Prizing Our Children
Thomas R. Rosebrough, Ph.D., Executive Dean of the College of Education and Human Studies & University Professor of Education
September 1, 2002 - Those who make their living in the field of education have a job that is often quite complex. Teaching requires hundreds of decisions, small and large, every day. We are not afforded the luxury of some vocations where workers are following instructions all day or performing repetitive tasks. We realize that each child we teach is amazingly unique and able to learn. This requires of us the ability to make good decisions in the classroom on the child’s behalf, a job that is hardly routine. Good teaching demands teachers who are sensitive and informed. If we succumb to the pat answers that policy-makers often put forth, such as more testing will improve teaching or that uniforms will build character, we will have lost our vision of what education really is. We must keep our eyes on the prize.
Recently the test scores from the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program were released. This was the first year that the composite scores were broken down by race, gender, and other demographic factors. This analysis was mandated by the state and federal governments in order to address the needs of children who are falling behind. TCAP results that show black students received lower scores than whites in Tennessee should not be a source of divisive, ideological debate. Instead, these scores should spur us all to: (1) realize that the effect of a poor socio-economic environment does influence achievement, and (2) seek solutions for encouraging all children to learn.
If there is one thing that educational research has demonstrated to us over the last thirty years, it is that we must maintain a focus on the classroom and the characteristics of effective schools. A very large body of evidence is accumulating that says parents and teachers can make a difference in whether children learn. The key seems to be whether we believe that all children can learn. Once we believe it we can implement it by focusing on the diversity of learning abilities and needs of our children. It should be a real source of optimism for us that attention to the nurturing of student learning can make a difference. The old mantra of IQ and fixed intelligence has finally, hopefully, been laid to rest by the work of Howard Gardner and other researchers who recognize that we all have gifts, abilities, or what Gardner calls multiple intelligences. The new mantra is not how smart we are but how we are smart. Discovering how our students are smart, how they can best learn, is the job of the schools, which is the perspective that often seems to get lost in our society.
Other measures besides focusing on how students learn are vital as well. Research shows that effective schools where teaching and learning take place have certain characteristics. Among them are high expectations and standards for all students, curricula that mirror the standards, standards-based assessment, strong principals who are allowed to make decisions for their schools, a safe and orderly environment, a high degree of parental involvement, teachers who are well-prepared in content and pedagogy, teachers who are encouraged in on-going professional development, and accountability throughout the school. These characteristics are found in the best schools, regardless of whether they are public, private, religious, or charter.
Our hopes for the future of education should begin and end with a focus on how children learn. In between are steps we can take to make our schools more effective. The best teachers, principals, schools, and communities are not distracted by competing visions of education in our society. They keep their eyes on the prize.
This article appeared in the August 12 issue of The Jackson Sun.