Thursday, July 17, 2008

Broadening the Debate

My younger son, who is sojourning in Richmond this summer while he tries to make some career decisions, e-mailed me and said he thought my post yesterday was too negative. He thinks I might have insulted my fellow Richmonders by suggesting we are still thinking in 20th Century terms. Well, I don’t think we in River City are so easily offended. But just in case: Reader, I am deeply sorry if you think I was suggesting that we in Richmond are not as smart or sophisticated as our neighbors to the north.

The point I was trying to make is that in our thinking about Richmond Public Schools we are trapped in 20th Century terms. I think the questions raised at the Richmond Crusade for Voters forum Tuesday night indicate that. I also think that the issues that we candidates are concentrating on are the same issues that candidates have been raising for years. We have an obligation to educate ourselves and then educate the voters.

My friend Michael, the political guru I mentioned yesterday, tells me that voters cannot handle more than three issues at a time and that I have to get my message across in thirty seconds or I’ll lose their interest. I got the same kind of e-mail advice two months ago from Paul Goldman, everybody’s second choice to be our next mayor. Now, Paul and my friend Michael have been involved in politics for a long time so I guess they know of what they speak.

But they are talking about getting elected. I am talking about the children of Richmond. We cannot talk about their futures in thirty second sound bites. We need to take a long hard look at the education we are providing them. These are our babies and we are responsible for preparing them for the rest of their lives.

This doesn’t mean that I am not going to continue acting like a politician between now and November 4. I will concentrate on my three issues—making our neighborhood schools work for all children, being accountable for the taxpayers’ money, and involving the whole Richmond community as stakeholders in RPS. I will talk to each of my neighbors for only thirty seconds each. I will put up signs and maybe give out bumper stickers. I will inundate the voters of the fourth district with all kinds of campaign stuff.

However, the election is going to be over on November 4 and, whether or not the voters of the fourth district choose me to represent them on the school board, I still have to worry about the quality of education we are giving our children. We owe them a bright future and they are not going to get it unless, right now, we the citizen’s of Richmond make a commitment to do it right.

My older son is right. Our children need to be prepared to compete on a global scale. We need to give them the critical thinking skills they need to succeed. My friend Michael is right. Most of the content of what we teach our children today will be just a historic curiosity in fifteen or twenty years. So we have to teach our children how to think, how to gather information, how to make decisions, how to understand that everything is related, how to communicate (even though I cannot even imagine the technology they will use for communication) and how to relate to a world of different people from different cultures.

But, dear reader, let’s face two simple facts: 1- the federal “no-child-left-behind” law, although it will be amended, is still going to be controlling what and how we teach our children; and 2- Virginia SOLs are not going away.

The “no-child” law is one of the most disastrous of the disasters that George Bush has bestowed upon our country in the more than seven years he has been president. I am convinced it was planned by people who are opposed to public education. With its constantly escalating requirements it seems deliberately designed to make public school systems fail. We can only hope that the Congress modifies it significantly before extending it.

I have very mixed feelings about SOLs. I realize that our school systems must be held accountable for educating our children and that we need a way of measuring their success. However, the importance that SOL scores have assumed makes it more and more likely that our teachers are being pressured to teach “to the test.” And, unfortunately, I think the SOLs force us to teach our kids the wrong things.

Because they are multiple-choice tests, the SOLs require our children to learn facts. They are “what” and “where” and “when” tests; they are not “how” and “why” tests. We should be teaching our children skills, not facts, but the SOLs push us in another direction.

I spent a good time of this past year tutoring fifth graders at Carver Elementary School. Because Carver was not an accredited school in the past, there was a tremendous push to have the children pass their SOLs. Teachers were encouraged to spend most of their classroom time teaching subjects that would be tested and spending little time on things that would not be tested. The only thing that counted at Carver was SOL scores.

In previous years I tutored fourth graders at Westover Hills for the Virginia history SOL. It was all about what happened, when did it happen, and where did it happen. These fourth graders were just filled up with facts. If they ever appear on Jeopardy and the subject is Virginia history, they should do well.

Unfortunately, history is not just a series of facts. History is a continuous process of development, in which everything is connected. If we teach our kids that tobacco was the basis of Virginia’s early economy, they may remember that for a test. But, we never teach them “why” tobacco became so important. We never impress upon them that things happen because of choices that people make. They need to know not only that Virginia is where slavery began in this country, but that slavery was introduced as a deliberate economic decision. They need to know that had another choice been made the terrible institution of slavery could have been avoided. They need to know that decisions made at the time of our nation’s founding led eventually to the Civil War ninety years later. They need to know that the decision to rely on canals for transportation in the 18th Century led to Virginia not being a railroad center and to the decline of Virginia’s economy in later years.

We need to teach our children the skills they will need to function fifteen or twenty years from now. They don’t need to know facts. If we teach them how, they will be able to find the facts they need to know electronically or, if they still exist, in books. At the rate knowledge is expanding we can never teach our children all the “facts” they need to know. We need to teach them to think.

That is why I am so committed to bringing the International Baccalaureate primary years program to RPS. Except in the diploma program during the last two years of high school, IB is not an honors program. It is a method of teaching. It is based on teaching children critical thinking skills and showing them how everything in the world is interconnected. Sure, they will learn the facts they need to pass the SOLs, but they will learn them in a way that will enable them to use them in a meaningful way.

Last summer, the maveness took me along to tour Chicago while she attended an IB convention. During the course of several days I met many IB teachers. They were all dedicated, enthusiastic and had high morale. I can’t imagine that any of them were not anxious to go to school every day, even in May.

At one dinner I sat with part of the faculty of an elementary school in Albany, Georgia. The school’s demographics were similar to schools in Richmond: African American 84%, White 7%, Hispanic 8%. Sixty six percent of its students were receiving subsidized meals. I learned from these teachers that this school, which has the rather impressive name of International Studies Elementary Magnet School (ISEMS), had been a failing school. Its students scored very low on Georgia’s version of the SOLs. After becoming an IB primary years school, the performance by ISEMS students improved considerably (Remember that IB is not an honors program; every student in ISEMS is an IB student). ISEMS is now rated an 8 out of 10 by (By comparison, the only elementary schools in Richmond rated 8 or better by are Fairfield Court and Munford at 10, JEB Stuart at 9, and Broad Rock, George Mason and Fox at 8).

Will IB work at Richmond elementary schools? I think so. But we will never know unless we try. Are there other approaches to teaching and learning that we might try in Richmond? Treasured reader, what do you think?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes, we must teach our students the skills they will need in the future. However, in order to teach, we must understand how students think. See "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better" on amazon.