Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Sunshine and Education: NYSED falls short on Reading Section

While the State of New York and the nation as a whole, attempts to pick apart and poke at public education to find best practices, we seem to miss the forest for the trees.

In our efforts to raise the scores and prepare our students for what lies ahead, we continue to fall short. Why? How? What can be done to meet the needs of students and improve our scores? Are we trying to educate our students to compete in the global economy? What skills are identified for the task? We continue to compare ourselves to other nations in an effort to create education that helps prepare our children for their future, and ours. The goal is, I believe, to prepare students to be able to compete, contribute, and keep the status we have achieved as a world power. Yet, we hear about, and read reports that continue to point out how we are lagging behind in math and science skills. We don’t fare well as readers or writers.

So we test and we worry. We worry over our students test scores and make attempts to prepare them for the test of the week. We field test. We grade-level test. We test against the standard. So, why then, do we continue to feed our students with narrow, world views? If they gain the academic skills we strive for, they probably won’t make it with the social skills we tend to ignore or minimize.

The 7th grade ELA test featured a story about Africa/East Africa/Kenya. As if these place names were synonymous and interchangeable. Continent, region, country. (When do we give the geography test?)

The story that students listened to was titled Cooking with the Sun. The article was excerpted from a story published in Highlights Magazine. The story was about solar cookers and the American (U.S.) doctor who introduced the cookers to Kenyans. Must we continue to push this egocentric, colonized world view? The problem as I see it, is that the story that was edited and presented as the listening component of the ELA exam portrayed Kenyans/East Africans/ Africans as poor, without clean water, carrying sticks on their backs, journeying for a day to find and gather firewood to cook. Mothers and children did this. Fathers were barely mentioned. I imagine this is not far from the reality of Kenyan life for some, perhaps most. I challenge the concept that this is bad or backwards. It is a way of life and a different standard of living worthy of a level of respect, but that is missed. The article states that Dr. Robert Metcalf changed the future for thousands, maybe millions, of Africans. He knew that billions of poor people around the world depend on the use of wood for cooking. Thousands/millions/billions! WOW! While the solar cookers are truly a great asset, the presentation of information is very limiting. They do save time, natural resources and make water safer to drink. This story could have easily been shared from these vantage points without perpetuating stereotypes.

I take offense that this seems to be the predominant image that we expose our children to regarding Africa and dare I say, possibly African Americans and all people of color? Needing help from outside, few male leaders, poor women and children. The stereotypes and cultural perplexity are taught and therefore supported, and on some levels institutionalized. There are plenty of children in our own continent/country/state/community that lack adequate food and basic needs. I have worked with many students who lacked water or electricity because service was cut off due to numerous missed bill payments, they were in the process of eviction or they simply had no other way to resolve the problem. Other students were determined to drop out of school because “that’s what their parents did”. We simply don’t glorify or attempt to romanticize these images. Maybe we should. Maybe the reality of our own limitations will reveal more about the testing and providing appropriate education than our weak attempts to create new, improved tests.

Many of the students I work with have a limited view of the world beyond their own homes. The belief about diversity, for some, is already too narrow. There were numerous, sensitive ways to report the information regarding solar cookers in Kenya, and the original story did so. I can only guess it was deemed too long for a reading section. Pertinent information that provided more of a holistic telling was eliminated. Instead we were asked to read and provide sound bites of hope and rescue for an entire country/region/continent.

The culture of Kenya is rich with diversity. The students, gaining skills by leaps and bounds. Efforts are being made, and realized to educate girls, as well as boys. The literacy rate is somewhere around 74%. Not so far from our own- 78% by some standards. According to a 2001 U.S. Census Bureau report, 94.9% of Kenyan immigrants aged 25 and over have at least a high school diploma. Comparably, only 87% of the American population has graduated from high school. Additionally, the proportion of the 700,000 Africans in the United States aged 25 and over with at least a bachelor's degree was 49%, much higher than the average for the general population of 26%.

I imagine some of our local students would enjoy a hot cooked meal from a solar cooker- when the stove isn’t working or the utilities discontinued. Sunshine can be an alternative to fire, testing needn’t be an alternative to education, or at least the need for sensitive, diverse, education.

We have not inherited this land from our ancestors; rather we have borrowed it from our children. Kenyan Proverb

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