Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part commentary considering how college classes are designed and offered. Part One, available here, details retired psychologist and former Baker College instructor James Woolcock’s rumination, “Grandma’s Homemade Soup,” on why he left teaching at the Flint campus. We requested a response from Baker College, but since our request was never acknowledged or answered, we turned to EVM education writer Harold C. Ford, retired from 44 years in teaching, for a second perspective. While his experience was in a public high school, his thoughts about how classes are designed and delivered are, we think, a relevant complement to Woolcock’s concerns.
Not everyone can cook
By Harold C. Ford
Very early in the marriage, my first wife, who became a career educator as did I, prepped a breakfast to send me off to work. She grabbed the kettle from the stove and poured its water into my cup and we both watched the granules of instant coffee rise to the top, refusing to dissolve. The crackling sound inside the kettle shortly after the stove flame was lit had signaled to her that the water was ready. It was not, of course; the water was still cold. As the years passed, she became a better cook and educator and so did I.
During my multi-phased 44-year career in public education I continuously searched for new and meaningful ways to deliver instruction. I borrowed from others and I invented my own. Here are some examples:
- Listening to and analyzing The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” helped students understand revolution and counter-revolution and the turbulent 1960s. One line from the song: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
- A phone call to the Genesee Valley Indian Association netted a Native American guest speaker, a participant in the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He interpreted the American west with an authenticity beyond my ability.
- To study causes of the Civil War, I developed a simulation game titled “Sectionalism.” For an entire week, my American History students became U.S. Representatives from the North, South, and West grappling with the same issues as yesteryear’s lawmakers.
In the classroom next door, however, Annie’s students fended for themselves day after day, week after week. Inadequate planning, a pittance of instruction, and insufficient classroom management transitioned to ghastly boredom and disruptive behaviors.
Down the hallway, Robert used his grade book to manage his classroom. “E!”, he shouted as a student did something disapproving. The failing grade was visibly inserted into the book to warn others of their possible fate. And Robert filled his American History class with films, hour after hour, week after week. When surprised once that the film on “Labor” was about childbirth, he showed it anyway.
Year after year, I watched as unsuspecting students made their way through a secondary educational experience awash with potholes of uncertainty. Mr. U used letter grades only. Mrs. V used a point system, then converted the points to percentages, then to a letter grade. Ms. W’s passing grade started at 50%, Mr. X’s at 70%. Mrs. Y provided bounteous extra credit opportunities; Mr. Z provided none.
Unevenness of the academic experience argues for standardization
The unevenness of the academic experience was matched by equivalent uncertainties in behavioral and attendance expectations as well. Add to that the transient nature of our nation’s student population and the already uncertain road traveled by our students becomes more unsettling as they meander from one school district to the next.
According to a 2009 report by the Calder Urban Institute with Duke University and five other institutions of higher learning, “one in six of the nation’s third-graders have attended at least three different schools since the beginning of the first grade; and student school mobility remains a common phenomenon at all school levels…”
In the final decade of my career in the Beecher Community School District, substantial progress was made toward standardizing students’ educational experience. Curriculum was clarified and constructed such that sequential learning was provided for, especially in essential disciplines such as math and history. K-12 classroom management became more uniform under a conceptual umbrella titled No Nonsense Nurturing. Attendance and grading policies were standardized. These measures helped make education make (better) sense for students, staff, and parents.
On the other hand…
Flash forward and upward to the university experience. I remember these examples vividly from attending UM – Flint in the 1970s:
- Professor Ken (first name) designed and taught a unique class titled “Communal Societies” for 1960s student activists like me. The class featured independent study, research-based reports, and classroom discussions. It was a meaningful experience.
- Professor Carl, a former U.S. State Department official, taught a class on Russian/Soviet Union history that featured more traditional lectures and note-taking followed by quizzes and tests. It too was a meaningful experience.
- Professor Richard taught Biology. He obviously had mastered the content of his discipline but he couldn’t teach it effectively. The class was a disappointment.
Part of the challenge for American education seems obvious. How do we ensure the integrity of the educational experience at any level? How do we provide for the independent proficiency of instructors like Ken and Carl and minimize or prevent the harm done by Richard, Robert, and Annie?
American education is falling behind and maybe falling apart. The evidence is all around us.
In his 2008 book The Global Achievement Gap, author Tony Wagner noted:
- The high school graduation rate in the U.S. (about 70 percent) is well behind that of countries such as Denmark (96 percent), Japan (93 percent), Poland (92 percent), and Italy (79 percent).
- Only about a third of U.S. high school students graduate “ready for college.”
- The U.S. now ranks tenth among industrial nations in the rate of college completion by 25-to-44-year-olds.
Closer to home, a just-released report by The Education Trust-Midwest shows that Michigan’s third-graders are last in the nation for early literacy, and scores continue to fall. Amber Arellano, executive director of The Education Trust-Midwest, told Michigan Public Radio that our state misses the mark on how to improve its schools.
“In Michigan we think a lot about…competition, charter schools, governance, but all of those things don’t actually reach into the school building…where teaching and learning happens…”Arellano said. “We have this patchwork approach to our strategies and our spending…It’s such a crapshoot…We (don’t) have real prescription or guidance or any accountability.”
I like to cook. Sometimes I wing it with success. More often than not I am guided by a recipe.
Harold Ford labored for 44 years in public education, 43 in Beecher Schools. He spent 31 years in the classroom. He was the principal founder and director for 10 years of the Beecher Scholarship Incentive Program funded by the Ruth Mott Foundation. He administered Beecher’s 9th Grade Academy for three years. He graduated from Mott CC, UM-Flint, and UM Ann Arbor. His marriage to Lorretta has survived nearly three decades. Together, they parented Paris, Martarius, Justin, Fanny, and Julian.