Asking Better Questions Part 2

teacher quality, school environment, classroom management, homeschooling

Efforts to improve the public education system usually involve studies that attempt to discover what is needed to improve schools.

Continued from Asking Better Questions Part 1 

Time Magazine published an article in 2008 on How to Make Great Teachers, and they asked some good questions on the subject: 

  • How do teachers come by their craft?
  • What qualities and capacities do they possess?
  • Can these abilities be measured?
  • Can teachers be taught new skills?
  • How should excellent teaching be rewarded?

Those are exactly the kinds of questions that need to be asked, but the answers are tough, and the current system won't allow them to be answered or the obvious solutions employed. The best teachers—the most competent, caring and compelling—seldom remain in a profession known for low pay, low status, unsafe work conditions, and soul-crushing bureaucracy.

Traditionally, public-school salaries are based on years spent on the job and college credits earned, a system favored by unions because it treats all teachers equally. Of course, everyone knows that not all teachers are equal...And yet there is no universally accepted way to measure competence, much less the ineffable magnetism of a truly brilliant educator. In its absence, policymakers have focused on that current measure of all things educational: student test scores. -TIME

The classroom environment: 

The spirit of the classroom is determined by the teacher. And teacher's unions refuse to acknowledge that all teachers are not created equal. They do not treat them as every other profession does; retaining and rewarding talent, removing those who are inept or unsuited. Instead, let's go to the NEA's Imaginarium where all teachers are good teachers and most parents are stupid; where it's OK to put all the pressure on the children to squeeze themselves through the union's arbitrary measurements of success, then blame the parents for not being more involved.

There's no magic formula for what makes a good teacher, but there is general agreement on some of the prerequisites. One is an unshakable belief in children's capacity to learn.-TIME

Absolutely--this hearkens back to affinity for children. Kids must be seen as individuals to be encouraged and nurtured. All children have tremendous potential, and they will believe what they are told by those in positions of authority and influence in their lives. An adult who can't believe in that potential, or be able to handle the pressure of a classroom should not be in the classroom.

Another requirement, especially in the upper grades, is a deep knowledge of one's subject...Nearly 30% of middle- and high school classes in math, English, science and social studies are taught by teachers who didn't major in a subject closely related to the one they are teaching...-TIME

This is obviously necessary in a situation where professionals are providing a public service. We expect them to be able to do what they claim to be able to do, which is to teach children, drawing from their accumulated knowledge and experience, imparting information and creating understanding in a young mind.

Other essential skills require on-the-job practice. It takes at least two years to master the basics of classroom management and six to seven years to become a fully proficient teacher.-TIME

Classroom management is a HUGE element of the traditional school dynamic, and I don't envy any teacher the job of getting to know a new classroom of kids every year, keeping those 20+ kids in line and focused for long periods of time, filing paperwork, inventorying supplies. . .

Ben Van Dyk, 25, left a job teaching in a high-poverty Philadelphia school after just one year to take a position at a Catholic school where his earning prospects are lower but where he has more support from mentors, more control over how he teaches and fewer problems with student discipline. Novice teachers are much more likely to call it quits if they work in schools where they feel they have little input or support, says Ingersoll.-TIME

They train teachers for years, and then handcuff them to curriculum and methods and a cloistered environment? And children, who need stability and a certain amount of predictability are put in a new room with a new teacher every year?

Sometimes I wonder why 'the experts' don't apply some of their own expertise.

Anne of Green Gables Trilogy Box Set
Starring Kevin Sullivan, Megan Follows, Richard Farnsworth

Everyone has seen Anne of Green Gables, right? Remember when Miss Stacy in Anne of Green Gables take the kids into the woods to look at plants and little bird nests? We know instinctively that this hands-on inspiration of a child's natural curiosity is a valuable element of the learning process. Note how well Miss Stacy knew her students after spending a few years in their company, even going to dinner in their homes.

However, in our day and time, with frivolous lawsuits and a fear-mongering media, teachers would be horrified at the idea of regularly taking kids out into the world to experience it (instead of just reading about it). Who ever heard of having their teacher over for a cookout unless they were a relative or family friend?

A Better Answer

If we believe so much in teachers, let's give them the freedom to do what they have been trained to do, and develop an environment of involvement and support where the ambivalent parent is the minority and not the norm.

Let's start recognizing each child's talent, abilities, and interests. A child who is a gifted writer would be allowed to focus and excel in related subjects, while continuing to work on mastering subjects in which they are weaker or disinterested. Let's not pressure students to do equally well in all subjects, and penalize them with a low GPA or disability label if they aren't.

To clarify--no subject area should be ignored, but the real world, a variety of vocations and the free market allows and even demands that one focus on a particular set of skills. Traditional school does not prepare students for this reality, and it is definitely reflected in age-graded classrooms, separate subjects, testing, grading, and evaluation systems.

What Can We Do

As U.S. school districts embark on hundreds of separate experiments involving merit pay, some lessons seem clear. If the country wants to pay teachers like professionals—according to their performance, rather than like factory workers logging time on the job—it has to provide them with other professional opportunities, like the chance to grow in the job, learn from the best of their peers, show leadership and have a voice in decision-making, including how their work is judged. Making such changes would require a serious investment by school districts and their taxpayers.-TIME

I think the taxpayers are already quite invested in public education, but many politicians and special interests groups have co-opted that investment to create their own power base and further their careers.

Home educators also pay taxes and vote. We have escaped most of this bureaucracy and red tape by committing to homeschooling, but I believe we should take an interest in what is going in our communities and nation with regards to education. 

  • Volunteer in the community.
  • Get to know your neighbors.
  • Attend school board meetings.
  • Educate yourself on issues and vote in local elections.
  • Write letters to local and stat officials about legislation that affects education.

Two questions that keep coming to my mind while I ponder this topic:

~Can the current system be fixed? In my opinion, yes--but with the understanding that the result might not even remotely resemble what we have in place right now. Maybe the question should be "Can we toss the current system and create a new one?"

~Will we as a nation do what it takes to fix it? Which goes back to the question above. Major changes are needed--so major in fact that a complete restructuring is probably required.

~Will the NEA stop politicking and start focusing on education? When donkeys fly.

What kind of questions do you think we should be asking?
Share what you think in the comments-