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November 21, 2013 8:27 am

AMEND CORNER: American Education Week should test our beliefs

Written by Don Amend

This week is American Education Week, so, as an antique teacher, I feel compelled to comment on the subject, based on my half century of intimate involvement in public education.

American public education is currently drawing a great deal of criticism for its perceived faults and failures. That’s nothing new. I’ve written before about the consternation expressed in 1941 over the state of learning of kids back then. This same crop of kids more recently have been called “The Greatest Generation.”

I was in middle school when controversy erupted over something called Sputnik generating criticism of education that led one English teacher to pen a poem entitled “Dying Dog in Flying Box Raises Cain in Schoolhouse.” It didn’t affect me much, because I managed to avoid physics in completing my education, but it might have led to our winning the space race.

Today’s criticism is fueled by the fact that our students don’t do well when compared to students in other industrialized nations and don’t seem to be improving. This is regarded as a national problem that will be harmful to the U.S. as it competes with other nations and it has led to increased attention to student achievement.

To meet that challenge, emphasis has been placed on developing standards, defining what we want students to be able to do when they finish. That’s a good thing, and an improvement from the days when I started teaching and was handed three terribly outdated textbooks and a class schedule.

The only standards I had to teach to were those I developed out of my own education and the textbooks. I never found out whether they matched what the administration, the school board or the community expected from my classes because, to my knowledge, nobody checked to see if they did.

Since then, though I’ve spent many hours in meetings developing standards for my school and, late in my career, for the first statewide testing.

Which brings me to the present, when several states, including Wyoming, have adopted what has been dubbed a “Common Core” of standards in an effort to come to an agreement on what skills students need to master in order to be educated. It was an effort led by the states that involved teachers, parents, administrators and experts in education.  It does not mandate specific content or a specific curriculum.

I’ve read the standards, which are based on research, and I like them, although they would lead me to approach some of the things I taught differently, were I teaching today. What they wouldn’t do is tell me what resources to use, nor would they tell me what to do in class.

I’d still have to decide what materials to provide for my class and how to use them, and I’d still have to come up with lesson plans. I do fear that the standards leave too little room for classes such as music and art, but I believe those with a little imagination, schools and teachers can find ways to meet the standards using those classes.

Still, people are suspicious of change, especially when they think the change is coming from the federal government, so there is a campaign to scuttle the adoption of the Common Core.

The objections are apparently not about the Common Core standards themselves, although I read today that some people are troubled that the standards don’t include learning to write in cursive script. Instead, the main concern seems to be the belief that the standards are part of a malevolent plan by the federal government to force a national curriculum on unsuspecting schools.

This despite the fact that the creation of the Common Core was a state-led initiative carried out by educators and elected officials responsible for education. It does not create a curriculum, only standards that schools can target as they develop their own curriculums. Teachers have to develop their own ways of teaching to the standards, so a class full of Wyoming ranch kids would not be instructed the same way as a class full of Chicago street kids or New Jersey suburbanites.

I would submit that this controversy illustrates a big part of the problem with education in America. We have never come to an agreement on just what it is we want our schools to teach.

As a result, there is uncertainty about what we should expect from students and how we measure what they learn. The Common Core standards should give schools a target to aim at as they develop curriculum and present it to the students while still educating them in a way appropriate to their community. If it does that, it can be a factor in improving achievement throughout the country.

In closing, I pose a question asked of me while I was driving to Lovell to watch a wrestling match back in the early ’90s. The questioner was an intelligent exchange student from a northern European country who wanted to watch the match, too..

“You have a good school in Greybull,” she said. “There are good teachers and you can learn a lot. Why aren’t the students taking advantage of it?”

That’s a good question. Celebrate American Education Week by trying to answer it.

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