The following post was written by NCTE staff member Kelly Searsmith. Read her bio here.
At two and a half years old, my son begged to be allowed to go to school. I had planned to stay home with him until kindergarten, but his eagerness to be immersed in the dynamic, creative, hands-on environment of school that he saw in popular children’s shows led us to send him early. Now thirteen, he would love nothing more than to stop going. Since at least the third grade, school has seemed to him an endless stream of worksheets and testing, more busywork than inquiry, exploration, or discovery. The PARCC testing he’s experienced this year seems to him no different.
As Quinn has gotten older, he has become increasingly cynical about the ability of school to transform itself. Over the last couple of years, his teachers have been telling him that change for the better is just around the corner. This year it arrived. As part of Common Core practice, his math class is now taught entirely in cooperative learning groups and his English class often uses small groups in place of guided, whole-class discussion. He describes these as painful social encounters where other students seem uninterested in the work, have difficulty pulling together to discuss the material, do so only superficially, and go off task more than they stay on it, even when assigned roles or assisted with process instructions. His standardized test has become the PARCC, which for him seems much the same as earlier forms of standardized testing, and therefore much less about his learning than about some attempt at accountability that has no direct benefit for him.
Quinn still loves to learn, but he does not feel that he is doing most of his learning in school or that his school experiences are designed to motivate learning or provide him with truly engaging experiences—few are tailored to his interests or preferences about learning. As our son’s disappointment with his educational experiences has grown, only one dimension of school seems to have made any difference to his quality of experience from year to year, then or now: teachers.
Whether Quinn learns richly from a class, engages deeply with the material, and expresses any excitement about school-based learning depends entirely on his teachers: their relationship with him and the other students, their own excitement and knowledge of the material, the kinds of learning experiences they design, the very atmosphere they create in the room.
When will we learn that the best investment we can make in our students is to invest in teachers?
We need to give teachers the time to continue to learn in their subjects and explore best approaches to teaching them; to design materials, curricula, and learning experiences; and to collaborate with one another in local and national professional learning communities. We need to invest in teachers so that they have the resources to get inspired, experiment, reflect, and contribute as experts and leaders in education. When that becomes our emphasis in education reform, I believe we will finally see a real transformation in education.