Wednesday, July 02, 2008

More Learning, Less Time – Such a Deal! – for Someone

The local paper ran a story on the county school system which bears a little critical scrutiny. Increasingly I find it amazing how unexamined assertions seen as unchallengeable revealed truth inform public policy. The Sentinel article this morning was packed with them. To wit, the headline:

RE: "Orange County schools will pack more learning into same amount of time"

Interesting assumption. But why would we presume that students will learn more in the same amount of time simply because we impose an additional class' worth of information upon them in that same time frame? If the students are managing to learn X in 53 minutes – and that’s a major presumption - why would we presume they could learn the same X in 45?

This is certainly the fundamentalist free market ideology at work - "lay off" (read: fire) workers, impose their job duties upon the remaining workers, pay them less benefits and threaten them with termination all the while ignoring the corresponding decline in quality of work product and worker burnout, all based solely on the imperative of stockholders unwilling to pay for the operation of the companies that keep them wealthy. Substitute teachers for workers and taxpayers for stockholders and you have the paradigm of Florida public schools.

But why would we presume that students, already struggling to jump through the hoops of standardized testing confused for education, will learn more in the same amount of time? And why would we take a paradigm that has clearly NOT worked for anyone other than the very few wealthy beneficiaries of this exploitative practice and impose it upon the school children of Orange County, all the while congratulating ourselves on what clever behavioralists we are?

Then there’s this assertion in the lead:

RE: The seven-period schedule is a cost-free way to lower class sizes and give students more opportunities to take electives.

Again, an interesting assumption. Who will plan the seventh class for the teachers? Who will grade the extra class’ papers? Who will learn the seventh set of 35 or more names with all the various learning disabilities and special needs that go along with them? Who will now reconstruct all the existing lesson plans to try to get the work of the former 53 minute classes to now fit into 45 minutes? It may be cost free to the school board to lay down cavalier dicta which totally restructure the work of their remaining teaching staff. It’s a good deal for somebody. But someone also bears the cost.

Not surprisingly, the Sentinel story ran comments from principals and a teacher who supported the changes but no comments that drew the move into question. Here’s the view of the world from the inner sanctum of the principals:

RE: There's little reason to fear any fallout as long as classes remain in the 45-minute range, the National Association of Secondary Principals says.

Of course, there will be little fallout for those who will not be required to actually implement these changes. There was little sweat on the brow of the white masters sipping mint juleps rocking in their rocking chairs on the verandas while they watched their slaves picking cotton, either. But, there will be fallout. Someone will absorb the blow. Chances are, it will be both students and teachers.

Now, here’s the comment from the supportive teacher. While we don’t know what the teacher actually teaches, the sentiment is admirable. His focus is actually on the students here:

RE: The new schedule gives struggling students -- who often get no electives because they have to take remedial reading and math -- at least one class of their choice…. “Now a lot of our kids will be able to have P.E., art or music. Sometimes school can be kind of a drag for them…”

Of course, this is but one more piece of evidence of the failure of Pavlovian test-driven pedagogy. Not only are 30% of America’s children being “Left Behind” and written off as failures because they cannot pass a single standardized test, the testing regime has made school so rigid and unbearable that many students, not surprisingly, don’t want to go. Imagine a school day packed with drilling for math and reading exams with no opportunity to engage in anything remotely human like physical education for the jocks or art and music for the expressive kids. No doubt school has become “a kind of drag for them” and their teachers-turned-technocrats as well.

You have to admire a teacher who is willing to do yet more than the already enormous expectations placed upon any public school teacher simply so his students might find school even bearable. But shortening class periods so more can be packed into a single school day is not the answer. Might it be that the whole project of test-driven pedagogy needs to be reconsidered? Wasn’t it Einstein who defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over (and here, more of it) and expecting different results?

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.

Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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