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- Non-educators deeply involved with educational policy and long-range planning. From career politicians at the state and federal level deciding upon policy and crazy soccer-parents being elected to local school boards to business leaders being co-opted to sit on private school boards, educational policy and long-range planning is largely decided upon by non-educators. To me that makes about as much sense as insurance companies deciding upon my long-term medical care. Now I will say that school boards and legislative committees do solicit career educators for information, but more often than not educators with extensive primary and secondary experience are not a part of the decision-making process. Successful schools should (and do) include career educators in the decision-making process or such schools have a decision-making apparatus not aligned with a corporate structure (some independent schools like this do exist). I will also say that we as a society should examine ways to mitigate the impact of career politicians on educational policy. Career politicians, by and large, are primarily motivated by orchestrating successful re-elections, not by improving schools. Educational policy should be decided upon by people genuinely interested in kids and learning.
- The march towards greater standardization. There are three main forces shaping the push for more and more standardization: a) businesses and post-secondary educational institutions wanting qualified individuals with whom to work, b) the public at large demanding greater accountability vis-a-vis public funds, and c) inexperienced educators in the classroom (either they are young or they are working outside of their area of expertise). Don't get me wrong, I understand these three forces. Heck, to some degree I even agree with the first two points. What college or firm wouldn't want a promise from secondary schools to flood the market with excellent students? What taxpayer doesn't want accountability? I get it. I really do. I simply disagree with the methods we use to accomplish the outcomes. To the first point, I argue that we should reject "cookie-cutter" curricula and mountains of standardized testing, opting instead for finding ways to get a greater amount of expertise into our classrooms and administrative offices. I want passionate physicists teaching our physics classes, gifted and communicative writers teaching our literature classes, and dedicated elementary level and middle level educators teaching our younger students! If we were able to transform our schools into places where students engage in meaningful work along with experienced professionals, I believe that we would furnish the post-secondary world and the business world with passionate, highly able students AND we would satisfy the vast majority of our taxpayers demanding more accountability AND we would have more experience in the classroom.
- Poverty and low family incomes. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 22% of all children in the U.S. come from families living below the federal poverty level. Another 23% of U.S. children come from families defined as "low income." Astonishingly, this means that almost half of the children in the U.S. are living below or just above the federal poverty level! If we are serious about addressing the problems in schools, we have to get serious about addressing the needs of impoverished and low-income Americans. Indeed, if we begin to remedy the income problem, some of the educational problems will take care of themselves. An added note here and career politicians, please take heed: WE NEED TO STOP USING SCHOOLS TO SOLVE THE INCOME PROBLEM!
- Schools simply doing too much and parents believing that it is good for their kids to "do it all." These are two different sides of the same coin. Overtaxed schools may be overtaxed because resources are being devoted to solve the income problem (see above) and/or because constituent parents want the school to provide their children with a range of opportunities that they are either unwilling or unable to provide (lunch and dinner, extensive counseling, daycare, play groups, after-school activities, trips, sports, music instruction, special-needs classes, advanced courses, etc.). Whatever the reasons, schools in general tend to be stretched thin, offering a huge variety of day, afternoon, and sometimes evening programming in addition to curricular instruction. Institutions stretched too thin lose focus ... period. Schools simply cannot effectively address multiple mandates. Successful schools have specific areas of focus (my own preference would be the 4 A's - "academics, athletics, arts, and advisory") and these successful schools carefully maintain and preserve their focus areas.
- Lack of training and/or targeted professional development. Teachers emerge from all kinds of teacher training programs, some good, some not so good (I'm talking about the programs, not necessarily the teachers). Having worked with hundred of teachers throughout my career, I can think of several individuals who are probably born teachers. These folks seem to innately know how to talk to each and every student about his or her upcoming assessments, and they provide specific, rich feedback to students as easily as they draw breath. Then there are other teachers who are perhaps not so naturally blessed with the traits necessary to being an effective educator, but who have nonetheless graduated from solid teacher training programs and have learned the art of effective instruction. Then there are still other teachers who would be quite surprised by and or defiant towards John Hattie's research findings, the findings I wrote about last month. These are the teachers who lack the training necessary to be able to forge meaningful relationships with students, to talk with students about their academic progress, and to be able to differentiate instruction and assessment to make the most efficient use of instructional time possible. They can learn, though! But only if schools are willing and able to provide (hopefully in house) effective professional development opportunities for these teachers, opportunities that specifically focus on how to deepen relationships with students and how to make the classroom a more efficient teaching and learning environment.
So much for what I think are the main impediments to educational reform. What do you think? Are there major obstacles to educational reform that I have missed? I would love to hear from you in the comments section.
Next week I will focus on what we as individual teachers and administrators can do to overcome some of these impediments.
Thanks for reading! -Kyle