Sunday, March 30, 2014

Not Training Seals

If there is one word that hits a nerve for me it's the word performance.  Used in many of the educational circles I frequent, that one word, so popular today when discussing student assessment, seems to encapsulate all that is wrong with the so-called "reform" movement today.  Humans, unlike corporations, are people.
The use of the word once prompted me to interject at a faculty meeting, "We're not training seals here."
Yet, the constant use of the term student performance leaves some doubt.
Sure, teachers care about "outcomes" and scores and how data can "inform" our practice, but we care more and know more about people and their diverse learning styles and what motivates an individual.
In a recent interview, leading education historian Diane Ravitch noted that because of the corporate assault on public education, some large American cities (Dallas, Philadelphia) might no longer have public schools.  She followed that comment with the statement that this just might be the most significant threat to democracy that we, as a culture, face.
I think so.
Especially when performance involves so much judgment.
Some think that data in the form of test scores is objective.  Impossible.  Consider this metaphor.  Two boxers in a ring for 10 rounds.  Three judges see the same fight and come up with three different scores.  Sometimes they give the victory to different competitors too.  Hardly objective.

Some years ago a important and thoughtful book called Teaching as a Subversive Activity scared a lot of people.  It's true message wasn't something to be feared, but you know how that word subversive can conjure up images.  Postman and Weingartner were simply saying that teachers need to build relationships with their students, teach the whole person.  Modeling empathy is another message that comes across clearly.  They emphasized the inductive method of class discussion as well.  Complicating questions, not settling for simple one word answers was part of the message.  A classroom where students talked to each other about big ideas was often the goal.
Given the current state of affairs, the threat to public education and how the vast majority of the American people can be easily lulled into believing that "choice" is the answer to all the ills that face public education, we need something that borders on the subversive.  It's crunch time.  Subvert the mistaken notion that student's "perform" rather than think critically.  Teaching is, after all, the ultimate political act..

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