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      Give the horse its head

      KALAMAZOO, Mich. (NEWSCHANNEL 3) - There's lots of hand-wringing over the past week after the latest international student assessments found the American team sliding into nothing better than average.

      Tonight in Tom's Corner, Tom Van Howe says that while it's not good news, there's no reason to believe we can't do better.

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      It might be as simple as letting our horses have their heads.

      So the old equestrian theory goes: you're out riding your horse on a foggy night in the moors and you become hopelessly lost. So you release the reigns, letting the horse have its head, and the horse finds its way out of the maze and heads for home.

      There's no reason to think the teachers we have aren't the very horses we need.

      For a decade now, as many teachers will tell you, they've been saddled, first by President Bush's "No Child Left Behind," followed by President Obama's "Race to the Top." And I use the word 'saddled' on purpose, because they have grown weary of teaching to accommodate tests.

      Randi Weingarten, the President of the American Federation of Teachers says the years of top-down, test-based schooling--which has resulted in the hyper-testing of students, the sanctioning of teachers, and the closing of schools--has failed us.

      The numbers from the Program of International Student Achievement are indeed sobering.

      510,000 15-year-olds from 65 countries get tested every three years.

      In the most recent go-round, the American students were 26th in math, 21st in science, and 17th in reading. Average.

      The students from Shanghai won in every category, but the rankings are suspect because testers weren't given access to students in poorer sections of the city or the country.

      But the United States is loaded with students from poor families--and poor students, almost across the board, do not fare as well as students from wealthier families. But, overall, rich kids didn't do that well either.

      Nonetheless, it's too soon to throw our hands up in despair. Maybe we are behind. But, make no mistake, we have good kids. We have smart kids. And we have good teachers. We have smart teachers.

      Its time to give them their heads--to let them own their own classroom, let them be active participants in setting standards and shaping curriculum, and give them the time and money for continuous professional development.

      The concept of a common core curriculum is gaining momentum across the country, and it seems like a good idea. Essentially, by teaching and learning from set materials tied to their grade and age levels, kids across the country would develop similar academic skills.

      Here's what the New York Times said in an editorial a few days ago: a lot of classes are taught by teachers who have no particular interest in what they're teaching.

      And by using outdated textbooks and worn out curriculum, students wind up convinced that math and science are for nerds only, and as a result fall even further behind.

      That just doesn't seem to me to be an overwhelming thing to fix. In fact, how can we continue asking teachers to teach what doesn't turn them on? What sense does it make? How can they make what they teach exciting and enticing?

      And how can we blame students for becoming confused and turning their backs?

      These are fixable things.

      We should be looking closely at the highest-performing nations, take what they do well, and do it better here.

      We've already got the horses. Lets use them. Lets give them their heads.

      In this corner...I'm Tom Van Howe.
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