Thursday, January 19, 2006

Griffin Bell: Tie 'em to the desks!

Former Attorney General Griffin Bell is weighing in on education.  Now, Bell has got pretty good credentials on public education, including his work brokering a deal to desegregate the public schools in Georgia while working for then-Governor Ernest Vandiver.  His bona fides in the realm of public policy in general are unquestionably sound, so we were ready to hear what he had to say with a very open mind.

Unfortunately, Bell’s comments on education make him sound less like the elder statesman he is and more like a cantankerous old man.  Worse still, he seems, to put it mildly, out of touch with what’s actually happening in the classrooms.

There’s no denying that his suggestions are outside the proverbial box.  Among other things, he suggests publicizing the names of teachers whose students fail standardized tests, lengthening the school day, and mandatory homework.

Now there’s a problem with standardized tests, to be sure, but we don’t think it’s the fault of the teachers.  The problem is the tests themselves, combined with the fallacy that standardized tests are an effective measure of how good an education a student is receiving.  All a standardized test demonstrates about a student is how well the student has learned to take that particular test.  The sad fact is that far too much of classroom time is being devoted to learning how to take the standardized test du jour.  

It’s called “teaching to the test,” and it’s little more than scholastic regurgitation.  It’s a disservice to the students, their future employers, and the teachers themselves.  Our classroom focus should be on critical thinking skills, the ability to process and analyze information for retention and application, not regurgitation.  Those are the life skills that lead to lifelong learning, and success in a 21st Century society.

As far as lengthening the school day, we say great.  Go for it, as long as you’re doing it in conjunction with other measures, such as a serious initiative to reduce class sizes.  If you just elongating the school day, in the belief that that will fix the whole problem, then all you’re really doing is consigning students to longer days in classrooms where their teacher is still overburdened with too many students to pay any attention to a single pupil.

Mandatory homework is fine by us, especially in light of our earlier comments about teaching critical thinking skills instead of standardized tests.  So, if the homework actually reinforces the life skills that will make our children into successful adults, then we’re ok with it.  

The most disturbing thing about Bell’s proposals is his assertion that such measures, “would obviate the long-overused excuse of the home environment.”  (Quoted in the ABH, story here.)  The fact is, the home environment is part of the problem.  Parental involvement is shrinking, and many students aren’t getting the scholastic discipline they need in the home.  

Here’s the thing.  A teacher’s job is to teach your kid, not raise your kid.  A teacher can do a lot, even beyond teaching a child to master a particular chunk of subject matter; they can, for instance, facilitate successful social maturation, which is a useful byproduct of the public school system.  But it’s the parent’s job to instill the discipline a child needs to study successfully.  Think about it this way.  The average parent in Georgia has about 1.8 kids.  The average teacher in Georgia has 15.7 kids.  

Not that the teachers and administrators get off scot-free either.  Our public schools have to do a better job of reaching out to parents and keeping them informed on the progress of their children.  Not all parents may reach out to teachers, and the schools may have to meet them more than halfway.

More on this later, perhaps.  Unless you guys would like to address Bell’s suggestions about higher education.

1 comment:

hillary said...

Thanks, y'all. Pretty much what I wanted to say, only in more space.