Friday, June 11, 2010

Another Reason to Kill the Textbook Industry: Part II

I blogged awhile back about why curriculum decisions made by the Texas Board of Education were another reason to kill the textbook industry.

Here's one more.  In this day of online access to a plethora of online resources, both primary and secondary, it boggles my mind that we still promote the use of generic, unimaginative, I'd-rather-chew-broken-glass-than-read-another-page-of-this textbooks. But then, we have a multi-million dollar industry to support, don't we, and well-entrenched interests with access to Congress and the president who want to ensure their market.

Enter Arne Duncan and the Race to the Top, glowingly reported on by the NY Times with the reductionist headline: Teacher's Unions' Last Stand.  Now we know!  Our educational woes are all the fault of the teachers' unions, which stand in the way of true progress in favor of job security while protecting teachers with sub-par performance.

As Duncan states, "It's all about the teachers"  (as if students play no part in their education), and he paints of vision of higher pay for qualified teachers's the crux...increased testing.
For states to win RTTT funds,  points
would be allocated based on the quality of a state’s “data systems” for tracking student performance in all grades--which is a euphemism for the kind of full bore testing regime that makes many parents and children cringe but that reformers argue is necessary for any serious attempt to track not only student progress but also teacher effectiveness.
As NCLB has amply demonstrated, when high-stakes testing determines financial outcomes, people retreat to the trenches and drill, baby, drill. And textbooks are perfect for that.

The problem with everything I've seen proposed by the government is it only reinforces current definitions of education, placing the focus on the teacher (Duncan's quote above) on the relaying of information to passive receivers.  If only it were that easy.

Never mind the practical consideration of where in the world the country will find 3.5 million Jaime Escalantes, if that's what we need to solve the problem.  Why are we again placing the emphasis on the teacher, instead of firmly on student-centered education, where it belongs? Why are we failing to acknowledge and utilize the paradigm shift created by our current technology?

If teaching doesn't move beyond  "sage on the stage" methodology, we are a doomed profession. That may have been fine in an era of limited access to information, but not in an age when I can carry the entire internet in my pocket. I even read somewhere that smartphones will eventually kill laptops...and we're still seating students in straight little rows in confined classrooms....and teaching out of textbooks.

Our jobs are not so much about content now, though that's certainly part of it. They're about teaching students to be effective learners, with whatever that means for our respective disciplines. We need to guide them towards meaningful ways of gathering, analyzing, and evaluating resources (the "self directed text construction" I blogged about a few days ago), then teach them to use technology constructively to reshape that information into personally meaningful outcomes.

And that's why Arne Duncan is wrong; it's NOT about the teachers. It's about empowering and motivating students to take charge of their own learning.  I would love to think I'm as gifted a teacher as Jaime Escalante, but I don't kid myself.  I'm a good teacher, though, and there are thousands of us out there, engaging students in real world problems and issues for which there are no immediate answers; yet we encourage them to ask the right questions and ponder possible solutions, with the whole world as their resource.

You don't need a classroom for that--or at least not a physical one. And you certainly don't need textbooks.  Moreover, while that kind of learning can be tested, it's not reducible to multiple choice responses.  I believe in testing and accountability, but only if the tests measure something meaningful. Knowing whether a given word acts as a gerund or a participle in a sentence is NOT meaningful.

Promoting this kind of learning isn't easy.  My next post will focus on the iPad, the promised software upgrade, and how it could well be on its way to becoming a useful tool for students to engage meaninfully with information sources.

UPDATE:  BTW, if you're not following Bridging Differences at Education Week, add it to your reader immediately.  The blog is an ongoing conversation between Diane Ravitch (and hasn't SHE turned around her views?) and Deborah Meier.  Ravitch had a telling quotation from a recent post:

I think the Race to the Top is a massive waste of money that will produce perverse consequences. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of schools will be privatized, handed over in some cases to incompetent or unscrupulous organizations. Teachers will be pushed to focus more of their energy on unworthy tests. Many schools will discover there is less time to teach the arts or sciences or foreign languages or history.
A big question I have yet to hear answered:  The top of what?  How are we defining the top?  Is there any consensus on what we mean by that?  If not, how do we assess whether students are there? Or the best means for getting them there?  People's jobs are riding on this.  We better be clear what we mean.

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