Waiting for all the Superheroes

The simplicity underscoring much of the present debate belies just how complicated schools can be. The fact of the matter is that educating children is hard, complex, and long-term.
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The rhetoric swirling around K-12 education may just have reached an all-time high point in America (one can only hope). One moment it sounds like there's a silver bullet. The next moment a new piece of research emerges turning the bullet into straw. Today the answer is charter schools. Tomorrow the answer is ending teacher tenure. Or, maybe merit pay? Later this week, depending on your newspaper of choice, it will be the elimination of teacher unions.

The simplicity underscoring much of the present debate belies just how complicated schools can be. It's easy to parrot the phrase: "We know how to fix our schools." But don't you think, if we knew, if we really knew how to do it to scale, it would have been done already? The fact of the matter is that educating children is hard, complex, and long-term.

Much of the current focus is on standardized test scores in reading and math, and to hell with anything else. When you see the term "student achievement" and wonder what it means, well, it has devolved into a definition of test scores in these two subjects. This should give everyone pause, for as we've recently witnessed in New York State, the State Education Department's recalibrating of test scores significantly downward has provoked serious questions about framing an education through two subjects alone.

No one can argue that our children need to be literate and numerate. Fair enough. And no one can argue about the rightful and important place of assessment. But we cannot lose sight of other important subjects that make for a well-rounded education while breathing life into school communities.

Does anyone really believe that reaching grade level in reading and math is all there is, particularly in a world as rapidly changing as ours, where demands for a dynamic set of skills and knowledge across a wide spectrum are a requisite for success in work and life?

And for those who believe that subjects like the arts must wait until students have made enough progress in standardized tests, which according to a 2008 GAO report is precisely what's happening, we are creating a caste system that denies many of the very things that make school culture rich, rewarding, and ultimately successful across a wide range of outcomes.

With skyrocketing childhood obesity rates, do we really believe that sitting at a desk being coached on how to take standardized tests, being prepped for standardized tests, and last but not least, the actual taking of the tests, are sufficient means to educate the whole child?

We have spent a good eight years now, at least, doubling up class time, hiring more reading and math specialists, and adding time for tutoring. All the while, we see disappointing results in reading and math on the gold standard of assessments: the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Most parents expect their schools to provide more -- they expect a well-rounded education. Where parents have the means, not only do they help raise money for a rich education, but they also volunteer at school, pressure school and district leadership, and purchase a well-rounded education, including music and dance classes, swimming lessons, and more on their own, outside of school.

But, in many schools, particularly in big city schools that are low performing, subjects that make for an expanded curriculum rather than narrowed, like the arts and physical education, have been squeezed from the school day. The arts are starved for resources and diminished through policies that define an education as reading and math.

In New York City public schools, for example, at least 20 percent of schools lack even one certified arts teacher. That's a crude measurement that doesn't take into account the many schools that are severely under resourced, having let's say one arts teacher for 2,000 students.

In what is arguably the cultural capital of the world, based upon data gathered before the great recession, four out of every 10 New York City public middle schools are failing to guarantee that students complete the bare minimum required by New York State law, which amounts to 110 hours of arts -- be it dance, theater, music or visual art.

Anyone who thinks ending teacher tenure, advancing merit pay, creating more charter schools, or any one of the these solutions that make for great rhetoric will make a bit of difference in whether kids get a rich education that includes the arts and physical education, will certainly themselves be waiting a long time, not only for Superman, but for all of the Superheroes, at last count all 25 of them.

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