Thursday, April 5, 2012

Education's Final Frontier

In the 21st Century there is no such thing as a "final frontier," but our education system and national pessimism are keeping us grounded.

A Post on Student Achievement Best Practices

By Jordan Wilson, 9th Grade History Teacher

Student achievement best practices can only be improved if we believe in our own students and their potential.
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The national debate right now is asking the question that we need to be asking in our education system and in our schools.  Do we continue with ambitious, future-searching goals that were embodied by Eisenhower and Kennedy in their dreams of conquering space, or do we let large national research projects like NASA die in order to hunker down and improve our dire economy?  Many argue that unless we sort our economy out now through austerity, America will run itself into a fiscal crisis that can only lead to national demise.  Others believe that investing large-scale in an ambitious future through public projects is the means to solving America’s fiscal problems.  Both arguments hold water and their debate in the public forum should seek to raise concern about America’s fiscal stability and its role in the future.

In our schools we need to be asking the same question.  The school where I teach 9th Grade World History, Anacostia Senior High School, is on record as one of Washington D.C.’s lowest performing public high schools because only 13% of 10th Grade students were measured proficient in reading on last year’s state assessment, with 9% proficient in math.  Even in one of the District’s higher performing public schools, reading and math proficiency rates were at 66% and 52% respectively.  In the face of such numbers, the natural tendency is to problem solve how we can get our kids to read and calculate numbers at somewhere close to grade level.  However, the danger with this response is that it forces educators to think small and lower the bar for student performance.  It’s a sad day in America when our expectations for High School students end at ‘can read’.

So the question for our school system is are we going to dream big dreams for these students, or are we going to become so mired by low reading and numeracy scores that our energies focus purely on the basics at the behest of more advanced goals that our students could and should be achieving?  Choosing the latter ignores the legacy of our mid-Century Presidents for what made the space race so great was not that man walked on the moon, for that had only symbolic importance.  The space race was significant because of the technologies that we stumbled across in the process – satellite technologies that have changed how we live, from GPS systems to telecommunications; and new materials that were built for astronauts but have everyday use in our kitchens and in our sports equipment.

It’s the same for our kids.  If we set them ridiculously ambitious goals, students will learn to overcome obstacles and defeat challenges, to pull new ideas seemingly out of thin air in order to continue their progress forward.  Ultimately, when we set ambitious goals, we do not know what our students will achieve.  That is the risk, but also the glorious reward as they will have the opportunity to create ideas, solutions and products that our generation cannot even fathom.    Just as we did as a country, our students can exceed our expectations.  We just have to let them try.

Just to be clear, this is not to say that improving literacy and numeracy scores is unimportant, far from it.  But the argument of this article is that in a very short period of time, no-one is going to be looking at these statistics for high school students because students are going to be measured using far greater metrics – computer literacy and programming proficiency, conversational and written fluency in foreign languages to name just a few likely examples.  Basic reading and numeracy skills are going to be considered a given for students in middle school and above, indeed in many school districts around the world they already are.  Therefore we must not let current deficits in these areas prevent us from challenging students to achieve even greater goals.  The ability to read is not an ambitious goal for the vast majority of American youth and treating it as such is underselling them and our national future. 

Walking on the moon was a bold idea for Kennedy to float in 1960, but its vocalization changed America for the better.  Restoring America to the top of education tables may be just as ambitious, if not more so, but we have to give our students the chance to get there.  Indeed, the quality of our national future is dependent on it.

Jordan Wilson is a 9th Grade World History Teacher at Anacostia Senior High School in Washington, D.C.  He was a 2009 Teach For America corps member in the D.C. metro region.

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