Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Dollars for Scholars and Texas justice

As I was paging through the Boston Globe one morning last week my eyes were drawn to a headline that startled me: “Racial disparity found in school paddlings.” Pardon my ignorance but I really didn’t know that students were still being spanked in school. In turns out that although the majority of states and over 100 countries have banned spanking in school, it is still widespread across the U.S. South, especially in Texas and Mississippi. I was less surprised, but still very disappointed to read that African American and Native American were more than twice as likely to be spanked than their white classmates (I am well aware that similar racial injustices are common in northern schools). It also turns out that students with “exceptionalities” are also more likely to be paddled than their classmates. Overall, I’m more than a little shocked that we allow school personnel to use any form of corporal punishment in the year 2008. I went to elementary school in the 1950s and 60s (I even had nuns) and I never saw a fellow student spanked or even slapped with a ruler (something I’ve always heard nuns were famous for although I thought the nuns were scary enough without rulers). In any case, I do not see how fear helps to create a positive learning environment.

Another indication of how little respect some people have for students comes from another story I read in the Globe about the Harrold Independent School District in Texas which has authorized its teachers to carry concealed handguns to class. (I wonder if teachers who share their guns during “show and tell” will have fewer discipline problems?) If teaching is about relationships – and I think that it is – what kind of relationship can students build with teachers who are armed? This is nuts!

Finally, I read in the New York Times that in New York City they’re finding that paying students to do well on tests is having mixed results. This doesn’t surprise me but, again, where is the respect? Is it respectful to pay urban students to do well in school but expect that students in suburban schools will be engaged by learning for its own sake? In any case, how much will you have to pay students to overcome dreary schools and tedious curricula common in so many urban schools? Money is no substitute for respect.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Exporting our worst educational practices

I just returned from six weeks in Toronto where I taught a course on inclusive educatin at the University of Toronto/OISE. Teaching at OISE gave me a chance to re-immerse myself in the Canadian educational scene. I had taught at York University in Toronto from 1984-1998 before moving to Boston College. When I moved to Toronto in the mid-1980s Ontario was a leader in progressive education, particularly holistic literacy practices. There were no US-style basal readers in Canadian classrooms. Students were not subjected to frequent standardized testing. Teachers exercised considerable professional discretion and most elementary teachers were generally familiar with Frank Smith, Ken and Yetta Goodman, Jerry Harste and other progressive literacy theorists. What was particularly impressive is that this stance toward teachers, students, and literacy theory was emphasized in Ontario Ministry of Education documents and policy.

But things have changed as educational policy in Ontario and the other provinces looks more and more like educational policy in the US. Students are now tested regularly in reading and math and many teachers emphasize the literacy test over broader notions of teaching students to read and write. One of my former colleagues at York University told me that her daughter’s third-grade teacher devoted at least two reading periods a week to having her students take practice tests. My students at OISE indicated that this is no longer uncommon. Increasingly teachers and administrators focus on test scores as schools across Canada are ranked by the Fraser Institute on the basis of their test scores. Canadian literacy education is looking more and more like literacy education in the US as the Canadians emulate many of our worst practices.

Being more like the US in this regard benefits neither Canadian school children nor Canadian teachers. In this environment Canadian teachers find it more difficult to address the needs of individual students. They also find it more difficult to find professional satisfaction in their work as their ability to exercise discretion has been diminished. This is a concrete example of the negative effects of globalization in which education is just another product.

How I yearn for the good old days….