Seeing the Forest AND the Trees – Why do we educate our youth?

Seeing the Forest AND the Trees – Why do we educate our youth?

What, as a teacher, am I trying to be effective at?

Last week I visited a former student of mine in the hospital. He had just woken up from a week-long coma. Several of his friends, also my former students, claimed that his head and brain injuries occurred after he’d been jumped on the street. They also claim that this beating is connected to the recent murder of another friend of theirs, also a former student of mine.

Almost losing another former student jolted me soberingly out of my recent conversations around the role student achievement outcomes should play in evaluating teacher effectiveness and into the question, “What, as a teacher, am I trying to be effective at?”

When boiled down to student achievement numbers, both of these young men’s stories are of apparent success. While students of mine, both experienced jumps in reading proficiency levels on Colorado’s state test and saw significant increases in their reading Lexile levels when assessed by NWEA’s MAPS reading assessment. However, when one young man is no longer with us and the other has suffered tragic brain injury due to gang-related violence, what difference does increased reading proficiency make?

Several friends and colleagues have attempted to console me by saying, “A teacher and/or a school cannot possibly aim to impact those life circumstances which occur outside of the school day.” However, I am haunted by the question, “What if these young men had attended a public education system, the practices and policies of which aimed to create literate activists armed with a skill set that not only helps them apply for college or a job but also helps them navigate the power dynamics and conflicts of their lives?” Perhaps the importance of the latter skill set doesn’t always occur to a teaching and educational policy-making force made up primarily of people who grew up without needing that skill set.

What is the definition of success for our public education system?

I often hear teachers, principals, district and state officials talk about their desires to create life-long learners and critical thinkers who are civically engaged in our democratic system; however, the policies and systems of public education in our country are more easily designed around the quantitative indicators of success found in standardized tests.

This is a perfect example of not seeing the forest for the trees. While increased proficiencies on standardized tests are one good indicator that students are on a trajectory towards success, they are not the definition of success in and of themselves.

I ask policymakers and even teachers, “What is the definition of success for our public education system?” How can we become a more mission-driven system that recognizes the important role played by quantitative indicators, such as standardized tests, without sacrificing the more holistic end to which our nation aims in its promise to provide an effective education for all.

To me, success is defined as an education that gives access to concept mastery and skill proficiency as measured by common, reliable and valid assessments. Success also ensures college readiness without relying on remediation classes. However, neither of these qualities should happen at the cost of a young person’s cultural identity, sense of justice, or capacity to engage peacefully and democratically as an agent for conflict resolution and change. To compromise the latter for the former is to surrender to the misperception that to do both is impossible.

A couple of years ago, when these young men were in my class, their peripheral connections with gang activity were not unknown to me. Consequently, I connected them with independent reading books written by Stan “Tookie” Williams, regretful co-founder of The Crips and Luis J. Rodriguez, author of Always Running. Additionally, I made it a point to contextualize our literacy instruction within investigations around Gandhi’s ability to unite Indian Muslims and Hindus for the liberation of all or the experiences of literary heroes who shifted the power of African-Americans during the Harlem Renaissance. I deliberately tried to not only teach these young men how to read and write, but how to use their literacy skills in ways that shift oppressive power dynamics and resolve conflict. Both of these young men enthusiastically participated in the service and community action projects that went along with these investigations. However, in the end, their limited time with me was not enough to arm them to navigate the power dynamics of their neighborhood in peaceful ways that would have ensured their safety.

I ask you, readers, how can our school system recognize the importance of quantitative indicators, like standardized tests, without sacrificing work towards that equally important, even if not universally needed, skill set to peacefully resolve potentially lethal conflicts and overcome oppressive power dynamics?

While many factors, including family and socio-economic status, impact the quality of life a young man or woman will experience in the future, there is no doubt that school is a major fulcrum to leverage, especially when all cogs in the school system are operating towards quality of life rather than quantity of points.

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