Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Once more into the battle....

Obama gave his state of education address and by and large I was disappointed.  With the economy he brought to the White House all sorts of experts from all different sides--the pros and cons.  Already with the health insurance concerns he is doing the same thing by having those on both sides of the debate including some folk who do not have health insurance come and discuss what we as a nation ought to be doing.  On all the major issues he has tackled so far he has brought in people with many different views to comment, debate and discuss what the right road ought to be.

But not so the education problem.  He has followed the usual line for those that want to "reform" the schools by wanting merit pay to "reward good teachers," , wanting to get rid of those that don't measure up, as he said,  "stop making excuses for bad ones."  He also wants a longer day for the students and shorter summer vacations.  And then as if it is the fault of the educational system, he wants more math and science teachers.  The one canard that I didn't hear him suggest was vouchers for parents who want to send their children to private schools, a platform for the Republicans.

Let's look at these requests from an educator's point of view.  Let's first start with the longer school day and shorter summer vacation.  If we are not doing a good job teaching our children now, how is more time in the classroom going to help?  Do we have so much more to teach that we need more time?  This leads us to a major educational question that should have been asked before Mr. Obama made his speech--which knowledge is of most worth?  Plato asked that questions long ago.  What do you want our children to learn?  And don't give me that stuff about, "In my day....". The times they are a-changing.  

I finally found the quote from Margaret Mead that seems to fit this discussion.  "we are now at a point where we must educate our children in what no one knows yet."  What should our curriculum be--what should our children learn to be successful in life.  And how much of the curriculum do we need?  When I was in school I learned about the war of independence, the civil war and WWI.  I lived through WWII--there were no test questions on that war.  Today's students are not only required to learn about WWII, but add the Korean, the Vietnam, the Gulf war and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  How many wars does a child need to know about?  I am reminded by my counterpart in a school of education at a Russian University when he said to me, "our problem is which history do we want our children to learn?"  Do we want a longer day to learn about war?

Let me flail about on the need for science and math teachers.  First off, do we have a shortage?  I haven't heard my local school districts complaining about not having enough science and math teachers.  We could use more of every type of teacher.  But for Pete's sake look at the problem.  IF you were a math teacher making $50,000 (before taxes) a year and could make $150,000 at Boeings or a start up computer software company why wouldn't you change jobs?  If you were a good chemistry teacher making $50,000 and had a job offer from a pharmaceutical company with a salary close to $200,000 what would you do?  

I once had a graduate student working on his master's degree.  He was an experience middle school teacher who wanted to learn more about technology in the classroom--computers and stuff.  He was an excellent teacher and was close to completing his degree from my university when I suggested he do an intern with Microsoft during the summer.  He could make some money and get a wider view of technology in education.  He did so.  And never came back.  One course away from his master's he moved his family to Kirkland, thanked me and never returned to the classroom as a teacher.  Piety. I'm sorry I sent him to Microsoft.

Somewheres in his speech, Mr Obama talked about how our kids rank with other industrialize countries.  Particularly in Europe countries, children are sorted our by the ninth grade as to who is going on to higher education and those that will be interning on the job.  Our students comprise of ALL students, minorities, special education needs, and those drop outs that the president mentioned are compared to the that first group of students in Europe who will go on to advanced education.  We're comparing oranges and grapes.

I've already ranted about merit pay in previous blogs.  In my mind it is one of the dumbest ideas conceived for education.  In all probability if money was the motivating force, those people would not have gone into education.  Let's face it.   You go into education because you want, no, need to be a teacher.  I can attest that most of my undergraduate students wanted to be a teacher.  Remember my student teacher with the motorcycle?  I remember her crying saying she had to be a teacher.  Even in rough times when they were certain that there would be few jobs available, most of my students said they were going to be teachers.  Other professions may have their calling--the military?  "I want to be a warrior."  The medical profession? "I want to help sick people."  Teachers want to teach!  And you know, Mr. President.  If a teacher is not doing an effective job teaching they want to know how to do it better.  I don't know of a single teacher who didn't want to be a better teacher.  You want to get rid of those teachers?

I have mixed emotions of charter schools.  What research I have seen is a mixed bag but the one thing that seems to stand out is that most charter schools are homogeneous--mostly white students.  Perhaps that is why they score well.  One of the things that I remember when I visited a Norwegian elementary school was that it was all white Norwegian students. Remember the phrase from that Seattle Asst. Superintendent?  A disadvantaged student is one who learns something at home that is not reinforced at school and learns something at school that is not reinforced at home.  Ah, you remember it.  Good.  

Last night there were a flock of television talk shows commenting upon the President's speech. "Get rid of the unions."  "Get rid of those bad teachers."  "Close the bad schools."  All sorts of things were being said--I'm glad that most of who were saying it had not been in my classes.  I would have had some certain failure grades to hand out for critical thinking.  But a more amazing thing seem to be taking place no matter which station and which talking host.  There was not a single teacher being interview.  Not one!  Everyone talking and making suggestions was not a teacher. Fascinating.

Well, you better go thank your favorite teacher today for tomorrow they may be released.


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