I worry about the future of education in this country.
Day after day I read news reports about state governments passing laws against teachers' unions and about the desperate need to reform our schools and get rid of the deadbeat teachers who are apparently the root cause of all of the problems of our society. I read stories about the unbelievably lavish salaries and pensions that these public servants take for themselves from the public trough while fighting against legal changes that would make it easier to get rid of even the weakest among them. I read about their selfish desire to protect their jobs instead of focus on our children. And I read how our children continue to fall behind China, India, Japan, South Korea and other countries in test scores, all because teachers' unions have made education such a cushy little gig with lifetime job security, incredible salaries, and so many other perks that teachers just don't seem to have motivation to do a great job teaching anymore.
I read these things and I wonder (as a teacher who knows the truth) just how many of our best and brightest minds, seeing all of this, could possibly desire to enter this profession in the 21st Century? Where will our next generation of great teachers come from? It's been difficult enough to recruit teachers with the (negative) salary disparity that (actually) exists between this and any other profession, but add on the societal blame game that the GOP is fomenting and I am not sure that I would have entered the profession despite my strong calling to it.
A teacher in Topeka, KA, recently published a column in the Topeka Examiner in which he wondered,
In what other profession are the licensed professionals considered the LEAST knowledgeable about the job? You seldom if ever hear “that guy couldn’t possibly know a thing about law enforcement – he’s a police officer”, or “she can’t be trusted talking about fire safety – she’s a firefighter.”In what other profession is experience viewed as a liability rather than an asset? You won’t find a contractor advertising “choose me – I’ve never done this before”, and your doctor won’t recommend a surgeon on the basis of her “having very little experience with the procedure”.In what other profession is the desire for competitive salary viewed as proof of callous indifference towards the job? You won’t hear many say “that lawyer charges a lot of money, she obviously doesn’t care about her clients”, or “that coach earns millions – clearly he doesn’t care about the team.”
A facebook friend of mine, in response to my posting this article, suggested perhaps a minister might be another example of such a profession. But I've been involved in many behind the scenes discussions in our church council about our minister and his inadequacies, some involving a faction of the church who want to see him gone, and still I have never once heard anyone claim that he does not know what he is doing.
Whether you are speaking of the professions that require apprenticeships and technical training before certification and licensing or those that require considerable education before even stepping into the field, members of every other profession are accorded by the public the courtesy of the simple acknowledgement that, by virtue of their profession, they know more about their fields than lay people do. Not so for teachers. I assume that a professional hockey player knows more about the game than I do as a fan. I assume that a film director knows more about his profession than I do, though I teach film. I assume that a plumber knows more about plumbing than I do, and I'd better be correct because I know next to nothing. I assume that a doctor knows more about medicine than I do. Heck, I assume that the barista at my local Starbucks knows more about making a good cappuccino than I do. So why, given that I have two MA's in my field and over 30 years of experience, would any lay person assume that he or she knows more about teaching than I do? Yet they do. Nationwide, they do, again and again and again.
They think that, because they have read a few articles and listened to a bunch of talk shows, they know enough to question the experts. Let them use WebMD to do the same to their doctors; see how far it gets them. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and these people have a little knowledge but believe that they have so much more. One issue here is simple consistency. Treat everyone the same way. Remember that the people to whom you have entrusted the education of your children are educated and licensed professionals and they are using the most modern techniques available to help your children learn, just as you'd expect your doctor to use the best methods possible to cure their illnesses. Teachers are constantly updating their knowledge in their fields and in the psychology of education. What these people have read and think they know, we have read and studied and discussed in groups and argued about and put into practice. But children are not little pieces of plastic that can be molded so they come out the same every time. Perfection is not a possible outcome. So people should stop expecting it any more than they expect a doctor to be able to cure everything that comes into his office. Treat all professional people the same way. Consistency. And it is a thing that the majority of the loud voices and politicians in this nation cannot seem to figure out how to do.
People complain about other professions, true. People complain a lot. It's their nature. But they do not believe that they know more about the profession than the professionals in it. With education, it is only natural I suppose: we've all been in school and we've all had our share of teachers who we feel have been less than edifying in their instruction. So if things do not go well it is not a great leap to begin to believe that too many teachers must be like these weak links from our past. And from there that tiny bit of knowledge I spoke about before, gleaned from right wing talk shows and magazine articles, reinforces a belief that teachers are the problem. It is patently absurd. It's also pretty much unique in the world. Most countries treat their teachers with utmost respect and honor. And if you want to ask why we are "falling behind" in education--a disputable "fact" anyway, since most of the countries we are trailing in test scores desire to emulate us in the creative and openly socratic methodology we use in our classrooms--you might begin with that very basic and simple fact. As I said at the outset, I keep wondering why in the world any intelligent young person today would want to be a teacher in America. And I deeply fear for the next generation.
An article in the New Yorker last fall even questioned the entire concept of the "crisis" in American education itself:
It should raise questions when an enormous, complicated realm of life takes on the characteristics of a stock drama. In the current school-reform story, there is a reliable villain, in the form of the teachers’ unions, and a familiar set of heroes, including Geoffrey Canada, of Harlem Children’s Zone; Wendy Kopp, of Teach for America, the Knowledge Is Power Program; and Michelle Rhee, the superintendent of schools in Washington, D.C. And there is a clear answer to the problem—charter schools. The details of this story are accurate, but they are fitted together too neatly and are made to imply too much. For example, although most of the specific charter schools one encounters in this narrative are very good, the data do not show that charter schools in general are better than district schools. There are also many school-reform efforts besides charter schools: the one with the best sustained record of producing better-educated children in difficult circumstances, in hundreds of schools over many years, is a rigorously field-tested curriculum called Success for All, but because it’s not part of the story line it goes almost completely unmentioned. Similarly, on the issue of tenure, the clear implication of most school-reform writing these days—that abolishing teacher tenure would increase students’ learning—is an unproved assumption.
The article says that "The school-reform story draws its moral power from the heartbreakingly low quality of the education that many poor, urban, and minority children in public schools get" and the issues we are now dealing with were first dealt with by laws passed under Johnson's Great Society. It's nothing new. But as to trying to reform American education as a whole?
One should treat any perception that something so large is so completely awry with suspicion, and consider that it might not be true—especially before acting on it.
No one--OK, I'll speak for myself--I don't have any problem with getting criticism. What I do have problems with is getting criticism from those who have never been inside a school (as adults), who have never taken a single course about the ways in which students learn, who have never once tried to do the thing that they are criticizing in order to know first hand all of the infinitely variable elements and aspects that compose it. I particularly dislike being the pawn of politicians' whims of the moment. Here is a terrible, insane irony: we have spent the better part of the last decade working to "reform" our educational system by creating more and more standardized tests and demanding that our students score higher and higher on them, emulating models we believe have been successful in China, Japan, South Korea, India and elsewhere. What those countries have been doing for the last several years has been to study our educational system. They have realized that all their lovely "teach to the test" methodologies have achieved for them is to created nations full of little brilliant automatons, while here in the US we create thinkers. They want to know how the creative, interactive classroom model helps to achieve that because it is in the ability to imagine and invent that we unlock the keys to the future, and these are abilities not scored on any test. These are what good teachers provide to their students. Of course, in this country, mired in our emulation of the model that our "rival" nations seek to abandon for the one that WE are seeking to abandon, we will only discover when it is far too late that we were actually the leaders all along...which is why those countries sent their best and brightest to our universities.
I will concede that the notion that teachers are considered the "least knowledgeable" in the educational profession is a moment of rhetorical flourish by the writer of the story I linked to. But he is entitled to it, I think: hyperbole helps us to understand the underlying argument. These things are descriptive. They are a form of metaphor, which is in essence what hyperbole is: a means to make a comparison in a creative and inventive way that captures the reader's attention. But what he IS saying is that our opinions about education often are valued less than those of the politicians and the micro-educated (see my above comments) though well-intended Tea Party advocates who feel the need to believe themselves to be sudden "experts" on every subject from the national debt to their children's education. I admire these people's zeal and their desire to make the country a better place. Sadly, their information is almost always poor and misguided. And of course it is: they have gleaned in months from the internet and talk radio and magazines what professionals have learned in years and years of careful study that has often led to MA's and PhD's. These sudden experts are on the rise in this country, and they are causing problems in pretty much every area that is important. And the real problem is that they are drowning out the voices of those who truly do understand the issues and who truly do know the options we have in resolving them. No one has ANSWERS; these problems are not so black and white as that. But true experts have ideas based on lifetimes of study, experience and, yes, expertise. When state governments disempower teachers from decision making in matters of education, when well-meaning people believe that the only thing that matters to us is job security and the mostly apocryphal cushy salaries and retirement packages we are earning, our ability to affect the right kind of changes in our own profession is weakened and even eliminated.
I don't know how we are going to get out of this. Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari argued last month in the New York Times that we need to do the exact opposite of what we are now doing.
The consulting firm McKinsey recently examined how we might attract and retain a talented teaching force. The study compared the treatment of teachers here and in the three countries that perform best on standardized tests: Finland, Singapore and South Korea.Turns out these countries have an entirely different approach to the profession. First, the governments in these countries recruit top graduates to the profession. (We don’t.) In Finland and Singapore they pay for training. (We don’t.) In terms of purchasing power, South Korea pays teachers on average 250 percent of what we do.And most of all, they trust their teachers. They are rightly seen as the solution, not the problem, and when improvement is needed, the school receives support and development, not punishment. Accordingly, turnover in these countries is startlingly low: In South Korea, it’s 1 percent per year. In Finland, it’s 2 percent. In Singapore, 3 percent.
That's a future I would love to see. And it's one that might just save American education. But it's not the one we are currently heading toward. I fear for us.
(First published in DailyKos.)