Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I Don't Like Back to Basics

As always, Philly's The Notebook is the greatest newspaper to report on public schools ever. Really ever.

Here is an article covering the recent transformation of West Philly High from a regular public to a Promise Academy. For those of you who don't know and did not follow the link, West Philly High has had a really rough decade. Over the past few years, however, teachers, students, administrators, and community members at the school began implementing a progressive, long-term-thinking pedagogy/school-culture that focussed on the real world needs of the students. They worked hard to build connections between the school and the surrounding city and mutual investment. This is tough to do and takes generations to realize. After their test scores stayed low for a year, they were taken over as a Promise Academy.

The school now runs on a rigid, back-to-basics curriculum that stresses nationally tested skills only and specifically does not work with higher order critical thinking skills. Proponents of the plan say that in future years, once the students start performing better, the school will begin to reintroduce critical thinking in the curriculum. I know this is bull pucky. You know this is bull pucky. They know this is bull pucky.

I used to work in a middle school that used a Back to Basics model (similar to the one used at the Promise Academies). After I moved to a different school (this time a high school), I had a student who had graduated from my old middle school with all kinds of academic honors. In the few years between the 8th and 11th grades, she had retained very few of these "basics" skills and had had to overcome huge gaps in her critical thinking ability. But, boy could she pick multiple-choice answers!

The amount of time it takes to teach a child to pick multiple-choice answers makes it nearly impossible to address critical thinking (please read "meaningful to the real world") skills in her education. Had the school backed off even a little, her scores would not have been as high. Within that logic set, teaching critical thinking equals failure.

Students who leave school with very few useful academic schools, and memories of their education being horribly boring and unrelated to their real lives outside of school will not pass on anything academic to their children. That means future generations to pass through West Philly High will come with the same lack of reading and math. To do well on tests, they will have to receive intensive training in picking multiple-choice answers. This will keep them from being able to get any time working on critical thinking questions. Anyone else see the pattern?

Education reform takes generations worth of work. It is hard to help people value education. Those involved don't see much progress within one cycle of students. The progress is realized when the children and grandchildren of the students who began the effort show up to school already loving books, already using basic logic, already playing a sport, and already producing independent art. The first step is building a trust and a love of education.

You can't do that by "taking over" schools and stuffing students into disconnected test-taking programs that do very little to help their chances of seeing any benefit from their schooling.

I want to believe that the goal of all people involved in education is to improve the state of all of our communities, but education reform efforts will clearly fail at this, and those implementing them must see this. What the hell is their goal, and why are they doing this to us?


Office Mutineer said...

Acknowledging that you are facing a whole set of challenges at WPH, have you seen what's going on at UDHS?? (Link below.) So long as some students are 'illegal' in the context of public education - so long as education is treated as a commodity that can be hoarded, to which some are more entitled than others - so long as public schools are primarily funded by local property taxes - none of these fundamental problems can be effectively addressed.

empty cities said...

Damn. I really hate to see the denial of the education of a child presented as a cost-saving method. That is just wretched.

News stories like these really make me step back and appreciate the school where I teach (I live in the neighborhood served by WPH, but teach at a charter high school up in Hunting Park). We are far from perfect, but have so far been able to fend off a large amount of budget-cut-related damaging long term decisions. America continues to grow increasingly hostile to public education and that worries me.