News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Who is failing our schools?

Any talented student who contemplates going into teaching would have to have second thoughts at this time.  It is probably the  most dishonored and denigrated profession in America.  An astute student would know that the idea of teaching because of a dedication to children and the future of the country is a fool's notion.  Teaching is no longer about inducing learning in children; it is about performing for a bunch of adults who have no real interest in education, but do like to exercise power over other people.  Any discussion of teachers produces storms of revilement, and those storms are the way the wind is blowing over the cultural landscape.

The educational bureaucracies deserve much of the blame for our failing schools.  But they weren't always such dreadful examples of the bureaucratic mentality.  Over three-fourths of a century, I have observed and reported on how the educational bureaucracies got the way they are.

A big change in education came with collective bargaining.  But it wasn't the teachers who changed; it was the school boards, and the school administrations.  What changed was the kind of relationship the school boards and their administrative lackeys (that's what they became) wanted to establish with the teachers.

For a time, I was a stringer for a newspaper that covered about 12 school districts.  It needed reporters to cover the school board meetings at nights, and I found it a good way to pick up some cash and add to my journalism credentials.  The meetings I covered seldom had moments of disagreement and opposition.  The boards considered themselves as the conduit of information between the professional teaching staffs and the public.  The administrators considered themselves to be educators, first and foremost, with the management of personnel far down the list of duties.  The meetings were long and boring.  When issues came up, the board members relied upon the superintendents and the professional staff to thoroughly review the matters with them to include all pertinent information from both the educational and public perspectives.  Consultation and collegiality was the controlling procedure, collegiality meaning an acknowledgment of shared authority on school matters. 

School boards then were largely apolitical.  Very few school members had agendas other than to keep the schools running efficiently and effectively.  Except in very rare cases, the schools boards did not involve themselves deeply in matters of curriculum, textbooks, or teaching methods.  They did review those matters and discussed them thoroughly --which is why the meetings were boring to outsiders. If they had concerns or interests, they were dealt with, but the boards thought it was the job of the teachers to have knowledge about teaching materials and methods and to exercise their experience and knowledge in recommending and using them.

That cooperative arrangement ended with collective bargaining.  School boards changed from their role of a conduit of information and ideas to reshaping themselves as corporate boards of directors who directed all the management of the school systems.  Superintendents became CEOs, principals were no longer principal teachers but division heads, and teachers were regarded as a necessary evil, employees who needed to be monitored and given strict rules about everything.  When collective bargaining came to education, educators allowed the industrial concept of bargaining to replace the collegial exchange of information and ideas.  School boards adopted the adversarial approach, and to them teachers were adversaries. As a consequence, teachers were eliminated from a participatory role in the management of the schools.  They were regarded as low-level employees whose jobs were to carry out what was ordered from the boards.

A sign of their absence in the education process was evident in the first of  many so-called assessments of public education which came out in the 1980s, "Nation at Risk."   The significant aspect of that report is that no teachers were consulted and it totally lacks the perspective from the front lines of education.  Subsequent reports have also lacked any involvement of teachers, except for some token comments from teachers selected to agree with the main authors.  What is striking about the studies is that none of them have resulted in any change in the downward spiral of education effectiveness.  To the contrary, the sinking tests scores have accelerated.  Education has been stuck in the range of low-performance indicators for decades, and the only solution that has gone into popular circulation is that the low performance is because principals do not have the right to fire low-performing teachers.  America has retreated into the false mythology that education is unsuccessful because the classrooms are infested with bad teachers.  Americans tell themselves that if we could get rid of the bad teachers, which means also getting rid of the teachers unions, everything would improve.

When school boards and boards of regents decided that collective bargaining had to be an adversarial process in the model between labor and industrial management, they opted for a system of management totally unsuited for education.  This insistence on adversarial process  changed the teachers' organizations.  That change can be illustrated and analyzed in the case of South Dakota.  

Before it became a collective bargaining representative, the National Education Association was a professional organization that promoted education interests.  Teachers, administrators, and others interested in education belonged to it.  For teachers, it was the major sponsor of professional development programs, and its state affiliates organized institutes, seminars, and professional development workshops that teachers attended to stay up-to-date on developments and methods in education.

South Dakota provides a case study.  Once a year, the South Dakota Education Association sponsored a week-long teacher's institute at which experts from within and outside the state gave presentations on new developments and updates on teaching.  During that institute, schools went on a break so the teachers could attend.   Attendance was mandatory, I believe.  But the education associations were the central agencies in for professional development, and all educators, classroom teachers to state superintendents, attended to stay up-to-date and to insure that the entire education cadre shared the same information.

When the NEA became a collective bargaining agency, politicians, school boards, and their henchpersons decided they did not like a "union" given the status of a professional organization that could speak authoritatively to matters of educational management and development.  School boards resented having to treat "adversaries" as professional equals.  The former collegial relationship conflicted with the new priority:  the creation of a managing class and a managed class.

Governor Bill Janklow carried out the mandate to change the relationship between teachers and their managers.  He had a cozy relationship with the president of the South Dakota Education Association and the two came up with proposal to effect the change in relationship.  They ended the institutes during the school year and agreed that if they were to be held, they should be held during the summer so as not to interfere with student attendance days.

For a time, the SDEA sponsored a week-long institute just before classes commenced in August.  I participated as a presenter in some of them.  However, the timing in summer met with serious conflicts.  After classes end in May, many teachers are enrolled in graduate work and other activities for professional development.  That week before classes started was particularly bad, because that is when teachers are preparing their syllabi to employ and update their materials and methods for the year.  They, also, have their own families to prepare for the resumption of classes.  The number of conflicts and logistic problems was unmanageable, and the teacher institutes faded away because they were an interference, not an educational support.

The state NEA affiliates found that, despite their best efforts, their focus became collective bargaining issues of wages, benefits, and working conditions.  They were effectively excluded from participating in the planning and logistics of delivering education.  

The most effective teachers quickly realized what a devastation the changed, imposed relationship was to education.  They considered the agreement by the SDEA president with the Governor a near-fatal blow to the professional status of teachers.  

Now, many states--Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, others--want to eliminate the union influence altogether.  

The decline in student scores coincides with the diminishing of the teachers' voice in the running of education.  The people who work the front lines every day, who know and understand student needs in very specific terms,  who actually deliver the instruction have been cut out of the learning equation.  They have been reduced to low level subservient drudges who get complemented only when they give up their personal intelligence and initiative in the service of those who presume to run education.

Many, many of my colleagues in education insist that the decline in American education correlates directly with growth of conservative ideologies.  The more the teaching corps is attacked with false and specious charges, the lower student performance sinks.

I have not the evidence at this time to make that direct correlation, but it is clear that the prevailing attitudes toward teachers have a deleterious effect on the learning process.  Teachers are held responsible for what happens to education, but they have been stripped of their authority in meeting their responsibilities.

I noted in my last years of active teaching in college that the quality of people going into education was diminishing.  The brightest and most talented students were going into other fields.  Many that I could who went into education decided not to take teaching jobs at graduation.  Their student teaching experiences showed them the system was no longer geared to support teachers and learning.  So, they went off in other directions.

In those later years, I found myself advising my teaching majors that it was wise to prepare for an alternative career, because reports from former students who had gone into teaching were that teaching was not a place for the talented and ambitious.  They would meet only frustrations which served student failures, not teacher successes.

If I were to rank who is failing education today, I would put teachers at the bottom of the list.  I would put school boards, state departments of education, and administrations at the top.  People who have no education in subject matter and teaching process, who have  no experience in classrooms, and who read only the anti-education propaganda in the media are designing our schools and curricula.  They are incapable of grasping what a cataclysmic failure No Child Left Behind turned out to be or why.  Their only solution is to revile teachers and their unions and withhold even more support.

So be it.

I do not think that any college student with brains, talent, and ambition would choose to go into teaching under the current conditions of education.  Rather, they would best serve the interests of America and its children by finding ways to circumvent the prevailing attitudes and values, and regard real education as a form of subversion, as some educators regarded it in the 1960s.

Most of what is being talked about in education depends upon bonded servants who have little intelligence, little education, and no ambition doing what they are told.  And what they are told to do is not education.  It is merely operant conditioning, as with Pavlov's dog.  

My advice to the bright and educated:  If you want to teach,  really teach, consider another country.  America wants wage slaves, not teachers.  

Everyone except the teachers has failed our schools.  

For a quick diagnosis of what is wrong with education and what is right,  check out this young man. 

1 comment:

Thad Wasson said...

I blame parents that don't care, the ending of special education, and a bloated Department of Education that can't see these problems.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States