When I listen to the arguments over education in Washington, I feel the Grinch’s pain. All the noise, noise, noise.
Whether it’s implementing the state Supreme Court’s McCleary school-funding order, or explaining why some new school innovation is the answer, the conversation about education has become as cacophonous as a Whoville Christmas celebration, but without the mirth.
Anybody who really thinks the jousting over the McCleary mandate is anything more than political theater probably also believes that “full funding” will somehow transform all our schools from dismal failures (which they’re not) into stunning successes (which it won’t).
And anybody who thinks bureaucratic mandates have a significant and identifiable impact on a child’s education probably also believes the most recent of the wise heads among us have really found the answer to our education woes in a new program or curriculum.
Teaching and learning are relational activities. They start as immediately as a child’s brain cells begin to develop.
It’s increasingly clear, for instance, that the few first years of life are critical. The quantity and quality (specifically, those spoken by caring, attentive humans) of words spoken to and with a child are predictive of both that child’s language skills and school performance.
This requires engaged parents, not funding mandates, new curriculum or better Supreme Court candidates. But what a school, or a school district, or even an advocacy group really has available are just those things.
What remains unavailable — because they’re too hard, politically and practically — are any programs, mandates or innovations that make quality parenting happen. This is because bureaucracies and their programs just don’t do relational activities all that well.
In debating McCleary, elections and curriculum, we tacitly transfer responsibility for the relational work of teaching and learning to a bureaucracy called a school. Unfortunately, one of the hallmarks of bureaucracies is their limited range of responses to the wide variety of cases or issues that confront them.
Consider full-day kindergarten, more instructional hours and automatic enrollment of students in advanced courses. These are brilliant ideas ... for a bureaucracy that has a limited menu of options.
All-day kindergarten seems like a good idea, because more time in class is better. But evidence continues to mount that young children’s learning improves when they get substantial amounts of unstructured play time. While all-day kindergarten could certainly include large quantities of such time, too often it doesn’t.
Similarly, more instructional time must mean more learning and better performance. But clearer understanding of how the brain works reveals that the current structure of the school day is all wrong. For older students, for example, two shorter rounds of each class would be more useful than one hourlong sitting.
The day could even be shorter, not longer, if organized better. Time saved could be dedicated to more enrichment opportunities, specialized skill training or extra academic support.
As for putting nearly everyone in advanced courses (as Tacoma does), this is a philosophical preference more than a proven program. In a time when data is king, this practice receives surprising support, given the lack of empirical evidence about outcomes.
Of course, in a culture where simply taking advanced classes is ipso facto desirable, the mere number of students doing so is the only measure of outcome we need consider.
A bit of apocrypha circulating the last several years said that prisons predicted their future population by way of the third-grade reading scores. While not technically true, the basic correlation between literacy and incarceration is strong.
It’s clear that the first few years of life (before third grade) predict much about reading and academic performance, no matter what a Supreme Court justice or a curriculum innovator or a political advocacy group says about it.
Andrew K. Milton of Tacoma is an eighth-grade English teacher in the Steilacoom School District. He is the author of “The Normal Accident Theory of Education.”