A Few Basics…?

Education today has become a battlefield of sorts. There are fights over charter schools, open schools, magnet schools, college preparatory schools, tech or vocational schools, and about how and what material should be taught and by whom. There are battles over paying teachers and whether vouchers should be allowed or shouldn’t, and there are great variations in educational systems across the United States. And there are good schools of almost every type and poor schools of almost every type.

Then there’s the battle over what constitutes a good or great teacher, and what kind of teaching works best. Is it a variation on “the sage on the stage” or the “guide on the side”… or somewhere in between? But I’ve also seen great teachers who differ widely in how they teach, and the same of teachers who aren’t that great.

So how does one measure what constitutes a great or effective teacher? Is it how much the students learn over the course of a semester or year? That sounds reasonable on the surface, but it doesn’t take into account the variables over which teachers have no control. Have the students had breakfast and a decent night’s sleep? Students who are lacking in these will have a harder time making progress. Do the students have the language skills to understand the teacher easily, or will the teacher have to spend additional time dealing with those problems?

In general, students from more affluent backgrounds do better academically and progress faster, but even students from these backgrounds may have difficulties, emotional problems, learning disabilities, and some may just be unmotivated, or more interested in their personal electronic communication systems.

The current educational attitude seems to be that none of these factors matter. Teachers are hired to teach, and they need to get results. This is a hard-nosed business approach.

As an economist, I understand the business model. What people who apply it to education don’t seem to understand is that businesses have a level of control over their businesses that teachers don’t over their students. If an employee doesn’t come to work or do his work, he can be fired [even in government, although it takes a very long time]. Also, businesses get to examine the skills of potential employees and select who they hire. They get to specify the raw materials and equipment needed to do the job, and they can change suppliers to get the least costly or highest quality raw materials, or the quality in between. Teachers are stuck with whoever or whatever “raw material” comes through the door,and usually have little choice over the facilities and equipment they have at hand. Not only that, but the “raw material” comes in different sizes and qualities, with different “properties.” All that doesn’t matter in the educational “business model.” The teachers are the ones held responsible.

Despite all the rhetoric and the need, often expressed by politicians, to make education more business-like, education was once actually more business-like than it is today. Teachers could flunk students. Students weren’t automatically promoted when they hadn’t learned anything. Troublesome students were expelled.

The problem with this approach was that it marginalized students from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds, even intelligent students with learning disabilities. It also didn’t accommodate students who had trouble learning with the listen, read, model format of more traditional education. And, equally important, with formal education being seen more and more as the key to financial success, there were too many students failing and dropping out, and that upset too many parents.

So… U.S. education has tried to change to accommodate a wider range of students, which is commendable, even though the results often have not lived up to the expectations, and the fact that they have not has largely been blamed on the teachers.

I’d just like to point out that no business could operate profitably or effectively if it had to accept any employee who wanted a job, regardless of that individual’s intelligence, dependability, and skills, or lack of skills. Nor could most survive without control over raw material and facilities. But educators are required to do just that, and then blamed if they don’t work miracles. The real miracle is that many of them do, and most of those miracles go unrecognized because they’re merely expected.

3 thoughts on “A Few Basics…?”

  1. corwin says:

    As a retired teacher, THANK YOU for expressing so well what most of us have faced over many years. It used to be “if you can do something, thank a teacher”; now it’s “if you can’t do something, blame a teacher.”

  2. Daze says:

    Well said.

    As to what constitutes good teaching, John Hattie’s Visible Learning, summarises many thousands of studies on that, and should be read by all those making policy on education – though those with their own pet prescription won’t like what it says.

  3. Beth says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading your novels for at least 25 years, so I feel that I already have a window into the way you like to address problems in a multipronged approach.

    It’s my opinion that our inattentive approach to educating our population is directly effecting people’s ability to parse scientific data. (Whether this was an intentionally dumbing down of the populace or a side effect of losing a lot of smart women to other career options…)Add to this, the problem of bias within the scientific community due to both turf wars and intentional fraud perpetrated by corporations, and the result is lethal stupidity.

    So, my opinion is that many of these problems are interrelated. Which only makes solving them more challenging.

    Thanks for using your novels to explore our political dilemma. I appreciate the enjoyable plots and thought provoking situations your characters find themselves facing.

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