“What we need are teachers who don’t make excuses,” said Philadelphia Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. “I don’t want to hear about bureaucracy. We have always had bureaucracies…We are looking for people who say ‘I can teach a rock to read.’…If it is not the right place for you, then you should find another place to go.”
Attending a panel discussion at the University of Pennsylvania on how to improve the educational outcomes of men of color, I was stunned in what I saw and heard from our nation’s top urban education leader.
Ackerman’s churlish response to a fellow Teach for America teacher who inquired about how to provide meaningful education while juggling the pressures of the School District to increase test scores made one thing clear to me: the state of education in America is in peril.
As a Philadelphia teacher, few of my colleagues can seek to empower students to think critically or to be fierce, independent social scholars. Instead, most of us are relegated to teaching strategies, tips, and tricks on selecting the best answer on a multiple-choice exam. In short, we treat students like stagecrafts, training them to do precisely what we say, not to think incisively and critically for themselves. When did education become this way?
One word: "Accountability."
Watching President Obama’s State of the Union, I was inspired in his rightful elevation of teachers. I thought, “Finally, teachers will be valued more than low-skilled workers and technicians!” Yet, reflecting on his policies and goals, I began to question the purpose of education under an Obama administration.
Schools and their districts are held accountable through standardized testing performance. Schools must "meet" certain scores to be rewarded or simply remain in the clear, and if they fail to provide evidence of progress, then heads fly.
Now, I’m confident that no one disagrees with the concept of accountability. After all, it gives us peace at night to know without a doubt that our students and children are learning and making progress. But, are our students learning and making progress meaningfully?
While I am an avid supporter of President Obama, his policies are not conducive to meaningful education for students.
Education must stimulate students to think provocatively on their own. It must enable young minds to engage in complex and sometimes controversial discourse on any given topic. Education must immerse students in the deepest of problems, and we must provide them with the tools to adequately evaluate and ameliorate those challenges. This is the only road to true freedom, growth, and self-discovery in our increasingly competitive country and world. This is, and should be, the principle purpose of education.
Instead, we have teachers acting and reading from scripts like robots. We have students mindlessly completing copious amounts of worksheets only to prepare for exams and receive letter grades that do not reflect a true education. And, how dare we wonder why the education field fails to attract high-achieving minds.
If we continue down this path, it will be a challenge for our nation to fulfill the dreams of King and meet the visions of Kennedy.
For a president so fixated on the ideals of democracy at its core, and a president that is my greatest role model, I fear that Obama’s education policies are unfortunately off-the-mark and not in the best interest of our children’s futures.
I want my students to think critically and rise above the confines of their own selves to promote the general welfare. I want them to lead a nation that is able to ask what they can do for their country without seeking to advance their own self-interests. I want them to be more than simply intelligent, but to also possess character, integrity, and leadership. And, like our president, I want for them, most of all, to fulfill their lifelong ambitions and God-given potential to reach the highest positions that our country and world has to offer.
If our students and children are only able to postulate answers to mindless multiple-choice testing drills, then I’m afraid my dreams will only be in the potential and promise of our democracy and never in the realities of our time. Worse, my students’ dreams will never be reachable.
This is not the purpose of education. We are better than this, America. It is imperative that we restore an education system that truly operates in the best interest of our posterity and nation.
And, by the way, how do you teach a rock how to read?
This piece originally appeared on Stroud's blog.
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