Tuesday, January 08, 2008


By Clarke L. Rubel | OpEd in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin (Ontario, CA)

January 7, 2008 - In "Education: bottom five," a letter to the editor, Dec. 23, the writer poses a list of rhetorical questions attempting to assign blame for California's abysmal school ranking, correctly implying that teachers, administrators, unions and parents share the blame.

The writer ends by stating that those of us associated with the education system should be embarrassed, but he doubts we are.

I take issue with this final comment. As a teacher, I have no time to be embarrassed, and I'm too busy being overwhelmed.

The letter's fundamental issue about school performance, however, is a crucial one. We all share the blame to varying degrees, but the writer leaves out major factors, such as the No Child Left Behind Act and what it has done to hamstring education.

As with most ills, the actual disorder is simply the outward sign of a fundamental problem. The philosophy behind NCLB is the deeper problem - a philosophy that espouses that knowledge can or should be accurately and definitively measured, that narrowly and rigidly redefines what knowledge is, that incorrectly assumes learning is a destination rather than a journey, and that assumes in its very name that all students must have the same goals.

In the present environment, in which testing is the be-all and end-all of education, we have instilled a dangerous mentality into both children and parents. We have, to a degree, succeeded under NCLB's mandates. It has taken a few years, but we have successfully trained students and parents to buy into several destructive "facts" that have combined to help redefine and degrade education.

FIRST, through a misplaced emphasis on testing we have taught there is always a clear, distinctly correct answer.

SECOND, we have taught that if one does not have the correct answer, one is the victim of some genetic defect, owner of a character flaw that will hinder one's progress in a society of successfully "right" people, who will always be able to lord their success over the weak.

Added into the mix is the punitive nature of modern education.

Students and schools are penalized if too few correct answers are provided. What happens when we spend a lifetime teaching children that there is always a right answer and consistently reinforce that they seldom have it? Where should a young mind go from there?

We have ignored the fact that the big issues in life seldom have clear answers, and that many of the decisions we make only lead to more questions and challenges.

We have begun breeding out reason and logic, replacing practical knowledge and wisdom with facts and trivia.

We have begun to value technology over intellectual solutions and in doing so have shifted the burden of discovery to machines rather than intellect.

The encouraging aspect is that we know students can learn.

I see it in my classroom daily as students increasingly view their failures as character flaws, become easily stumped when faced with reasoning problems, look to others for the right answers rather than guidance, find little moral resistance when copying work, and give up easily when the answers cannot be readily found.

Why shouldn't they? We have successfully taught them these skills. They can and do learn - the curriculum is flawed.

This is more than simply an argument over semantics; it is a fundamental, philosophical land mine we have buried and tripped. In the explosion, we can expect the casualties to include an eagerness to learn, an optimistic view of the future, a healthy respect for the value of learning as a process of moving from failure to success, and a focused, united effort that effectively and practically prepares students for their futures.

Ironically, the effect of NCLB has been to leave all children behind to an equal extent.

As a teacher, I can tell infinitely more about student understanding by the questions they ask rather than the answers they give. Of course, this type of understanding cannot be quickly measured in a standardized test, and the subjective nature of this type of assessment makes it impractical as a state's measure of accountability.

No reasonable educator would argue against some measure of accountability to the state. The problem, as the original letter writer correctly illustrates, is that there are so many conflicting agendas being addressed simultaneously, each believing they have the sole right answer, that the system has become fragmented, divisive, confrontational and self-serving.

The result is that our true clientele, the only real victims of the adult world - the students - have been shortchanged.

Parents look to find blame just as teachers do, but we cannot become so mired in blame that we stagnate. We are all emotionally invested in the success of our students.

It seems the answer may be found in the old adage, "everything in moderation." Assessment of success would be better served if it replicated real life. This would require a meeting somewhere in the middle, where few of us in this field have the good fortune to dwell.

Place greater emphasis on the process of education and utilize assessment for what it is - one limited measure of knowledge.

Include both aspects in the system.

Sometimes there are clear and present answers; other times there are simply challenges that require reasoning and negotiating.

As educators, we as parents and teachers will have to find the aspect of moderation our system of education lacks.

We must change what we can and learn to work productively, sometimes despite the system. When we cease looking at our failures as an agent of positive change, we will indeed have cause to be embarrassed.

Clarke L. Rubel, of Rancho Cucamonga, teaches freshman and senior English at Alta Loma High School.

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