Students for Education Reform
One of the central premises of our class has been that there is something, if not many things, wrong with our education system. However, it was not until “jessicarizzo” declared in her presentation that The Waldorf School was the solution to the problem in education that I really recognized that I still have an unclear understanding of exactly what this problem is. Throughout the semester, we examined varied and mostly abstract ideas of the goals of education and what methods are effective for achieving them. In an effort to now connect and apply the hodge-podge of ideas that emerged from our co-constructive inquiry, I decided to discover what concrete problems and potential solutions a recognized, national education reform group sees, and compare its vision with our collage-like picture of education.
As of this year, Haverford College has a chapter of a national group called Students for Education Reform, SFER. This group holds that is not the responsibility just of educators and governments to solve problems in the education system, but that everyone and especially college students should be informed and active in the effort to improve the state of schooling for everyone in the country. The Haverford chapter on their group homepage lists their primary goals as awareness, understanding, and engagements. As with any good advocacy group, they want to make people aware of what the problems are, show them the possibility of solving them by, in their words, arranging “visits to high-performing schools that are proof points of the ability of all children to succeed,” and present concrete opportunities to get involved in the movement through advocacy work supporting policies that would, hopefully, improve the current educational environment (http://www.haverford.edu/organizations/sfer).
In familiarizing myself with the group’s specific educational goals, it became clear that the organized effort to reform education is, for better or for worse, much more practical and concrete than our classroom discussions of what was needed for better schools. Though abstract conversation of the best learning environments can potentially help get to the root of problems, you have to make some concessions towards identifiable, attainable change in order to actually help those students disadvantaged by failing school systems. The Haverford chapter coordinator, Becca Bass, speaks to the need to begin addressing problems despite the fact that, as we have discovered in class, we cannot identify the perfect solutions to educational difficulties in this country:
I've developed a strong conviction that we cannot wait for definitive answers to push for decisive action. The issues are so complicated and there are no easy solutions, but the current status quo in American public schools is pitiful and action cannot wait. So, we must be satisfied with working for concrete changes that we already
know will fall short of perfection. Progress is slow and flawed, but that doesn't diminish its worth or its necessity (http://buffaloreformed.com/index.php?submenu=Bass_Class&src=gendocs&ref= Becca_blog&category=Main).
SFER’s goals reflect this belief that, while we still may not know what is best, we should strive for incremental change towards what is better.
So while we brainstormed what qualities the ideal teacher should possess, SFER and the general national effort towards education reform is concerned with ensuring that teachers who are better by whatever measure keep their jobs. An article posted by Kyle Ofori, class of ‘13 on the blog for Princeton’s SFER, one of the country’s larger chapters, discusses the current travesty of the “last-in, first-out” method of teacher lay-offs. This policy, formal law for public schools in many states, mandates that, when schools lose funding and cannot continue to employ all of its teachers, those teachers who are newest to the school are the first to be fired. This is problematic, Ofori argues, for several reasons. Not only does it mean that more teachers total must be fired, since newer faculty members are paid less and more must be laid off in order to balance a drop in funding, but it also means that those teachers who were the most successful sometimes lose their jobs simply because they lack seniority. Using seniority as the standard for retaining teachers necessarily prioritizes the wrong qualities in a teacher, particularly in light of research referenced by Ofori that shows that “on average, teachers improve in their first few years, then plateau from years 3-7, and ultimately experience a slight drop-off in effectiveness” (http://webscript.princeton.edu/~sfer/blog/2010/12/education-101-last-in-first-out/).
The reference to “effectiveness,” however, is indicative of a different problem, the problem of how we judge a good teacher. Ofori explicitly declares that when he speaks of the better teachers being fired, he means those who were the best at “raising their students’ test scores in math and English” (http://webscript.princeton.edu/~ sfer/blog/2010/12/education-101-last-in-first-out/). Any class like ours that emphasized the process and potential unquantifiable nature of learning would argue that not only do test scores fail to measure real learning, but that even for the concrete, standard curriculum subjects like math and English, standardized testing does not fairly measure information retention across students with different learning styles.
However, while it is the measure referenced in this article, other posts on Princeton SFERs blog prove that they do not believe test scores to be the be all end all measure of education’s success either. In a video of an interview with Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, he advocates rewarding excellent teachers while using evaluations other than test scores to determine the best educators. While he speaks of how a “single test score on a single day” can never adequately reflect a teacher’s success, he believes that test scores are necessary to consider alongside other, more subjective and creative evaluations, citing the need for some “common-sense middle ground” when it comes to determining who you pay more (http://webscript.princeton.edu/~sfer/blog/2010/12/ed-video-of-the-week-sec-duncan-on-teacher-evaluation-and-rewarding-excellence/). All in all, the arguments for judging the best teachers and rewarding them, as presented by SFER, recognizes that in order to make sure in a big system that better teachers stay and are encouraged to be excellent, you need some concrete way of evaluating their performance, even if some of a teacher’s successes are un-measurable.
What is really important to anyone aiming to improve education, however, is not the teachers but the students, and trying to raise the standards for the educators is only one way of addressing the achievement gap that is the single most referenced problem in education today according to SFER materials. At the SFER meeting I attended this year, one student mentioned state policies of determining how many new jail cells they need based on the number of children failing elementary school grades. It is an alarming piece of information that draws attention both to the critical importance of improving education from the earliest years and, more importantly, to the current tendency to give up on students early, planning for dismal futures rather than seeking to improve them. Right now, we have a school system that gives up on children rather than seeing their failure as its own failure. The achievement gap is particularly striking for lower class and minority students, illustrating that it is not an innate inability to succeed, but rather a lack of opportunities to learn. It is an immediate, pressing, issue, if not as glamorous as discussing multiple intelligences and the potential advantages of teaching by making subjects seem personally significant to the students.
Which is not to say that some of the ideas we had in our class do not open up possible solutions to the achievement gap in this country. As well as more funding and the best teachers, what is it our schools need in order to help children succeed both in school and after? While practical solutions must be considered, the goals of inspiring and empowering learners that we have addressed since the first day when we asked “what is education?” are a part of the answer of how to make schools that benefit all students. Understanding, as we have tried to do, what sticks in our brains, encouraging new thoughts and sparking our curiously and investigating how, on the most basic, biological level, we process and care about information is perhaps critical for making education and success a reality for all students. In order to create change, however, you have to apply these ideas we have presented practically. In short, our experiment in co-constructive inquiry and SFER as well as the greater reform movement could each learn a lot from the other.
Bass, Becca. Bass in Class: An Introduction to the World of Education Reform. http://buffaloreformed.com/index.php?submenu=Bass_Class&src=gendocs&ref= Becca_blog&category=Main
Bass, Becca. Students for Education Reform (SFER). http://www.haverford.edu/organizations/sfer
Ofori, Kyle. Education 101: “Last-in, First-out.” http://webscript.princeton.edu/~sfer/blog/2010/12/education-101-last-in-first-out/
Students for Education Reform. Ed Video of the Week: “Sec. Duncan on Teacher Evaluation and Rewarding Excellence.
Students for Education Reform. Students for Education Reform. http://webscript.princeton.edu/~sfer/.