The more things change, the more they stay the same
As I started to outline my thoughts for this essay, I recalled my first day in tech school at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas in 1961, learning how to maintain and launch an Atlas-F ICBM.
I was a brand new second lieutenant in a group of about 20 officers ranging from “Brown Bars” like me to lieutenant colonels. The introduction was delivered by a young first lieutenant who was enthusiastic to the point of delight about how modern warfare would never be the same because of these amazing ICBMs. The fellow rattled off dazzling statistic after dazzling statistic about range, targeting accuracy, response time, time to target and so on. The guy was absolutely glowing as he addressed the mixed group of newbies and old hands about the amazing capabilities of the Atlas F weapon system and a future of space travel, orbiting space stations, men on the moon and so on.
For the time, it was all Buck Rogers whiz-bang.
At this point in the presentation there was a rather loud “Harrumph!” I looked back as a grizzled captain, obviously recalled from retirement to active duty, growled loudly, “Aw, baloney! I’ll bet anybody anything that the day they land a man on the moon there’ll be a Goon in the pattern with fresh fruit and vegetables.”
Of course the class broke into gales of laughter – you had to be there I suppose – and everyone enjoyed the counter-point. This guy had flown many combat missions, had been shot at on numerous occasions, and wasn’t terribly impressed with the idea of sitting in an underground bunker waiting to launch a missile at someone half-way around the planet he couldn’t see.
When I read the front page story in the Sept. 4 edition of The New York Times, In Classrooms of Future, Stagnant Scores, I heard myself say, “Aw Baloney!” and I felt much the same way the captain must have. The article details the introduction and use of high tech devices in a school system in Chandler, Ariz. This community has so far spent $33 million to acquire the latest and greatest educational whiz-bang gadgets to outfit their schoolrooms.
The article goes on to report that, “…schools are spending billions on technology, even as they lay off teachers, with little or no proof that this approach is improving basic learning.” The Chandler story is being repeated across the country as schools acquire the latest gadgets and get rid of teachers.
Frankly, I think we have slipped our intellectual and moral anchors and are now rapidly drifting off into an ocean of gullibility and hidden agendas. School officials are behaving much like Pacific island cargo cults waiting for that magical ship to sail over the horizon bearing all the answers to successful standardized test scores so they can beat the No Child Left Behind rap. They are bereft of good ideas of their own and are desperate.
How did we come to this, and what other ideas are possible?
What’s the real deal?
The “real deal” isn’t gadgets, it isn’t holding back, and it certainly isn’t social promotion either. It isn’t bogus programs like No Child Left Behind. Those lame ideas have been and are being proven wrong over and over again – ad nauseum.
Some things actually do work, however, and we need to ask, what is it that the successful charter schools do that regular public schools don’t? Are the technos ready for this brain-exploding revelation? 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1… They spend more time with kids!
“Eeeeeek! More time? That means more teachers and tutors. That means more mentoring. We don’t want to pay for more humans but… maybe there’s a machine we can buy that will do the job.” There is more to the “Eeeeeek!” factor, however, and we’ll get to that later.
In contrast to the Chandler experience, in Houston the schools superintendent is experimenting with – are you ready for this? Here it comes! – more time, more teachers, more tutors, more mentoring. And, as a result, the educational/instructional outcomes are improving. Check out this article about it.
There were four policies identified by the fellow who consulted with the Houston school system that he deemed “common to the successful charters.” These were:
- Longer school days and years.
- More rigorous and selective hiring of principals and teachers.
- Frequent quizzes to determine what needs to be retaught – and “high dosage tutoring.”
- A “no excuses” culture.
To this end, the Houston school cited in the story hired 50 full-time math tutors. More teachers, more tutors, more of the most essential ingredient in successful teaching and learning – one-on-one contact between teachers and learners. The tutors come from various backgrounds and the one cited in the story was formerly an engineer who easily illustrated how “negative 7 and positive 7 have the same absolute value” to a struggling student by drawing a number line for her.
This is not unlike a master carpenter showing an apprentice how to square a layout – this is teaching as it has been done for as long as adults have been passing knowledge to young people.
What machines can’t do
Machines do not understand when a child is “struggling.” Machines cannot interpret a puzzled look on a child’s face. Machines cannot sense emotion and allay fear and uncertainty with a pat on the back or an encouraging word as can an adult who knows the child. These are the strong and irrefutable reasons why caring humans are the first and best teachers of other humans.
And, it should go without saying that there have to be enough teachers, tutors and mentors to go around.
I am not at all opposed to the use of technology in classrooms as such. In these 21st Century times marvelous devices can be employed to extend the reach of teachers, but it must always be understood that machines cannot replace human teachers.
Why? Because we are not talking about assembly lines and robots; we are talking about schools and children. My values embrace personal achievement as opposed to standardized test scores and advocacy for children as distinct from advocacy for social promotion and holding back. Teaching a kid with the object of passing the NCLB test is not by any stretch of the imagination education.
My advocacy is also a position with moral dimensions: We unquestionably devalue humanity by assigning to machines what is the essentially human task of people teaching people, and when we demean a child with the humiliation of being held back. We have only to ask: What human values are transmitted to a child by a machine? What values are transmitted by humiliation? Who, in these circumstances, is the ultimate beneficiary?
We must question why remedies are being proposed that are essentially punitive and not educative as to subject matter. We are justified in asking what other agendas might underlie policies that are essentially more political than educational.
As a public policy, holding children back in grade is not about education but more a manipulation of public perception. The proposed policy of ending social promotion is no more than a Trojan Horse laying the ground work for selling out public education to the lowest bidder. This is the “Eeeeeek!” factor I alluded to earlier; this is the hidden agenda to which we must be alert.
If we wish to promote a humane society, the teaching/learning enterprise must then always be humane and human. In the final analysis, there must always be teachers in the pattern, caring, human teachers doing what teachers have been doing for eons – teaching children, passing on our collective knowledge and our collective societal values, which values include recognizing and respecting each other’s humanity.
It cannot be about profit. Morally, the responsibility and execution of public education must always remain public. There is no other way to create and maintain a humane, just and civilized society except as a public enterprise.
Emanuele Corso has been a New Mexico resident for over 30 years. Prior to that he taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the Department of Educational Policy Studies, where he received his doctorate in education policy studies. He taught “Schools and Society” and “School Reform” to graduates and undergraduates. He holds two master’s degrees and a bachelor’s in mathematics. He is currently working on a book, “Belief Systems and the Social Contract,” which he started when he was teaching at Wisconsin. You can find him online at siteseven.net.
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