Two Thousand Chances
by David Marquis ’73
A student in Texas goes to school, on average, 180 days a year. If they attend from Pre-K through tenth grade before dropping out, then they have been to school about 2,160 days.
That means our education system had 2,000 chances to convince a kid that school was worthwhile. And yet, many walk away. (Rather sobering to put it into those terms, isn’t it?)
What does that tell us? How long is it going to take us to get the message? The current educational model in the United States of America, which is based, above all else, on the predominance of standardized tests, isn’t working.
Is the solution to be found in pouring more time and money into raising test scores in big city schools? Or, is it possible to produce real, lasting change in our schools by educating whole human beings, by creating better models both for learning and for training great teachers? This is where Austin College comes in. In fact, Austin College has a great deal to offer in the discussion about the future of American education.
First, what does Austin College do, year in and year out, that makes it a great school? It engages students; it provides a variety of educational experiences; and it consistently offers high quality instruction. Why should we expect less of our public schools?
Why shouldn’t a public school be more like a good college, a place of inquiry and learning experiences that cause students to keep coming back? Such schools would be more focused on evaluation for the sake of learning than on evaluation for the sake of providing sound bites to the media about the latest scores. The reality is that many schools today offer dual-credit programs so that secondary students can receive both high school and college credit for certain course work. That reality needs to be made more universally available, especially for those who will walk away after 2,000 chances.
Second, there is the matter of training teachers. I am a proud graduate not only of Austin College but of the Austin Teacher Program (1974). I had the privilege of knowing and studying under visionaries and ATP founders such as Virginia Love, Bill Freeman, and Evelyn Milam. I had the chance to know Rosemary Mulder, who was the always loving and steadfast glue that held the program together. I also knew the late Tom Baker and Mayme Porter, who was my high school speech teacher and later a member of the ATP faculty and always ahead of her time. Those outstanding faculty members trained many fine teachers, just as John and Jane White and Julia Shahid are doing now.
American education today needs great teachers as much as, if not more than, ever before. But why should teachers stay in the classroom? There are those who will remain no matter what, who couldn’t imagine doing anything else. It’s their calling, plain and simple, and nothing will separate them from their students.
But do school districts truly value their best teachers, or do they take them for granted because they know they won’t leave?
At a breakfast gathering held recently in Dallas, I asked what was being done to provide incentives for public school teachers to excel and show initiative. The answer was disheartening. A high ranking school official stated that merit pay based on high test scores was one possibility. He completely missed it. Great teachers aren’t trained dogs who jump through standardized hoops. Great teachers write exciting lesson plans and develop groundbreaking curricula and come early and stay late because they are valued as creative, fully engaged human beings, not because they can coax high scores out of kids on tests that are, in truth, measures of mediocrity.
The good news is that a wind is blowing, a wind of change. School districts everywhere, including Texas, are pushing back on issues like standardized tests. Many districts have had enough of the accountability mavens who never spent a day in front of a classroom and yet spit out statistics and dictate to others how to educate. Of course our citizens need to know that their tax dollars are being well spent, but the point of evaluation is to educate children so that they will walk across a stage with a diploma in their hands, not out the door to life on a dead-end street. The further good news is that Austin College, with its January Term and C/I (Communication/Inquiry) and study abroad and Environmental Studies program and ATP and heritage overviews, its independent study opportunities and more, continues to seek improvement as a model for ways to engage a community of learners. The same can be done on a variety of educational levels in ways that give learners reasons to keep coming back for a lifetime.
To participate in the change that is coming to American education, I’m going to re-launch my one-person show I Am A Teacher in the same place that I debuted it over 30 years ago, on the Austin College campus at Ida Green Theatre on September 13. This version of IAAT will be the third major edition in the long history of the play. I’m excited to bring it back to Austin College and to be a part of the tradition of learning that our alma mater represents.
David Marquis ’73 is a writer, activist, and, most of all, a grandfather. The opinions shared in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views or policy of Austin College, its administrators, or its Board of Trustees.