Thursday, January 18, 2007

A good post rehashed, because I feel like it.

I watched the Stupid in America segment on 20/20 last night, hosted by the teacher's best friend, John Stossel. I figured that at this point in my career, I'm ready to give a realistic assessment of the state of Education in the United States. Here are some of the questions that Stossel asked, and my response. Chime in if you like.

There are some serious problems with education in America.

I'll say, and they encompass a huge spectrum of people that refuse to take responsibility for the problems. But when it comes down to it, the main problem is that the United States does not put a premium value on education. No, I don't mean that funding equals value, I mean that society as a whole refuses to take an active part in education, simply leaving the task to the government to take care of. Think it isn't true? Who do you like makes the rules that teachers are required to follow? It isn't the principal. It isn't the school board. It's the political establishment that is voted in by the constituents. In the end, many of things we can and can't do is based around Ed Code, something made by state and federal governments, which are ran by people that know little about education.
This is not to say that teachers, unions, schools, and parents aren't part of the problem. However, the country needs to stop talking about caring for education, and actually take part in a new educational process.

Test scores show that kids are failing in public schools.

I respect the idea behind No Child Left Behind; more accountability and a larger push towards real achievement in academics. But if you think that test scores are a true measurement in how kids are succeeding in public schools, you are very mistaken. The test are joke. Who says so? Why, you do. You blindly follow the government mandated tests thinking that they fairly measure the scholastic aptitude of students, while not taking any other variables into consideration when listening to the test scores being read off. For instance, parents can sign their kids off on taking tests. This means that parents alone can make a school miss their requirements. I've had plenty of students that will be going to major universities, Advanced Placement students, refuse to take the test because they felt it was redundant after the AP test. Students also refuse to take the test seriously, as many take out their displeasure on the answer form of the state tests. Schools have gone to insane lengths to get students to take tests; from ice cream sundaes to giving away I-PODS. If parents and students don't take it seriously, how are we supposed to influence test scores?

There isn't a link between money and student achievement

Yes and no. Yes, the amount of money spent at a school has little impact in student achievement. You can buy all the laptops in the world for kids, but it amounts to nothing if the kids don't learn. At the same time, plenty of statistics show that schools that are poverty stricken areas are less likely to have good student achievement. Therefore, every school should look and feel, and act, like a major academic institution. The problem is that the system is losing money somewhere in the chain from the Governor to the classroom. Fifty billion for the state of California should be enough. So where does it go? I'm not sure, except to say that I don't receive a major chunk of money to spend on my students, AND my district is constantly short on money at the end of the year. Is it the districts fault? Well, we have some of the lowest paid teachers, custodians, district administrators, and staff in the area. We are down custodians, barely have money for art and music, and have to constantly pay for health fees. Sorry, I don't buy the argument that the district wastes money intentionally. One way or another, it is still not reaching the school.

The schools should use the Jack Welch method and fire the bottom 10% of the teachers.

I absolutely agree. In the six years that I have worked as a teacher I have witnessed people that should not be in this profession. This job is too important to have incompetent fools teaching our kids.
But I have one question, who decides what makes a bad teacher?
Do you fire a special education teacher because she doesn't get her test scores up? Do you fire an AP teacher because more kids didn't pass the AP tests this year as compared to last year? What about the PE teacher who has more kids getting obese? Should they get canned?
And the worst would be the new teachers. Are you going to fire a new teacher who makes mistakes? You learn teaching by doing and making mistakes, but in our profession that can make parents and students angry. How are you going to protect the new teacher who is just getting their feet wet? It took me four years to find my grove, and I'm just starting to get really confident this year. Was four years too long?
Now, obviously the scum of the profession (sexual harassment, violence, etc) should be let go immediately, but if you run a school like General Electric, and fire teachers based on immediate results, you will be hard pressed to find people that will grow into great teachers.

Competition will improve education.

Actually, it will only hide the problem of not valuing education in society. We shouldn't need private schools or charter schools, and the idea of letting parents choose where students go to school will only allow kids with involved parents get the "better" education. Let's be honest, not every parent can afford to send their kid to a private school, and charter schools are not held to the same accountability standards as public schools. This will great the school for kids whose parents are not involved, and schools for parents that have a lot at stake in their child's education. But it doesn't solve the problem of actually getting society to value education. Instead, it leaves a population excluded because they are in poverty, or are Second Language Learners, or are disabled, or are simply unlucky (as in the lottery on the show).
If we truly want competition, then lets make the playing field level. Charter schools are to follow the same rules, have the same funding, and must admit all students without prejudice. Let the competition happen naturally, don't push the funding and political agenda to the side of the charter schools.

Does anyone else you know work only 6 1/2 hours a day?

I found it amusing that Stossel accused teachers of not working as much as the general public, and then shot to a group of KIPP teachers going home with cell phones answering calls from their kids "at all hours of the night".
Here is another example of society not appreciating education in that society doesn't want to pay educators. We are college graduate professionals that are often not paid a wage that allows use to buy a home or exists in many parts of the country. We often work many more hours than the average worker (lest you forget that many grade papers and lesson plan at home, and coach or have duty at school), and are held responsible by an enormous amount of people; the kids, the parents, the administration, the Board, the state, the federal government, and society in general. Would that make you want to start at $30K a year?
By the way, I give my e-mail to my students and I'm often answering their questions at all hours of the night.

The union is a monopoly that hinders education.

I was fortunate to have a principal that was an excellent mentor, and department that was supportive, critical, and motivating. Not all teachers are so lucky, and the union is often necessary to make sure that teachers are not trounced on my an inept administrator or held out to dry by an apathetic department. I've also been fortunate enough to have seen both sides of the union, and I'm as pretty middle of the road as it can get. I owe a lot to my local union for negotiating a strong contract, for supporting me during a natural disaster, and for being their regarding issues with parents. They are an organization that genuinely supports good teaching and helping kids. Are there union wackos that insist that the district is the devil? Yes, but they are a minority.
The CTA and NEA are another matter. I've had a rise in my dues almost every year since I was hired and have seen a negative return in terms my involvement in the process. My dues go to causes I disagree with, agendas I despise, and politicians who are less concerned about education and more concerned about votes. In my direct dealings with the CTA, I've sent in state legislation for legal advice regarding adherence by my district, only to be totally ignored on a variety of occasions.
I have no love for the state and federal unions, but without protection, we would be at the mercy of often irrational people. They are necessary.

What do we do about the problem of education in this country?

You want my 12 Step Program for Education Success? Here it is:

1. Conduct an independent audit of the entire Education program in California. The politicians, the parents, the districts, and teachers want to know where the money is going. The only way to accurately do that is to find the waste and begin to eliminate it, starting with the County level of education.

2. Build all schools up to the same standard, from building codes to athletic facilities, from classrooms to technology centers. No student should ever want to leave a school because it is run down. Every school should have the same academic, environmental standard.

3. Schools that receive private funding should get an equal reduction in government funding. Demanding achievement from all schools starts with not allowing one school to become elite, but all schools. You might call it socialist and un-American, but I would point out this quote from Stossel, "Money does not equal student achievement". If that's true, private funding is not necessary.

4. California immediately requires standards for administrators and conducts a thorough review off all administrators in state. Those that do not meet the standard are relieved of duty. If we are going to get serious about schools, then the schools need good leadership. I'm fortunate to work in a school with excellent leadership. Many of my colleagues that I went to school with are not so lucky. Administrators are responsible for the school, and should be held to the responsibility.

5. Fire the "bad" 10% of teachers immediately. I have no problem with the Jack Welch approach with a competent administration. I have total confidence that a professional administrator knows the difference between a struggling teacher is (new, tough population, rough parents), and a bad teacher. This will only work if #4 is implemented and working successfully.

6. Eliminate the CTA and NEA as unions, and keep the locals strong and organized. The state and national unions are simply political action committees that give little or no say to local teachers. It does no good for teachers to be forced into giving dues to an organization that is not for the best interests of teachers. If teachers want to give to their PAC, make it voluntary. I'll gladly pay mandatory local dues for all the hard work they do.

7. Penalize the parents for attendance issues, and go after public officials that refuse to properly address attendance problems in the community. The school can only do so much in making students show up to school. If the government is serious about education, fine parents for habitually tardy kids or enact community service or jail time. Too harsh? Not if we are serious about education. If district attorneys refuse to prosecute (like here in Mendocino County), they should be considered in violation of state law and removed from office, or thrown in jail.

8. Make all state and federal testing together, and make it mandatory for graduation. It makes little sense to have an Exit Exam and STAR testing separate, and on top of that make only one really count. Want to improve test scores, keep the Exit Exam a graduation requirement, and incorporate the STAR test with it. It can be done, and it would be more financially sound.

9. Eliminate funding by ADA, and only increase funding for schools with large amounts of Second Language Learners and Special Education. First, ADA is a massively flawed method of funding that hurts every school with declining enrollment. As for the argument that this goes against #2, the funding should come from the Federal Government, who is constitutionally obligated to deal with the problem of immigration. If they insist on allowing illegal immigrants into the country, they should pay for massive immersion programs (much like business travelers have in other countries) and Spanish-English staff. Special Education needs more funding than General Education. The law simply requires it.

10. Give local school the power to expel students that have no business being at the school. California Ed Code makes the process of expulsion a very long, expensive, and often fruitless task. However, if society is really serious about making school a priority, then they need to ignore rants of parents looking for babysitters, and allow schools to remove obstacles to learning.

11. Publicly make education a priority. All the talk in the world is not going to do anything for education unless parents and children see the government actively working towards positive change. This means that education should be encouraged by the government in greater volumes and with incentives for businesses to become involved in student's lives. Tax credits should be offered to corporations that are active in schools and the government should form a committee of corporate CEO's whose task it is constantly advice the government on what is needed from the next generation of students. After all, it is business that will be one of the main beneficiaries of a well educated population.

12. Treat all students like scholars and demand excellence. Not all students are going to go to college, and not all students are going to succeed, but that doesn't mean we don't give them the best atmosphere possible for academic success. Kids will achieve that what we expect of them. Right now, we don't expect enough.
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