It's the students, stupid!
During the 1992 presidential campaign, which took place during the end of a recession, Bill Clinton's team had a saying: "It's the economy stupid!" The people in that successful campaign wanted to remind each other over and over that the way to win the presidency was to focus on the economy, the economy, and the economy some more. When I hear people, especially people who are considered experts, giving us their brilliant ideas as to how we can fix the problems of education in America, I want to shout out to them, "It's the students, stupid!"
When "the experts" bemoan the state of American education, there is no more attractive target for their attacks than teachers. In February, Time Magazine ran a cover story titled, "How To Make Better Teachers," complete with information on how other nations like Finland do it. The very clear implication of articles like this is that American education would be just fine if only our teachers were better.
Jay P. Greene, a consistent critic of American public schools, now has a blog, and you'll never guess what he has posted about! Surprise, surprise! Greene has posted about the need to get better teachers into our schools. Argh!!!
Now let me make it clear that I am all for doing everything we can to get the best teachers we can, and I have had a number of posts dealing with how I think we can do that. I am also very open to the idea that many of the methods and ideas that have been promoted by education schools and university high brows have been questionable to say the least. But anybody who spouts the theory that the biggest problem we have in education is that we don't have good enough people doing the teaching is barking up the wrong tree.
Greene points to something going on in American education that should give him a clue about where many of our problems lie:
A new report from the McKinsey Company examines education systems from around the world, revealing some of the central problems of the American system in the process. In international examinations of student proficiency in mathematics and science, American elementary students score fairly well. American middle school students slip to the middle of the pack while American high school students rank near the bottom, behind all of our major Asian and European competitors.
Obviously, something is wrong.
Okay, so our kids do fine in the lower grades, and get worse as they get older. It would be reasonable to ask what is happening at the upper grades that isn't happening at the lower grades to cause so many kids to do so poorly. But Greene never asks that question. Instead he jumps to the conclusion that all American teachers are lousy:
The McKinsey report emphasizes the crucial nature of recruiting high quality teachers. Successful school systems recruit their teachers from upper tier of university academic achievers. A South Korean official summarized this practice succinctly “The quality of a school system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.”
South Korea in fact engages in remarkably different education practices when compared to the United States. South Korea spends less per pupil, but pays their teachers more. This feat is accomplished through larger average class sizes- which are approximately twice as large in South Korea than in the United States.
Korean teachers however are paid much better and enjoy greater professional prestige than their American counterparts. The McKinsey report cites data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showing that a 15 year veteran teachers in South Korea is paid an average of 2.5 times GDP per capita. In America, the average is a little more than 1 times GDP per capita.
Higher pay and prestige allows South Korea to recruit teachers from those in the top 5 percent of their university graduating classes. Korean schools have many applicants for every teaching job. Meanwhile, in the United States, the low upper cap on the pay fails to attract many of our brightest and most ambitious students. American schools on average recruit teachers from the bottom third of American university graduates.
Additionally, American schools once had a near monopoly on employing bright university educated women. That monopoly has since retired to the dustbin of history and will not be returning. Our national preoccupation with lowering average class size has also impacted lowered the average effectiveness of the teachers we’ve hired. The average class size in American schools has plummeted since the baby-boomers went through the system, but our test scores have remained flat.
Americans have been obsessed with lowering class size, while Korea has emphasized getting the brightest students possible into the classroom while thinking nothing of packing 40 or more children in a classroom. Who made the right choice?
This is a prime example of an expert who doesn't have a clue because he's never actually had to teach in an American public school classroom. It is so frustrating because so many people take guys like this seriously.
Now, I'm not going to object to higher salaries for teachers, but I have a question for Jay. If the heart of American education problems is lousy teachers, then why do our third graders do well? Do all of our "smart" teachers flock to the early elementary grades? Do all of our "stupid" teachers flock to the high schools? It seems to me that Greene doesn't even attempt to explain this, so let's take a look at it.
The biggest difference between kids in the early grades and in high school is the way they react to adults compared to the way they react to their peers. Pleasing their parents, and pleasing what amounts to be their surrogate parents, in other words, their teachers, is very important to kids in kindergarten and kids in the first, second, and third grades. Pleasing their peers becomes increasingly important as they get older. By the time they are in high school, peer relationships dominate.
Greene uses South Korea as his example. I can't claim to be an expert on South Korean education, but let me take a couple of guesses. My guess is that South Korea does not treat a student's education as a property right that can't be taken away without due process of law. I would also guess that there aren't many teachers and administrators in South Korean schools that would ever have to worry about being sued if they suspended a student for too long, or disciplined the student in some other way.
Well, that is the way things are in American schools, and believe me, it takes its toll on education here. It begins to make a noticeable difference when kids are in middle school, and by high school when the most difficult kids in our schools have learned what they can get away with, and when students are much more concerned about how their peers see them than how their teachers do, the effects are profound. Without ever having seen a South Korean high school, I have no doubt that teachers have much more authority and order in their classrooms, and I doubt very much that it's because they are superior people to American high school teachers.
I think I have as good a reputation as any teacher in our school, but there was one class I had this year that was nearly impossible to manage, because there were so many kids who were disruptive, and there were so many kids who lacked any motivation at all. I don't care who the teacher is, learning is going to suffer in such a class. I would challenge any teacher from South Korea, Finland, or anywhere else to do a better job with that class than I did.
Jay Greene scoffs at the importance of class size, and you know what? When the kids in a class are motivated and respectful, he's right. The best regular American History class I ever had was one of the largest classes I had ever had up until that time. Most of the students had wonderful attitudes, and the few who didn't were influenced for the better by the many who did. I have also had lousy classes that were relatively small, because there were a few disruptive kids in them. But in the great majority of classroom situations in America, whether Greene understands it or not, there is simply no question about it--a teacher can be more effective when a class is smaller.
I have all of our school's sophomores in American History. This year I have the one nightmare class I referred to earlier, two other regular classes that are below average in performance and behavior, and one basic class. The basic class has actually been the most enjoyable of the bunch for me. The sophomore class this year is the worst class of students, as a whole, that I've had during my thirty-four year teaching career. I've actually grown to like almost all of the kids as the year has gone by, but I've never been so frustrated so often during a year. I'm sure there is more than one reason for this, but as I've tried to find out why this is, one thing has struck me. Because of cuts our school district has been forced to make, these kids have been stuck in large classes all the way up. Don't try telling me that class sizes don't make a difference. Somebody needs to tell Jay Greene that this isn't South Korea.