Friday, October 28, 2011

Child Development in America

A common problem in education debate is the failure to make a distinction between demographic populations.  Deborah Meier recounts what she has witnessed in the past 40 years of education:
I entered teaching in 1963 during the early civil rights movement and allied myself with a growing new progressivism. Sometimes called "open education," its advocates were given a warm reception in some places of power for about five years, maybe 10. By 1985, I thought we were on the cutting edge of a transformative movement. I was dead wrong. We were declared to be too slow in showing test success and our vision hard to mandate from the top down. The New Reformers decided on a different path, which they have pursued now for between 20 and 30 years of unprecedented attention and resources.

Performance map of Los Angeles, CA
Open education requires in children high levels of development in a variety of spheres (emotion, cognitive, language, etc.). Yet American communities are developmentally quite diverse, generally arrayed across this spectrum along socio-economic lines. The difference between communities with high levels of child development and those with low levels is quite extraordinary. In one classroom 90% of students might have a minimal vocabulary, uneducated parents who work for low pay, and live in a neighborhood in close proximity to drugs and violence.  In another classroom 90% of students might have an enormous vocabulary, highly educated, professional parents, and live in a safe neighborhood with access to many highly academically stimulating activities. Thus, in some communities, Open Education is going to be much more successful, as it falls within the boundaries of the childrens' respective zones of proximal development, while in others the students aren't as prepared for it.

Yet, as Deborah points out, the alternative - rote, scripted - education, hasn't been dramatically more successful either, even if it is at least more attentive to traditional academic skill-building.
But after more than two decades of these New Reforms—more and more testing, higher stakes, charters, and mayoral control—we do know some things for sure:
(a) Test scores have not risen, and the test-score gap hasn't narrowed.
(b) We have moved further away from building a profession that retains and uses its experienced teachers well.
(c) We are witnessing unimaginable hours spent on test-prepping and a narrowing of the rest of the curriculum while cheating is being ignored and teachers are being demoralized. Hardly trivial side effects. 

(Another critique would be that it is overly cold, authoritarian, punitive and dehumanizing, especially for students who come from communities that don't model the sort of "life-long learning" and joy of academic discovery that school is in part designed to inspire.)

I think the real question, and one with no easy answer, is how exactly to differentiate our provision of education to such developmentally distinct communities. Of course, these are generalities, and there will always be diversity within communities. This would be one of the problems in designing a policy of proper differentiation. But the fact remains that our neighborhoods are designed to self-differentiate by socio-economics and class. Ignoring this fact, pretending that everyone in America is somehow, naturally "free" is harmful wishful thinking; it leads us away from seriously grappling with what is maybe the one fundamental goal of public education: how to properly ensure that every citizen grows up with access to developmental resources that allows him or her to be an equitable participant in our country.

Our traditional model has been one classroom, one teacher, one group of 25-35 students. Within this framework, we fiddle about with pedagogic strategies and interventions, yet the basic framework remains. Yet given the degree of developmental diversity across communities and schools, relying on this model for the entire developmental spectrum seems crazy. Any teacher who has taught at both ends of the spectrum (almost certainly in two different socio-economic communities) knows that these are two completely different teaching experiences. This is why unions scream when all teachers are expected to deliver equal outcomes. It's absurd.

Personally, I find Open Education model the absolute pinnacle of what education should be, encouraging in children self-reliance, skepticism, engagement and ultimately, joy of discovery that should last a lifetime. Yet to implement this in different communities, a different model must be used. I have theories as to what models might work, and they would be, in the short-term, rather expensive. But if all we really care about is results, they would ultimately be more than worth it.

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