The Media and Handwringing about Failing Our Teachers

So…it is again in vogue to talk about the lack of support for teachers across America.  Fair enough.  The education system does have problems and the burden of dealing with them falls on teachers.  That isn’t in question.  The problem is that the solutions being offered don’t address the fundamental issue involved.  So what are the bogeymen?

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1 – Teachers have too many kids in their classes.  Depending where you are, a classroom could have up to 30 kids per period.  This criticism assumes fewer students equates to better education.  Is that true?  If so, how do colleges succeed with lecture halls with 350 people listening to a discussion of physics or chemistry, history or economics?  You can’t argue that the college students have knowledge of the subject already.  You can’t argue they are brighter than their peers at other colleges…and yet, American colleges are the best in the world–and that includes state institutions, not just preppy East Coast schools.

2 – Teacher pay is horrible.  Is it–or is this a local phenomenon?  Or is there a tradeoff where most places have superior retirement plans for educators than people who work in the private sector with no guaranteed pension plans?

3 – Children are more unruly than ever.  When I was in school in the early 80s, I saw one student smash a pop bottle over the head of another, just for sitting in his seat in the lunch room.  I saw someone take a floor hockey stick at another person, swinging it like a two-handed sword.  I know a guy who flashed girls.  Across town, a couple students committed arson, gang members spit into the school’s new salad bar…blah, blah, blah.  What has changed is the speed of communication, the ever-present social media, the cameras in every phone.  No one in 1982 knew about the pop-bottle incident.  If that was today, it would’ve made local TV, maybe even been a quick national blurb on the decline of discipline in schools.  Children are unruly–just like they were in 1981 or…300 BC.

Dealing with poor pay, misbehaving children, these turn young people away from teaching.  Young people don’t want to deal with 40 kids–it’s too much work.  Pooey, though ‘too much’ is part of the problem.  Too much what–glad you asked…

A – Too much bureaucracy.  Between 1973 and 2003, the hours per week teachers spent on administrative paperwork increased 300%.  That means if a teacher needed to spend 2 hours/week on it, it became 6 hours/week–more than one class period per day.  That’s four hours of time no longer available to teach or prepare lessons.

A2 – The bureaucracy is stifling in a different way.  Administration sucks up budget.  Coincidentally, as paperwork increased 300%–the number of administrative personnel went up 100%.  Because they are deemed to be more important (however you want to put it), they are paid more.  Thus a school that used to have one full-time principal now wound up with two.  Heck, Illinois doesn’t just have superintendents, it has Regional Superintendents who superintend over the regular superintendents.  Illinois has more than 500 high schools.  Those extra 500 principles at $100,000/year??  That’s $50,000,000 wasted annually…and worse, because everyone has to justify their job, the easiest way to do this for an administrator is to have a paper trail–and that means more paperwork (to be done by teachers).   This isn’t just a elementary or secondary school phenomenon–the plethora of administrators chokes innovation and teaching at the college level as well…trust me.

B – Outside interference.  School boards do not always support teachers when faced with confrontational parents or threats of lawsuits, no matter how documented the situation is by the teacher.  Why would a teacher continue to work someplace where there’s no support from the principal or the school board?  It has created a situation where, by reflex, teachers assume any interaction with a parent will be confrontational and hostile.  The shock on a teacher’s face when a parent asks, “What can I do to help fix the problem?” is rather discouraging–because it is so common.

C – Standardized metrics.  The use of standardized tests to measure everything is lazy.  They are an excuse.  They can be used to bludgeon a teacher–“How come your students only scored a 54.4 on this exam when the state average is 68.3?  You need to teach better.”  At no point is it considered that the teacher’s skill got them that 54.4…that maybe those kids at year’s start were at 32.6.  I know of one case where a teacher was criticized for poor test performance by students and specifically told by the principal that if test scores didn’t go up, the teacher’s job was in jeopardy.  So for the next test, he actually gave them the answers to the first 20 question–in order, no tricks.  Kids still scored poorly.  Is that really the fault of the teacher?  Even with the answers–the students couldn’t fill in circles in a correct pattern.

Worse, standardized tests promote memorization rather than critical thinking skills.  What does memorization really do?  When did the Spanish Armada attack England? –Easy, 1588.  You can find that in a book or on the internet.  Now, change that to “Why did England resist Spain and did it think it had a chance of winning?” and you have an opinion question that requires thinking…and puts kids in an uncomfortable position–they’ll have to make arguments AND there’s not going to be a 100% correct answer.  Students need to think–the fact that more than 70% of Americans now believe that arguments/news from the opposing side of the political spectrum are ‘fake news’ shows why this is critical.

D – Students have been told that they MUST go to college, that the only path to success is a college degree.  That’s false.  There is more to success than a history test or literature class.  How many schools still have vocational-style classes?  This could be a wood shop or something with metalworking–or it could be Health Occ classes where students learn what it’s like to work in a hospital or even a rehab sort of facility.  Some kids aren’t good at school–and since they do not have other avenues to explore where their abilities may shine through, they sulk, sit, and become disruptive to everyone.