Thursday, December 28, 2006

Tough Talk; mushy thinking

This is a follow up to the posting on the Skills of the U.S. work force below.

Tough Talk, Mushy thinking
By Leo Casey.
Read the entire viewpoint at
Too many American students do not graduate high school, or do not graduate it ready to do post-secondary work, and far too many of these students live in poverty and come from communities of color. A generation ago, this was not as grave a problem as it is today, since those who did not pursue their education could still find decent, middle class jobs in largely unionized industries such as automobiles and steel. Today, those jobs [and the once great industrial unions] have been decimated by the global economy, and some measure of post-secondary education is necessary for middle class employment.
But as Thomas L. Friedman recognizes in his commentary, what is important here is not simply the attainment of further formal education, but the development of the habits and skills of creative, critical thinking which are so central to the emerging global knowledge economy. What Friedman does not seem to understand, but what educators can not avoid recognizing, is how the Tough Choices recommendation of instituting a national standardized test at the end of the tenth grade to determine college readiness moves American education further away from promoting such creative and critical thought.
Under the regimen of standardized testing that has come in the wake of NCLB, American schools have increasingly lost the proper balance between teaching and learning, on the one hand, and the assessment of what students have learned, on the other hand. Education has been more and more crowded out of school days turned over to test preparation, and the curriculum has narrowed significantly, with less and less attention paid to the creative and critical thought which can not be captured on standardized, multiple choice tests. Yet one more standardized test – this time, for every high school student in the nation – can only make an increasingly bad situation worse. Moreover, rather than moving students capable of doing more advanced work out of high school earlier, what American education needs to do is dramatically rethink secondary education....

Tough Choices misdiagnoses the problem we face as solely one of the recruitment of high aptitude teachers, and ignores the fact that teacher retention is by far the more serious part of the problem – here in New York City, and more generally throughout America, we lose 1 of every 2 new teachers by their fifth year. [For in-depth analyses of this retention problem, see the study of Susan Moore Johnson and the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, Finders and Keepers: Helping New Teachers Survive and Thrive in Our Schools and the reports of Public Agenda, A Sense of Calling: Who Teaches and Why, and the Public Education Network, The Voice of the New Teacher.] The ‘retention’ crisis is particularly acute among the very type of high aptitude teacher Tough Choices says we need to attract: new teachers in the NYC Teaching Fellows program leave at a greater and quicker rate than other new teachers. This means that we are losing all too many new teachers, and more of our best new teachers, at the very point where they are just beginning to master the skills of teaching, and after we have invested significant resources in their professional development. Pace Tough Choices, the problem is not so much attracting new teachers with great potential, as it is keeping them in education.
Their reasons for leaving, these beginning teachers tell us, are more the teaching and learning conditions in their schools than it is their salaries, although they clearly think those salaries inadequate for the labor they do. Leaving novice teachers complain of disorderly, unsafe schools; of the lack of curricula and programs of study that are proven and work; of a lack of support from their school administrators and district officials; and of a disregard for teachers’ professional voice and judgment. Insofar as they play a role in new teachers’ calculations on the future, defined benefit pension plans and quality health care are actually incentives for them to stay.
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