Friday, September 17, 2010

Deb Shafto On Education

The Green Party's candidate for governor in the 2010 Texas election is retired school teacher Deb Shafto of Houston.   She is also the only real progressive in the race.   All the other candidates, including the Democratic candidate, are conservatives or libertarians.

As a supporter of Ms. Shafto, I have said I will present her views on the issues here on this blog.   This is the second in that series of posts.   Today, I present her view on education in her own words:

I am a licensed elementary school teacher, and have taught Pre-kindergarten and Kindergarten for many years. It was my field of interest for many years before that. My ideas about education come from what I learned as a teacher, not as a student learning about teaching. First and foremost, we need to take a new look at how children learn naturally and to create learning environments that enhance rather than contradict the natural learning ability we were all born with.

Children develop their various skills at different times and in different ways. They do not all walk at the same age, but they all learn to walk. Some talk before they walk but most walk first. This certainly tells us nothing about their future development and yet we use age as the sole criterion for starting school and for advancing, like a car on an assembly line, ready or not. We need to honor their differences and stop trying to mold them. They are not cars.

Testing is a business model, a factory model that may produce quality goods, but it is damaging to the learning process. A legitimate use of it is a teacher testing to be sure that the objectives she wanted to teach were heard and learned. Good testing will tell her what she needs to do next. The results are for the teacher. Standardized testing is generally geared to ranking students and for most the effect of the ranking is to feel like you are a failure. The best grade in the class is to be envied and the rest are left to feel not as good as, and most are not good enough. Enormous resources are spent on pre-test materials and on the testing itself. We spend over half of the year preparing for final testing. All this effort primarily discourages most students. Our drop-out rate is staggering, our ratings nationally are second to last, we have high school graduation rates of 52% and college graduation rates of 15%. When will we become aware that what we are doing doesn’t work and more of it won’t work any better?

We must, immediately re-think the whole system. What is it we want to do for our children, and what is it that they need from us to succeed? How do they learn best and what will it take to provide such a system for them? What do our children need from their parents and from their teachers? Certainly teachers of algebra need certain skills, and teachers of history have to have an understanding of what happened and why. Subject area knowledge is important, but not all important. Most of us have had a teacher who, because she made us feel loved, seen and understood has influenced the course of our lives. Many of us chose a field because of one like that. That skill, never measured, may be the most important aspect of one chosen to guide our youngsters and should be searched for and valued even more than advanced degrees.

We need to provide a physical environment that is supportive and not waste resources on administrative overhead. The superintendent has a large plush office and the children have no hot water to wash their hands, even in winter. Our priorities are skewed, and we need to realign them. Principals should be the lead teachers, frequently in the classrooms, helping and guiding, using their skill and experience to care for difficult children in difficult situations. Principals are, in fact, out of the building frequently, in meetings almost half of the time. It appears that these meetings serve primarily to justify an overabundance of middle management. While I have had some principals who should not have been elevated, most were hard working and straining to do their jobs even better. Time, not tutelage by middle management was what was needed. No amount of tutelage would have helped the few that shouldn’t have made the grade.

Above all, we must be kind to our children as they are tender and easily bruised.

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