I've wrestled with writing about public education for a very long time. I have ventured into the arena with cautious baby steps, uncertain if my right to free speech extended to criticism of what could be perceived as my employer. No job loss came about as a result of previous articles, so I think I'll push the envelope just a bit farther.
First, let me emphasize this: I have no quarrel whatsoever with my employer, and I'm not just saying that to protect my job. My employer merely follows guidelines handed down by state and federal governments. Failure to do so would result in loss of funding; loss of funding would be catastrophic.
With all of that having been said, let me make my point: public education has reached the stage of critical condition. Teacher shortages are high, while morale among those teachers still in the profession is low. American students fall woefully behind their counterparts in other countries in test scores – just take a look at this graph that clearly depicts the U.S. third from bottom amongst 21 nations and well below the international average in math and science. A quick Google search will reveal hundreds of additional studies, articles, surveys, and opinions on what is going wrong with education in the U.S. today.
So, what do I have to add to the mix? Only personal observations gathered from my experiences as a student and a teacher, beginning in 1962 as an elementary school student and continuing through today with my position as a high school teacher. I've taught at every level from kindergarten through post-secondary education.
Here are the things I think we're doing wrong and why:
1. Too much accountability. If one parent or organization files a complaint about something, the entire system changes. Entire forests are decimated for paperwork to be completed; I could make up a statistic on the spot, but I will just say I have made personal visits to my State Department of Education where I have witnessed literally millions of sheets of paper gathered in dusty stacks just in case someone wants to know what Mrs. Smith taught on October 3, 1997 in her 3rd grade classroom. The amount of time spent in preparing documents designed to do nothing more than protect us all from ridiculous lawsuits could be spent so much more productively – say, oh, with the students?
Much of this paperwork stems directly from the No Child Left Behind Act, which is based on one of the craziest concepts ever. It seems to me that the way we are preventing leaving any children behind is by holding the rest of them back to the lowest possible level of achievement.
2. Too few strong leaders. Unlike most businesses which employ specialists in various fields in order to ensure their company runs smoothly in all areas, education simply promotes successful teachers to positions they may or may not be equipped to handle. Just because someone is a great science instructor does not mean they have the background to become a strong safety supervisor or a great human resources manager. Education is big business; it should be run like one. Individuals from outside education should be recruited to fill certain non-education positions; salaries and benefits should be competitive with the rest of corporate America in order to attract top-flight folks.
3. Poor public image of the teaching profession. Unlike their foreign counterparts, educators are not held in high esteem in this country. Combine that with low salaries and you begin to see why the teacher shortage is merely increasing. If a four-year degree can net a college graduate a much-higher paying entry-level position, why not go for it?
Part of the blame may rest squarely on the shoulders of teachers themselves. They have not always demanded that they be treated with the respect other professionals receive. They accept additional, non-instruction-related duties, for fear of reprimand, transfer, or non-renewal. Can you envision lawyers on lunch duty? Engineers chaperoning field trips or homecoming dances? How about your tax accountant handling parking lot duty, making sure that late tax-filers don't ram each other in the parking lot?
4. Too many tasks assigned to each position. School principals, among others, have an amazing array of duties on their plate of responsibility. In addition to making sure that competent teachers are in place in every classroom and doing what they should be doing – a full-time position on its own merits – principals are expected to be proficient in a ridiculous number of diverse areas. They must ensure the physical plant is safe and properly maintained; the transportation system is working and staffed by safe drivers who are drug-free; the cafeteria is providing healthy, nutritious meals in a clean facility which meets city, state, and federal standards; the financial budget is in order and – again – adheres to literally dozens of state and federal regulations. At the middle and high school levels, add on the need to understand and follow state athletic guidelines for player eligibility; watching and recognizing signs of drug use and gang involvement; attending a wide variety of events ranging from choral concerts to award ceremonies to sporting events throughout the entire year. In my view, about six individuals with six different professional certifications are needed to do this job well.
Teachers, too, have far too many things to do apart from instruction (see #3 above). Would you expect your doctor, after he had removed your appendix, to run down to the accounting department and write a receipt for you?
5. Too many diverse demands placed on today's schools. Schools should be focused on student learning and achievement. Instead, we have programs designed to replace parents absent either in body or in spirit (I will refrain from adding "mind"). Last year, at my school, a student wrote an article in our school newspaper complaining about having to stop taking her math test in order to attend character education. She had a point.
6. Too little emphasis placed on the top students. A recent article in Time magazine entitled Are We Failing Our Geniuses? reveals some startling information. The most shocking statistic in this article divulges that we spend at least ten times more educating students on the low end of the spectrum as those on the high end – although the numbers of students in the two categories are roughly the same. We lose our best minds to atrophy, it seems, because we have nothing in place to challenge or stimulate them. Clearly, it costs more to educate those with special needs, as funds must be earmarked for assistive technology devices or paraprofessionals needed to interpret or enable. Still – ten times more?
Saddest of all, the "regular" kid – Joe Q. Average – gets completely lost in the shuffle. We're too busy meeting the needs of the few to address the needs of the many. And why do we do that? Fear. Fear of legal messes that we want no part of - we only want to teach.
7. Too many tests. We completely shut down our schools in order to subject our students to one standardized test after another. I don't mean one or two days a year. I mean whole weeks at the time. Instruction halts while we provide a sterilized, untimed test environment to ensure everyone does their best. This is ridiculous - students will not encounter this type of atmosphere in the future. Thus, they are testing in unrealistic circumstances.
There is a simple solution to this: If you want to ensure that students attain a minimum level of competence before presenting them with a high school diploma – hire competent teachers and trust them to do their job. If they assign a passing grade to a student in their course, then the student passed! Imagine that! If a student achieves the required number of credits or hours with passing grades, then they graduate. Having students take graduation exams (on top of ACT's or SAT's for college entrance requirements) is a slap in the face to competent teachers. And, from long, long years of experience, I know that success on standardized tests does not necessarily dictate that a student becomes successful in college or as a member of the labor force.
8. Too many changes based on too few facts. It seems we are constantly embracing a new program or two or five. Every time a new one comes along, we jump on the bandwagon without any proof that the program works. Or, maybe there is proof that it works, but for a student population dramatically different from our own. We change classrooms, grading policies and procedures, bell schedules, textbooks, uniform policies, graduation requirements, curriculum offerings – you name it, we change it. Bottom line – the basics are best. A student should be able to enter a school and know that the program they are interested in will be around long enough to complete it.
After I had committed all of this to my trusty computer, I asked some colleagues to summarize their thoughts on the topic. I could have saved myself a lot of time, effort, and brain power if I had done that first.
When I asked one particular teacher what she thought was wrong with public education today, she summed it all up in a nutshell:
Teachings of a Three Year Old... Turned Tyke,
by Hal Evan Caplan.
A father learns from the wisdom of his toddler.