Today's students get short-changed in their education. Who's to blame?
The response surprised me.
A Gallup Poll several years back asked Americans what would be the best way to improve kindergarten through twelfth grade education in the US today. The poll determined that "Americans most commonly mention having higher-quality, better-educated, and more-involved teachers."
Why does this surprise me? For one, I completely disagree with Americans' perception of education in the US. The answer to the problem does not lie with the teachers, but with the support system that teaches, hires, and controls the teachers.
If I were to answer the Gallup Poll question, from my viewpoint as a teacher, I would point to eight entirely different things:
- Low teacher salaries;
- Failed university systems which neglect to teach the teachers;
- The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and government concepts of "accountability";
- The adoption of national "Common Core" standards;
- Increased federal interference;
- Top-heavy school and district administration (i.e. district centralization versus department control);
- Failed approaches to teaching, propagated and amplified by 1960s liberal ideals;
- Self-serving teachers' unions;
- And last, but not least, lack of student responsibility.
In other words, poor-quality, poorly-educated, poorly-involved teachers isn't the problem. It's only a symptom of the greater problem with education in the US.
I created quite a list here. The Gallup Poll shows that very few of my top problems with education in the US even make it to the Gallup list. This means that average Americans aren't aware of some of the basic, underlying problems with education in the US. Why the discrepancy? Of course, I can attribute many problems I identify on my list to years of personal experience, as I have watched the decline in student interest and student ability in the classroom. Some I attribute to my basic distrust of government interference and big government-run institutions. Some I attribute to my distrust of liberalized educational dogmas with which I do not agree.
The problem remains, however, that students graduate from high school lacking many of the basic skills necessary to continue at the college level. I've seen a sharp decline in students' abilities over the past ten years or so. Students now lack the basic reading skills necessary to tackle the technical or specialized reading required for advanced education. For example, just yesterday, several of my students complained about a short article I had assigned them to read about the historical development of political ideologies. Many students couldn't read the article and grasp the author's main point. Many couldn't get past the author's language.
Also, yesterday I finished grading the first written assignment of the summer term, finding a considerable number of the short essays all but unreadable because of basic problems with grammar, spelling, and mechanics. Almost none of the students could properly group sentences together to form paragraphs, opting instead to break ideas randomly or to ignore paragraphs altogether. A significant number of students copied material straight from the textbook instead of paraphrasing - a clear indication to me of an inability to process information.
Which leads me to conclude that yes, the educational system is failing. Getting back to my own list of problems, I can suggest some solutions, none of which, of course, will ever happen since the educational system in the US is firmly under the control of federal power mongers: teachers' unions, and federal mandates and funding.
1 - Increase Teachers' Salaries According to Merit
I advocate across the board salary increases for teachers. While this may sound self-serving (which, of course it is), there is the fact that teachers' salaries simply cannot support a family. Speaking from experience, in order to make ends meet, I must supplement my teaching salary with an outside business and investment income. K-12 teachers are the worst hit, college teachers less so.
Teachers' salaries should be tied to performance, especially at the college and university levels. Performance, in this case, doesn't mean publishing the drivel that passes for research these days, but instead means contributing to teaching, retaining, and counseling students to successfully navigate through school. Bad and overpaid university professors should have their salaries reduced, and should be paid by the number of classes taught, rather than the number of years in the system.
2 - Get Rid of the Elementary Education Degree
The utter garbage teachers learn from a degree in elementary education astonishes me. We now produce college graduates who can spew the latest teaching theories of facilitation and collaboration, yet they cannot read, write, spell, or do math. How can we expect these graduates to become effective teachers themselves when they lack basic educational skills?
Getting rid of the programs to award degrees in elementary education, as well as their big sister, the doctorate of education, and requiring teachers to have graduated in science, history, English, or mathematics, would go a long way toward producing better teachers.
3 - Repeal the No Child Left Behind Act and Common Core
Of all the stupid things that George W. Bush has been blamed for, liberals seem to ignore this shining example of bad legislation among them. The NCLB controls schools at the local level by threatening reduced funding from the federal level. The NCLB also places great emphasis on some vague and poorly defined ideal of "accountability" measurable through standardized testing. The end result produces an almost universal "teaching to the test." It's happened in my local school district. It's a good bet it's happened in yours as well.
In order to "alleviate" the poor ideals behind NCLB, most states in the US have now adopted Common Core standards. This merely replaces bad law with more bad ideas. Instead of local control over teaching, Common Core forces schools and teachers to adopt national standards developed by, you guessed it, large corporations who sell standardized tests, such as ACT and College Board.
Common Core pretends to be a "grassroots" revision of education, but is, in fact, a top-down implementation of one size fits all standards that cater to liberal think tanks.
The emphasis on standardized testing has produced and will continue to produce problems such as "gaming" (fixing tests to show better results), changing test standards, teaching to the lowest level in classes, English-only assessment, or limiting local school control.
4 - Give Education Back to the States
Liberal dogmas and sensibilities say that we must ensure that all students, everywhere, are treated exactly the same. Little disturbs a modern liberal more than the thought that one school may enjoy a more privileged status than another. The solution to school funding inequity was to take school funding decisions away from the states and place them at the federal level.
The result produced many unintended consequences. First, because schools got federal funding, the states took money away from the schools. The net effect didn't raise up under-advantaged schools. It didn't "level" the playing field. It didn't provide more funds per student.
What it did was to lift educational responsibilities from the states and hand them to the federal government. The result is an actual decline in the schools' abilities to fund programs and pay teachers' salaries. Most schools in my state, including universities, now suffer from inadequate teacher funding.
How many examples of ineffective federal controls do we need before we figure out that the federal government simply cannot fix the problems it creates? When the Democrats passed federal health care "reform," we've discovered another shining example of wasteful federal spending and a poorly designed law. Large federal bureaucracies simply cannot respond to local needs.
5 - Return to School-Independent and Departmental Control
Following the example of the federal government, the school administration where I teach has discovered a newly found power in taking decisions away from the department to create greater control and centralization over the entire system. Where my department chair used to make decisions about teaching loads and class size, now a bureaucrat makes the decision for all the departments across all the campuses. Where each campus had its own email system, now students must have a system-wide email (as well as a campus email, forcing students to check both systems). Where each campus had a single database listing of students for each class, now we must access two systems: one for grading, one for contact information. The new centralized control has multiplied high-paid administrative positions, yet has reduced the number of classes, increased the numbers of adjunct teachers, and has significantly increased the numbers of students per class.
A simple rule applies here - centralization and big bureaucracies to not respond well to the needs at the local level. "Modern" centralized school administration growth buries teachers and students alike.
6 - Give Up Silly Liberal Teaching Models
The liberalization of today's educational system demands layer upon layer of bureaucracy to ensure such things as fairness, equality, compassion, and tolerance are taught in school. What suffers, of course, is the actual education of the students. Equality-based systems replace merit-based systems. Students learn that education is a right or an entitlement, rather than a process that demands effort. No Child Left Behind means reducing educational standards rather than lifting educational expectations.
The result is a generation of students who expect good grades whether earned or not. For example, more and more students who earn poor or failing grades in my class expect me to change their grades because they don't "feel" they've been treated fairly.
Recently, one of my students failed to turn in an exam and plagiarized a book report. He earned an F for the class. His mother, of all people, called me on the phone and insisted I allow him special privileges. Her explanation and reasoning? He needed to pass the class so he could transfer to another school. In her mind, skipping an exam and plagiarism were minor infractions, not worthy of a failing grade. Her son was a "good" student and tried very hard in everything he did. To her and her son, the effort satisfied the demands of education, despite the glaring omissions of any accomplishment whatsoever.
This example belies a deeper symptom of the failure of education. Instead of subject mastery, students expect the entitlement of passing a class. Instead of demonstrated skill, effort wins the grade. Instead of learning, copying and pasting someone else's effort is entirely acceptable. All these point to the disease of failed educational philosophies invented within the past 40 years.
7 - Treat All Political Lobbies as We Now Treat Corporations
One of the modern-day liberal boogeymen is the supposed "evil" corporation and attendant abuse of power. Under the Obama administration, banks, car manufacturers, insurance companies, Wall Street moguls, the rich, income inequality, and the nebulous "corporate greed" have all been blamed for our economic troubles. (As well as blaming the weather!) The federal government, in turn, has taken over and diminished the power of the corporations for supposedly failing the people of the US.
The problem, of course, arises from the abuse of power, wherever it may arise. Many corporations abused their power to create cheap wealth (Sallie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG, are all examples). Teachers' unions, as well, have done their part to help destroy public education. These unions think and act just as large corporations and make political decisions based, not on altruism or the ideals of constituency, but on good-old American greed and lust for power.
Educational lobbies are just as harmful as any other power monger corporation, perhaps more so, since the future of education rests in their unscrupulous hands. They must be limited or destroyed.
8 - Expect More from Students
The last point is perhaps the most insidious, yet the easiest to correct. Teachers simply need to expect their student to perform. Administration simply needs to back up teacher decisions. Students should learn the basic lesson of education, that the responsibility of our education falls on our own shoulders and is utterly independent of teachers.
For example, I expect my students to write well. After initial poor attempts, many of my students learn to write and proofread and turn in great essays. It takes time and it takes a bit of practice. I find that my students will rise to my expectations. I also expect my students to think. I do not condone lazy thinking in my classes and, for the most part, the students rise to the occasion.
What this tells me is that, with a bit of effort, students can and will rise to the occasion and learn how to learn. Why they wait until they are adults in college to learn to read and write does not reflect well on our current K-12 system.
Can we implement solutions to bring us out of the mire of poor education? Given the political climate and the ideological bent of modern education, I'd have to reach the conclusion that no, we are stuck in a mire. Our schools seem to be locked into a badly designed system, spiraling downward toward the goal of pronounced mediocrity and delusions of adequacy.