What is Wrong With Public Education… and What To Do About It
If our country is one big room, the elephant in that room is the state of public education. Everybody seems to know there are grave problems, but no one wants to talk about it. Well… almost no one… I am near the end of my teaching career, so I have no reservations in talking about the elephant, and to speak in, I hope, no uncertain terms.
As in most great issues there are “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” If names appear in all this, they are names of “the good;” the names of “the bad and the ugly” are withheld for obvious reasons. If a name does not appear, it does not mean I’m calling the person left out as “bad” or “ugly;” it means I don’t have room to list all the names of the “good” in education.
I am going to list the “mind crimes” committed against all of us when we were students, against our children as students, and against our grandchildren as students at the feet of a villianized group I shall call, for simplicity, Eduway — sort of like Amway, I suppose. Eduway consists of parents, teachers, administrators, school board members, and tax payers; it is a group of “bads” and “uglies.” Thank God the “goods” are as equally distributed and widespread!
Who in the hell am I to pontificate about the problems of education? Just because I am a teacher? No, I hope to show, despite the fact I am a teacher, Eduway hamstrings the lofty goals of the lofty idea of public education because the “goods” struggling against Eduway are usually “lifers” in the profession of education or “traditionalists” who think their experience in education is the only one that can be had in education. They have nothing better with which to compare, or they refuse to look for anything better, in the name of “that’s the way it has always been.”
Briefly, I have been a professional teacher for over forty years; six years in higher education (Texas A&M University at College Station and University of Texas at Austin); 32 years in high school (Jrs. & Srs. in Waxahachie High School); three years in a private college-prep church school (Canterbury Episcopal in DeSoto). I chose to teach high schoolers; I did not teach because I could not do something else. The secrets to my longevity are my subjects I teach or have taught: upper level physics, upper level math, astronomy, computer science, history & philosophy of science — my discipline problems are essentially scheduled out. My teaching specialty is college preparation.
Professionally I am a “square peg in a round hole;” I do not fit. On the campuses of Waxahachie and DeSoto I was and am the only Ph.D. in the classroom. (Note: this is crucial — NOT a doctorate in education) My degrees are not in education, but in physics. Before I started teaching in high school, I knew how to teach, without a single hour of education. (I started in Waxahachie on a provisional basis, agreeing to get my “necessary” education hours in two years, thanks to Billy Bates, former football coach at Cisco High School and superintendent at Waxahachie ISD at the time.) How did I know how to teach without a single education hour?
Because I did not listen to Eduway, mostly made of “professional educators” eaten up with the myth of education. Mrs. Edward Lee of the Cisco schools (Ciscoites might remember she lived right across the street from the old 3-story high school building.) told me before I graduated from CHS, “Ronnie, take as few education courses as you can.” (At the time, I did not know I was going to teach — maybe Mrs. Lee knew something about me I did not; I would not put it past her.) I listened to Mrs. Lee — I took zero hours of education in eight years of undergraduate and graduate school at Texas A&M. I taught Jr. High and High School science and math teachers for Extension of UT Austin, and, as I visited with them and asked them what they would have done differently, they consistently said, “Take fewer education courses, and more content courses.”
Eduway says you must have education courses to be able to teach; that is a myth. I am living proof, and the world is filled with others just like me — countless college and university professors who know how to teach and have never had an education course in their life. I suspect they learned the way I did — on-the-job training, employing the “monkey-see, monkey-do” method. Thrown in front of my first lab course I taught, I mimicked my professors, like Dr. Nelson Duller and Dr. John McIntyre of physics and Dr. Manuel Davenport and Rev. Stadleman of philosophy; I mimicked my high school teachers like Mrs. Lee, Mrs. Evelyn Bailey, Mr. Jack Hughes, Mr. Arlin Bint; I mimicked my junior high teachers like Mrs. Hart, Mrs. Schaefer, and Mrs. Pat Owens. In my opinion, the only training needed for teachers is so-called “student teaching” — on-the-job training, and only on-the-job training.
My experience implies there is no science of education. Eduway acts as if there is. If such a science existed, then teaching and learning would be done the same way everywhere. But the truth is, how we learn is as complicated as how our brains work, and we know so very little in both areas. Education courses are propped up as content courses by college and university departments of education, like science and math courses are content courses, only the latter need no such propping. I can think of no more useless courses or of time more wasted than the time spent taking education courses. (Some of my best friends are education professors.) Even the professional “educators” know it: To finish up my required education hours for my teaching certification through Texas Woman’s University (TWU), the education department there allowed me to write papers in lieu of taking the rest of the courses, when one education professor, looking at my folder, said, “Now, let me get this straight — you have a Ph.D. in physics and we are signing you up in a course where you practice turning on projectors and setting up equipment in the classroom?” We both agreed that was pretty silly, to say the least.
Teaching is an art, a skill; I think it is a calling. Despite my anti-clerical philosophy (Some of my best friends are in the clergy.) I understand what it means to be “called” into the ministry. You learn how to teach well by teaching, learning from your mistakes, and constantly adjusting and tweaking.
Two qualities must be possessed by a “good” teacher: competency and compassion. A “good” teacher has both to spare; a “bad” or “ugly” teacher has only one or neither. A lot of teachers teaching today are “bad” and/or “ugly.” Under a rare administrator at Waxahachie High School who did not listen to Eduway, faculty members, led by department heads, did the interviewing of applicants to join the faculty. We interviewed a veteran teacher we knew from the past whose mantra was “I just love kids.” Which was bullshit, because we knew he was a racist. No compassion, and probably not competent. “Good” teachers must know what they are talking about, and they must care deeply and passionately that their students develop a love of learning whatever subject they are teaching. “Good” teachers are not surrogate parents; they are not “friends” of their students (though, after graduation so very many of my former students have become my good friends; one of them is the administrator of this website).
Eduway has brought the profession of teaching to the brink of low-income labor — almost the antithesis of a professional career. Teachers should have the professional respect of lawyers and doctors, a profession self-governed and self-regulated, instead of being reduced to second-class citizens by low-income professional classification. Teachers are considered workers more than professionals. Eduway administrators of all levels get paid more than classroom teachers, as a rule, for doing little or none of the work with the students — the whole purpose of the entire educational enterprise.
Eduway has introduced the “business” model into schools, as opposed to the “institutional” model. (I watched the operation of the “institutional” model for eight years in college.) This has been as a cancer in American education, both in public and private schools. Not too long ago I had a board member of Canterbury hold up the “business model” as the guideline for private schools. I should have seen this coming, as over the years at Waxahachie compiling my list of “things I do not understand about public schools,” teachers stopped leaving the classroom to become principals; rather, they left to become “managers.” (Teachers-become-principals for money are “sell-outs” — they betray students. Now, some non-competent, non-caring teachers that can’t be shed need to be “encouraged” to become administrators, like the Corps of Cadets when I was at Texas A&M, wherein outfits would “push” assholes into the corps staff — promote them — so that the outfit would become much, much better without them.) Admittedly, many faculties would become much better with certain teachers “promoted” to administrators. Phrases like “chain of command” were introduced into faculty-administration relations- a setting where they do not belong. As I saw in college and university administrations of “true” professionals, there is no need of a chain of command. (Some of my best friends are promoted school administrators.)
Notice how little I’ve said about the students themselves? Congratulations! You see the horror brought on by the self-aggrandizement of Eduway? The idea of public education is probably the best, certainly one of the best, ideas the US has given the world — the idea that citizens of means and property would make a material sacrifice for the younger generation (pay their school taxes). Eduway has turned public schools into an adult affair, like any other business; Eduway would have schools be about budgets and the wise spending of taxpayer’s money, instead of being of the students, by the students, and for the students. Without students as the main concern there is no school. I remember times in Waxahachie when district policy was guided by the accountants, by the budget! That was no true school, that was a farce, or, better, a tragedy for young minds.
No wonder students don’t like school! The school is not theirs; it is an adult playground ill-concerned about learning wherein adults use the “business” of schools as a means of self-promotion and students are seen as end “products,” products of some kind of K-12 assembly line. Eduway wants students to become consumers, not independent, innovative thinkers; Eduway wants to rubber stamp for the student the same thing stamped for the student’s parents.
Eduway spends time, money, and effort drumming up useless “in-service” programs for teachers, when almost every faculty has an almost endless source of meaningful, applicable “in-service” resources: its “good” teachers. Great in-services are actually the cheapest ones! Money is wasted paying curriculum directors, whose contributions to the classroom are, in my opinion, as useless as a ham sandwich at a Jewish picnic. So-called H-R departments, or human resource centers, become, thanks to Eduway, little more than enforcers of heavy-handed administration; H-R centers should be help centers for teachers, not centers harboring even more administrators.
Too many coaches are teachers, and too many teachers are coaches. In my experience a good coach and a good teacher in one is as rare as that aforementioned picnic sandwich. Coaches should not be allowed to become administrators unless they have morphed into something more than a coach, as did Billy Bates and Lonnie Nichols in Waxahachie. Nothing sadder and weaker than an administrator who can never be more than a coach. (Some of my best friends are coaches.)
Eduway shows its stupidity no better than in the sphere of teacher evaluation. Teachers are evaluated by people removed from the classroom! They should be evaluated by a practicing panel of their peers — pure and simple.
All principles should be required to teach at least one class, and be evaluated like any other teacher.
At the high school level, students should be empowered, given a sense that the school is not the adults’, it is the students’. Student body representatives should be present at all faculty meetings, all principals’ meetings, and all school board meetings; also they should have a say in what teachers are hired or fired. (Eduway would say I am calling for the inmates to run the asylum — idiots!) I lived an actual case when bright students actually wrote the scheduling software for the school; it did not last long; many adults hate to be outshined by students, even on the students’ “turf.” I wrote a short novel years ago entitled Brave New School, describing a school with such an empowered student body; unfortunately, Eduway librarians would file such a publication under “fantasy.”
This can go on and on, but I will truncate this with an appeal to pay teachers like professionals, not like second-class employees. Teachers don’t work for a State, a school district, or a boss; they work for students, just like lawyers work for their clients and doctors work for their patients. We need salary incentives to attract the best minds into teaching instead of desperate minds who cannot function in other capacities. You get what you pay for, and tax-paying parents should be outraged that their most precious children are placed in classrooms for most of their young lives too often with people paid proportionally to their competency and their compassion. It is almost organized child abuse! Meanwhile, look at the high-end salaries given to people who hardly step into the classroom. (Some of my best friends are campus administrators and district administrators.)
Elect school board members who are more teacher supporters than business people; elect school board members more interested in what goes on in the classrooms than on district fields of athletic play; elect school board members more interested in academic achievement than extracurricular contest winners. (Some of my best friends are school board members.)
Again, somebody has to talk about the elephant in the room. Perhaps it is appropriate the talk comes from someone like whom (possessing a Ph.D.) Waxahachie made sure they did not hire again; appropriate from someone who was never assigned as a mentor for an aspiring classroom teacher — maybe, for fear of what would “rub off” on the aspirant?; appropriate the talk comes from someone who, in the end, was drummed out of public schools for doing what he was asked to do when coaxed out of retirement; appropriate from someone who, when given the choice, always sided with the students; appropriate the talk comes from someone who, I think, never “sold out.”
I speak up for the “good” teachers at Canterbury, with whom I share so much in background, as well as lunchtime — teachers with last names like Hoffmann, Reves, Bailey, Polewski, Caulder, and Edwards. I did it for the “good” teachers of Waxahachie High, past and present, C.W. Block, Kathryn Aday, Amy Cote, Mona Choucair, Billy Ray Hancock, Emily Price, Brittney Duvall, Ron Appleton, Lisa Elliot, Sean Cagle, Doris Butler, Carrie White, Wanda Cain, Don Bowman, Ted Harris, Benji Arnold, Tommy Simpson, Dr. Rusty Reeves, John Nickols, Billy Stoffrogen, and Don Henslee. Add to the two Waxahachie administrators mentioned prior, the names Harold Dorsey, Jerry Colosimo, and Don Williams. And, of course, I speak up for those Cisco High School teachers and Texas A&M profs I’ve already listed above.
But most of all, I did it for all the students I have known, inside and outside my classroom, and for students everywhere. May those young minds who are coming after today’s students receive better from public education.
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Doc accurately satirizes the problem of an increased bureaucratization and commercialization that marks our current educational system, and seemingly hinders more than helps teachers in the classroom. Indeed, the host (horde) of bureaucrats and salespersons mandating or peddling their prescriptions with an officiousness that “knows best” what works for the students demeans, de-skills, and depresses the practice of the professional educator. Teachers really do know what’s best for students, if only by virtue of their spending the most time with them. If they are building positive relationships with their students, offering them a rigorous and challenging curriculum (and supporting them in acquiring it), and demonstrating the relevance of that curriculum to their lives, I say, leave them alone! (It also helps if they see themselves as professionals who must themselves continue to learn and grow professionally, both in their content areas and as pedagogues.) Such, to my mind, is a school in pure form.
But alas, I’ve come to accept that the public educational system is exactly that—a system, designed by committee, and influenced by constituencies promoting their own agenda. These constituencies reflect the great diversity that is the American political landscape, and include teachers and teacher groups with precisely the same concerns as Doc presents, although teachers as a group have historically been tepid in their effect in implementing policies which address their concerns. Presently, one of the most powerful constituencies, and most influential, is the business community (to wit, Texas Business and Education Coalition). This constituency is aided by the conservative political leaning of our state, and one that applies a narrow definition of education, specifically one that views the student as an economic unit. Another, with no small effect, is the university “credentialing” system (to wit, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, State Board for Educator Certification, etc.). Yet another is the textbook publishing complex (to wit, Pearson, et. al.) which is a volume in and of itself in conspiratorial influence. Collectively, these groups form what Doc adroitly encapsulates as Eduway, but which I refer to as the Educational Industrial Complex, for which there is no shortage of generals (armchair and otherwise), lieutenants (myself?), quartermasters, foot-soldiers, contractors, purveyors of shoddy… This Educational Industrial Complex, like the business community with which it sometimes contends and sometimes collaborates (and sometimes emulates), paradoxically thrives on the public perception that something is “seriously remiss” in our educational system. For every purported ill, the Educational Industrial Complex devises a remedy, readily prescribed, and usually with a price tag attached. My e-mail inbox, which supposedly filters spam, is a daily testament to the Eduway bazaar of “products” from anti-bullying programs, to Common Core Standards seminars, law conferences, testing-program packages, out-of-the-box curriculum packages, Eduway programs, Anti-Eduway programs, snake oils and elixirs…
For all the babble, though, one context remains constant—a teacher, in a classroom, with a collection of students, and time together. Teaching, as Postman advised us, may be a subversive activity, such that even Eduway is undermined. Later, Postman informed that teaching may also be a conserving activity, in which the heretofore alluded babble may be filtered and parsed. Despite the “problems” in education, students are yet being educated. Rest assured, in classrooms across America, more students are being educated to ever higher levels, and much of the “crisis” in education is manufactured (see Berliner and Biddle’s The Manufactured Crisis). We have ere longed for the good old days in education. These are usually the days when we ourselves were in school, before any of the current “problems” existed. If we accept that society becomes increasingly complex–how similar and/or dissimilar is a chalk slate to an IPad—then we must accept the inevitability of the increasing number of parts in the machine. Over one hundred years ago, John Dewey found the problem of waste in education to be related to “the isolation of the various parts of the school system” to each other, “to the lack of unity in the aims of education, to the lack of coherence in its studies and methods.” For students, according to Dewey, “the great waste in school comes from his inability to utilize the experiences he gets outside the school in any complete and free way within the school itself; while on the other hand he is unable to apply in daily life what he is learning at school.” Thus did Dewey presage the essence of Doc’s observation that the school belongs little to the students, and instead is the playground for adults and their concerns producing, mechanistically, “educated” persons.
I must contest Doc’s overly simple characterization of school administrators as “sell-outs” and otherwise non-educators gumming up the works. That is too broad a brushstroke, even for those administrators removed from the campus level who yet endeavor to bring support to teachers in the classroom. I’ve worked in districts with large central offices (Plano, Round Rock), moderate sized (Waxahachie), and bare-bones (Mexia), and I would say the students in the larger districts receive more services and their concomitant benefit than do those in smaller districts. Money does indeed buy education, and the lack thereof buys less. Like it or not, the mandates created by the legislature and the judiciary entails administrative detail, and if teachers are to be spared even more work than what is already on their plate, having extra people on board delivers a better product than otherwise. Granted, some administrators take to their jobs with little empathy for the demands of the classroom. But as often as not, they serve as scapegoats for teachers who wish to function without supervision. Despite Doc’s misspelling of “principal” for “principle”—itself grist for further Freudian-slip musing—I would remind him that “principal” denoted at one time a school’s principal teacher. Would that those days were yet present. Yet, when I propose to teachers the idea of a school where administrators and teachers trade roles and responsibilities in order to gain appreciation and perspective of each other’s necessary duties, I am as often-as-not met with the following response: “Oh, I wouldn’t want to do your job!” Furthermore, given the paltry salaries of teachers, and the slightly better scale for administrators (annually, if not hourly!), little blame can be placed upon those who choose an administrative career in order to remain an educator and earn a wage that supports a family.
I applaud and endorse Doc’s recommendation for the election of school boards inclined to support teachers in the classroom. I would extend that invitation to the election of a state legislature that does the same. Which returns us to the political dimension of public schooling. Senator Shapiro, Eduway on the phone!
Thanks to Mark for such a well-spoken response. Sorry about the spelling gaff! I’m so used to teaching “principles” as opposed to “principals” that often I think there are too many unprincipled principals. That, as you pointed out, is too broad a stroke, I agree, as well as too many “p”‘s to pronounce.
Perhaps you can shed some light on observations about principals I’ve had contributing to my negative conclusions about many of them. I’ve never been one, but I’ve seen many teachers become principals, and I wonder what kind of training they receive — their behavior as principals makes me suspect some king of brain-washing by the Education Industrial Complex (I love your name — much better than my “Eduway.” It reminds me, of course of the Vietnam era’s Military-Industrial Complex, and is far more accurately descriptive, as the two “complexes” have a lot in common, in my opinion.) Because of the greater money, I’ve seen only one principal come back to the class room — Wanda Cain, who, in my opinion, was a far better teacher than a principal. Teachers joke that when a teacher leaves the class room to become a principal, they “go over to the Dark Side.” I like that, as the new position may pay more, but you lose the contact and influence with the students. It is almost as if principals (calling themselves “managers” nowadays) see themselves as manipulating employees (teachers). The thrust of what I’m saying is that you can’t contribute much to the betterment of children’s minds if you are in some “management” ivory tower. It reminds me, again, of administrators in colleges and universities; they have “dropped out” of what the campus is all about. If money is the reason for going to the Dark Side, I still don’t see what is wrong calling them “sell outs.” Hopefully, it makes them assess their personal motives in becoming, say, a principal — assess their principles.
I have some good teaching friends who have become principals over the years, and seldom do they seem happy (with the exception of pay days). Too much bureaucracy and too much “playing business” in chains-of-command, etc.
Mark and I agree principals originally were leading teachers. The EIC has compelled them to sell their birth right. It is harder to work for the students as an administrator than it is for a class room teacher. God bless those administrators who are still trying!
How about revamping the training of administrators as well as the training of teachers?
Thanks again, Mark, for reading the post and for all your kind commentary.