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Del. Ken Plum: Back to School

by Del. Ken Plum — September 3, 2014 at 11:00 am 13 Comments

Del. Ken Plum/File photoAlthough it has been many years since I was a teacher in the classroom, I still get a nervous stomach around Labor Day each year in anticipation of the beginning of a new school year.

Teaching is the hardest work I have ever done in my life including being a legislator. I taught before the era of Standards of Learning (SOLs) and massive standardized testing. The challenge I and my colleagues had in our time was to recognize, nourish and expand individual students’ knowledge, talents and abilities. Today’s teachers have unfortunately been forced to teach to standardized tests that do not recognize individual student’s knowledge, talents and abilities nor do the tests or the assessment process of teachers recognize their unique skills and talents.

I attended the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) recently where Sir Kenneth Robinson, noted author and speaker, spoke about the need for revolution — not reform — in public education.

Although it has been many years since I was a teacher in the classroom, I still get a nervous stomach around Labor Day each year in anticipation of the beginning of a new school year. Teaching is the hardest work I have ever done in my life including being a legislator. I taught before the era of Standards of Learning (SOLs) and massive standardized testing.

The challenge I and my colleagues had in our time was to recognize, nourish and expand individual students’ knowledge, talents and abilities. Today’s teachers have unfortunately been forced to teach to standardized tests that do not recognize individual student’s knowledge, talents and abilities nor do the tests or the assessment process of teachers recognize their unique skills and talents.

He expressed concern that schools are organized on an industrial model — I have described it as a factory — where all the children are expected to come out alike at the end of schooling. At the same time we recognize in society the special talents individuals may possess, the orientation of many schools for too many years has been to ignore individual differences and to have identical expectations for all students. Schools cannot operate successfully as a factory of the past where every student becomes the same widget, but schools need to adopt a mass customization model where every student is recognized as a unique being.

As Sir Kenneth Robinson expressed it, “education is meant among other things to develop people’s natural abilities, and I believe it really doesn’t do that. … To focus on them in the traditional school setting, very many brilliant people are weaned away from the very talents that excite them.”

For Robinson, schools should focus on awakening creativity and developing natural curiosity. “Much of the present education system in the United States fosters conformity, compliance and standardization rather than creative approaches to learning,” he says.

Clearly, the standards and testing programs have gone too far, and fortunately the push back from students, parents and teachers is finally being recognized by legislators. The General Assembly reduced the number of SOL tests required, and a commission established to look at the issue is likely to recommend even more reduction. Graduation requirements need to be made more flexible in order that students can more fully develop their individual talents. Sir Kenneth Robinson’s curiosity and creativity need to be rewarded in the classroom.

The anticipation I feel with back-to-school time is shared by parents, students and teachers alike. The excitement needs to be recognition of the great things that happen in classrooms every day. The managers of that process–the teachers–deserve our gratitude, recognition and better pay. When you talk with a teacher, please join me in thanking them for their dedication and hard work.

Ken Plum represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates 

  • Mike M

    First, there are two paragraphs repeated in this statement. An error.

    Second, I see this article as Ken’s pandering to his teacher constituency. He is “feeling their pain” while worshiping what they do. He is also empathetic about their well-done disdain for standardized testing. But Ken! WHAT are you going to do about it? There are no connections to Ken’s job. This article is really just a pat on the head to yet another segment of Ken’s base. Women and teachers seem susceptible to this because it has become rule #1 in the Democratic playbook and they do tend to march to the polls like zombies in search of that lever with the D next to it.

  • Bah

    So Ken, is there not some basic level of knowledge that schools should impart to EVERY student? How would you measure that knowledge without some form of test?

    The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of students are NOT creative or brilliant. Uniform approaches that emphasize conformity and compliance are appropriate for most students. The few who ARE creative or brilliant (qualities that can best be recognized through TESTING) should be pulled out of the regular class and put in a class for the gifted.

  • Parent

    Ken, I agree with you 100%. Our child is at Forest Edge Elementary. They don’t even hold separate classes in math or English based on ability level. I suspect it’s because they want to show the most improvement in their “average” test scores. The’ve calculated that the benefit they see in the improved scores of poor-performers outweights the burden they place on their best students. The best students in the class should be grouped together and challenged. Instead, they’re asked to sit with the worst-performers to complete one boring worksheet after the next that’s far below their ability level. It’s crippling.

    To “Bah” who says the best students should just be moved to a gifted class, if you’re at the top 1% in math but average in English, you won’t get placed into the gifted program. Or if you’re a boy you generally don’t get placed into it – probably because the kids get tracked so young and are more disruptive than girls at that age. Or if you’re a minority you’re generally left out of the gifted program. The demographic differences at Forest Edge between those selected for the gifted population and the general population are stark.

    I agree with your thesis, Ken. Each student needs a custom education suited to their needs. Tweaking the system probably doesn’t solve this. A revolution is definitely needed.

    • Bah

      “Each student needs a custom education suited to their needs.”

      The ultimate logic of this is a 1:1 teacher to student ratio, which is untenable for the public school system to provide.

      The “revolution” that you call for already exists. It is called home schooling. Nobody knows, or cares about, or can cater to, the “custom needs” of each child more than the parents. If Forest Edge is really totally unsatisfactory for you, then you should home school instead.

      • Parent

        Well, that’s not really a public school option at all, is it? Home schooling is impractical for most parents and ineffective for all but parents with the most well-rounded education or those with narrow interests for their children.
        A revolution in teaching could involve a combination of technology and teachers, but it has to break free from the old-time “students sit in chairs while teacher lectures” mind-set. It could start with a deeper understanding by teachers & administrators of each student’s abilities. It could create incentives for educators to help every student improve to the best of their ability, not incentives to teach to the lowest common denominator.

        • Chuck Morningwood

          Instead of students parked in a chair listening to a teacher, you seem to be advocating for students parked in a chair listening to a recording on a computer.

          • Parent

            I’m certainly not advocating a chair-focused education. Look, I’m no education expert, but it’s obvious what’s not working. It’s also obvious that some innovation is needed to improve the quality and efficiency of our education sytem. Ken Plum’s no expert either, and he doesn’t pretend to be. His role is to bring attention to topics that need it and solicit input from all parties on ways we can move forward. He does a great job at that.

        • Bah

          Your “customized instruction” idea isn’t a public school option either. As I said, it would require too many teachers to be affordable.

          Home schooling is impractical for most parents and ineffective for all but parents with the most well-rounded education or those with narrow interests for their children.

          If you don’t love your kids enough to do that, don’t whine about public school.

          And it is not impractical or ineffective. Plenty of people do it, and do it well. Public school teachers are simply not that special. the average person could most certainly do their job, and if they were teaching their own children, do it much better than a stranger could.

  • Rational Reston

    I slag off on Delegate Plum quite routinely, but this is the most palatable column he has had to date. Teaching is more of an art than a science, and teaching to the students would provide better results (you don’t need a 1:1 ratio, teachers are smart professionals and can multitask).

    Though Del. Plum does fall into his now classic formula of identifying a problem with no attempt at a solution.

    • Bah

      “teachers are smart professionals and can multitask”

      Uh huh.

      When someone says they are “multi-tasking”, they are invariably a distracted person who is trying to do too many things, and is doing each of them poorly.

      If you want to do something well, you have to concentrate on that one thing. Period.

  • FULL TIME BOJANGLER

    Ken Plum is a simpleton. Why is he given space weekly for his incessant dribble? Many of the comments here are so revealing. Its not true that boys don’t get placed in GT centers. My son was in the program at Forest Edge, and his class was probably 65% boys. Every parent believes their child is “gifted”. A truly gifted child is not average in any course work. They excel across the board. If parents are truly concerned about their children’s education, they will stand up and fight against illegal immigrants flooding the schools. I heard on the radio yesterday that Fairfax County has over 1000 new illegal children. They will have a huge negative impact on the classrooms. Larger class sizes are inevitable and the amount of resources these law breakers consume is not sustainable. So, listen up LIBS. If you really care about your kid’s education, do not support the lib agenda. RestonNow, a lib mouthpiece, posted an article a couple of days ago from FCPS superintendent Garza. She states the goal is to have all FCPS graduates be “good global citizens and stewards of the environment”. Its sad. I’d prefer the graduates excel at reading, writing and arithmetic. And they should learn about US History and the Constitution. Standardized testing is a fact of life and only those who do poorly complain. These good global citizens and good stewards of the environment may well face a lifetime of unemployment and welfare. But that is what Plum and the Democrats want. The more people dependent on the government, the happier they all are. My children graduated from FCPS schools years ago. If they were school aged now, they would be in PRIVATE schools.

    • Bingo

      Exactly right. I agree 100%.

  • Ocean Sprayz

    According to this article, today’s teachers’ unions aren’t really that interested in teaching: http://politi.co/X5mMK6

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