27 March 2011

The Media on Education – Grade: F

We Do Not Have an Education Crisis in this Country. We Have a Societal Crisis

Regardless of the dearth of media coverage, the protests and rallies here in Madison, Wisconsin continue. There are people inside and outside the capitol every single day, rain, snow, or shine. One particular group that is represented each afternoon is teachers. Yet, amid the constant media chatter about public education and teaching, and the absurd vilification of teachers, the one voice that is rarely if ever represented in the news is that of an actual classroom teacher.

Among the many segments of society profoundly affected by Wisconsin’s and other states’ recent and impending regressive legislation is public education. But despite what either of the two dominant political parties claim about their interest in and respect for education, the entire American public education system has been under attack for decades. All of the political rhetoric about leaving no child left behind and racing to the top amounts to nothing but ignorant and useless policymaking, which purposefully masks the threats to our public educational systems and disgracefully blames the only people who actually know what is going on in the nation’s classrooms.

It is not simply the conservative arch-rivals of public education who get it all wrong. Nicholas Kristoff and those behind the recent documentary travesty “Waiting for Superman” also reveal their elite status and their cluelessness when speaking about teachers and education. The only voices in the ongoing discussion about education in America are those with tenuous ties, if any, to the actual institution.

Teachers are a special segment of society. Most enter their profession out an altruistic calling to help, out of a concern for children, and because of their kind and caring natures. In addition, as one local teacher I spoke to recently stated, teachers are rule-followers. With the few iconoclastic exceptions, most teachers want to please; they do not want to publicly complain or rock the boat. Thus, it is difficult to get teachers to speak out about the horrific conditions under which they work and to demand the things they truly need in the classroom.

I am currently a university teaching assistant, which is quite different than a classroom teacher. Nevertheless, I previously taught in a public school, a private school, and a charter school. Moreover, my experience as a middle-class student who was able to attend both public and private schools opened my eyes to the great disparity in educational opportunities in America early in my life.

First of all, American public schools have not deteriorated because of bad teachers. Though what constitutes a “good” teacher can be highly subjective, I think I can safely say that most teachers are good teachers. The vast majority are competent professionals who do their jobs well. There exist some teachers who have a more difficult time with conveying information to their students, and an extremely small minority who do not put in the time they perhaps should. But most teachers are not “bad” – particularly if you consider what they are up against.

I have not met one critic of teachers who could handle teaching in a modern classroom for a full day, or even for 30 seconds - forget a career. The concentration and multi-tasking necessary for teaching has been compared to that of being an air-traffic controller. Teachers are not only responsible for imparting information. They must also serve as role models, counselors, psychiatrists, disciplinarians, and parents to their students. In fact, I have even witnessed a teacher become a guardian of a student who would have otherwise been homeless. Some teachers who may seem to be “slacking” are probably just attempting to remain sane by allowing themselves a split second of personal time and space. The amount of work that teachers have is incomparable to almost any job that I have seen - and it never ends.

Teachers begin their days well before dawn. They usually arrive at work an hour or more before classes start, and often stay long after classes end, either to engage in extra-curricular activities with their students, to work in their classrooms, or to devote extra time to their students. When they go home after their already 8-10-hour day, they normally have a bare minimum of two hours of preparation and grading for the next day. In addition, teachers usually have professional development meetings, grade-level or course-specific meetings, and other professional trainings or duties such as parent-teacher conferences and open-houses weekly or bi-weekly. Their weekdays and weekends are consumed with teaching, preparation, and assessment. Most non-teachers, even those highly respectful of the profession, cannot even conceive of the amount of time it takes to be a teacher. It is not a job for the faint of heart or for those who do not wish to work hard.

Second, contrary to popular opinion, raising teachers’ salaries will not bring better teachers to the profession. Teachers do not enter education because they care about career momentum or financial compensation. Teachers become teachers because they care about education and because they care about children. No one would tolerate the stressful working conditions and unending criticism that teachers endure if they were not at least somewhat selfless and altruistic. Increasing the base salaries of teachers might attract different people to the profession, but those people would be far from “better.” The kind of people attracted to higher salaries are careerists, people who compete to receive the most accolades, people who care more about their own egos and their own prestige - about materialism, public successes, and external validation - than about substantive, meaningful work. Ivy League graduates and straight-A students are not necessarily better people and would not necessarily make better teachers. Indeed, the reasons for their high grades and prestigious diplomas have less to do with superior intelligence than they do with fortuitous pedigrees.

To be sure, teachers deserve higher salaries – on the order of 1000% raises – but if you asked teachers what they wish for, higher salaries would be the last thing they would mention. They would tell you that they want:

• smaller class sizes, so that they can give more individual attention to their students and have fewer papers to grade, so that they can devote enough time to give students thorough feedback and assistance to help them learn
• more preparation time, so that they can devise creative and interesting lessons to enable students to learn and be engaged
• more autonomy, so that they can help students think critically instead of forcing the students to engage in rote memorization for standardized tests
• more support from school staff, so they can teach rather than having to do much administrative and bureaucratic work that is not connected to educating their students
• more social supports for students so they can devote their time to learning more effectively
• more time for their students to engage in art, music, and physical education
• and did I mention smaller class sizes?

Everything on this wish list relates directly to better education. While we spend money on new technologies and gadgets for classrooms, new books and learning programs which enrich the pocketbooks of corporations, we do nothing to enrich classrooms in the ways that teachers and students need most.

One quarter of our children live in poverty. We have a crisis of unemployment, joblessness, hunger, and homelessness that worsens by the day and deeply affects all of our school-age children. In addition, we have a cultural crisis in which superficiality and the spectacle of entertainment are revered beyond any moral and civic responsibilities to each other and to our communities. We have a crisis of technophilia, in which we are addicted to television, computers, iPads, iPhones, smartphones, etc., and lack important engagements in interpersonal conversation and true emotional attachment. And we have a crisis of society, in which the corporation has taken over all aspects of our lives, including our educational systems. Our schools have been reconstructed to train mind-numbed automaton serfs for the benefit of their corporate overseers.

Furthermore, while teachers are held to higher standards than probably any other profession, and critics of teachers have zero tolerance for anything but impossibly perfect outcomes, the children they teach are either ignored or held to no standards or personal responsibility for their own learning.

Many poor students have obligations and burdens beyond their control which impede their abilities to devote themselves to their educations. To address the educational needs of these children, their social and economic needs must be dealt with first, and this larger, societal issue cannot be adequately addressed by teachers, though many try to do so.

But there is also another fact that most teachers will never speak of publicly – students are not all perfect angels, not by a long shot. Though I hate to rely on TV as a model, the show “Supernanny” depicts how poorly some children are parented and how spoiled and entitled so many children are now more than ever. These same children who throw endless temper tantrums, speak back to adults, and obtain everything they want in every way they want it are the children that teachers are supposed to manage and educate every day. Rather than support the authority of the teacher when problems arise, parents of these children back up their offspring and complain to administrators about teachers, rather than confront the control their own children exert over them.

Clearly then, merit pay based on student achievement - another of the commonly mentioned and ill-conceived notions of politicians and pundits of all persuasions - is ridiculously biased and absurd. Classes are composed of so many different types of students with so many different backgrounds and different advantages or impediments to their educational success that have nothing to do with their teachers.

Charter schools are not the answer, either. Though some charter schools (such as the one in which I taught) are run by caring professionals who truly wish to help their students, many are run by business school graduates and are simply created for profit alone. By taking some of the best-performing students from public schools and leaving the poorer-performing students, as well as taking funds from public school which are never to be returned (even if a student leaves the charter school) charter schools were devised by politicians as a calculated means of slowly destroying public education. Study after study has demonstrated that charter schools perform on average exactly the same as public schools, even with their vastly increased flexibility in terms of curriculum and practices. Some charter schools perform better, but just as many perform worse than regular public schools, thus they are not in any way the panacea their corporate champions claim them to be. One thing that charter schools are most able to do is to take away the union-won rights of teachers. So, charter schools are free to exploit teachers as they see fit – and they often do.

Private schools, on the other hand, actually do hold the key to educational success.* They graduate the most successful students who attend the most celebrated universities. But their teachers are generally not paid more than public school teachers, which proves false the idea that increased teacher compensation will increase student success. Here is what most private schools have:

1. Class sizes with no more than 12-15 students
2. Teachers who teach only 4-5 classes per day rather than 5-6
3. Teachers who, because of #1 and #2, are able to offer individual help to their students
4. Teachers who, because of #1 and #2, are able to assign more rigorous coursework and spend more time on offering thorough and precise feedback on student work
5. Teachers who are able to be creatively flexible in their curriculum and autonomous in their course structure, instead of having to adhere to bureaucratic standards devised by people with little or no educational experience
6. Students who, because they are generally rich, have no worries for their personal health and safety or concerns with meeting their basic needs
7. Students who, because they are generally rich, have no other pressing responsibilities or obligations and can thus dedicate all of their time and their full attention to their studies
8. Students who, because they are rich, know that they will be able to attend college and can thus concentrate on working toward that goal

But what needs to be clear is that the argument over good and bad teachers or good and bad schools is a straw-man that masks the real problem with the American educational system. We need to rethink education, true, but not in any of the ways that our politicians and media suggest. We need to make students, teachers and education a priority by making the quality of life for all citizens a priority. The only way this will be accomplished is through focusing on what is really wrong with education: the immoral inequalities and injustices rampant in American society. Until our media portrays these realities accurately and until we attend to the actual deficiencies within our systems, public education will never improve.

*N.B.  The argument being made here is not that private schools are the solution; it is that schools with students who have no other vital needs and teachers who have greater flexibility, smaller class sizes, and fewer burdens themselves are the ones that succeed. If only public schools (and our society as whole) could be so lucky to have that kind of ideal situation ...


Suze said...

What an excellent post! My mom is a retired teacher in Kentucky (now there's a state whose educational system we certainly DON'T want to emulate) and I am sending her a link to your essay right now.
I myself do not work at a paying job because I take care of my kids full-time, but my oldest will be in the Madison school system next fall, and because I have so many teachers in my family (public school, preschool, college professors) these issues are close to my heart. I have been to the Capitol many times over the past couple of months, sometimes with my kids and sometimes not, but every time to show my support for the people of Wisconsin who will be hurt by Walker's policies: teachers, students, and citizens who depend on public services.

Anonymous said...

So well spoken and what an advocate for the classroom teacher. I am retired just by 2 years and the issues you bring to the front are what helped me make the decision to retire rather than to fight. Now I volunteer in a number of places with less emotional conflict in my life.

Education cannot and should not use the business model to show success. WE do what we can with what comes through the door.

Minnesota Teacher

Anonymous said...

I don't agree on the statement that all private school teachers and students are rich.

rebelpleb said...

I don't think I said anywhere that private school teachers are rich. They certainly are not and tend to be as underpaid (or more) as public school teachers. Moreover, I never stated that all students at these schools are rich. However, the majority of students are (even more so now than decades ago), and as anyone from a poor or moderate income household (as myself) would know, one can feel quite out of place amongst the predominantly wealthy population at private schools, who know no economic hardships or struggles ...

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