Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Of accidents and incompetence

Last night I sent one of my kids to take an unwieldy cart-load of darks down to the laundry room. A few minutes after she left the child returned, crying. While she was struggling to get the laundry cart up the hallway steps, the detergent bottle fell off, the lid splintered, and a couple of cups of detergent spilled out on the floor.

I got the dustpan and broom and headed down. A mop, bucket, and several towels later we had the mess cleaned up. It was an inconvenience, but not a catastrophe. Everyone who passed by as we were cleaning related his or her own story of spilled detergent. It happens. I'm not sure if that particular message got through to my child or not, for she seemed to be having an inner conversation that involved words like stupid and incompetent. Accidents are different than incompetence.

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Yesterday morning I attended a meeting at the school across the street. That school, along with 17 others in struggling parts of the city, had been chosen to participate in a grant from the GE Foundation for STEM education in middle schools. It was much-needed money, exactly the kind of impetus this school needed to move to a new level in science and math. It raised everyone's sights, as well as hearts. People were motivated, parents were involved.

The other day our city's Department of Education announced that it had decided that although there had been successes in the first year of the four-year grant, the successes "probably weren't sustainable". No evidence, just a hunch. So the DoE decided unilaterally -- without giving the schools involved any feedback on what had been going well or wrong -- to do something different.

Here's what they're doing: instead of focused development of STEM curricula for inner-city middle schoolers, the remaining $8 million of the grant will be used to train teachers in 60 schools (20 elementary, 20 middle, 20 high schools) across the city so that they'll know how to teach to the upcoming Common Core State Standards. (These are the new national educational standards that are being developed in response to President Obama's Race to the Top initiative.)

I've got nothing against the Common Core. Higher standards are, generally, a good thing. But it doesn't take much searching to find out that the draft of the Common Core standards came out in mid-March. From there it's a hop, skip and jump to the realization that our Department of Education looked at the standards, realized they were in deep doo-doo, and started scrambling about for money to save their rears. They saw funding that smelled vaguely of teacher training, and spread it about as thinly as they could.

But it's not as if the DoE was unaware that the standards were on their way. It's not as if they didn't know where our city's kids usually end up on nationally normed tests. It's not that they were clueless  that the new standards would require inquiry-based assessments which our teachers don't know how to implement. So why didn't they budget for it? Where was the plan?

Excuse me while I sputter, but these are the people who are supposed to be teaching our children how to think!

Oh, if only life were as simple as spilled laundry detergent!

Note to daughter: if you ever become an official with the Department of Education and neglect the obvious so thoroughly that it has a negative effect on thousands of schoolchildren, you can call yourself stupid and incompetent. Until then, rest easy.

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