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On Pedagogy

December 3, 2014

We want to opine on the charter school controversy, but, first, a digression.

We have a friend who says: When the girl was young, she loved horses. So I got her an expensive set of toy horses that were specific to the various breeds.  She learned to identify them quickly – Arabian, Belgian, Andalusian, Freisian, Icelandic, etc. Then I blindfolded her and asked her to identify them, and she got that quickly. Then I turned out the lights and shined a flashlight behind the horse and asked her to identify the shadow on the wall.  That was harder, but she got that, too.

When the boy was young, he loved pirates and we read everything we could. We knew them all: Captain Kidd; Henry Morgan; Black Bart; Blackbeard; Redbeard; Calico Jack and on and on. We’d role play – talking like pirates and using various kitchen implements like a hand-turned egg beater and rolling pin as “torture” devices.  “Are you going to tell me the location of the buried treasure? No? Well, then it’s the rolling pin for you – you scurvy dog.” I’d roll it up and down his back and stand back and say: “Now you’re flat as a pancake.”

OK, now. Before anyone calls child protective services, it should be known that both kids grew up quite nicely. They did well in school and they are successful and reasonably happy today.

Our friend’s pedagogical theory was this: “You gotta find something that excites the kid, and you gotta be excited, too.”

Our pedagogical theory is quite similar: It’s all about having a good teacher – someone who is truly interested in the kids and passionate about the subject of instruction.

Other things can be significant factors in the learning process:  curriculum; class size; the condition of the school building – those things all matter. And so does eating a good breakfast. But most important is having a good teacher.

If we were setting education policy in New York we’d focus on that.  We’d want a vigorous debate on how to get good teachers in, and bad teachers out. We’d try not to be distracted by protracted arguments about things that might not matter all that much in the long run – like charter schools.

Don’t get us wrong. We’re not anti-charter school. We think it’s a worthy experiment, which ought to be continued so long as we’re learning from it.  It’s just that what we’re learning is that the most important thing is having a good teacher, which we already knew.

Instead of figuring out how to get the very best teachers into the schools, what surely will happen over the next several months is that there’s going to be this bitter and divisive fight. The Governor will slam the “education monopoly.”  He’ll say (and have a point) that we spend more on education than any other state by far, and get inadequate results.

And the education community will say that the Governor is doing the bidding of a bunch of rich charter school advocates who contributed millions of dollars to his campaign.  They’ll say (and have a point) that any difference in educational performance at charter schools is largely the result of cherry picking students from the public schools.

Both sides will go round and round on these points, and there won’t be much discussion of teachers. We won’t learn anything. Nothing will change.

It kind of makes us want to reach for the rolling pin and use it in a different fashion.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    December 3, 2014 1:20 PM

    Your anecdote points to a different lesson than the one you draw from it: the first and best teachers that any child has are his or her PARENTS, and woe to the child who lacks parents or has ones who can’t cope or aren’t worthy of the name. This situation, unfortunately, describes all too many children in NYS.

    Charter schools like Eva’s Success Academy succeed not so much because they cherrypick students (although they do some of that) but because they cream the parents: those who get their kids into one of those outfits are by definition the most deeply involved, highly motivated advocates of their children’s education. On top of that, Eva, for one, makes the parents (or guardians) sign contracts that they will enforce homework, attend parent-teacher conferences, guarantee on-time attendance, etc. So, yeah, she gets good results…and leaves the most disadvantaged families for the district schools.

    At struggling schools, the parents (if there are any…many children live with other relatives or in foster homes) aren’t held accountable for any of that, so it’s hit or miss if it happens. Poverty takes a huge toll.

    Parent-teacher conferences? I know teachers at inner city public schools who will see only 2 or 3 parents over a 2 day P-T conference period. (Meanwhile, at the elite schools teachers can see 20 an hour.)

    Attendance? Because of poorer health and chaotic homes, chronic absenteeism is a huge problem in elementary school, truancy in the upper grades. Parents will undermine their children’s school attendance by asking them to watch younger sibs during the day. You can’t teach the kids if they aren’t in school!

    Homework? Basic literacy (in any language) is not reinforced in many of these homes. Forget about reading to the kids; these homes are devoid of books or periodicals. Kids boast that they’ve never read a book outside of class.

    In many NY neighborhoods, kids are lucky if they have enough to eat and clean clothes. That’s why many schools are seeking free breakfast as well as lunch. Some schools have installed washing machines, so that the kids don’t stink.

    In NYC, BdB is inserting more social services into a bevy of schools Bloomberg had slated to close. (Merryl Tisch has already evinced skepticism that it will work.) Other people such as Daniel Squadron push the Nurse-Family Partnership, which should be vastly expanded.

    Yes, every child deserves lively, caring teachers. First and foremost, the people who put them on the planet.

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