The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. Psalm 118:22-23 NRSV

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Some Thoughts about Education

It has been a long time since I have had the mental energy to attend to this blog. This is in part because as a pastor who preaches most every Sunday, a lot of my creative energy goes into the work of reading, listening, and developing preachments for the congregation with whom the Lord has called me to serve. It is also because I have a hard time putting things out that are not fully formed and thought through. Today, however, I just have a few things that I want to get off my chest.

For the last few weeks, I have been thinking a lot about public education in the United States. Less than a month ago, I preached a sermon about brain drain, the experience of knowledge loss in students that is related to the three-month break between June and September that is a part of USA public school policy. A teacher in the congregation confessed that she tensed up when I first began talking about brain drain because she expected me to join the bandwagon of blaming teachers for every problem with students' achievement, even aspects that they do not control. That teacher has good reason to feel that way because of the ongoing discussions in the bordering state of New Jersey as well as nationally about the role of teachers unions in advancing or inhibiting essential good teaching. Last week I had the privilege of hearing a learned group of sociologists and education specialists debate the sources of and solutions for the gap between the achievement of black and brown students and their white and Asian counterparts. Finally, there's the fact that Philadelphia has, once again, parted ways with its school superintendent. After a scant three years in office but a plethora of political and administrative problems, Dr. Arlene Ackerman has taken a negotiated buyout and is leaving the helm of the School District of Philadelphia.

I have some thoughts that I want to put out.

First, we have to stop scapegoating working people, blaming them for structural, political, and economic problems over which they have little or no control. That we have come to a point in our national and local politics when our default position is to resent and penalize people who work for us, as civil servants, teachers, fire fighters, police officers, postal workers, or retirees from those positions and seek to balance budgets by cutting their pay and benefits while we continue to invest in the very corporate structures and moguls who caused the economic downturn in the first place is a scandal.

Second, while reasonable people agree that accountability is appropriate in every position, including teachers, we must acknowledge that we don't have real good ways of measuring teacher success. Criticisms of standardized testing abound and we cannot ignore the increasing numbers of alleged and proven test-cheating scandals. Diane Ravitch, a George H.W. Bush appointee and former advocate of testing makes a compelling case for the problems with using test scores punitively in this NPR interview. Meanwhile, Ravitch also points out that an enormous amount of money is going into the test project.

Third, Waiting for Superman's reviews notwithstanding, the jury is really out about charter schools as a solution. Although there are some very good charter schools, there are also some very bad ones, just as is the case in general for public schools.

Here's my concern: we're pouring money and false hope into a few faddish solutions that haven't been proven and in some senses have been disproven. We need our public policy people, our educational policy people, and our communities to get together and make sure we support things that have already been proved to be beneficial, e.g. early childhood education. We need to attend to the relationship between the structure of our school year and the loss of learning, especially for poor children who don't have interesting and enlightening summer experiences. And we need to insist that our representatives stop balancing budgets on the backs of public workers and the poorest people whom they serve. We also need to figure out a comprehensive from the cradle system of education and support for children and their parents. I know that this will cost money, but it's money that we cannot afford not to spend; we just have to spend it wisely.

My two cents as a citizen.