Is there a worm in the apple?
A look at the changing
landscape of education
BY KATIE MONSEN '96|
An apple sits on the teacher's desk, red and shiny, polished by a shirt sleeve. The apple might be a gift from a young learner who admires his teacher, or perhaps it was placed there by a student offering a quick prayer for luck on a test.
This stereotypical image of education, of an elementary student returning to the classroom amidst the red apples and leaves of fall, is an ideal held in the collective consciousness of the United States.
It is an image we are afraid is failing us.
The denouncement of education at all levels is common in political rhetoric and news articles. Public leaders and private citizens are afraid of what our students are learning - or not learning - both inside and outside of the classroom, from preschool to college. Some hope for a return to basics, while others want schools to focus on educating students in morals, self-esteem, and other related topics.
From the liberal left to the conservative right, from parents to business leaders, to the media there is a call for reform in education. Parents want vouchers to allow them to send their children to private schools, businesses suggest a free market approach to schooling to promote change.
Teachers across the nation agree there are problems in education. According to a recent poll of public school teachers by Phi Delta Kappan, an education journal, the problems have less to do with the schools themselves and more to do with outside factors.
Enter Terry Ford, assistant professor of education at PLU and former junior high teacher. Ford cites several factors that have changed education over the past few decades and created a more challenging work environment for teachers, including changing demographics, multiple languages and learning styles in the classroom and an increase in poverty.
One of the biggest challenges has been a change in the demographics of schools, Ford said. While one in three children in today's public school classrooms are children of color, 80 percent of the teachers are white females, she said. "Some of the struggle is with those differences in background."
Also, a struggle arises when there are English as a Second Language learners in the classroom. "Language conflicts are tough," Ford said. "They put a pressure on teachers to come up with new teaching strategies," ways to convey meaning so all students can understand.
Recently, these multiple languages in the classroom aren't just the stereotypical Asian or Spanish tongues, but also the Eastern European languages of children of Northwest immigrants, Ford said.
On top of a change of demographics and language, education is facing a transition toward "inclusion." The US at one time was focused on separating students according to ability, a practice known as "tracking." Now there is a move in many places to bring students from the special education classroom (both those who are "gifted" and those with learning disabilities) back with other students, Ford said.
Also, typical views of which students are "smart" and which ones are not are changing as educators learn more about different types of learning and intelligence, and how knowledge is expressed. There is a movement away from multiple choice tests, Ford said, and a shift toward examining how the question is asked and how the students get to an answer. For instance, a student of Ford's may fail an essay question, but prove mastery of the same subject material in an oral conversation with Ford or by drawing a picture.
"The challenge is in dealing with these issues of pluralism, to try to accommodate all those differences and all those needs," Ford said. "The teacher is a sociologist, psychologist, counselor, all in one."
What's more, Ford said, with an increase in poverty, teachers and schools help meet other needs. "It used to be that you could count on a child coming to school having had breakfast, having the basic needs of food, shelter and belongingness - love - met," she said. "We can't jump into reading, writing and math in the morning if the children don't have food, shelter and safety." Those needs must be met first, she stressed.
Myra Baughman, professor of education at PLU, agrees. She said in the future schools must provide parents with the nurturing and mentoring they need right alongside their children.
Baughman said there also is an increased need for professionals in the schools to help deal with some of the students' problems, including mental health, alcohol and child abuse issues.
On top of learning to work within the pluralisms of the classroom, teachers face the challenge of learning and teaching with technology.
In her office, Baughman rolls back her chair and points to a poster on the wall. The white tagboard displays charts and graphs describing issues from literacy to percent of GNP spent on education for a dozen different countries. All the information gathered came from the Internet.
Our alumni teachers describe
While computers were just breaking into classrooms 10 years ago, today they are a well-used resource. The Internet is now a tool to gather information, to access primary sources and to bring the whole world into the classroom. Teachers can even connect children in their class with children in other classes half a world away, Baughman said.
More information isn't always better, however. Students need help sifting the valuable information out of the mass of material available, both Baughman and Ford said. This involves teaching students to be critical thinkers, able to distinguish good sources of information.
In addition, there is a potential for computers to become a show, the use of them being more exciting than the material itself. But teachers should make technology transparent, Ford said. "Teachers need to show that using a computer is like using a pencil. It's not a spectacle or an ordeal, but a tool." In addition, technological tools like computers and graphing calculators need to be available in classrooms in much the same way pens, pencils and crayons are, she said.
The challenges facing education don't stop at computers, however. A glance at the last year's issues of Phi Delta Kappan sheds light on the number and kinds of issues teachers face.
Political issues such as school choice, school vouchers and charter schools start the list. There are questions about the place of art in schools, the place of community service in schools, and if community service has a place, how to make sure it is truly a source of giving and sharing for both students and communities.
There are decisions to be made about school uniforms, individualizing education, standardized testing and the commercialization of schools. There are team-teaching methods to be learned and violence in the classroom to be handled.
These problems stretch in various forms from preschool to college, in both private and public schools. Although each teacher's story is unique, they all share common threads. "There is too much on everybody's plate," Ford summarizes.
How does one approach such a complex picture? How can college and university education programs prepare students for this brave new world of education?
Ford said she tells new teachers to be realistic, that there are too many issues to tackle all at once. "Pick one thing that you can work on, knowing there are five or six other things that can't be done," she said. "You can't solve all the problems, so save some for next year."
Baughman said one of the answers to the future of education lies in forging partnerships between university education departments and schools. She advocates co-teaching, giving professors the chance to see what is happening in the schools first-hand, and teachers the chance to come into the university and share what they know from experience.
"Training teachers is too important to be left only in universities. The task needs to be shared more by the universities and the school districts," she said. "University professors need to be willing to take their offices out of the university (and into the schools) in order to provide the best training possible for students."
Education reform doesn't just end with teachers, Ford points out. Voters need to pass bonds and levies for schools. Parents need to be involved in the classroom, and school boards, teachers and parents alike need to be able to give input to the schools. Also important is developing a personal understanding of what is going on in schools. "People need to listen to the news less and visit the schools more," said Ford.