Teaching and Learning in Quicksand
Anyone familiar with the works of children’s author Bill Wallace knows that he set most of his stories in Oklahoma. He also incorporated quicksand into his plots, so much quicksand, in fact, that many children grow up with the impression that quicksand is everywhere in Oklahoma. If the fictional grizzlies and mountain lions don’t get you, the quicksand will!
Of course, real Oklahoma quicksand exists in places like the South Canadian River, but instead of sinking like in the movies, you just get stuck. A similar type of sooner sludge now fills our classrooms after decades of time-wasting legislation and micromanaging regulations. Consequently, teaching and learning are now like struggling in quicksand on the South Canadian. The more you struggle, the more you are stuck.
Most education legislation is introduced with the best of intentions, but some has become classroom quicksand. For example, Oklahoma’s Reading Sufficiency Act (RSA) prioritizes the noble goal of basic reading skills for third-graders, but the mandated ninetyminutes of uninterrupted reading instruction is often developmentally inappropriate for their short attention spans. Quicksand certainly is one way to control wiggly 8-year-olds for 90 minutes, but our teachers have better ideas. Honestly, I don’t know many adults with 90-minute attention spans, so let’s keep the high goal of reading proficiency but allow teachers freedom to teach how real kids learn.
Other legislation is simply outdated, like Oklahoma’s teacher evaluation system (TLE). Adopted way back in 2010, TLE is based on research from the early 2000’s and late 1990’s. Furthermore, TLE has never been fully implemented, so we continue to mire teachers and principals down with an outdated and incomplete model. Frankly, it’s a time-wasting, paperwork monster that reduces meaningful instructional time. TLE may have been cutting edge 20 years ago, but more effective and efficient methods that truly assess kid-level growth now exist, minus the quicksand.
All these mandates arose from good intentions for higher standards, and our teachers and students can meet high goals, but not while hopping on one leg in South Canadian River mud. Before pumping anything else into classrooms, we should reduce some of the time-wasting and outdated mandates. Standardized tests and cookie-cutter graduation requirements may be unavoidable, but educators must now also provide medical, psychiatric, lawenforcement, and social work services. Little time is left to teach. All we need now is a few grizzlies or mountain lions!
Before we blame this on the “other team,” however, we must remember that federal legislation like No Child Left Behind Act and the Every Student Succeeds Act were both enthusiastically bi-partisan. Likewise, Democrats eagerly adopted Oklahoma’s TLE, and Republicans happily implemented it. I truly believe everyone meant well originally, but the slough of despond has now just become smart politics and big business. Classroom quicksand perpetuates failure, justifying Democrats’ demands for unlimited public school funding as much as it justifies Republicans’ demands for unlimited private school funding. Meanwhile, kidlevel solutions that actually strengthen the local parent-teacher partnership are ignored. Oklahoma’s parents and educators can meet the highest standards, but not when forced to teach and learn in quicksand.
Oklahoma’s classroom quicksand is like the real stuff along the South Canadian. It feels solid at first, but the more students, parents, and teachers struggle, the more they get stuck. To make it worse, we now have extremists throwing muck at the teachers and radicals throwing sludge at the parents. (Grizzlies and mountain lions?) Meanwhile, we expect students to somehow turn these mud pies into a future. Oklahoma can be the best, but classroom quicksand is paralyzing our local public schools. I doubt Bill Wallace saw his works as educational prophecy, but life sure seems to be imitating his art. Maybe it’s time to trust our neighbors, friends, relatives, and fellow-worshippers who make our local schools work at the kid-level. They can do amazing things, but not in quicksand.
Tom Deighan is an educator and author of Restoring Sanity in Public Schools: Common Ground for Local Parents and Educators. Email: deighantom@ gmail.com