Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Two paragraphs on education don't make a plan for fixing our schools

I do support the president in our unrelenting pursuit of the terrorist...abroad and at home - don't forget Timothy McVeigh, or Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris.

The jury is still out on his plan for fixing our schools:


Good jobs begin with good schools, and here we've made a fine start. (Applause.) Republicans and Democrats worked together to achieve historic education reform so that no child is left behind. I was proud to work with members of both parties: Chairman John Boehner and Congressman George Miller. (Applause.) Senator Judd Gregg. (Applause.) And I was so proud of our work, I even had nice things to say about my friend, Ted Kennedy. (Laughter and applause.) I know the folks at the Crawford coffee shop couldn't believe I'd say such a thing -- (laughter) -- but our work on this bill shows what is possible if we set aside posturing and focus on results. (Applause.)

There is more to do. We need to prepare our children to read and succeed in school with improved Head Start and early childhood development programs. (Applause.) We must upgrade our teacher colleges and teacher training and launch a major recruiting drive with a great goal for America: a quality teacher in every classroom. (Applause.)

End Slice:

The very tragic situation is that our teacher preparation programs are littered with some of the worst role models for high quality teaching I have ever experienced. Oddly enough, when I was doing my undergraduate (BS in Mathematics Education), I had to endure lectures on such things as how to hold chalk. Nothing in the course curriculum prepared me to deal with the lack of discipline in our schools, the disrespect of the children, and the tendency for parents to cover for their children by lying. Yes, that is right, I had parents lie for their kids in futile attempts to coerce better grades for them.

The unfortunate situation is that the problem in America's schools is much more complex than simply "putting a quality teacher in every classroom," or testing. The problem is a societal one and requires a societal solution.

I am a little bit sad that W decided to insert his brand of humor into the education portion of the talk. I don't know why, but for me it really diminishes what he had to say and it sent the message to me that he doesn't care much about education at all.

About 50 years ago, people used to walk around our neighborhoods, and talk with their neighbors. Today, you can't go onto your porch for fear of a drive by or incidental shooting.

What's wrong with America's schools is a reflection of what is wrong with America. The fix must be sweeping and wholesale.

What should it be? Let the ideas flow in the comments to this post.


Missile Tow said...

You raise many excellent questions.

Here is one parent's perspective. I have 2 children in the local public schools. It is considered "very good" by California standards--test scores not as high as in the very rich neighborhoods or university towns, but generally in the 90th percentile statewide.

When our kids started elementary school we were astounded by the amount of time that teachers focused on nonacademic events and how little time was spent on the "3 Rs". Christmas pageants could eat up 2-3 months of preparation, jog-a-thons for the environment, self-esteem days, mental health days for teachers that guaranteed no learning took place when subs took over. And these were the advanced classess for the top tracked students.

We were also astounded by the low level of basic literacy skills of the teachers--I am talking grammar, spelling, vocabulary. And in mathematics? OH MY GOD! I am pretty sure that little math teaching took place simply because these credentialed certified teachers were never required to learn it.

Then an amazing thing happened. The state began mandating standardized testing. And lo and behold, academic rigor returned to the classroom. Granted, there was plenty of "teaching to the test" -- but when the tests cover basic skills like reading comp, spelling, grammar, addition, subtraction, and multiplication, it did not seem like a bad trade off to a parent hoping his children were being equipped to succeed in the real world.

Are there social problems? yes. But my parents went to school in the slums in the 1920s in New York, in elementary schools where kids spoke 7 or 8 different languages and no one pretty much spoke English. Yet, they all learned English and 90% of them or more learned to read. And lots of those slum families had social pathologies--we are talking about the world of Bugsy Siegel and the real "Godfather"!

Idea one--maybe we could learn something from how schools of old dealt with social pathology. My suspicion is that they dealt with it with an iron fiost and a bunch of assistant principals who imposed discipline, but also because the teachers did not have the freedom to blame the parents for the school's failure--their job was to teach kids to read and write and add and subtract.

Idea 2--the problems in education are structural. When we try local control, the schools get hijacked by local interests. See, e.g. Ocean Hill Brownsville in the 1960s. Or LA Unified today.

[Confession: I was a veteran of the 1969 NYC Ocean Hill Brownsville Teachers Strike that shut down the entire NYC school system for months. During the strike, my father was assaulted by my social studies teacher for exercising his first amendment rights to disagree with the union. This early life experience may have colored my attitudes towards teachers unions, even today. Interestingly, my dad remains a dyed in the wool union loving liberal, to this day.]
When we pour money into the schools, moneyed interests grab it before it does any good for kids. Teacher education programs are controlled by the geniuses that brought us "Natural language" reading programs in the 80s -- and 40% illiteracy rates in the school children.

Idea 3--You can't change the system without changing the incentives. That is why standardized tests help, even if they are not the whole answer. Charter schools may help, too, if only because it loosens the grip of bureaucrats--but it is also true that this is not enough.

Idea 4--With all due respect, from a parent's perspective, teachers are very quick to complain, justifiably so, about the aspects of their work environment that make achievement difficult or impossible. But they are not so quick to leave their jobs or force reform. In California, teachers unions have immense power, which they wield to make teacher's lives easier, of course. But what if, instead of complaining about a lack of money in the schools, the powerful teachers unions said enough is enough--we want the discipline problems out of our schools--or we will not work here anymore. That's right, why not threaten a strike for something other than money? The answer, I think, is that things would change quickly.

Idea 5 - - The most intractable problem is the problem you highlighted from your own personal experience--the domination of the teacher education establishment by people who do not know enough, themselves, to impose intelligent standards--and a generation of certified but substantively deficient teachers who are the norm in our schools today. It is unrealistic to expect the school systems to reform this themselves. Only an outside push will change this. Maybe it means vouchers, maybe it means testing, maybe there is some better way--but this is the heart of the problem. Well meaning teachers and administrators who have low expectations of themselves as well as their students.

Change the incentives so that teachers and principals must produce learning, and the teachers and principals will be motivated to insist on the changes that facilitate learning--it is only human. Will this be unfair to some teachers and principals? Yes. But what is most important here? Fairness to teachers and principals? Or teaching the children? It's not always an either-or choice. But there may just be an irreduceable level of unfairness in life, and the best we can do is decide where the unfairness lands.


Missile Tow

windspike said...

Thanks for the comment Missle Tow. You have given us a lot to think about.

Missile Tow said...

Well - thank you, Windspike. I find your blog to be extremely challenging reading. The combination of intelligence and good humor is genuinely refreshing.