There’s a perception in this Country that education is broken.  Oprah has jumped on the bandwagon with her shows on the “Waiting for Superman” documentaries, and made a lot of comments that are known to be more myth than fact.  I won’t say education here in the US is perfect, but I think we have to look at the problem without resorting to broad brush, wholesale statements that condemn education and teachers without looking at the individual people doing great work in the trenches, sometimes with very little support or trust from the outside.  These blanket statements don’t do anything at all to help those fighting the good fight every day, and just like with any political issue, we allow a minority of outliers speak for the system as a whole.

I have two kids attending public schools in Pennsylvania.  One is a sophomore, the other in seventh grade.  Both of the kids have had some experience in private school when we lived in Delaware, and I went to both public and private schools, so I think I have a pretty wide set of experience to draw from regarding the difference between the two.  Add on the fact that I’m in the middle of writing a book on differentiating instruction, and I’m not your ordinary soccer mom. I also sit on the Tech Committee for our school district, so I have a bit of an inside track on where our school district is going.

Our school district- the Kennett Consolidated School District- has a group of amazing teachers and administrators, looking to make our district one that truly trains our kids to be prepared for the 21st century, not just for 2010.  Now there’s plenty of nitpicking that can be done, but even over the past three years, I’ve seen the schools transform into places where teachers and students are taking more risks, asking more of each other, pushing their learning beyond textbooks and rote memorization, and instead make learning come alive and engage kids in a way that makes me want to go back to school and do it all again.  I’ve just finished the round of “Back to School” nights for the middle schooler and high schooler, and I can say I’m excited about the year they both have in front of them.

I haven’t always felt this way every year, which brings me to the point of this post.

Education and Schools aren’t factories.  We have a random assortment of kids from a random group of households, where people have self- sorted because of jobs, promises of work, decent schools, and housing they can afford.  There’s no uniformity to the students or their families.  Likewise, the teachers in the District are humans who are working here from all over the region, with disparate skills and years of experience.  School is not a uniform experience for teachers or students.  The classroom sizes range from 19 to 30, depending on the class and period.  Many of my high school student’s classes have 20-22 students in them, which is about as good a ratio as you’d find in many private schools in the area.  I have no complaints about class size, in fact, I’m thrilled.

Each teacher runs their own classroom to their own specs, teaching the curriculum and trying to meet the standards required, but much like  Top Chef, just because you have an end goal and the same ingredients to start with, doesn’t mean the dish is going to be the same at the end of the day.  Each teacher brings their own take on the subject.  Sometimes, there’s a disconnect between a teacher and a student.  Sometimes, the match between a kid and a teacher is pure magic.  In bad years, research shows kids can lose ground, and in good years, they can progress as much as a grade and a half. Even in twin studies, good teaching is shown to make a difference in kids with identical genetic and family backgrounds.

This makes me believe that the problem with education is that public schools are required to take all students, but I’m not always sure the scheduling problems take into account the student and teacher as a matched pair.  Kids get teachers by luck of the draw.  Some years are great, some are not.  We found out last night, for example, that one of the long-term subs my son had last year didn’t do such a great job, and the kids are behind this year in learning their foreign language as a result.  This year’s teacher knows that and is taking it into account and altering her plan to fill in the holes, but I am yet again convinced that the roulette and random nature of matching humans to maximize learning has more to do with school success and perceived failure than just about any other factor.

While I’m not sure there’s money or even evidence that giving kids and teachers Meyers-Briggs or even Strength Assessments would necessarily solve the problems in education, we’re heading in that direction as more and more schools start to take Howard Gardner’s framework of multiple intelligences to work.  The more we know about how kids learn best, and even how teachers learn and function best, the better chance we have to match kids and teachers up into groups and environments where everyone has a better chance to succeed.  Differentiated Instruction is all about giving teachers the insight and tools to make the tweeks necessary to match the curriculum to a kid’s learning style- and this means that each kid will finally get the education they need. more than trying to jam them into a mold of education where they don’t seem to fit as well as we would like.

Schools are not factories.  Kids and teachers are not mechanics.  They are places full of, and dependent on, imperfect people, with a host of issues and imperfections, and we all have to adapt and cope daily.  Teaching is one of the hardest jobs there is, because no matter how much you prepare, your lesson plan never fully survives contact with the students.  But just like in presentations I give to adult learners, you have to know your stuff well enough that improv is part of the skill set, and you can adjust on the fly, like a great field general.

When we criticize education and educators, there’s this broad assumption that teachers aren’t the smartest kids in their class, or that teachers got into teaching to avoid working summers, or to get a secure job, or some other pat, cliche reason.  I’ve known some of those folks.  But they aren’t every teacher. Teachers who don’t love it will burn out, and hopefully burn out fast, before they do too much damage.  But by far and away, the folks I see in our local schools are dedicated and energetic, but they also feel under attack from the outside and under appreciated for what they do.  They do draw lines and don’t always go that extra mile because they have been hurt too many times, receive too many parents who look upon them as merely the help hired to do a chore rather than as respected professionals, trying to turn on kid’s minds and make them love learning, now and for forever.

Education is changing and adapting, and much more quickly that I ever imagined it would or could.  Do I wish all teachers knew more about child developmental psychology, neuroscience and the brain?  Do I wish they all understood child development and had a keen sense of when a kid was poised on the brink of a break through, or how to help them get there?  Do I wish all teachers were experts in motivation?  You bet.

But we have to work not just on tossing money at schools, or deciding they’re all broken and we need to start over.  Money and resources help.  They keep classroom sizes low, and provide more resources for updates and access to current technology and information like never before.  But money alone won’t solve the problem.

We need to acknowledge that somehow, the tests we give are simply single data points that should be analyzed to see if the child is making progress over time, or as diagnostic of where a child needs more support, not just a thumbs up or down on any individual teacher, for any single year.  The testing data from the National Center for Education Statistics provides trend data, big picture analysis, but its the day to day, student internal progress that’s important.  That’s how we really know what we need to tweek and adjust every day to make the situation better.

In law school, we were judged by our performance on midterms (if the class had one) and on one final exam.  The pressure was intense.  In contrast, I’m seeing more and more teachers work with constant feedback and assessment of students- not just on tests and quizzes, but on a day to day, “how are things going” basis, providing more meaningful feedback to the teacher and student alike, and preventing students from going too far off the rails before someone notices.  It seems like more testing, but in fact, it’s making the whole process much more interactive, and it helps teachers to get better at teaching this random group of kids they have, customizing the lessons and making sure the lesson/battle plan can speed up, slow down, or change course as needed.

We make look at education as being a Titanic- a big boat, with lots of promise, but somehow vulnerable to the level of competence of the administrators and crew.  However, Education is more like a giant laboratory, where it works best when there’s lots of energy and creativity, support and a willingness to be wrong, make mistakes, but also fix/adjust them on the fly.  As a public, and as parents, we need to make sure we do our part both to keep our eye on the ball, but also make sure that schools have room to experiment based on the latest and greatest.  We have to look at this as long term research and development of citizens, not as quarterly profits and results that give you a snapshot, but not the complete story of a company and its potential.

Education is not easy.  It’s full of imperfect people, both as teachers and as students.  But the more we treat it as an incubator of great potential, the more likely we are to get schools that will help develop really great and amazing adults.

Education is infrastructure.  Like the roads in our cities, or the plumbing in our homes, it’s not always sexy, or per se profitable or even clearly cost effective , but without it,  we’re screwed.