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Monday, December 27, 2010

Relinquishing educational leadership

The current fad in education is to assign blame to the teachers.  Rather than examining how the attitudes and issues that students bring into the classrooms are controlling factors in the failures and successes of education, the current efforts are focused on managing teachers.  To some, the key to improving education is to break the teachers' unions and to reduce teaching to the status of  bonded servitude.  The controlling idea is that teachers should be held totally accountable for the educational performance of their students, and when the students fall behind in the competitive measures, the answer is to fire the teachers and replace them with  more diligent servants.  Put more starkly, the emerging concept of a good teacher is guided by reality television.  Just as a bunch of striving survivors are put on a remote, isolated island and subjected to a process of getting voted off the island on the basis of their survival skills, teachers are put in classrooms to see how much pressure and stress they can withstand before being voted out of the classroom.  

The moral and intellectual standards of reality television may well define the emerging, dominant national culture.  As  far is it applies to education, the attitude has been building for a long time.  During the 1980s, the first in a series of dire reports on the state of American education was issued, called "A Nation at Risk."  It examined the failures of education.  However, it was most notable for what it omitted, not what it included.  In examining the ills of education, it consulted with everyone except teachers.  One would assume that any effort to examine the reasons for declining measures of educational success would include observations from the people who are on the front lines of the educational effort and have the most immediate perspective.  But the report, and subsequent ones, dismissed teachers as part of the problems to be examined; it did not  regard them as cognizant resources of information who could identify and solve any problems in the delivery of education.

Nor did the report examine the role of school boards.  In the past, school boards generally served as conduits of information between the taxpaying constituents and the professional staffs, the teachers.  Policies and procedures were worked out in consultation, with the public and the teachers acting as partners in the community.  When teachers were granted collective bargaining rights, the role of boards of education changed to that of corporate boards of directors charged with managing a bunch of employees, employees who they assume would shirk their duties and slough off if not placed under stringent work rules and constant monitoring.  Teachers were no longer part of the process of communication as the voice of the profession.  They became low-level employees who were told what to do, how to do it, and any voicing of their concerns was limited to the collective bargaining process.  In other words, they were stripped of their professional status.  And so, their observations and ideas were ignored in "A Nation at Risk."

This is not to say that teachers should not be accountable for their performance and that some, for numerous reasons, need to be removed from the classrooms.  But they should be held accountable only for those aspects of teaching over which they have control.  In the current fixation, they are the scapegoats for all the the ills--social, administrative, financial, political--that beset education.

After a series of reports and efforts to address the deficiencies of education, we are left with the idea that the key to improving education lies in the ability to fire teachers at will.  Find enough non-performing teachers and fire them, and our kids will return to the level of excellence in learning.  

As this attitude toward teachers has developed, one is left to wonder why anyone would choose teaching as a profession, why anyone would want to be put on an island and subjected to a weekly vote of who gets to keep their jobs and who doesn't.  The mastering and successful delivery of subject matter seems to count for less than the process of  being held accountable.  Accountability is no longer measured by acquiring knowledge and imparting it to children, but is a matter of how well one stands up under competitive stress tests.  It is difficult to find just where education and learning fits into this scheme of things. To hold a teaching job, one must learn how to suck up to the administrators and conform to the notions of education of whoever happens to be in charge.

During my last decade or so of teaching college, I and my colleagues noted a marked decline in the quality of students going in to education.  When I came to Northern State, education was its premier area of study.  The strongest students were the education majors.  One of the happier duties was to write letters of recommendation  for accomplished and capable students looking for teaching jobs.  Northern State supplied the highest percentage of teachers to the State of South Dakota, but we began to notice a trend.  The most promising young people in teaching were heavily recruited and were taking jobs out of state.  The reasons were obvious:  money and professional status.  Students who had been in my classes were going to places such as Oregon, Massachusetts, Nevada, Minnesota, Florida, and American schools in foreign countries. Those who took jobs in South Dakota often moved to better-paying locations after a few years. Another trend was that after a few years of successful teaching,  the young teachers were often lured into other kinds of work.

After "Nation at Risk" had been around for a time, another trend became evident.  The smartest and most ambitious college students were choosing other vocations.  The teacher education program began having problems with the quality of students seeking admission into the program.  Many of our faculty meetings became devoted to dealing with students whose level of scholarship was marginal.  In the past, students who did not measure up to the established standards were routinely dropped from the program or were put  on probation.  But as fewer strong students showed an interest in teaching, it also became more difficult to attract enough students into teaching education to maintain the program.  Consequently, more students who had weak areas in their preparation were admitted under special provisions.

It became a joke among the faculty that the graduation ceremony needed a provision contained in the marriage ceremony.  That provision was borrowed from the part in the marriage ceremony where the minister asks if any one in the audience knows of any reason why a couple should not marry; if so,  they should speak up then or forever hold their peace.  We thought that as each graduate crossed the stage to be handed a diploma, the college president should ask if anyone knew a reason why an education major should not be permitted to teach; they should  speak up then or forever be silent.  We said that in some cases the faculty would burst into a roar of disapproval.  Some students squeaked through the program; others simply did not have the personalities or motivations needed for teaching.  And some of the  young people headed for coaching careers were definitely not equipped to teach academic subject matter.  While there were still strong and able students going into teaching, there were also a growing number about whom the faculty had serious doubts.  We more frequently had to inform students that their performance was disqualifying them from the teaching program, but we also noted that among the capable students, a growing number decided not to take teaching jobs after their student teaching experience.  After the realities of being in a classroom, they decided on different careers.

For 20 years, I was co-director of a remarkably successful program devoted to honing teachers' skills in the teaching of writing, the Dakota Writing Project.  Initially, the program, which had co-directors from Black Hills State and Dakota State, was literally run out of the trunks of our cars.  We had some administrative support, but had to obtain grants from outside sources for funding.  What was successful about the program was that teachers taught each other.  People who had experienced success in teaching writing exchanged information and ideas about what worked with other teachers.  It was not limited to teachers of English, and it included teachers from kindergarten through graduate school.  The idea was to use writing as a learning tool in all disciplines, not just English classes, and to design ways to foster and measure student success.  Teachers ran the program on a volunteer basis, with the idea of having its methods and procedures incorporated into the institutions.  But when it was made part of institutions, it soon faltered and died.  The educational bureaucracies snuffed it out.

American education when it was in the hands of  teachers fostered a spirit of innovation and development geared toward succeeding with all students.  That spirit has been exterminated by the rigid prescriptions of the No Child Left Behind requirements.  Instead of improving education, NCLB has increased the drop out rate, chased competent teachers into other career choices, and while America has been teaching to the test, even developing countries, such as China and India, have surpassed America in educational achievement.  That is ironic, because the biggest worldwide movement to improve education was based upon the American model after World War II.  

For years, foreign students have come to American colleges and universities to have access to the best education, but now they are developing higher learning institutions in their own countries that rival, and in some cases, surpass ours.  America is so mired down in the muck of partisan politics that it cannot see that its obsession with trivial and inane bickering is allowing the nation's most conspicuous flower of success to wither away.  

There is much that is wrong with education in America, but there are also many solutions to its problems.  If education is to be saved, America might try something drastic in defining and solving its problems:  ask the  teachers. 

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States