This is part five, the final part, of a series in which I imagine what would happen if an alien visited the United States to understand school reform. You can read previous parts of the series here.
“It will get better,” the alien repeated. “How? When?”
“Soon,” said the ineffective teacher. “Too much harm is being done to our students. Too many people in control think they know more about education than career educators. The tide will someday turn and we will have order restored.”
“I can’t lie,” said the alien. “I don’t want our planet’s school system to be like your country’s. There is too much that I’ve seen that just doesn’t seem right.”
“Understood,” said the ineffective teacher. She thought it was an understatement.
“This is no way to run a school system,” said the alien. “I came here looking for inspiration, and the only inspiration I found is negative.”
The ineffective teacher smiled again.
“Except you,” said the alien. “Thank you. Thank you for showing me, so simply, what is right and what is wrong.”
The alien exited the staffroom. He found Arne Duncan and clasped his hands, saying, “Arne, thanks for your time, but it’s just not what I’m looking for.”
Duncan was genuinely miffed. The alien snapped his fingers to summon his shuttle. As he boarded, he thought he heard Duncan saying something about jobs and the 21st century.
Back on the ship, he called home to his planet’s president, who asked if he was ready to create a system based on the Americans’.
“Well, not quite, sir,” he answered. “My work isn’t quite done, but when it is, we’re going to have the greatest system in the universe.”
Three years later, the first of what would become many schools were opened on the alien’s planet. To prepare his planet’s new system, the alien tried to shut out everything he saw with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and instead focused on talking to students and teachers about what an ideal school should be.
From the students, he got ideas for classes in art, music, and physical education. They thought it would be great to get them every single day, too. They suggested school gardens, maintained by students and used as learning environments. They talked about classrooms with desks only for the kids who wanted them, and full of couches, bean bag chairs, pillows, and recliners for everyone else.
They had the idea to abolish all forms of summative assessment and argued the value of being evaluated by their work throughout the year, a more accurate measure of success, they felt, than standardized tests. The teachers on the committee chimed in to tell them these were called “portfolios,” and while not novel, were certainly forgotten.
They called for vocational education for those who wanted it, and thought it would be beneficial for students who wanted to be chefs to take over the school kitchens (or at least apprentice in them).
They spoke seriously when they told the alien how important it was for his planet’s politicians and media to support teachers and build them up as pillars of society, something they felt never really happened in the U.S. They gave reasons why everyone should be attending a school paid for by taxes, not corporations (they referred to it as “democracy”).
They argued in favor of recess (“We need to be able to exercise our bodies in order to exercise our minds,” said one 12-year old). They asked that veteran teachers be revered. They asked that parents be involved as much as possible.
All of these ideas were implemented.
The teachers had their own requests. The alien, listening to them, noted with irony that Duncan might have considered them selfish, but they actually seemed well within reason.
They asked that the alien’s schools provide meaningful professional development, chosen by the teacher or tailored to the teacher’s professional needs. They stressed the importance of autonomy. One said, “We’re not robots. We don’t all think alike. We can all do a great job if we would be allowed to.”
Their ideal system featured small classes (no more than 18 students in each) so that, “We could treat each student as an individual.” They, too, endorsed portfolios in place of tests. They didn’t speak much about pay other than to say, “Please don’t ever offer merit pay. It’s an insult.” They said it would be best to have administrators who lead by example and who solicit input from all levels of the staff. They said all kindergarten students should play 5 hours out of the day, and nap the other hour (that is, if they elected for full-day kindergarten). They argued for play in all grades, actually.
When they commented that poor families should be given books and educational toys for their babies and toddlers, the alien scoffed, saying, “We’re the richest planet in the universe. We don’t allow families to be poor.”
So other than that, all of their ideas were implemented.
The school system grew into something exceptional. In fact, it became the Finland of the universe – the system that everyone wanted to emulate. Earth’s countries began to follow suit when they saw the miracles of education borne from teacher autonomy, student investment, and all of the other ideas. The United States eventually came around, and it was Arne Duncan himself who called the alien to thank him for challenging his assumptions and putting the U.S. back on the right track.
“Now we can truly prepare our students for the jobs of the 21st century,” Duncan had said. “Maybe we’ll even figure out a way to visit you guys some day.”
While the test-crazy environment in the U.S. persisted, the effective teacher retired from teaching and went to work for a big testing company, writing questions for standardized tests for pre-schoolers (none of which they could read, incidentally). When the testing hysteria died down, she found herself unemployed – her company folded and she was left without a job. She eventually took a job waiting tables. After all, in each interview for a teaching position, she was unable to demonstrate an ability to teach effectively after all those years of test prep.
The ineffective teacher maintained her smile every day and continued to do what she felt was right for her students. Once order was restored, she became a two-time U.S. Teacher of the Year. The alien then recruited her to move to his planet, where she currently serves as their Secretary of Education.