Raising a roof ... and the education behind it




For the Recorder

Published: 10-13-2023 10:16 AM

While I’ll mention both the MCAS and, more broadly, assessment of learning in today’s column, neither concept is the focus. Rather, let’s consider what is essential about the education our young people get, how complicated that is to define, and how important it is that we recognize there is more than one way to learn, more than one way to be “smart” and more than one way to assess that

I was recently watching a crew of people literally raising the roof on the house our daughter and son-in-law, their two children, two dogs, two cats and one bearded gecko have shared for the past 17 years. It is (or was) a one-story house that was nowhere near large enough, and now will have a second floor. The roof was literally cut off, lifted off and placed nearby. Our son-in-law, Bob, who is an architect and builder, had built the second-floor frames, which had been sitting next to the house, waiting for this crew of workers and their immense crane to lift it on top of the now exposed first floor and then add back the roof. Bob will then do everything necessary over the coming weeks and months to make the upstairs functional.

At the same time that I was watching the roof raising through a barn window, I was meeting online with a group of retired educators who are very concerned about the MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) tests, about the harm that they’re doing to our children and to public education. Not one person on the call was against assessment; we all recognize that assessment is an essential part of teaching and guides us at every moment of the day. They were more concerned with how narrow school has become with testing as the driver and arbiter. They also worry that many students who do not test well, who do not speak English as a first language, who have learning challenges, or whose skills and strengths and ways of moving through the world do not align with paper and pencil or computer-based testing are harmed.

It was interesting to have this conversation with retired educators while watching the roof literally being raised, and I began to make a list of all of the things that Bob, the architect, the crew of workers, the crane operator and others involved with the project needed to know to accomplish this feat. To be clear, while I have a few college degrees and did reasonably well on the tests I took, I have no real idea of what they have to know to do the work they do. I am making a layperson’s guess, informed by my observations and some conversations with Bob. Here is my starter list.

They have to know:

■How to measure, including measuring sizes that are not necessarily square/straight lines.

■How to measure and work with angles that are not square.

■How to work with different kinds of wood, as well as how it grows, how it cuts and how it ages.

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■How our particular climate can impact building materials.

■How to read and research information from a wide range of sources.

■How to design space for humans, including growing children.

■How to transfer imagined designs into plans on paper.

■How to communicate those plans to others who will be working with them.

■How to operate design programs on a computer.

■How to budget time to factor in this project alongside work and family responsibilities.

■How to work with any number of tools.

■How to function as a member of a coordinated team (you don’t lift a roof alone).

■How to deal with money, financing, loans and budgeting expenses over time.

■How to work with electricity and wiring.

■How to purchase and install plumbing.

■And finally, watching the crane operator lift the framed second floor dozens of feet into the air, maneuvering it over the now roofless first floor and placing it down gently, precisely, allowing for minute adjustments so it was perfectly aligned, was awe-inspiring. I can’t imagine the complex combination of skills and knowledge that enabled that master to do his work.

The list could obviously be much longer but I think the point is made. When we think about the education our children need to be successful in their lives, to be productive and responsible members of their communities, and to be loving and joyful people, we discover it is an incredibly complex question. I don’t know how many of the workers raising the roof passed their standardized tests, but much of what they know and are able to do has nothing to do with what school offers or what it assesses.

I am not arguing that schools should teach all of these things; they can’t possibly teach all things to all people, nor should they. But given that schools can’t offer all of the education children need and given that no one can predict what they will need in the future, it is essential that we support them in becoming skilled learners who are able to learn throughout their lives. That could mean developing the skills involved in building a house or raising a roof, learning a new language, learning to play an instrument, adapting to new technology or something we can’t even imagine. We serve our young people best by supporting them in learning how to learn, and to then use that learning to make their lives and the lives of others better.

Which brings us back to the MCAS. School curriculums have become narrower since the arrival of the MCAS as schools and teachers have focused most of their time, energy and resources on teaching to the tests that are used to evaluate their own work. While that makes sense, since they and their schools can suffer consequences if the scores aren’t high enough, it shuts out many learners whose interests, strengths and questions do not align with the testing agenda and limits the kinds of education that are available to our children. Instead, we should aspire to educate our students so that they leave school with the self-confidence and skill set that enables them to learn what they want or need to learn.

This leaves us with fundamental questions that started this series of education columns: what education do we offer to the next generation, how do we make that decision and how do we carry it out? I invite you to actively join me in that conversation as these columns continue.

Doug Selwyn taught at K-12 public schools from 1985 until 2000 and then at university as a professor of education until he retired in 2017. He is the chair of the Franklin County Continuing the Political Revolution education task force. You can reach him at dougselwyn12@gmail.com.