I have been involved with teachers and teaching since 1956 when I first started teaching in a suburb of Seattle. If you wish we can add four more years of taking education classes during my undergraduate days. And I worked for two summers as a certified New York State recreation director (read playground leader). I have been in more public and private schools then most people.
So what has set me off? In recent weeks there have been a spat of op-ed pieces, editor's comments, letters to the editor, as well as full fledged articles alluding to "Educational Reform." "With the coming stimulus package aimed at education and a new school house cabinet chief, it is time for "educational reform." Sub divisions of this subject include, "Perhaps now we can get rid of all those bad and inefficient teachers like they did in Washington, D.C." "Get rid of the teachers' union!" "It's time to get back to basics." And my favorite, "We didn't do it that way when I went to school." "Schools ought be run like a business."
Pardon me while I run off in several directions all at the same time. What journalist or newspaper editor has been in a school recently beyond a parent/teacher conference. Spent at least a whole day in the school. Talked to teachers, teacher aids, staff and the administration. Practically none at all. I have a friend who constantly says, "get rid of the bad teachers and I'll vote for the schools." Yet, he hasn't been in a school in recent memory. What makes those journalist experts on the schools? [an aside: I wonder what the publisher of a newspaper would say if I suggested in this blog how to improve or reform the paper--I know how to read. Or maybe we ought to reform the medical profession--I've been sick before.]
And what do they mean by educational reform? The same old ideas are thrown at us: we need merit pay, we need to teach mathematics and science, we need discipline in the schools, we need better teacher training, we need contract schools. I can attest personally that some of these ideas were being thrown around right after World War II.....in the late forties.
Have you noticed that all this talk about educational reform comes from the non-educational world. You rarely if at all hear of desires for educational reform coming from school teachers themselves. They know what they have to do and they will do their best to teach the students. Just get out of their way.
Change of tone and direction.........
Let's go over some of the problems facing our educational system right now. The basics--we have school buildings that are over a hundred years old. President Obama mentioned one in his speech that was build in the 1850s and when the train ran by that school you had to stop teaching. And the auditorium was not safe to use anymore. This is not uncommon. We have old school buildings and many of them are two small to be efficient. You cannot run a four or six room school anymore. Take the cost of heating, repairing, maintain that school. Add up the cost of the teachers salary, custodial salary, principal and secretary, phone, lunchroom staff salary, insurance (on an old building). I've left off some givens like books, papers, equipment. Add those all up for a year, then divide by the number of students. It cost more per student to run a small older school. Ask any Education Administration professor--they have been teaching this for years. It is a fact.
If new schools to replace the old are part of the school reform package, then I am for it.
Another major problem facing schools, teachers and learning is the "No Child Left Behind" and in this state the WASL (Washington Assessment of School Learning). These are tests that measure to see if children are learning. Not just anything but specific information. It doesn't matter if the student has just arrived from a foreign country or comes from a poor neighborhood (like sections of New Orleans?) they are required to show "learning". If enough classes do not score well, then the school is judged "Not up to standard." Needs to be punished. I intend to write more in depth about these tests at a later date. They are abominable.
I will admit up front that I am from the school of thought that if you want good schools then this is going to cost you money. And I have data to support my thinking. What high schools in the State of Washington are always (yes, alway!) listed in the 100 top high schools in the United States by US News and World Reports. Always! Newport High and Bellevue High. Two other of the Bellevue school districts high schools also make the list from time to time. They are the only high schools in the state listed. And guess who pays the most per student in the State of Washington--Bellevue.
Guess what three school districts always scored well on the WASL tests? Mercer Island, Bellevue and the Lake Washington (Kirkland) School Districts. Guess where the money is? An interesting phenomenon is that there are no private schools or academies on the list. Why? I asked the administrator of one school and he mentioned that they 1) didn't need anymore students and 2) didn't want any publicity. They just don't fill out the forms.
Let me also cite the fact that the 1st offspring, i.e., the President's daughters are going to a private school and the known tuition per child is $35,000 per year. Got two kids and $70,000 per year? Have I got a school for you--several in fact and they are all good. Excellent.
But here lies an interesting fact which I can't change. Most young marrieds have children and most young marrieds don't have a lot of money. The people who want to disable the public school system in favor of private schools are all grumpy old men....who have money.
Another problem facing the public schools is the state legislatures. Yes, all of them. They micro-manage the schools by passing a law saying that the schools have to teach this or that. In this state we have to teach about the holocaust. Required. Also we have to teach about African American History month. Why just one month? I know a number of teachers that teach about black Americans all year long (have you wondered what an Asian American child feels when there is no Asian American month?). But a law is a law. There are so many interest groups that come before the state legislatures that the easy way out is to pass another law that says teachers ought...... you fill in the blanks.
You know (one of my English teachers is turning over for that start of a sentence) we really don't need educational reform (unless it is to improve the school buildings). Teachers know how to teach--we need to get out of their way and support their teaching behavior. It is a bit like learning--you can punish, hit, yell at a student and he/she will improve at whatever you want them to learn (maybe). But praise and encourage and the students learn even more. The same holds for teachers.
I'm finally running out of steam and anger. I expect that this subject is far from closed and more will be said. My next post will be about the worst teacher I ever met....and how she was teacher of the year. Really. I also intend to write about old school buildings, merit pay, and some other areas that people are concerned with--but the next one is about bad teachers.
Meanwhile, if you're not upset with me, go thank a teacher who taught you how to think.