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Friday, March 9, 2012

A Nation at Tsk

The furor to "reform" education began almost 30 years ago with the release of the Nation at Risk study in 1983, which stunned the nation with this report: 

"Some 23 million American adults are functionally illiterate by the simplest test of everyday reading, writing, and comprehension. About 13 percent of all 17-year-olds in the United States can be considered functionally illiterate." 
I hasten to pose a caveat about the report.  Many critics said that the report was a collection of impressions that did not accurately reflect the actual situations in our schools; it was not based upon the careful collection and analysis of data.  The report was hastily put together, and although it identified many things that educators agreed were problems, it was not comprehensive enough to offer the specifics and details need for viable solutions.  Nevertheless, the report was considered a place to begin for addressing problems that teachers, administrators, and college faculty recognized as issues.

Nation at Risk cited all areas of education as deficient, but emphasized the role of  the language arts as underlying all academic achievement.  Knowledge is stored in language and transmitted by language and understood with language.  In current proposals to address the deficiencies in education,  language is diminished, sometimes outright dismissed, as essential to any learning.  That case is most glaring in South Dakota's reform measure, HR 1234. which gives math and science priority and superiority over language studies and competence.  This is despite the fact that the test scores upon which the rationale for HR 1234 show deficiencies in reading comprehension.  The  measure which was passed by the legislature but may face a referendum vote, if the SDEA and its allies muster 15,000 petition signatures, is so totally devoid of established cognitive theory that it is a travesty.  Still, the promoters and many editorial commentators in the press do not understand why teachers so roundly oppose and reject HR 1234 as having any intellectual legitima
The South Dakota concept of teachers
HR 1234 is actually an expression of attitude and of class discrimination.  It authors and promoters regard teachers as work animals who will pull a little harder if they are offered a slightly larger bag of oats if they outpull those with whom they are harnessed.  Those who don't earn the extra bag of oats or swath of hay will have to learn to live and work in ignominy.  Some will be fired.  And the new beasts will not have the continuing contract provisions that define teaching as a career profession as opposed to an endurance contest, like professional athletics.  When someone decides they aren't performing, they will be dismissed as candidates for the glue factory.  The South Dakota concept of for teachers is a labor camp in which they are expendable at will.  

Many in South Dakota buy into the platitude that schools should be run like businesses, not recognizing what bleak and hopeless places many businesses are.  HR 1234 draws upon a notion from business management about personnel incentives, oblivious to the fact that competent and ethical businesses have found that those theories do not work.  Applying worker management concepts to education is like applying alchemy to rocket science.  It is the product of fatuous ignorance.

Nation at Risk, with all its omissions and weaknesses, at least showed some acknowledgment of the components involved in strengthening education.  In regard to teachers, it made the following observations and was a model of comprehension, compared with measures such as South Dakota's HR 1235:

  • The Commission found that not enough of the academically able students are being attracted to teaching; that teacher preparation programs need substantial improvement; that the professional working life of teachers is on the whole unacceptable; and that a serious shortage of teachers exists in key fields.

  •  Too many teachers are being drawn from the bottom quarter of graduating high school and college students.

  • The teacher preparation curriculum is weighted heavily with courses in "educational methods" at the expense of courses in subjects to be taught. A survey of 1,350 institutions training teachers indicated that 41 percent of the time of elementary school teacher candidates is spent in education courses, which reduces the amount of time available for subject matter courses.

  • The average salary after 12 years of teaching is only $17,000 per year, and many teachers are required to supplement their income with part-time and summer employment. In addition, individual teachers have little influence in such critical professional decisions as, for example, textbook selection.

  • Despite widespread publicity about an overpopulation of teachers, severe shortages of certain kinds of teachers exist: in the fields of mathematics, science, and foreign languages; and among specialists in education for gifted and talented, language minority, and handicapped students.

  • The shortage of teachers in mathematics and science is particularly severe. A 1981 survey of 45 States revealed shortages of mathematics teachers in 43 States, critical shortages of earth sciences teachers in 33 States, and of physics teachers everywhere.
  • Half of the newly employed mathematics, science, and English teachers are not qualified to teach these subjects; fewer than one-third of U. S. high schools offer physics taught by qualified teachers. 
None of the proposals for improving education, such as HR 1234, have gone back assess whether those factors specified in HR 1234 are still problems and have been dealt with.  Rather, the current solutions have been to take away bargaining and workplace rights and move toward operating the schools like labor camps whose dominant message is that teachers are expendable.  

Most significantly, no one who has any knowledge or experience with the dynamics of education has examined the factors where education is successful.  Rather, the current devices are designed so that the ignorant and resentful can gather around and decry the state of education and cluck their inarticulate tongues:  tsk. tsk, tsk.  

The public may remain ignorant and stupid about what produces effective education, but the teachers have a moral and intellectual responsibility not to let the ignorant and stupid define the terms of their profession.  As one Manhattan teacher put it, “How many times do we have to get kicked in the teeth before we realize we can’t work with these people?” Another quotation that is relevant, and draws upon the resources of language, comes from a mystery novel I read recently.  A woman librarian comments that "'asshole' is the most exquisite and versatile world in the English language."   National professional organizations and the SDEA have to recognize that their efforts to accommodate ignorant and power-lusting assholes has contributed to the decline of the profession and the effectiveness of teaching.  You cannot reason with assholes, and when you try to engage them, you will only get shat upon.  Teachers organizations have to reclaim the professional status that has been systematically stripped away from them, and they will need to operated with absolute independence and contradiction to the school bureaucracies so bent upon selling them out.  In South Dakota, the decline of the SDEA as a professional resource and voice of the teachers was set in motion by the agreements SDEA president Dianna Miller made with Gov. Bill Janklow at the time that Nation at Risk was published.  They began the systematic sell-out of education in South Dakota. 

Teaching is an arduous and complicated process.  Even if the general public wants to  regard it as a designation of bonded servitude, teachers and those who know and respect the processes of education can resist and restore the intellectual integrity of teaching and learning.  You may find yourself confronting assholes, but you don't have to consort with them.  

Tsk, tsk, tsk.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States