Let’s Try This Again

A while back I commented on the fact that one of the problems with all the education “reformers” was that virtually all the rhetoric and the effort was concentrated on teachers and schools, but primarily upon teachers. In recent weeks, there have been new programs, press interviews with the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, and the national head of the teachers’ union, not to mention all sorts of other commentary to coincide with the beginning of the new school year.  And what do we continue to hear?  It’s all about how getting better and more inspiring teachers will improve education.

Who can disagree with that?

Except… it’s only focusing on half the problem.  It’s like saying that a good coach will always have a good team, no matter what sort of players the coach has, no matter what their background and motivation are.  That is, pardon me, bullshit.  Good teams require good coaches and good players.  Likewise, good education requires good teachers and good students, and unlike coaches, teachers don’t have the luxury of selecting and educating only the best students.  Putting all the focus on teachers, especially at a time when teachers have less and less respect from students and parents and, frankly, fewer and fewer tools to maintain discipline in a culture that has multiplied manifold the possible distractions and student problems, is not only unrealistic, but short-sighted.  Placing all the responsibility on the teachers is, however, far more politically and personally attractive than addressing the “student problem.”

What almost all of these “reformers” overlook are some of the key reasons why private schools and the best charter schools have better records in improving student performance.  In addition to better teachers, the parents are more involved, and they play a far greater role in demanding more of their children.  In addition, disruptive and disinterested students can be dealt with, and removed if they don’t improve their behavior. In short, they deal with student motivation and aspiration, and provide a supportive and disciplined structure for learning.

The other problem in focusing on teachers is that the growing emphasis is on test scores and their improvement.  Teachers tend to oppose this focus – and for very good reasons.  No matter how good the teacher, a classroom composed of inner-city students with poor educational backgrounds and difficult personal situations will not progress as fast as one composed of the best and most highly motivated students in the school.  How do you measure what progress represents a “good” teacher?  It’s easy enough to determine a terrible teacher, but an excellent teacher may put more effort and skill into creating a modest improvement with a difficult class while a competent teacher may show greater improvement with a less educationally-challenged class.

In addition, excessive test-oriented teacher evaluation creates pressures to “teach to the tests,” rather than pressure to teach students how to learn.  This further emphasizes teacher behavior and test-related causality, rather than dealing with the long-term needs and requirements of the students.

So… when are we as a society, especially the educational reformers, going to address the entire spectrum of problems with education, rather than placing the entire responsibility on the teachers?

2 thoughts on “Let’s Try This Again”

  1. Kelly says:

    K-12 education is definitely a team effort. It takes parents, students, and teachers full participation and requires a safe environment. It’s very telling in the area I live that various family members have had success in school not based on whether they live in one of the worst school districts (one of the worst and one of the best Colorado school districts are right next to each other) but in how well they worked together with their parents.

    Actually that points to an area that needs more attention – how to foster better teamwork. If a teenager cannot read it’s a tragedy not just for them but affects us all. While I agree with testing for basic competencies such as reading, writing, and math it’s not as simple as putting all the kids into a factory and spitting out fully educated adults. It would be much better if everyone learned how to work with others and to develop a never ending love of learning.

  2. My wife and I pulled our daughter out of a charter school, because even the charter school wasn’t the right environment. My daughter is 7 years old in October, and is already reading at a 4th grade level. Math is also 4th grade level. We’ve put her into a hybrid private and home teaching setup which will, hopefully, provide the right balance between discipline and challenge, to keep her interested. She gets intensive home study and she knows she isn’t going to be mouthing off or slacking off — not with us, and not with instructors.

    Alas, too many parents totally check out of the education equation. They expect the public schools to do all the work of educating as well as disciplining, and yet those same parents scream holy hell if their precious little brat is not told (s)he is a unique and wonderful snowflake 24/7. We are now a nation entering its third generation without significant parental discipline — as a rule — across the society.

    No wonder we’re off the rails with debt and the economy is in the tank. Nobody knows how to save or spend wisely, nobody understands half the problems on any deep level, because their parents and grandparents never cracked the proverbial whip, and they were never made to learn hard lessons our great grandparents and great great grandparents took as a matter of course.

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