A few days ago I received an email from a former student who lives in France. She wanted to let me know that she has "developed a conscience" and thus was no longer conservative, and that she voted Socialist in the elections there. More importantly, as my purpose was never to proselytize, were her comments regarding the impact of my class. "The discussions we had made a real difference to me. It took a while, but I caught on." She continued, "I hope you still engage kids in political discussions, because, at least for me, it really planted seeds and helped open my eyes." Planting seeds ... I appreciated the metaphor.
This happens quite often. A couple of summers ago I ran into a young lady who has become very successful in the airline business. She credited me and a colleague for profoundly influencing her life in a positive manner. As her track coach I had influenced her, but she said my class had impacted her more. The skills I taught helped her in college. I was puzzled, for my recollection of her was a very bright young lady who nevertheless was primarily interested in grades. Her constant question was, "Is this going to be on the test?" It drove me crazy as that question always did. My classes focused on discovery and exploration. I was interested in getting the students to think. Apparently I had an impact, though at the time I had no idea.
I am sure many teachers have similar stories
I am now an administrator and I was interviewed by a local news outlet regarding the raising of the cut scores on our state tests. The goal is to more accurately reflect "student achievement" ... whatever that means. I think the news people were a bit surprised when I said that I didn't put much faith in standardized tests and that we would use them a one tool to analyze our effectiveness. Other than that we will continue to do what we do well ... provide a well-rounded education for all of our students. We will continue to encourage our kids to follow their talent and we will resist as much as possible the "student as widget" one size fits all approach that dominates the education reform today.
We are constantly exhorted "to run education like a business". We use terms like customers (parents), producers (children) and the latest craze, "value-added modeling".
My first reaction when hearing that we should be more businesslike in our approach is, "You can"t be serious! You want to use the model that for the last 30 years has driven people out of the middle-class, has foisted imperialism on large parts of the world, and created the worst economic catastrophe in eighty years? You want to use that failed model? Are you BSC?"
One of the reasons for the failure of this model is the focus immediate profits rather than long term results. This has created the culture of casino capitalism, gangster capitalism, vulture capitalism or whatever term one wishes to use to describe a system where the only thing that matters is last quarter's bottom line. Thus the US auto manufacturers continued to focus on the production of energy hogs despite the certain knowledge that the rise of gas prices would prove to be disastrous to the industry. Only a bailout by the government ("Thank you, Mr. President") saved two of the big three auto giants.
Despite the documented failures of the corporate state, the business model continues to be pushed on educators. The value-added model, championed by William Sanders and others, insists that, by using standardized tests, one can measure the value that is added to each student's education by a particular teacher. In fact some of the disciples claim that one does not need to go into a classroom to measure to teacher effectiveness.
We know the people do not learn at uniform rates, that one cannot extrapolate one years growth in any human endeavor over three years, and that people have different aptitudes. We know that different people learn in different ways. We know that not only does one size not fit all, one size doesn't fit anybody. Individual learners will vary in their needs from day to day.
William Butler Yeats may or may not have said, "Education Is Not the Filling of a Pail, But the Lighting of a Fire". Regardless, that aphorism is cited repeatedly at education conferences; but it is obviously just another overused adage for the proponents of so-called education reform.
The education "reformers" insist that if we use this particular practice, or teach this method, or use this program or technology, if we tweak the machine that is the human brain a certain way, that we will produce the precise results that we need to meet the "challenges of 21st century". Education reforms often remind me of my days on the assembly lines in Saginaw. We have quarterly assessments (quarterly profits?) to make certain we are keeping pace. And we will evaluate teachers on whether they can produce one years growth annually as measured by a standardized test. It is beyond ridiculous. It is tragic.
And this horrid approach, correctly dubbed the "pedagogy of the absurd" by Ken Goodman, is promoted not just by Republicans but Democrats as well. The administration of President Obama may not be as vitriolic in their rhetoric about educators as the Republicans, but their hostility is evident. Race to the Top is not an improvement on No Child Left Behind, and in some ways is worse, with its focus on charter schools, merit pay, value-added modeling, endless standardized tests, competition rather than cooperation, and its constant negative drumbeat regarding educators. The Duncanization of education may be the administration's greatest failure.
I recently attended a wedding of a young lady who also ran on my track team several years ago. She was delighted that I was there, which was to be expected. What I am never prepared for, though it no longer surprises me, is the number of former students and parents of former and present students who come up to me and relate the impact I had on them or their children. It can be embarrassing at times but it never gets old.
In some instances, such as with the young lady whose wedding I attended, teachers are aware of the positive impact they have. More often than not, such as the case of the former student now living in France or the airline executive, the real impact we have on our students will not be known for years.
"A teacher affects eternity; he never tell where his influence stops." Henry Brook Adams