Editors Note: This piece by contributing writer Brandon Melendez tackles the issue of education reform. M.P.
“If you tore this wicked system down what would you build in its place?”- Talib Qweli (What If)
As an educator watching the world burn around me I’ve often been asked what I would replace it with—and how I could justify it to the middle class, ostensibly the hurdle in getting things “done” in the realm of reform. It is of course a seemingly complicated question—one rife with deliberations of methodology, approach, philosophy, and research that requires mitigating the unique factors that work against our currently existing system: regional disparities, class inequalities, multicultural barriers, and the elephant in the room…funding. However, most of the factors can be handled pretty sensibly, but on the topic of funding…well I suppose that’s why the middle class must be won, for the vote of their tax dollars?
You see, I believe that the system already exists and has been successfully in play for over 30 years in the United States—it is the system that our Special Education students receive which culminated in a legally binding document known as the Individualized Education Plan. The Individualized Education Plan or IEP is the cornerstone of modern Special Education because it is a document constructed by a multidisciplinary team of educators, special educators, therapists, parents, and when appropriate, the student to determine the annual target goals in light of the past year’s successes and challenges and is aimed at mediating and meeting the student’s needs and abilities by playing to their strengths, interests, and aspirations. The professionals and family members come together at least that one time a year (though IEPs can be revised and meetings can be held as frequently as needed) to discuss and problem solve the students strengths, weaknesses, needs, and future in order to construct what is paramount to a personal curriculum for the next year.
The IEP is the centerpiece of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, which through regular reenactment has become known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA is one of the few pieces of Federal Law impacting education that I feel is wholly constitutional and necessary. At the time of implementation, Geraldo Rivera had just recently brought to light the grave injustices and abuse rampant at the Willowbrook State School in Staten Island, New York and the disposition of most public schools towards students with disabilities was one of exclusion. Students carrying diagnosis of mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness, blindness, or any number of other disabilities could and often would be denied enrollment in their local schools. The legislation specifically requires that all students receive a Fair and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) which it defines as ““… education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.[ 20 U.S.C. §1400(c)(5)(A)(i)]”. It requires that the needs of the individual student are met, that they are provided access to a general curriculum that is challenging, and that the results of those actions are of educational benefit to the child.
Why shouldn’t this be the promise our educational system holds to all students? Certainly the provisions of IDEA are numerous and include other truly beautiful promises to all students with disabilities and every single one of them should be extended to the needs of general education students. Imagine an education system where all the teachers and professionals working with a student collaborate with the families and the students in order to develop programs that engage and challenge them while pushing the expectations of the general curriculum and meeting any needs for remediation as a part of their schooling experience? This would be a dynamic school experience that truly treats children as individuals and breaks away from the standardization and generalizing of teaching practices and methodology. It also makes good use of the somewhat questionable assimilation of the Common Core Standards put forth by the Obama Administration as it concurrently tries to dismantle or render invalid some of the parts of the innocuously named No Child Left Behind Act. The Common Core could be made especially useful as a set of guideline skills by grade level. Currently the standards are vague, and at times nebulous, and easily applied or otherwise justified with a little craft to any particular goal. As the CCS are now in play, they are merely a hurdle in meeting lesson planning requirements that are already extraneous, time consuming, and justified by insulting the intelligence and/or preparation of teachers.
Under this system there would even be a need for standardized tests—the staple of the misinformed education reform of our day. You see, in the field of Special Education, standardized, research based, boxed examinations are invaluable to making assessments. Usually these exams are either to test for indicators that are psychological in nature or are inventories of all manner of skills or knowledge. The application of inventory exams could be used as both formal and summative assessment of student acquisition of knowledge and skills allowing teachers to see what is working as units are being broached and after they have run their course. The double use would then be to compare these highly practical inventories to then create something of a baseline for what grade and age level expectation should be according to the Common Core Standards. For graded work I would suggest an overall project based or portfolio based approach; requiring students to present both would be optimal because the project would display application of acquired skills while the portfolio would show growth and mastery in increments throughout the term. Using these work world and professionally friendly routes to assessment of students’ skills, children would undoubtedly leave the world of schooling better suited to self-assess by virtue of being well versed in the process of discerning pieces for a portfolio. They would be goal oriented because they would well-acquainted with developing and executing projects that relay their mastery of their skills and fluid use of knowledge. Additionally, in playing to the particular strengths, needs, and personal aspirations of the students in the yearly IEP meetings something might be done to build vocational and trade skills in the course of education. The phasing out of these skills seems to have simultaneously occurred with the prevalence of the notion that not attending college is paramount to immense failure of the family and school system upon a student. While I by no means intend to belittle the value of college and higher education, I don’t necessarily subscribe to the lie that everyone needs to attend in order to be a success in life. Once again, this goes back to the strengths, needs, and aspirations of a student. If a student want to be a carpenter, or an electrician, a mechanic, or a tailor, or a plumber, or any other skilled work should be provided those skills in their Fair and Appropriate Public Education. Students should be ready for the next step in their lives when they leave public education at the end of high school and most skilled work requires years of apprenticeship, vocational training, and supervision before one can really make a living. Why shouldn’t students who want to go into these professions be just as ready for the world they aim to enter as the students who yearn to advance their academic careers?
For me, this is the best way to garner an endorsement from the middle class and the working class for an educational overhaul of this kind. While these kinds of changes to the system would be costly, would require hiring many teachers, would require much smaller class sizes and bigger facilities to service the same, or smaller, populations of students, the general aim would be to actually prepare them to work in the world. Giving our students what they need is a requirement that must be placed upon the public education system but the responsibility of defining those needs must also be removed the hands of legislators and educrats so far removed from classrooms that they can scarcely remember the last time they stepped in one. The families of students and the students themselves should be given a strong voice in their trajectories—and while the fundamentals would still be taught, classes would still require teamwork, and students would not be isolated, they would enjoy the benefits of an individual path through their education the suits them and not a standardized one the suits no one. Instead a public education would make you a viable candidate to work in the field you aspire to join—to actually prepare students for independent life (another promise of IDEA legislation).
Of course, paying for this system, let alone instituting it ethically and fairly would be a hell of a challenge. Then again, it is just a suggestion out of the mouth of a special educator that believes that all education is special and not just another industry that can be measured in terms of quotas or outputs. From who believes that an education isn’t a product and families aren’t consumers but rather than students are individuals and the word education, meaning “to bring from within”, is a personal experience. Perhaps the system I’ve outlined is idealistic, difficult, and costly but if we are just as dedicated to innovative education, and effective, as we are for effective and innovative bombs then perhaps we should sign on to some idealist, difficult, and costly ideas. Who knows…we might just split the atom.