening via YouTube to some professionals and interested citizens discuss education. Mostly I was thinking about education reform, an elephant that stands right behind the gorilla in my classroom. That’s why I thought of my friend’s school. The first day I walked in, I came out onto the playground and seeing a child sitting on a bench, I said “Hi.” in my usual gregarious manner. Another child standing off to one side looked up at me and smiling said, “You really shouldn’t talk to him right now, he’s there for a reason.” OOPS, I had mis-stepped already and a four-year-old had to bring me up to speed. What kind of school was this? I found out quickly, it was a school that seemed to run almost effortlessly, because the people behind it, the adults worked so darn hard to see that it did. And yet in all that effort there was so much joy. In this school there was, at once, order and choices, structure and flexibility, learning and exploring and relaxing and well, like I said it was my favorite, I could go on forever. When it came my time to leave I did not argue but I remembered as much as I could of what I had learned.
There is a professor at Michigan State University named Yong Zhao who I think would have loved this school. I am guessing of course, based upon what I have read and heard him say. Yong Zhao was a Chinese national living in a rural setting, who was educated in China. He was the first of his family to go beyond third grade and somehow ended up in college. He credits China for not teaching by their methods and that has made all the difference to him. Somehow, despite all his education, he got left behind by Chinese indoctrination. His argument is that the United States does not want to be China, or Japan, or even Finland. He believes our greatest strength is the one thing our current education system is ignoring: our diversity. He says it is this ability to do so many things that has always made us strong and I have to say I agree with him.
Wait, did I say Finland? Yes, currently Finland is being lauded as having the best school system in the world. Their students do not start until age 7, they are taught by teachers who all have masters degrees and all belong to unions. Their schools are well funded but not overly so. And yet despite all these factors that are under attack in our country, they excel. You can read all about it on a site operated by Bob Compton, a philanthropic entrepreneur who has made several films about education including one called “Two Million Minutes”.
Professor Zhao and Mr. Compton do not agree on much. Zhao emphasizes the individual and diversity, Compton cites rigor and support. They even had a debate on education. But in reading both their messages I was able to ferret out one point of agreement: neither sees much value in standardized testing. Zhao says as much and Compton champions a school system in Finland that offers one standardized test and that comes at the end of student’s entire career.
I believe in school reform, I just don’t call it that. I like to call it learning. Teachers need to learn as much as their students do. Like Zhao I belive that it is our diversity that makes education so hard and the United States so strong. I am going to sit here on this bench and think about it some more. For now, don’t bother me, I’m here for a reason.