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Sunday, July 12, 2020

Opening schools without the teachers

As an old man, I find myself often in situations where I sound like a fading codger reminiscing with old war stories.  That is the problem with having lived a long time.  You keep remembering things that worked and things that didn't, and what the factors were that made the difference.

An article in The New York Times provided one of those occasions. It is about a group of young teachers in Newark who will run their school.  I immediately recalled a situation where I witnessed one of the most effective elementary schools I have ever come across or heard about.  And that led to  my thinking of a number of situations where I saw what worked and what did not in education,

The elementary school I refer to was in a rural community and it served both farm and small town students.  Some of those small town kids lived in families for which the small towns were bedroom communities for parents who worked in the Quad-Cities of Iowa and Illinois.  My occasion to know this school was because two of its teachers were in a master's degree program in which I taught, a program that provided teachers with a curriculum which intensively studied their region through its  history, its literature and arts, its religions, its sciences, and social sciences as they were applied in the area.  

The two teachers were fifth grade teachers.  One of them taught social studies half-time; the other half of the time she served as the school's principal.  The teachers had worked up a curriculum on the native America presence in the area.  I and another professor, a geologist, were asked to evaluate the study unit.  One part of the unit involved the kids in archaeology.  They were invited to bring artifacts in that their families might have.  The classroom was filled with stone points, axe heads, and stone tools.   The kids were to obtain as much information as possible about the items in terms of their age, what culture produced them, and what they showed about the people who once lived in the area.  That also involved teaching them about the procedures used by archaeologists to establish the significance of items.  A farmer volunteered a corner of a field near a creek, where he had come across some artifacts, and the kids applied archaeological procedures.  They set up grid lines, methodically scraped down layers of soil, and actually found items which they noted on grid maps.  They were able to determine that the field lay on what was at the edge of a prehistoric village.  They were even able to identify some post holes that held the frames of lodges and they made a drawing laying out what the village looked like. The geologist and I had to tap every professional contact we had to help identify the artifacts and provide information to interpret the site.

The unit attracted the attention of parents, too.  They came out in the evenings and on weekends to watch and help the kids.  One farmer said he had been coming across artifacts all his life but had no idea what they meant.  The unit ended when the class held a school house potluck, at which my colleague and I were asked to give our educational assessment of the project.  There were no surprises, as the teachers and the evaluators conferred often as the project progressed, and the only problems were with getting information on some interpretive matters.  That potluck was a memorable occasion because  students, teachers, parents, and professors chatted into the evening about what had been learned about that rural community,.  But a major point that occurred to the professors and other consultants they had pulled into the project was that it worked because one of the teachers was an administrator and was also a neighbor to the families whose children were being taught.  The school board had deferred to the teachers' knowledge of their subject and their students in supporting the project.

The memory of this occasion triggered some criticisms of  education that I came across when I was a stringer for a newspaper and helped it cover 12 school boards in its coverage area.  School boards generally regarded their function as being a conduit and mediator of information between their constituents and the professional staffs. The school systems where this function was the main priority operated smoothly and delivered effective educations.  However, many boards had members who had agendas, sometimes political or religious, that they wanted to impose on the professional educators.  Those boards regarded teachers as low-grade servants who should be allowed to do nothing without the express permission of their superiors on the board.  Those people often had no idea of what education is, how it works, or its role in a democratic system of government.  They dominate education in parts of the country and are typified by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who is as undemocratic and uneducated as it's possible to be.

The people who do the work of teaching and assessing its effectiveness are the most informed and trained to make educational decisions.  When they are assigned administrative duties, they find them to be a burden that detracts from their primary engagement with students.  However, their consultation and advice is an essential component of successful educational programs.  Nevertheless, when a problem or a crises, such as the coronavirus pandemic, occurs, the teachers are often left out of the discussions of how to handle matters.  

In its report on opening schools, The New York Times does not even mention teachers: "...there is enormous pressure to bring students back — from parents, from pediatricians and child development specialists, and from President Trump."  But when teachers are asked about opening up schools, they cite the real risks and problems to be faced; they don't recite the political folderol that does not address the actual issues.

Education is too important to have its decisions made by  the likes of Trump and DeVos.  But it is probably a far-fetched hope that it will be put back in the hands of people who actually know something.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States