As the gubernatorial platforms begin rolling out, with their obligatory declarations of sweeping education reform, it’s important we take a moment to acknowledge that, parroted soundbites and advertising campaigns notwithstanding, we have by no means reached consensus on the claim that Idaho’s schools are “failing,” and that the only debate left to conduct is over how to “fix” this irrevocably “broken” system. A good first step towards taking a thoughtful, objective look at the issue is acknowledging that the statistics most frequently invoked to prove our dysfunction do not, in fact, support this conclusion.
A statistical favorite among those seeking to quantify this failure is the imperfect percentage of Idaho’s students who matriculate immediately following high school graduation. This would be an appropriate measure of failure if college were free, necessary for every career, and universally desired. The false implication inherent in quoting this statistic is that there are students who wanted and needed to go to college, were financially able to do so, but discovered they could not because their high school teachers had failed to provide the knowledge prerequisite to attending one’s first day of class. I will estimate, with confidence, that the aforementioned scenario has played out roughly zero times. I work with students who, while certainly capable of college work, don’t need a degree to begin their intended careers. I teach students who are choosing not to attend college due to the cost. While I will help a student pursue grants and scholarships, and make sure they understand there’s more to the college experience than vocational training, it would be irresponsible for me to disregard their concerns. While it’s my job to prepare them for college, it’s not my role to try and force them, in the face of legitimate reservations, into going.
Another oft-cited statistical shortcoming of our public schools is that we do not prepare students to move directly into Idaho jobs. Following this reasoning, the fact that if I began working tomorrow as a line cook or wheat farmer I would need explicit training in the duties and responsibilities of that particular job proves that Bishop Kelly “failed” me. Each student attending public school receives training within a variety of academic subjects. In addition, there are, embedded throughout our curriculum, enrichment lessons designed to inculcate our students with crucial life lessons: practice empathy, be honest and responsible, work hard, look after one another. As for the specific duties and application of skills required for any specific job, that has always been, and continues to be, the responsibility of that particular employer.
We, as teachers, have a professional obligation to critique reform that will not benefit our students. This is not because we are union stooges or want to slack off with no accountability. It’s my job to advocate for my students, and yes, I do, as the person who works with them day in and day out, consider myself an expert on what does and doesn’t work, more so than someone who has never set foot in my classroom. Also, with limited resources, any funds squandered on ineffectual reform is money that cannot be applied more purposefully.
Oftentimes, this false consensus of failure is employed to justify “trying anything,” as in, “We know the current system isn’t working. It’s about time we try something new.” For a number of years, the easy answer has been additional technology. We seem, thankfully, to be moving beyond that, having realized that a good teacher who likes tech can deliver an amazing lesson, and a good teacher who prefers dry erase markers can do the exact same.
The newest wave seems to feature school choice and, as reinforced in Tommy Ahlquist’s recent pitch for governor, an investment in “leadership.” One thing that would elevate the discussion regarding “choice” is a better general understanding of what goes on in a public school classroom. While I’m sure the online or charter environment works better for some students in terms of social interaction, so far any of the innovative pedagogy I’ve seen cited in supporting vast charter expansion comes back to differentiation and experiential learning, both of which are taught to every teacher in the state, and stressed in our curriculum.
The proposition of investment in additional leadership seems to come primarily from groups and individuals with business knowledge, but apparently little understanding of a school’s structure. I’ve got a remarkable principal, and an excellent department head, both of whom support me when I need them, but as far as the day to day work of teaching, once that bell rings, it’s just me and the students. While some of the recently created in-building leadership positions have expedited my out-of-the-classroom duties, I can’t say they’ve contributed to making me a better teacher, so I’d hate to see much additional time, effort, and money expended in this direction.
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I think every parent, student, and teacher would rally behind thoughtful reform, geared specifically and solely to help the kids. In the meantime, we’re lucky enough to have a dynamic and thriving educational system intact here in Idaho.
Written by Adam Phillips, a teacher and coach at Fairmont Junior High in the Boise School District.