If the apocalypse happened tomorrow, I would barricade myself inside an IKEA.
The showrooms of perfectly contemporary living spaces, the (seemingly) limitless spaces for exploration, the Swedish meatballs, the incandescently happy children running amok– everything about it is perfect. I hadn’t been to an IKEA until Saturday, when some of the other Education Scholars and I decided to check it out. We may have found utopia.
Our three hour shopping adventure was prolonged with a food break in the dining hall. As we sat and baby-watched, and as I tried not to say “Guys, this is literally heaven” more than once every five minutes, I reflected on two takeaways of my Education Scholars experience so far. I couldn’t help it; “It’s for the kids!” has been the education mantra of the summer, and the plethora of small children in IKEA reminded me of it.
The first takeaway was from just the day before. On Friday, the Scholars met with Eric Guckian, the Senior Education Policy Advisor to NC Governor Pat McCrory. Our Q&A session with Eric floated around several issues in educational policy, but the takeaway that stuck with me is that 65% of fourth graders in North Carolina currently aren’t reading at grade level. “Sixty, five, percent,” Eric repeated, slamming his hand down on the table with each word.
It’s common for me to fall into abstract, big-picture thinking. Apparently, it is common for NC’s State Board of Education, too: we also met with their executive assistant and policy analyst on Friday, and they told us that the board members often literally have a piece of paper in front of them that says “It’s for the students,” to remind them of their purpose. But when I was sitting in IKEA’s dining hall surrounded by children, it was easier for me to visualize the tangible, small-picture fact that, on average, two thirds of them probably won’t have the good teachers that they deserve. Good, here, means that their students’ progress is simply reaching their grade level’s expectations. Only one-fifth would receive an excellent teacher, meaning that their students’ progress is consistently above grade level expectations. And, on average, the excellent teachers in the top 25 percent make three times more progress with their students than the teachers in the bottom 25 percent.
ALL students deserve the chance to leap ahead in school and acquire the skills and character that excellent teachers develop so well. Unfortunately, because of things like salary and opportunity culture, the best teachers often flock to certain schools and positions, which means that a student’s zipcode can often determine their academic success compared to peers at other schools. (Obviously, note that this intersects with parents’ socioeconomic status (among a myriad of other factors, too) in regard to school zoning laws and housing choices.)
The second takeaway that I was thinking about in the middle of my IKEA meatballs was from Education Scholars orientation. For this particular activity, we had twenty minutes or so to think about our educational utopia, or our ideal “Future of Learning,” and how to best represent it visually. My partner and I used our crayon box to draw a pretty school campus, with a contemporary art museum in the lobby, outdoor recreation, a STEM laboratory, small classrooms and round tables, et cetera. We didn’t ignore the teachers or administrators in our utopian school (they were drawn out front, waving to students as they left), but it was predominately about the physical space and resources.
Now, I think that my Future of Learning illustration would just be a teacher.
Eric talked about some of his issues with education as a profession:
1. There are little to no opportunities for professional development. “Teaching is the most isolated profession in the universe,” he said. Once teachers actually get into the classroom, there is often zero professional development, which leaves teachers to fend for themselves. Consequently, most teachers don’t receive enough experience to become excellent teachers until their fifth to seventh year (according to sources that Eric cited). His anecdote– he visited an elementary school that had a cohort of three of four teachers who had all taught at the school for 30+ years. He asked them how often they were able to see each other teach. They said maybe once or twice, while “walking through each other’s classrooms to grab something.” Once or twice IN THIRTY YEARS.
2. Low professional standards, which leads to bad teachers. Eric’s anecdote: “almost every time” he walks into a classroom, he sees a student sitting in the corner doing nothing. Often a student of color, and often male, but always there, because the teachers ignore them. I don’t mean to downplay other issues in the education sector, like overloaded class sizes and overworked teachers, but in my mind and Eric’s, this was inexcusable for a teacher to do.
For every story that a student has about a great teacher in their life, how many stories do you think that they have about the bad ones?
Our Scholar cohort often talks about education as a profession, too, particularly in relation to other cultures. For example, most Asian cultures revere and celebrate teachers. Students and parents honor them, salaries are high, and it is an incredibly competitive profession.
We need to create an opportunity culture, he said, one where excellent teachers flock to the profession and to particular schools because 1) they want to be there, and 2) they are fantastic teachers. We should never stop talking about other issues, too, like lack of resources, access to technology and transportation, student poverty, graduation rates, etc.–but when I hear that a student is automatically three times more advanced than their peers based on the excellence of their teacher, that’s what matters most to me.
As I discovered on Saturday, my Future of Shopping already exists. It is a future in which I can get an unassembled side table for $8 and a cute throw pillow for $2. Now we just need a Future of Learning: one where people would be as excited about the education profession as I would be to head over to IKEA before my apocalyptic demise.
Okay, maybe a little more excited than that.