Opinion: For good education reform, listen to teachers

RAFI NAZAM

Education: Frequently seen as a human right by many, often used as a political battleground to wield ideology by others. Of course, on a local scale, such statements do not always wholly apply, but the flaws that exist in education today are not exempt from Guilderland. These flaws have been magnifying since education was something controlled by the government, and today they are at their peak. But there is never always agreement on what exactly these flaws are, or their central causes. Many blame the lack of funding, or Governor Cuomo, or the Department of Education, or the wealth gap, or many other things. But who’s saying this? These opinions we consume and receive come from such places as news articles found on the internet, they don’t always tell the whole story. It’s snapshot coverage of pinpoint issues, focusing on one thing at a time so as not to confuse us. I didn’t like that. So I decided wanted to go and find out everything myself.

I wanted to know more about this struggle taking place in education, approaching it from different angles. A problem is rarely as simple as being caused by singular sources. It isn’t just poverty, it isn’t just the State, it isn’t just Governor Cuomo, it isn’t just teachers, it isn’t just any one thing. It’s all of those coexisting within the same country, within the same world, affecting each other and all having a collective impact on how children are educated. To deny that would be to deny the complexity of the world we’ve created for ourselves. The first angle that I approached this topic from was through the internet, watching videos and reading articles on the topic of flaws that exist in the current education system. I came across many on the topic made by Salman Khan, the founder of KhanAcademy, a site that contains video-lectures dedicated to making learning easier. Sal had a great many things to say on the topic, presenting generally the same points wherever he spoke, whether it was at his TED talk or speaking with Charlie Rose, all centering around fixing education. He described his points in detail, bringing up how education today uses a one-size-fits-all model, not caring about individual progress. And in saying all of this, I wondered just how much better education would be if we considered these ideas. And I wondered why we weren’t considering these ideas. More and more videos were watched, more and more articles were read. I eventually reached the conclusion that the State itself was what was stopping us. But how, exactly, did they remove such possibility? Just how tight was their grip on us?

And so, I went to the teachers. They who receive instruction from the state, then pass it to us. I knew they’d have information and opinions related to this matter. Videos and articles wouldn’t be enough. I interviewed a large number of teachers, asking them a set of questions that would get them to tell me something about how the state affected their jobs. The first thing that I had asked them about was standardized testing. Though most saw the needs for having standards to hold students and teachers accountable towards, they believed that the way in which the state used them was misguided and unfair, currently only used due to how efficient current methods of testing are.

Initially, I questioned them about the control the state has over their curriculum. Most if not all told me that the state gives them a certain list of topics/areas that are required to be covered during the year, guidelines to keep them from straying. However, the state has no say in how these topics are taught, leaving that up to the teachers. That part, to me, was pleasantly surprising, as I had (jokingly) expected a much more grim answer.

Next I asked them about budgets and funding. Many complained about how funding was tight, cutting down on the number of teachers in each department, increasing class sizes. This example was made evident to me by numerous teachers in many of my classes. It was very clear that teachers had a more difficult time managing classes and meeting with students due to the sheer numbers of children each one had to teach. Something a teacher had said last year really strikes me today, now that I look back at it; “I don’t have time, I’ve got 120 students.” More and more is expected of both students and teachers all at the same time degrading the environments we’re told to succeed in.

When approached about the subject of how teachers are currently evaluated, almost all of them told me about APPR. It’s a system of evaluating teachers based on observations(which were already in place) and statewide testing grades. 60% is based on observation and 40% based on exam scores such as the regents. Previously, evaluations were based purely on observation, not factoring in any test scores. While it was generally agreed upon that test scores were a useful metric of measuring student progress, the catch here was that each staff member would be judged on these scores. A teacher in the Math department may receive a lower overall score due to lesser average regents scores in science. This type of system holds each teacher accountable for areas they do not have control over, instead of looking at them individually for their strengths and weaknesses. Another flaw in the new system is the use of outside observers. Previously, all observations on teachers were done by the staff that worked here, but the new system plans to use people from outside the district to eliminate any possible bias. While the idea here doesn’t seem ill-intentioned, the problem is that the state, like with many issues, is not clear on how exactly this is going to be implemented. Always giving initiatives to follow but never telling people how to follow through.

The grand takeaway is that in this new era of government overreach, more and more control is being placed on our schools in an effort to catch up with the rest of the world. I do not absolve any blame from teachers themselves, nor ourselves, nor the state. It is through our complacency that we allowed this happen, and it is through the state that the bureaucracy enacts these measures.   We are sacrificing our own autonomy so that we might receive guidance, but in the end it constrains us, taking too much and giving us too little. I can only hope that we as students, we as people, can try to change education for the better, abandoning old dogma in place of free-thinking.

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