They Need Us to Prepare Them

This last section is a little different from the others, for a couple of reasons.  The first is that the previous sections are nothing particularly new, but maybe have the need to be REnewed.  This last section, though, is at the heart of what this book is intended for: thinking about our preparation for the unknown and mostly unpredictable movement into the 21st century.  The second reason is that our students can tell you that they expect their teachers to perform the other sections as part of their jobs.  Most students, however, have no idea what’s in store for them in the next ten years, so it will be our place to make sure they are prepared.  This part, unfortunately, is not going to be simple, everyday teaching.  Fortunately, as I’ve said before, we will not be doing it alone.

We’ve heard it over and over again: our current curricula and methods are mirrored closely to those that were created to educate a 19th century agrarian society; and we have only seen major changes to fit a 20th century industrial society.  It’s true!  Nothing much has changed since then, but we can’t say that things flat lined over that time period.  There were some times when truly revolutionary practices and designs were put into play and things looked totally different in classrooms.  Those revolutionary educators—and those before them—tend to suggest that the climate of standardized testing and the accountability measures that come with it are suffocating the creativity of students and the innovation of teachers.  There are still many teachers who are moving their classes in new directions using their creativity, innovation, and the collaboration with people they work with to create truly effective practices.  The problem is that we all aren’t doing this and, seriously, we all need to be doing this.

It’s very difficult to predict what the world will look like 20, 30, or 100 years from now.  We can look backwards at the changes that have happened over the past 20 years and realize that the next 20 will be very different.  That means using a 19th century model of teaching would be the most harmful thing that we can collectively do at this point.  The old model attempted to move kids from one prescribed level to the next with the necessary skills that were deemed appropriate.  We’re still doing this; we call the program of the decade the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSS).

The architects of the CCSS tout the standards as being revolutionary in preparing students for the workforce of the future.  I think parts of the CCSS are very good, using the literacy standards across content areas as an example.  Using the math standards as another example, I think we’re seeing more of what didn’t work previously—one-size-fits-all knowledge and skills standards, building on top of each other, with very little idea of how they are useful in the future lives of our students.  Even worse, they have opened the floodgates for a slew of new testing methods and scenarios.  In a climate where student testing has become problematically often and intense, this is the last thing we need to be striving for.

Look at the math standards for K-8: The ultimate goal of reaching calculus in high school is still present, with an emphasis on Algebra I in 8th grade.  All of this was pretty important during the middle of the 20th century, since we had to have lots of scientists with solid math and science backgrounds to build rockets, probes, and weapons during the Cold War, using little more than slide rules and program-on-the-fly computers.

It’s still important to have scientists, but now, in the 21st century, it’s much more important to have a literate society—and more importantly, a mathematically and scientifically literate society.  Therein lays the difference between then and now: The current model (based on the 20th century) seeks to prepare walking libraries of scientific knowledge, facts, vocabulary, and formulas so they can solve problems on the spot using their brains; the next model we use needs to prepare students to find and understand many types of information, analyze statistical data, work collaboratively to achieve a desired result, and communicate that result across a global audience.

In the 20th century, we had the luxury of guessing what our students would (or could) be when they grew up.  Now, we have no idea.  That’s because a growing number of jobs that our kids may hold don’t yet exist.  Tell that little snippet to a room of 8th or 9th graders.  You will hear an audible gasp and lots of looks of confusion.  What they’re thinking is, “then how will I know what to do to get ready?”  Tell that snippet to a group of veteran teachers, and I hope you hear the same thing.  Unfortunately, there is no real consensus, with one side saying, “More skills, more homework, more practice!” and the other side saying, “More technology, more inquiry, more critical thinking!”  There is, of course, a majority in the middle ground saying, “Both, but how?”

Right now, there is a movement happening from state to state to reduce the weight of standardized tests on school performance and student achievement measures.  Over a dozen states have opted-out from the NCLB requirements as of this writing, and several more have applied to be opted out.  But, when you read about the victory of opting out, you also see something else: just because those states are free of NCLB, doesn’t mean they’re all now moving in a totally new direction.  In fact, the Department of Education is allowing these waivers with the understanding that the states will be able to show the exact same data using different measures.  We are breaking free of NCLB in order to be trapped again by Race to the Top (RttT).  Different name; same beast.

Our students need us, the teachers and principals, to prepare them for their futures (and the future of their country as a continued player in the global economy).  The politics at the national and state levels are not going to do it.  The boards of education are not going to do it.  The president and his education secretary are not going to do it.  The for-profit test development companies are certainly not going to do it.  This is our job.  We need to speak and advocate for these kids and prepare them for their real futures.  And we must do it together.

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About Kris Nielsen
Kris L. Nielsen has been a middle grades educator and instructional leader for ten years in New Mexico, Oregon, and North Carolina. He is a graduate of Western Governors University’s Master of Science Education program, with emphasis on child development and instructional technology. Kris is an activist against corporate education reforms and has had his writing featured in several online magazines and blogs, including those of the Washington Post and Diane Ravitch. Kris currently lives in New Mexico with his young son and beautiful wife.

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