Monday, May 11, 2015


NOTE:  I received the following commentary from Bruce Dillon, a retired teacher with 30-years of experience in California public secondary schools. The commentary is in response to two of my previous posts on education: Assessing Student Learning: the Curse of Standardized Tests; and,
Getting Serious About Educating Our Kids.


By Bruce Dillon

I’ve been out of the field since June, 2006, but I’d like to respond to your pieces entitled “Getting Serious About Educating Our Kids” and “Assessing Student Learning: The Curse of Standardized Tests.”

For some context, I taught in California public secondary schools from 1976 through 2006. I was named “Teacher of the Year” of my school in a district that covers the communities of La Costa, Encinitas, Solana Beach, Del Mar, Fairbanks Ranch, and Rancho Santa Fe on three occasions. I was recognized by the U. S. House of Representatives twice, the California Department of Education twice, the Office of the Governor, the California State Senate, the California State Assembly, and the local Rotary Club three times. I served as Department Chair for 18 years and District Department Chair-Standards Development and Curriculum Team Leader for 17 years. I chaired our School Site Council seven times. I taught as many AP and honors students over my tenure as I did regular and at-risk students. In a district blessed (or cursed) with affluence, we were among the lowest funded secondary school districts in the state for three decades, based on some formula tied to property taxes developed during the 1970's. I’ll grant that you have more study of the subject than me, but I’ll speak from the perspective of one guy in the trenches. And I’ll probably sound like a cynic…

What is the critical difference between the Finnish educational system and ours? It is the culture of our schools. I’d suggest that Finnish parents are not driving the educational expectations much beyond their own homes. Parents here are a force to be reckoned with. They get the educational system they demand. Homework can put a major damper on a carefree family weekend…so it has been quietly going away for the past dozen years. Teachers “cave” because they are continually one step behind their high-tech cheating students and get little parental support. Parents quickly “lawyer-up” when their kids find themselves in trouble. Donating a football stadium can and does make it all “go away.”

Said another way, parents here believe their students’ schools are great and the teachers are great…but, at the same time, education is in a sad state of affairs and teachers, generally, don’t deserve much respect. The parents who demanded a closed campus when we opened our high school were among the first to request off-grounds passes so their students could skip geometry to enjoy a leisurely and, presumably, much deserved Friday lunch date at the local Chili’s. These parents donated freely to the school’s educational foundation to fill gaps and provide enrichments…and subtly (but surely) insidiously eroded the school culture at the same time. None of the ten or so principals over the past twenty years has been able to make a dent in turning the trend around.

So what do our parents really want today? Swimming pools, apparently. (San Diego Union-Tribune, 14 Apr 2015.) The highly educated parents here also tend to opt-out of two programs—standardized testing and childhood vaccinations—in numbers that boggle the mind.

Just hours ago, I watched a local NBC news report about a local school district that offers a $100 “reward” to students for each Advanced Placement exam passed. Students in Finland may take “school more seriously because everyone agrees it should be,” but that is not the reality here. “Accountability” may sound good in a school’s mission statement, but it rarely applies to the student or parent constituencies. Students here are so “stressed” by high-stakes exams that they require (and parents demand) an administration-ordered ban on homework during those testing periods. Somehow, however, students manage to free up those weeknight evenings for keg parties just off the grid. Go figure.

Personally, I never taught to a test. I just taught a rigorous course and figured the rest would take care of itself. I taught the skills to succeed on exams and sometimes even anticipated essay question prompts, but it was just a result of attending conferences, watching trends, and lucky guesswork. I know colleagues felt the testing pressure. My son brought home a “study guide” the night before a high-stakes exam in 2002. The next day I noticed a “remarkable” similarity” to the state assessment device. OK, it was more than “remarkable.” Need I say the exam was delivered to an unsecured office in our quad more than 24 hours prior to exam administration?

Students, too, support the bar being set pretty low. One of our local tutoring services is called “Answers Plus.” That pretty much sums it up. When provided the skills for authentic, life-long learning, students will opt for expedience almost every time. Five minutes spent reviewing and/or reflecting after a 120-minute class period is an unreasonable request for most. Students and parents, alike, have no problem with three hours spent running pass routes on the gridiron after school…Just don’t expect the same for Spanish or chemistry.

Teacher training. It should be more rigorous. I mentored many teachers over the years and have seven former students currently teaching writing in our district and others teaching at Stanford University, the University of San Francisco Medical Center, and other upper-echelon institutions, but to say I saw some “less than qualified” teacher-education candidates during my last few years on the job would be kind. The bar was definitely lowered (by CSU San Marcos, in particular) to fill a need. Candidates freely acknowledged during interviews that they were not qualified or that they should not be seriously considered to be put in front of a classroom of students due their documented learning disabilities/504 plans. Really, candidate? You’ll never make it past me in the screening process. My kids attend here and I’d never have them suffer your lack of preparation.

Authentic education and “winning at the game of school” are very different notions. One is about lifelong learning; the other is about grades and a resum√© to get into a “dream university.” The ugly truth is that something like 25 per cent of students won’t make it past that first year in the university. Guidance counselors never bring up that fact…which is a great disservice to students.

I believe we all know what works, if we will only put our limited time and resources where the payoffs are. Encourage students to read good books…a lot of them…cover to cover. Have students participate in music education from an early age. Bring back reading education in place of some of the second- and third-rate literature that is offered in hopes that students will somehow recognize grammar (good and poor) in the process. Acknowledge that drills and programmed learning are not always the devil. For some kids they work remarkably well. Acknowledge that not all of our students are college-bound and offer vocational options. Keep curricular activities in the forefront over co-curricular and extra-curricular activities. Ensure that principals are truly educational leaders on campus and not just glorified activity directors dependent on the district office to carry them over for another year based on their fidelity. And encourage principals to have personalized improvement plans on hand for every staff member, based on teacher interests and campus needs. (The best principals actually do, you know.)

Our schools can be great. (I won’t say “Great again.” That WOULD make me sound like a cynic.) But our communities need to GENUINELY value education. Many elements of the Finnish system could make a difference. But it all starts in the home with story time, good books, high expectations, checking over homework, nightly discussions of current affairs over the family meal (whatever the family may look like), and accountability for all constituencies…not just teachers. Until we take education seriously, we will get the “dumbing down” of our kids that our culture is demanding.

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