Choice? Standards? Balderdash!
I am now in the middle of reading Left Back, Diane Ravitch's history of reform in American education. One of Ravitch's clear messages is that we should be wary of movements. After having spent nearly all of my life in American public schools--first as a student, then as a teacher--I can only say, "Amen!"
Over the weekend Joanne Jacobs ran a post on competing articles from Sol Stern and Lisa Snell in which they debate which of the two educational movements of the early 21st century, "choice" or "standards," is the true answer to improving education in America. As someone who actually works in the classroom, it is frustrating for me to read their thoughts. They are both so certain that the movements they advocate are the answers, but it seems to me so obvious that neither of them will lead to much improvement. And while they argue about which of their fads is better, they, like all the other experts and policy makers, ignore a simple change that could do so much.
Lisa Snell insists that what is needed is choice, and Stern has also been a strong advocate of that in the past. Well, I have news for both of them. The most important reason that kids from the low-performing urban schools, that Snell is most concerned about, need choice is to get away from all of the disruptive and unmotivated kids they have in their classrooms that make true education impossible. We have always heard that kids in urban schools need choice to get away from poor instruction and uncaring teachers, but I suspect that some of the teachers in those schools are more caring and better than many of the rest of us could ever hope to be. Those teachers are working in incredibly difficult situations, and I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for them to constantly hear that they would improve if only there were competition to make them try harder. After promoting it for years, even Stern has given up on that idea.
Stern, a strong critic of so-called "progressive" teaching methods, now believes that standards will force us to improve our instruction methods. Well, I've got news for him. If I have enough disruptive and unmotivated kids in a class, like I do in one of my classes this year, it doesn't matter what my instruction methods are--not much learning is going to take place. I have had a great deal of success during my teaching career, but this year I have one class out of my six that has me tearing my hair out. I have a sneaking suspicion that this class is giving me a taste of the conditions that teachers in some of those urban districts face with regularity.
The answer to improving education in America is maddeningly simple, and every so often Sol Stern stumbles over it without seeing it. He says that one of the reasons he admires small Catholic schools is because they "enforce order in the classroom." Well, how about giving those of us in public school classrooms the power to enforce order in our classrooms? In order to do that, when some kids behave horribly day after day, and when some other kids make absolutely no effort to succeed day after day, it has to be much easier for us to remove them from our classes than it is now. Then we wouldn't need to give kids a "choice" to find a different school. Then we can actually take a look at which instruction methods work best, because they will matter. I don't know any public school teachers who don't want to be able to enforce order in their classrooms, but we are forced to be unbearably tolerant. If Sol Stern and Lisa Snell really want to improve public education in America, why don't they help us do something about that? That is a reform that would do more to improve public education than choice or standards ever could. I guarantee it!