"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Friday, March 11, 2011

What Does Quality Education Look Like?

We've all read about “investing in education” and using technology to “transform education,” and you must conceded there is some value in both of these concepts. Those districts that are struggling to show improved student performance, need to invest in finding ways to reform their spending so they get more bang for their buck. Technology can certainly play a role in transforming education by allowing advanced students to reach their fullest potential or by providing access to high quality teachers in inaccessible locations. But often, the solutions that are needed require on the spot innovation and systemic flexibility, not hard wiring or advanced technology. So what does true education reform look like? What does “tailoring educational settings to individual students’ needs to maximize student outcomes” really look like?

Today I offer a real life example from a teacher in my local school district. The names have been changed, but not the situation or actions. Carol works with educationally “challenged” students. One such student was little Arthur who is in kindergarten, struggles with social interactions and has all ready been deemed behind his peers. Arthur needed to improve his reading skills but actively refused help from the special education teachers. He would scream, throw papers on the floor and generally work against anyone trying to help him.

Some models for education reform would simply apply more money and technology to Arthur’s problem. Perhaps he would be given a special computer and software that would provide a number of increasingly difficult sentences to read and would challenge him with an ever expanding assortment of new vocabulary. Experts would claim that a child who has difficulty with interpersonal communication is far more likely to respond to the non-personal approach of a computer. It is possible that this approach would work and, over time, Arthur’s reading skills would improve. But would Arthur’s educational situation in general be improved? Perhaps not.

Enter Carol, who has the wonderful ability to look at a situation from a totally new perspective. After experiencing Arthur’s outbursts first hand and having her hand aggressively pushed away when she tried to point to a word he had read wrong, Carol decided they needed to work on Arthur’s attitude towards learning before they could make any progress on his actual learning. She told him they were going to play the “What’s my job?” game. In this game, made up on the spot, they would make a list of everybody’s (in this case hers and his) jobs. (Please note -no actual technology was used during this exercise.) On a piece of paper she wrote her name in one column and his in another. Prompting for his suggestions they came up with detailed lists of what each of them was supposed to do in their jobs at school. I’m simplifying here for brevity, but basically her job was to teach and respect him. His job was to give his best effort at understanding and to respect her.

Days two and three with Arthur were spent replaying the “What’s My Job?” game; the first day at Carol’s request and the second day at Arthur’s (he loved the game). On day four, they no longer played the game. Arthur now had a much better grasp of why he was there and what others were expecting of him. He also understood that what the teachers were doing was their job and he appreciated why they were doing it. Arthur sat and concentrated on his reading. He did not scream in the resource office. In fact, the other teachers who were used to his outbursts, first thought that he was not in school. The learning that took place was about the roles of students and teachers and why everyone was there in the school building each day. That opened a door to learning that Arthur had shut.

This is what quality, personalized education looks like. The average student probably does not need as much personalization, but an ideal system would allow for this flexibility. No computer program could have taught Arthur the lesson he learned from Carol, nor would it have been able to veer off topic to address his barrier to learning. Even self learning (??) software does not have that level of flexibility. Learning would have remained a painful process for both student and teacher.

I should also mention that Carol just recently got her teaching degree. Arthur had already spent 6 months with the veteran teachers at school who had not moved him any further down the field. This is more anecdotal evidence that long tenured teachers do not necessarily provide the best education. Sometimes they become stuck in a rut and sometimes they are too burnt out to bother finding new solutions. I will also add that the veteran teachers were very grateful for Carol’s efforts. She not only allowed them to show Arthur’s parents some progress, but she also gave them back some peace in their world.


  1. I think this story broad brush paints a negative picture of veteran teachers unfairly.
    I am sure many veteran teacher's are as described but I'm also sure there is just as many who bring the same care and effort to help our youth as 'Carol'. My wife is a veteran teacher (13 years in a private school and now 14 years in a public school)who has brought countless struggling children up to speed that were destine to fall behind or fail. Her dedication to helping these child succeed is inspiring to me. Over the years she has spent countless hours (with no extra pay) with kids who would have otherwise fallen behind.
    A key issue I see missing in most of what I read about in education is the parents. When parents take a real effort to get involved and work along side the educators, the students have a much better success rate.
    I also know a few other teachers with the same compassion for the students.
    Let's try not to unfairly judge teachers only by the amount of years they have been in the class room and encourage parents to take a hands on interest in their child's education.
    I appreciate the opportunity to comment on this subject.

  2. I did not say all veteran teachers are burnt out, but I'm sure even your wife can point to a few around her who are. The point is we need to identify quality teachers (like your wife) who bring something special to the education process as something we want to preserve in times of financial restriction. We should resist the quick fix solution of technology that is being pushed as a low cost alternative. People need to start thinking about what good education means because right now those in the drivers seat are saying it means things a laptop for every child and a minimum # of days in school.


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