Friday, February 27, 2009

Frustration: Teachers, non-teachers & education policy

I suspect that if any "educational elites" ever read any of my stuff, they quickly come to the conclusion that I am an educational Neanderthal. They probably picture me as a character from one of the Geico cavemen commercials. But I wonder if they have any idea how many of us Neanderthals there are. After one of my recent posts, Denine left the following comment:
As a first year teacher, I often feel like I am the only one who sees the "reality" in public education. I read your blog and realize that I am not alone.

The most gratifying thing from the writing I've done, whether it's in this blog or in the book I wrote, has been getting comments like that. I can't count the number of times that teachers approached me personally or wrote me letters telling me something to the effect that they felt like they could have written the book I wrote because it expressed exactly what they had been thinking. When I heard things like that, I felt like I had succeeded in what I was trying to do.

There are a lot of teachers who agree that one of the biggest problems in American education is that there are a lot of kids who don't try very hard, and that there are a lot of forces in our society that push them in that direction. There are a lot of teachers who agree about the disastrous effects that disruptive and apathetic students have on other kids stuck in classes with them. There are a lot of teachers who are frustrated because they lack the power to do anything meaningful to deal with these problems and they are expected to provide quality educational opportunities to all their kids despite them. I believe that unless something is done about these problems, education--at least in public schools--will never improve significantly no matter what other nifty reforms are imposed upon us. I've found that there are a lot of teacher who feel the same way.

I don't mean to speak for Denine, but I think she was expressing that sentiment when she also said this:
"I feel like I am at a total loss when it comes to solutions for so many of the problems in public education. I feel like most of my fellow teachers have given up and just accept things as they are. They all just tell me that I will do the same thing, too, in a few years when I realize that things are not going to change."

In a couple of posts in the past, I have expressed my frustration about discussing educational issues with non-teachers. Some non-teachers get offended by this, but I'm really not trying to give offense. I'm not saying that non-teachers have no right to an opinion on educational matters, and I'm not even saying that because they have never taught in a classroom that their opinions automatically have less validity than teachers. In fact, on some educational issues, they might even have more. Nevertheless, the experience of being in a classroom day after day does matter. It does give one a perspective on some things in education that you can't possibly have without it. Why does it seem like that perspective is ignored?

What is so frustrating about being in education, especially with the media and the elites of the nation constantly harping about how poor a job we're doing, is that policy is made by people who do not live their lives by teaching in classrooms. Policy is made by politicians, superintendents, and the like, and they seem to be most influenced by journalists, business leaders, high-brows from universities, and others who know nothing about what day to day life in a K-12 classroom is actually like. Yes, I know, someone might argue that our unions are very involved in making policy, but I'm not sure when the last time was that most of those union leaders were actually in the trenches of the classroom. I do know that our unions have failed miserably to express the concerns that I'm talking about.

This morning as I was watching CNN, a little item flashed across their screens saying that the new Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has announced that he believes we need to have a longer school year. Now, I am not against that. Heck, it would probably mean that I'd make more money. But let's face it, the biggest concerns about education in America have to do with our lowest achievers, and any teacher can tell you that the overwhelming majority of our low achievers don't try very hard. If you are going to do anything meaningful about that, the first thing that must be addressed is their lack of effort. Any teacher could also tell you that adding days to our school year will do absolutely nothing about that. But then, Arne Duncan was never a teacher.

Last week I posted about the effort in the Minnesota State Legislature to pass a law forcing kids to stay in school until they are 18-years-old. Any high school teacher I know could tell you that forcing every kid to stay in school is a bad idea. But the chief sponsor of the bill, Rep. Carlos Mariani, thinks it is a great idea. Surprise, surprise, Rep. Mariani is not a teacher. His former occupation before becoming a state legislator in 1990 is listed as consultant--whatever that means! The superintendent of the St. Paul schools, however, thinks Mariani has a swell idea. She made this wonderful sounding and incredibly naive statement about it: "When kids drop out, everyone loses." Anyone who has ever taught in a high school classroom can tell you how wrong that statement is, but then Ms. Carstarphan has never been a teacher. Her career before becoming the head of the St. Paul schools: a photographer and then a wiz-bang administrator.

I wish I had an answer for what to do about this, but I'm afraid I don't. All I can do, I guess, is to keep on blogging, and hope that others who've had similar experiences to mine do the same. But for those of you who are not teachers, I hope you'll have some patience with people like me when I complain about non-teachers and educational policy. I'm sure teachers aren't completely alone in this respect, but I don't know how many other people have occupations where the key decisions for them are consistently made by people who seem to have no idea what they are doing.


Blogger mazenko said...

I'm not sure any of us have the answer to this, but there are a lot of good ideas out there. The most obvious starting point is that, while American schools are overall successful, we have a flawed system. A once-size-fits-all education model makes less and less sense as we learn more about learning styles, the necessity of certain skills, and the effectiveness of various styles of pedagogy.

Quite simply, we are wasting the time of many kids and teachers, as well as the money of the taxpayers in their communities because we are not meeting their needs. Schools, for a considerable percentage, are simply holding pens - and that system of inertia, in which responsibility and expectation is deferred is self-defeating.

There are basic competencies that we should acknowledge, along with the wisdom that regardless of education level, the business community always retrains its workers to do what it wants. We have excessive praise of a bachelor's degree and a lack of respect for an associate's degree.

We keep kids in school longer than is necessary, and we insult them with the repetition of competencies at the college level, even with AP and IB placement tests. There is much we can learn from the systems of other countries, while at the same retaining the noble goal of equal opportunity.

2/28/2009 7:00 PM  
Blogger Mrs. C said...


"Quite simply, we are wasting the time of many kids and teachers, as well as the money of the taxpayers in their communities because we are not meeting their needs. Schools, for a considerable percentage, are simply holding pens - and that system of inertia, in which responsibility and expectation is deferred is self-defeating."

This *can* be very true, though I think advanced classes for some help alleviate this perception. But some very bright children (particularly boys) simply don't do well in the holding pens.


"But for those of you who are not teachers, I hope you'll have some patience with people like me when I complain about non-teachers and educational policy."

Hey, go for it. You'll humour me when I gripe about some of the stupidity in public education and people who don't "get" homeschooling.

I am concerned about extending the school year at a national level for the sole reason that a parallel law may be applied to my homeschoolers. We homeschool year-round, but I wouldn't want a new law from some Nosy Nellie bureaucrat anyway. :]

But at a local level, I'm not sure why we stick to a system that allows for quite that long a sabbatical each year. I would imagine that the first few weeks of a school year would have to be review. I would also imagine the last few weeks would be mostly babysitting as the children are gearing up for summer break and have mentally checked out. So that's a month of your nine months of teaching time that isn't as effective as it *could* be.

Just a thought. I could sure imagine a month off twice a year to not be unreasonable.

I'm so glad you are back, Dennis! And look at all these fresh posts to talk about!

3/01/2009 6:16 AM  
Anonymous Zeke said...

A wise old person once reminded me that since every one has gone to school for 10-12+ years, and seen many teachers in action, everyone thinks they know about education and teaching. To many, it seems so easy. However, most of them would be scared to death to have the responsibility of educating even their own kids, say nothing of roomfuls of other's kids. I don't see that that will change.
It is also hard for non-school folks to realize the mental energy that school takes, both for teachers and students, and that periodic recharging [i.e., vacations] is necessary. A longer day/year would have benefits but as Dennis says, those who don't want to be in school would be unlikely to do better with more time off-task!
Remember the poor performance of current students on tests lamented in the New York Times - in 1941 or 1942. We seem to have done OK, and even though the world has certainly changed, so have schools. We'll make this time too!

3/01/2009 12:21 PM  
Blogger Luke said...

Very good thoughts. It is a good idea to hear from people directly involved before passing legislation.


3/02/2009 8:58 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Michael, I've read and re-read your stuff on adolescence, and there's nothing you say that I can argue with. Those are big changes that you are suggesting, and you know how our society likes making big changes. Having an economy where the jobless rate is soaring doesn't make it any easier, either. But then again, society doesn't exactly seem to be leaping to make the things I propose happen, either. Oh well, we can always dream.

Zeke, when I've tried to defend the job we do, I've made reference to the LIFE Magazine series from 1958 on the "crisis" in American education. You just moved things up 17 years for me. Thanks!

3/03/2009 3:30 AM  
Blogger andbrooke said...

I keep hearing on the news that American schools aren't stacking against our international competitors. Which ones? Looking at the TIMSS study from NCES it would appear to be Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Japan, and England. From the nightly news I keep hearing India and China, but there seems to be no evidence for that.

We're in about 6th pace internationally in Math and Science. A lot better than we've all been lead to believe, huh?

I think this is another appearance by the educational bogey-man. In the educational race against China, I bet we're already winning.

PS-How do you educate a billion people? Holy cow. At least we don't have THAT problem.

3/04/2009 9:48 PM  
Blogger Clix said...

IMO, it comes down to whether we want an excellent education for some students, or the best we can provide (which may not be excellent!) for ALL students. Our resources are finite, and always will be. We tend to want to spend them in ways that benefit ourselves and those we care about - that's human nature. ;)

3/05/2009 8:17 AM  
Blogger JeffW said...

Well said, well said. I am not a teacher, but I fight for you guys every day. Please keep up the good work and keep the posts comming.

3/06/2009 9:26 AM  
Anonymous Jennifer said...

Hmmm... After reading some of your blog, I am thinking I need to pull my kids back out of school. We homeschooled for 7 years and then let them try school. They are in 7th, 6th and 3rd grade at what are considered top notch schools in our area. They are pretty bored and said I expected much, much, much, much, much more of them. Sure, they enjoy the social aspect of it, but I am wondering if they are really learning anything. They are shocked at some of the behaviour of the students as well as the teachers!! SIGH....

3/09/2009 10:17 AM  
Anonymous Matt S. said...

I always appreciate your thoughts. I have read your book and passed it on to many others in my school district. Unfortunately in my school district, student apathy and misbehavior is attributed to ADD, bad home environments or poor teaching. While I agree that these things can play a role, the pendulum has swung so far that way that it is very difficult to hold kids accountable for their behavior.

Keep fighting the fight. I'll continue as well.

3/10/2009 4:09 PM  
Anonymous Erica Fouche said...

I actually like how my districts school schedule is set up. We have around 9 to 10 weeks off for the summer. I could not imagine making the school year longer. By the end of May everyone is burned out! I think instead of making the school year longer we should make the regular year more enriched and involving for our students. This will make the learning time more enjoyable and the possibility of the lessons sticking with that student more of a guarantee.

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