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Virginia Journal of Education

On Point

What Students Really Need

by Precious Crabtree

A colleague and good friend recently challenged me by asking “What is a school? What is it for?” I stopped to consider this and my head began to spin… What is the primary function of a school? Do we teach content or do we teach children? Are schools supposed to serve the community as a whole or the students within the community? How are schools different today from when I was in school? In what direction should we be leading schools?

It has always been my philosophy that our primary function is to teach children how to think on their own and be lifelong learners, so they can succeed as citizens in the future. Therefore, I don’t teach art, I educate children. Everything I do in my classroom should be for the benefit of the students that I teach.

However, this proper focus on students is being overshadowed by a growing obsession with teacher accountability. What does accountability really mean and who is it for? Surely accountability should ultimately serve students, ensuring they are being taught the skills they need to succeed. Is the current trend of creating more tests and paperwork in the name of teacher accountability conducive to a positive learning environment for children? It seems to me that the tendency to pile on new teacher accountability measures serves the needs of politicians and administrators looking for easy and relatively inexpensive ways to appear that they are working toward progress in schools. But in doing so they are undermining the ability of teachers to actually make that progress.

Former Washington, D.C. superintendent Michelle Rhee, along with 14 other superintendents, recently created a “manifesto” that offered a simple solution.  If we simply get rid of all the bad teachers and replace them with good teachers, achievement will rise.   This illusion that America is full of bad teachers diverts the attention from the real needs of children. It has become a national trend to point fingers at teachers and blame them for the challenges in our education system.

So what do children need? Research shows and educators agree that children need quality educators, relevant curriculum, supportive parents and engaged communities. Effective teachers should facilitate a curriculum that prepares students for a global economy. Curricula should have depth and provide opportunities for critical thinking and problem-solving. Parents should provide support beyond helping with homework through exposure to different cultures, discussion of world events, and setting an example of a love of learning. Communities should be engaged in the teaching and learning of children by making sure schools and parents have the tools needed to meet students’ diverse needs.

By focusing exclusively on the easiest target -- failing teachers – the discussion excludes any helpful consideration of the multitude of other problems that affect student performance. For example, our current curriculum tends to be broad but not deep. There is no time for in-depth discussions in our classrooms or opportunities for students to pursue topic of particular interest to them, because students and teachers are under constant pressure to prepare for the next test.

Parents often work long hours or more than one job to provide for their families in this difficult economy. Poverty, homelessness and the stability of a child’s home also play key roles in whether a child succeeds at school. The percentage of children who are homeless or experience poverty is the highest it has been in decades. Many parents don’t speak English, but research shows that parental involvement is a critical predictor of a child’s progress in school. If we are expecting students to be able to read and write in English they need to practice it at home. Parental resources are often limited or unavailable.

Schools in affluent areas often have much more support, both in volunteers and finances, while schools in poor areas see few volunteers and struggle to provide the basics for children and their families. All schools need active communities that are involved directly with meeting the needs of children.

Yes, blaming teachers is easier than looking at the big picture.  Reflection can be tough when it leads individuals to realize everyone can play a part in setting their community’s children up for success in school. No one likes blame, so perhaps we should try not to be so preoccupied with pointing fingers. Too often decisions that affect children are made by people who haven’t spent much time in a classroom in decades, not the educators who are in the trenches. Instead of automatically assuming teachers are the problem, those who really wish to improve educational outcomes should examine the issues for themselves by actually listening to educators, and getting involved in schools.

Crabtree, a member of the Fairfax Education Association, is an art teacher at Deer Park Elementary School.


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