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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Stalking the poor teachers

A couple of sentences from an editorial in the Rapid City Journal typifies what has become a cliche: "We can support an initiative that rewards good teachers and roots out poor ones. School districts need a way to get rid of poor teachers, and if ending tenure helps accomplish this, it will be a welcome change."

 The current wisdom is that our public schools are impeded by a horde of bad teachers and all we have to do to improve education is fire them.  Which means getting rid of union contracts which require that firings be done for cause with procedures of due process to  make the case.  

 The issue is, just who are these bad teachers?  What are they doing or not doing that make them bad teachers?  

Colleges of education were the main controls on the quality of teaching in the past.  Students had to meet academic and behavioral standards to be admitted into teacher education.  Once admitted, their performance was carefully monitored and their student teaching experiences were carefully evaluated to insure that they would be effective teachers.  One of the most difficult jobs professors had was to redirect a few students into different careers when it became apparent that they were not effective as teachers.  Students who could not maintain the required grade average were simply dropped from the teacher education program.  But for some, problems showed up during their student internships as teachers.  Those problems often were matters of classroom management and discipline, not intellectual competence.

In the 1990s, we professors were confronted with some changes in South Dakota.  We noticed that our best students in education were hired out-of-state.  I recall writing letters of recommendation to schools on the West Coast, Nevada, Arizona, Florida, other upper Midwest states, and New England.  What was attracting our students to other places was better pay, better administrators, and cultural opportunities. 

 A U.S. Dept. of Education list shows teacher shortages for the 1990=91 school year in South Dakota only in  two areas:  gifted and special  education.

However, the shortages in the state for recent years have grown considerably:


Foreign Language (K-12)
Math (7-12)
Music (K-12)
Science (7-12)
Special Education (K-12)
Speech Pathologists

2008-09 thru 2011-12

Art (K-12)
Career & Technical Education (7-12)
English as a New Language (K-12)
Health (K-12)
Language Arts (7-12)
Mathematics (7-12)
Music (K-12)
Physical Education (K-12)
Science (7-12)
Social Science (7-12)
Special Education (K-12)
Speech Pathologists
World Languages (K-12)
The shortages affected teacher education in two major ways.  The first was that school boards were asking for "provisional certifications"  so that teachers could teach in subject areas for which they had insufficient or no training.  The second was that in order to get a sufficient number of students into teacher education, colleges of education and professors in the subject area disciplines were asked to relax or change the standards.  During my last years of teaching, I and my colleagues, noted a very significant change in the levels of talent in those in the teacher education program.  

There were instances of shock in some cases.  After student teaching experiences, some students whom we assumed would find top teaching jobs informed us that they decided not to go into teaching.  They found that they and their supervising teachers spent an inordinate amount of time dealing with discipline problems so that little was devoted to teaching the subject matter.  And they found school bureaucracies to be absurd.  And as teachers retired, a significant number indicated that they would not choose teaching as a career if they had it to do over again.  This attitude, as reflected in polls taken by professional education organizations, stemmed from the classroom management problems and the attitude of the public toward teachers.
In the schemes to improve education, these trends are never discussed, even though a number of organizations and agencies have noted them and their effects.  The notion that education can be improved by identifying good teachers and giving them more money and identifying bad teachers and firing them only intensifies the diminishing of education as a profession anyone wants to pursue.  

The editorial in the Rapid City Journal indicates how badly the press performs in observing and reporting what is really going on in our schools.  The Governor's proposed legislation to award merit pay and abolish continuing contracts provides another big reason why a talented and conscientious person would not go into education.

When asking the people who promote merit pay and firings as the way to improve education just who the bad teachers are, their response is that the evaluation process will reveal them.  And when one examines the proposed evaluation procedures, one finds fatuous silliness on the part of the educational bureaucracies that design them.  They try to apply business world evaluation processes, not noting that those processes have not worked in the business world.  The lavish and ridiculously extravagant bonuses given CEOs and executives is a form of merit pay, and one need only observe what those bonuses have done for the country.  

The legislature and other groups are raging about making it easier to fire teachers, but they are ignoring how hard it is getting to find people to fire.  Smart people are not going into education that is being ruled over by so many truly stupid people.  

It is not the teachers who are causing the failures in public education.  But the governments and the public want to expend their efforts on blaming them. 

1 comment:

Bob Newland said...

This is an inevitable situation stemming from the concept of "public" education.

The State mandates provision of tax-funded "education." The State then devises "standards" to measure its own effectiveness. When the results don't measure up to the standards, the standards are lowered.

When the results continue to disappoint, people with guns are hired to patrol the "schools." Bureaucrats are hired to govern the schools.

Taxpayers scream about all of it, except the people with guns patrolling the schools.

Students, upon whom the results are tested, continue to withdraw from the process. Most can't articulate it, but they are offended by the crap fed them called "education." Treated like prisoners, they mutilate themselves like prisoners do.

In order to pour the problem into another cask, the schools lower their standards again; the students can move to another school.

The problem will continue to fester and suppurate as long as the products of the public schools graduate into legislatures carrying their impressed ignorance with them.

The newspapers are, of course, in league with the State and with the bureaucracy of the school systems. Reporters and editorial writers, being products of the schools and having scored such an influential position, seem to believe that the State, with its "standards" and armed education camp philosophy is responsible for their success and could provide it for everyone if the teachers and students would just cooperate.

The public school system will continue to sink into uselessness. There is no solution except to rid ourselves of the whole concept and return to a parental responsibility model, which, at this point, seems rather frightening. Just not as frightening as the continuation of letting the State "educate" our kids.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States