Today's rash of quick fix answers started with Steve Jobs telling us the teacher unions are broken in the worst possible way. Principals can't get rid of poorly performing teachers. Plus Jobs says we need online books that are updated like Wikipedia. Brilliant job of stating the obvious and repeating things everyone in education knows. Yes, teacher unions help protect the jobs of poor teachers and yes textbooks are not being updated fast enough. I have yet to meet a teacher, a principal or a school board member who doesn't agree with those statements.
Don Dodge jumps in to support Jobs and to add that the other part of the problem is that principals have no way to reward top performers. Is there someone in education who doesn't know that this is a problem? It is a problem hardly anyone wants to fix though because it depends on people being fair and no one respects principals enough to give them a job like that. Robert Scoble agrees with both Jobs and Dodge and suggests that teachers need to be paid more. And he should know because he used to be married to someone who used to be a teacher. They all mean well but the problem is bigger than they think it is. In fact it is much too large to cover in a blog post. One of these days I'll write a book.
Heaven save us from experts. They all seem to have one thing in common - they think that teachers are, if not the only problem, the largest problem with American education. By my reckoning there are several groups that are a much larger problem. They are:
- Government officials and the rules they lay down
- Parents and the lack of support they give education
- Students and their lack of willingness to do their part
- Voters for not supporting the needs of good education
Yes there is work that can be done to improve teaching and teachers (let's start with schools of education by the way) and also school administrators. No question that there is room for improvement. But for the most part we are looking to fix large problems by fixing small things. Look at it like trying to fix a car by putting new tires on it while ignoring the fact that the engine is missing.
Every time the subject of school vouchers comes up someone tells me "schools that receive vouchers should have to follow the same rules that public schools do." Let me translate that to English. "Schools that receive vouchers much be required to fail." The government creates sets of rules with fairness as a theoretical goal but with a practical effect of making money for lawyers and life hard for teachers. It's not really about education as much as it is about control and covering peoples rear ends. It is about taking the easy way out regardless of results.
Take some of the aspects of no child left behind for example. If a school is failing the principal will be replaced. Will the new principal have any more power to effect change than the person they replace? Good grief no! That would be wrong. Is it any wonder schools don't improve. Or better yet, if the school doesn't have enough resources to do a good job let's take some of those resources away until they do a better job. Yeah that makes sense. If the board is too short cut it again.
Parents? Oh you don't even want to get me started on parents. Help a teacher control their child in class? Oh no that is the teacher's job. And oh by the way the child has heard the parent say that they don't respect teachers because people who make that little don't deserve their respect. And the parent who explains that the reason their child's report is word for word the same as the article in the Encyclopedia is coincidence? What about the parents who take their kids out of school for a week (or more) for a family vacation and demands that the teacher make it up when the child returns? Ask any teacher and you'll get stories like that for hours. How do we hold parents accountable for helping their children learn?
What about the student who refuses to do the work? Or who is disruptive in class on a regular basis? Why do we hold a teacher responsible for a student who thinks that filling in the bubble sheet (for a standardized test) in a pretty pattern is more fun than actually trying to figure out the answers? Or the student who comes to class to sleep because they were up late watching their friends play hockey? Or they worked late earning money for designer jeans and a new iPod? My father believed my job as a school aged child was to be a student. That's what I told my son his job was. In some parts of the work that is still the case. Not in the US of A though. Fix that problem Steve Jobs! No, you're not interested because it would cut back on iTunes sales wouldn't it!
I hear a lot of talk from voters about school issues. Cut the budget. Books out of date? Too bad. Computers old? Too bad. Teachers can't afford to live near work? Too bad. Cut cut cut. Do more with less!
Now I'm not a real expert. Yes I did teach in the classroom for nine years. I only spent one year teaching in elementary schools though. Although I did teach every grade from kindergarten through eighth grade that year I spent most of my teaching in a high school. I did serve six years on a (private) school board and another six years as an elected member of a public school district's budget committee. My wife and son are both public school teachers. My son teaches special education BTW. So I think I understand a little bit about how schools work. But I'm sure people will be happy to tell me where I am wrong.
The problems are huge. The need is for a complete restructuring of our education system. We need more choices for students and more responsibility placed on them and their parents. We need a way to remove the kids who refuse to learn and extra support for the students who want to do more (that means for gifted and for special needs both).
We need a new culture that values education above sports. We need teachers who are trained to teach using technology and who are provided with the resources (including paid training like most other professionals get) and the chance to be rewarded for doing a good job. We need principals who can get rid of bad teachers, reward good teachers and deal in a fair way with problem students and parents. We need testing that is reasonable but we need to lose the idea that we can test quality into the system. We need to teach the things that are hard to test. Things like creativity, problem solving, critical thinking and initiative. We need parents and other adults who lead by example - being life long learners and putting their time and money into education for themselves and their children.
As hard a problem as Steve Jobs may think fixing education is in actual fact it is harder than that.