Having spend some little time as a teacher in the Public School’s of Georgia, I, sometimes, flatter myself that I know more of what goes on in a classroom than do the administrators of the school, the experts at the state office of education, and, especially, politicians. With this in mind, and after careful thought, I think I have the root cause of the failure of American Education summed up in one sentence: Educational leaders are either ignorant of, or dismissive of, sound educational research and theories.
How can this be, you say? How can educational experts not follow the theories that very expensive and time consuming research have uncovered? The answer is - I don’t know. But I strongly suspect and hope that it is economics. Because if it is not economics, it can only be incompetence.
Let me explain through examples.
Example one. Smaller class size enhances student achievement. This is a well-known and accepted maxim. So, knowing this, what does the Public School system do? They crowd thousands of students into consolidated high schools. You may notice that neighborhood elementary schools have fared much better than have middle and high schools in remaining small. Not surprisingly, the middle and high schools are the ones we hear the majority of complaints about.
Example two. Every student learns differently. Public School solution? Force canned lessons on teachers, telling them that they must use this system, or that system. The ultimate disregard of this theory is demonstrated in high schools that demand teachers administer so called, Benchmark Tests. For the layman, these are tests that every teacher teaching the same subjects must give to their students on particular days. They are nothing more than an administrative tools designed to give administrators figures to fondle and flush over when asked “what are you doing to improve education?” The problem is, what about those students who learn slower than others? They are swept along in the river of figures and are forced to take tests they are not ready for. On the flip side of the coin, if all students learn differently, doesn’t it make sense that all teachers teach differently? Most of us can recall some favorite teacher. What set this teacher apart is often what made them so special. But in an educational system that values conformity, this isn’t going to happen.
Example three. Standardized tests do not accurately measure intelligence or knowledge. So what do we do? Keep student’s stomachs knotted at the thought of more and more tests. It’s funny that so long as a school isn’t at the bottom of the standardized test results, everyone agrees that the scores don’t necessarily mean anything. However, let the school be at the bottom of the list and millions of dollars are thrown around in a frantic attempt to “raise test scores.” The ultimate madness I have witnessed in this area are the little-known predictor tests. For the layman, these are tests that the state spends big bucks on. What do they do, you ask? Well, they predict how a student will score on a future standardized test. Yes, that’s correct, we give up a day of classroom instruction to test students on how well they are going to test when they test on a standardized test. Confused? Well, the people who spend your money aren’t. This puts a lot of money into someone’s pocket. Somewhere.
Example four. Authentic Assessment. For those who don’t know what this is, here is the educational definition according to Grant Wiggins: "...Engaging and worthy problems or questions of importance, in which students must use knowledge to fashion performances effectively and creatively. The tasks are either replicas of or analogous to the kinds of problems faced by adult citizens and consumers or professionals in the field." Sounds good, doesn’t it. But then why are the high stakes, pass or fail, High School Graduation Tests and End of Course Tests always multiple choice?
Example five. What are our students most in need of? To answer this question, a few years ago, my school loaded fifty or sixty teachers on the Big Cheese, for you laymen, that is a school bus. Once on the Cheese, we were shuttled around the county to different businesses where we were told what they were looking for in our graduates. In a nut shell it was this: When students graduate, they know all the readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic needed for jobs in our area. What they didn’t have is work ethic - getting to work on time - every day. This, the employers say, is what the majority of people are fired for. Huh? What to do? Immediately there was a push for a flexible schedule that allowed students to come into schools on a schedule that best suited their needs. Pay close attention to this word, needs, it is thrown about flippantly in education and is used to mask a plethora of incompetence and waste. In this case, it is used in place of the word, wants. What they really mean is this. If a student isn’t inconvenienced, he or she will come to school. If it means getting up earlier than they want, forget it! Exactly the opposite of what the business owners are requiring. Starting to get the picture on Education?
Example six. Can one teacher can teach thirty-five students at a time, all learning on a different level that the teacher has painstakingly taken the time to specifically plan for and document? Of course not! I can recall having an expert come to my school and give this lecture in a motivational format reminiscent of an A.L. Williams pyramid scheme. When he was finished, I told him politely that I didn’t think this would actually work and asked him if he would be willing to teach a class at our school for a semester in order to demonstrate his theory. He never came back. But why would he? He’s making six figures selling his program to teachers who will never use it and who will never earn as much as he does.
Example seven: What do the educational buzz words like “No Child Left Behind” and “Bell To Bell” really mean? Come closer, I’ll let you in on a little secret. Shhh! No Child Left Behind means… no child fails for any reason. Isn’t that what you want to hear when choosing a surgeon? “I went to a medical school that wasn’t allowed to fail anyone.” This used to be called “Social Promotion” before it got a bad rap, now it’s a way to pass everyone - but have paperwork to somehow show that the grade is legit. For example, Little Johnny gets to take the same test over and over until he passes. Abracadabra! Little Johnny’s gotten a 70. Here’s your diploma little Johnny! Never mind that the student was just pushed out into an unforgiving world totally unprepared to deal with it. Poor kid, he thinks he will be allowed to do a job over and over again until he gets it right and he’ll still be paid for it. Isn’t that what we just taught him?
Teach Bell to Bell is one of those ideas that sounds like a great deal for children and taxpayers. In reality it is an unrealistic pie in the sky idea. It means nothing more than the class begins immediately upon arrival and ends when the dismissal bell rings. Yeah – right. In schools on the block schedule, a class lasts ninety minutes – one and a half hours – and the students sit through four classes per day. That’s six solid hours of readin’ writin’ and ‘rithmetic. The next time you get a chance, go to a faculty meeting at your school. You’ll see the teachers turning off after about thirty minutes. Now, guess what a child or adolescent will do when trapped in a desk for that long.
I can go on and on with examples such as the idea of how Piaget’s levels of cognition are ignored, how children are seen as products and not as children, about doing away with recess, building schools without windows that look more like penitentiaries than places of learning, and increasing rigor in elementary schools. Dumb (to me) as are buzz words such as bell to bell, no child left behind, etc. But let’s move on to the common myths that are perpetuated by educational leaders and politicians on an unsuspecting public.
Myth one: (This is a High School example. Since all I did was go to an Elementary school as a child, I will not pretend that I know anything about teaching in one - although this is what most people assume. Come to think of it, this is the same mentality people use in an emergency when they all look towards the doctor’s son. Yeah, right! Like he knows more about medicine that anyone else based solely on his pedigree.) Teachers can influence student’s lives. 180 schools days times 1 hour per school day = 180 hours. 180 divided by 24 equals 7.5 days that a teacher is actually in contact with a student each year. What` And they are expected to undo all of the bad habits of the other 357 and a half days? Get real folks. If the parents, politicians, and society fall down on their jobs, the likelihood of a teacher undoing the damage is very slight indeed.
Myth two: Teachers are qualified to teach anything and they are also well versed in counseling, law enforcement, psychology, child care, foster parenting, physical therapy, etc. If the teachers say they are not, the educational system is quick to give them a four hour course and pronounce them qualified. Yeah, right. If it’s that easy, why are psychologists, social workers, FBI agents, etc., required to go to College in order to practice in these fields? Couldn’t they get by with the same four hour course? Wait! Don’t say it, I know, they’re professionals so they have to be better trained. Then why are teachers held to the same standards? You don’t think so? Check on the lawsuits filed against teachers and school systems in these areas.
Myth three: Schools are used as babysitting and probationary centers for children no one wants around. Well, come to think of it, this isn’t really a myth… is it?
Myth four: Everyone needs a college education. Hey, teachers, compare your paycheck to that of a skilled welder who never set foot in any classroom more advanced than one in a Trade School – sorry, in a Technical College.
Myth five: All students can learn. Correct! But what? If you’re teaching Math and Little Johnny says, “Hey, you know what? I just figured out why they called the Edsel, an Edsel! Should you immediately give him an A for economics or history?
Myth six: The best teachers become administrators. If they’re so good, why would they want to stop teaching? Most administrators get into education with the purpose of transferring into administration at the earliest possible moment. Most committed teachers keep teaching in the classroom. This is not necessarily a bad thing and there are exceptions to every rule.
Myth seven: Teachers get paid when they are off for the summer. Get real! You really think a county or State government is going to pay someone not to work? Only the Feds do that! Teachers traditionally get paid for 190 days. 180 school days plus 10 planning days. Most school systems simply pay the salary out over twelve months at a reduced rate.
Myth eight: Year round school means that students go 5 days a week, year round, like going to a job. False, the students still only go for 180 days. Parents just have to scramble for babysitters more often and teenagers can’t find summer jobs because they’re only off for about three weeks at a time.
Myth nine: If your child isn’t in the 90th percentile on standardized tests, the school isn’t doing its job. I’ll answer this with a question of my own. In reality, shouldn’t only 10 percent of students be in the top 10 percent and shouldn’t someone always be in the lower 10 percent? If everyone scores in the top 90% the test isn’t valid. I could hold up a card and ask, “What color is this?” Answer, “White.” “Correct! You are all in the 100th percentile. Congratulations!” But how valid is the test and what good will it do them in the real world? They now all think they are smarter than everyone else. So why struggle to do better?
The school you graduate from is an indicator of how well you will do in college. According to the College Board, over 98% of the University of Georgia’s incoming freshmen received at least a 3.0 high school GPA, but as in most institutions, about 1/3 of them do not return for their Sophomore year. There are many reasons for this, but it’s still an interesting statistic.
Anyone who has taught for a few years in a public school could add many things to these feeble thoughts of mine. The milking of the ole’ educational cow is a gold mine. Unfortunately, the people doing the milking are not looking for the cream, they are looking for the gold.