Fixing the Schools

Despite the fact that official spokespeople for the teacher’s unions, and teachers themselves, repeatedly make excuses for the poor scores their graduates keep recording on standardized tests, it is clear that there is a problem in the schools. American schools consistently rank among the lowest in the world among developed countries, and talk about “bias” on the tests won’t get us around that fact. Until those in the profession (and those who make their living from those in the profession) admit there is a problem, it will not go away. But the problem is complicated.

To begin with the obvious, teachers are not paid what they are worth. That’s a given. Compared with other industrialized nations — even tiny Finland that provides the world with a paradigm for the way to educate students — our teachers are not paid a living wage; many have to find supplementary work to make ends meet. Talk about long summer “vacations” is bogus. Most of the teachers I know have to find other work in  the summer. If we want to attract the best minds to the profession, we need to start paying them what they are worth. But that is only part of the solution.

Another key element in the equation is the fact that teachers in the public schools in this country must be certified to teach. This is not true in the private schools where, generally speaking, the students perform better on standardized tests. Nor is it the case, again, in Finland — though they do require a Master’s degree. There may or may not be a connection between low test scores and certification requirements for American public school teachers. In any event, in order to “guarantee” that our public school teachers can do their jobs, a very large bureaucracy has been built up that certifies public school teachers by dictating to the colleges in the various states what they must teach future teachers. Most of these courses must be taught by those who are themselves certified to teach and in many cases the courses they require are what are referred to as “methods” courses. The assumption is that teaching is a science and can be taught, but only by those certified to teach (a vicious circle). This assumption in any case is blatantly false. Teaching is an art and while experts can give beginners tips on how to do the job, it comes down to intuition and common sense in the end. In addition, methods courses are deadly dull and drive away many of the bright students who might otherwise make their way into the profession. I know this is the case from forty-one years of advising students, seeing any number of bright students drop out of the teaching ranks because they simply couldn’t stand to take the dull methods courses that tend to teach the obvious. Thus, if we want to attract the brightest minds to the profession, we need not only to pay the teachers well, we must also do away with the certification requirements, starting with the methods courses. It would serve the nation well if teachers were required to major in a discipline of their choice and then take an additional year of student-teaching. Knowledge of the field of study coupled with a year of working in the schools with a master teacher would help the young teacher learn the ropes.

There is a third step, however, and that has to do with dismantling “the Blob,” former Education Secretary William Bennett’s term for the “education establishment.” This blob consists of an “interlocking directorate of schools of education, local school administrators, and cadres of officials, ‘experts,’ and bureaucrats who populate the state departments of public instruction,” as Charles Sykes points out in Dumbing Down Our Kids. As Sykes goes on to point out, this directorate is mutually supportive and not open to criticism: they make the rules and guard the chicken coop to make sure everyone follows those rules. This is an absurd situation.

If we could implement them, these three steps would take this country a long way toward the goal of excellence in teaching. But that would not suffice to raise the level of learning in the schools. It starts in the home. Parents must spend more time with their kids, as Jane Healy has shown, reading to them and telling them stories. There are a number of windows of opportunity in pre-school years that close rather quickly, and if these openings are ignored, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for even the best teachers to help the student learn. As things stand now, according to the studies of brain development that Healy refers to, the left hemisphere of the brains of a growing number of young children never develop, something that should happen before they ever enter school. And without that hemisphere of the brain functioning, learning cannot take place.

In the end, unless we show ourselves, as a society, committed to the welfare of our children with better parenting, a determination to eradicate the many layers of the education establishment, and a willingness to pay the piper, improvement will never happen and our schools will continue to trail behind those of other developed nations.

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