CVIndependent

Sat04192014

Last updateSat, 11 Jan 2014 11am

Know Your Neighbors

I recently attended a seminar on technological literacy in K-12 classrooms, held at California State University San Bernardino’s Palm Desert campus. It was conducted by one of the five 2014 California Teachers of the Year, Jessica Pack, from our own James Workman Middle School in Cathedral City, along with Derrick Lawson, principal of Colonel Mitchell Paige Middle School in La Quinta.

Soon after, I received an amazing book, Fear and Learning in America: Bad Data, Good Teachers, and the Attack on Public Education, by John Kuhn, superintendent of the Perrin-Whitt Consolidated Independent School District in Texas, about what he sees as an attempt to destroy public education.

Let me explain how these subjects are connected.

Jessica Pack is one of those teachers we would all remember if we had been lucky enough to be in her classroom. She teaches language arts, social studies and technology to sixth-graders. Her enthusiasm about introducing varying types of technology to her students, and her pride in the results she has seen, is genuine and joyful.

“For me,” says Pack, “anything less than a passionate approach to education isn’t enough. I am a change agent, constantly learning and changing as a professional in order to transform my classroom further, and reach my students more effectively than ever before.”

Pack’s approach to teaching is to establish a “memorable, extraordinary and safe place” for students to learn. She is involved in organizations that promote a technology-rich classroom environment, and acknowledges that in her classroom, the students are often teaching each other.

In Pack’s classroom, students are encouraged to create their own short films, using technology to demonstrate and share what they are learning. “When students use technology, they are absolutely fearless,” says Pack. “Instead of just being consumers of education, they become producers, showing their thinking and reasoning, and demonstrating mastery of subject matter.”

Samples of the short films made by Pack’s students were awe-inspiring, particularly because the students had planned, written, produced, filmed and acted in the films—and the subjects they tackled were substantive and meaningful.

Lawson, speaking in his enthusiastic, rapid-fire style, gave anecdotal evidence showing the difference the effective integration of technology can make in the classroom, particularly for students for whom routine memorization or outdated methods of teaching just don’t work. One example he gave was when eighth-grade students worked in teams to pick a current news event and relate it directly to an issue covered by the Bill of Rights. “The students get more invested in what they are learning.”

“We’re no longer in the Industrial Revolution when it comes to education,” Lawson says. “We have to match the learning tool to the student. We’re looking for evidence of learning and what we can do to enhance that learning. We have to know how to embed learning so it sticks and can be demonstrated.”

After the encouraging view of current educational methods presented at the seminar, I began to read Kuhn’s book. I’ve often talked about what I see as an assault on public education in the “reform” movements of recent years—privatization, charter schools, “choice,” reduced funding, endless testing, teacher-bashing, and depressing statistics about the lack of educational equity, particularly for poor and minority students. Kuhn hits all of that from the perspective of an educator and administrator who is committed to public education and sees it as under attack from the “save the test but not the teachers” approach to education.

“I write this book to warn that the folks spending their leisure time declaring the American public school system an utter failure have an embarrassing number of conflicting interests and ulterior motives. … They tenaciously peddle their remarkably consistent message: Schools are bad. Unions are the problem. The free market is the solution. … (M)aybe they’re misleading us.”

When you witness for yourself the dedication and professionalism of teachers in our local public schools—who have to teach all students and not just those they pick and choose, and who are attempting to reach their students while keeping up with technological changes that happen faster than anyone can anticipate—you realize that Kuhn’s concerns about America’s commitment to public education are valid. Our free public education system is necessary if we are to survive as a culture.

Regarding the concept of testing as the be-all and end-all of evaluating our educational system, Kuhn writes that because “school- and teacher-ranking systems are built on mathematics, they are presented as unassailably objective. … The tests themselves may be objective … but the structures elaborated on the tests are often fraught with subjectivity and perfectly suited for behind-the-scenes manipulation.”

Kuhn describes the move toward low-cost fixes along with “investors and CEOs with stakes in educational technology or charter-school management organizations” as “an alliance of the well-meaning and the self-serving … It is ultimately cheaper and faster to cut down unions than it is to dig up our structural inequalities.

“In a young century already noted for brazen corporate malfeasance in fields ranging from energy to mortgage finance to banking to insurance, a ceaseless PR campaign dedicated to the devaluation of our public school system led by corporate lobbyists and billionaire anti-unionists should give us all pause. The crusade to cheapen this public trust is breathtaking for its audacity and its tenacity.”

Teachers need to be supported and valued for the professionals they are, and we need to let them know we recognize and appreciate their commitment to preparing the Americans of the future.

I learned at the seminar that education is about a lot more than preparing students to enter the workforce. It’s about teaching students to create, to work together, to respect differences, and to think for themselves, question everything and share what they learn. Every student is entitled to that, and only public taxpayer-supported education guarantees that for all.

Stop falling for schemes that attempt to shovel tax dollars into private education. Don’t be misled by what sound like quick-fixes or a return to “the good old days.”

Public education is essential for the socialization and citizenship of future generations, and the survival of our collective and ever-evolving culture. In Kuhn’s words: “Reform should be done by educators, not to them.”

The educators I saw at the Cal State seminar prove that Kuhn is right.