Monday, July 6, 2009

My 10th grade report card qualifies me to have an opinion...

Starting in kindergarten I noticed something about my teachers. Most of them seemed bored. In small towns it's a bit of local chatter to know before hand which teachers are good in whatever grade your kid is about to enter. I suspect some parents are even good at getting their kids enrolled in the good teachers' classes (this is sometimes called "advocating"). **Foot Note N 1.
FN 1: My mother, who taught in our local school, got me and my sister into Mrs. Roxlau's 3rd grade class. Mrs. Roxlau was nuts (example: if you were talking in the back row she would throw a piece of chalk at you with deadly aim and speed often just missing an eye; she had an after school coin club and she would buy coins from kids - some pennies she would pay you a nickel for (hhmmm?). My mother said I would never forget Mrs. Roxlau and she was 100% correct. Best teacher I ever had in my entire academic (Monchatet Pre-School, K-12, college and law school) career.
There is very little systematic incentive to get better at what you do as a teacher and hardly any support for teachers who try (trying is sometimes discouraged by the union "police"). Teachers are encouraged to take in-service classes or earn more college credits in order to move up the pay scale. The theory is that these in service and college credit classes provide training and new ideas. I suspect that for the most part these are light weight make work classes that teachers simply go through in order to get a raise. ** FN 2.
FN 2: In service training for teachers is not unlike the requirement for lawyers that they take 20 hours of classes every two years (4 of which have to be in legal ethics) to keep up with developments in the law - this accomplishes nothing except a boondoggle for bogus organizations that offer the courses.
It's bad enough at "good" schools in middle class suburbia. In urban schools it's a nightmare. I put a lot of blame on the system but a lot lies at the feet of the teachers themselves too. The result is a vast amount of time in which unengaged students drift while their unengaged teachers feel hassled and semi-comatose.  Here's my strategic plan - teach - period, with some guts in as nutty a way as you want and kids will be inspired (maybe by the subject, maybe by the teacher - it doesn't matter). Teach to some asinine plan or goal and it's all over before it starts. Hire teachers who get that, fire those who don't. **FN 3.
FN 3: I have actually attended a lot of strategy sessions and meetings over the years. The only strategy that ever came out of any of them that made any sense to me was to stop having strategy sessions.
It's easy to be an outside critic and often not of much use but I  think something else is going on now that may have an impact on the system - state finances and the economy. Schools are funded by local property taxes and subsidized by state governments. Property tax revenue is, on a net basis, going down along with property values as have state revenues due to the economy (e.g. California). This will likely result in higher property taxes for those who do not move, sell or lose their house. Schools are going to get squeezed as a result (that started this year but is going to accelerate as school budgets are met with resistance from voters). Over the last ten years school budget increases rose significantly in excess of inflation, two reasons: increasing staff and a strong economy that enabled parents to indulge their materialistic impulse to "buy" the best they could (smaller class size, expanded after school stuff, more subjects.  A generation of parents who grew up with a sense of entitlement want nothing but the best for their above average children and they were willing to pay for it and bask in the status of their blue ribbon school accomplishments - this works as long as there is money to support it but I am not sure there is anymore. ** FN 4.

FN 4: I have no idea if the goods bought over the last decade of school budget increases has actually improved the quality of education. I think a reasonable argument could be made that a bad teacher of a class of 25 will not be a good teacher of a class of 15, a good teacher can teach to any size class, extra school stuff is more often playing to the college check list game than substance, as for more subjects - its become cliche - we need better, not more).
I do not think it would be unreasonable to look at this landscape and conclude that school budgets are out of control, the art of good teaching is too rare and the system has very few rational built in checks and balances to encourage any self correction. There are lots of good ideas out there about how to reorganize schools to encourage better teaching but change is rarely approved by the entrenched (unless changing economic reality forces the issue). But I have been singing this same tune since the 3rd grade. ** FN 5.
FN 5:  Actually even before the third grade I had a funny feeling about school.  I remember vividly my first day of pre school  - after screaming that I did not want to go and holding onto the door for dear life (while my Mother tried to push me into the van) the van driver told me that if I did not get in he would slam the door on my fingers - I believed him. Once in and on our way to the next victim, he showed me he could drive the van with no hands and that completely mesmerized me with fear that we would crash and distracted all the other kids who were kind of freaked out by the scene I had just made getting into the bus. I think I knew from that moment that school was going to be an iffy proposition.


  1. the biggest problem in public education is not the teachers.... that is a red herring that makes people think that the problem can be solved simply by better individuals at the head of the class. The problem, as all teachers actually know, is the kids themselves, and more to the point, to the kids' parents and the communities they come from. A class of 30 apathetic, rude and obnoxious kids cannot be taught by any but the one-in a million inspiring teacher. It is the comunities that our students come from, the families wherein a book is a foreign object and studying is "acting white' or at least a strange and mysterious activity never actually seen before.
    Our public education may not be served by great teachers as it stands, but the problem is way beyond that, or beyond money spent for more computers or nice desks.
    A typical class in an inner city public school is more like a cage of wild hyenas..... so don't blame the zoo keepers!

  2. So you view the job of the teacher as do the best you can with the easy cases and don't bother with anyone else?

  3. no.... try with the other 95% but don't expect miracles. Did the US accomplish anything in Vietnam by "bothering?" If the US had properly diagnosed the situation there.... and in Iraq, too... then maybe actual solutions that led to improvement might have taken place. YOu can't fix something without the proper diagnosis, and in Public Education - the teachers are not the problem

  4. 1) I think we agree that the problem with viet nam was not lack of effort; it was much more fundamental than that.

    2) I was not so much railing against teachers as much as against a system that does not encourage teachers.

    3) I think we agree that going to root causes is the ideal approach in problem solving; but my concern with your formulation is that it sounds a lot like you are saying (circularly) that the oroblem with the urban poor is the urban poor rather than looking at the societal conditions that perpetuate rather than break the cycle of poverty.

    4) Breaking that cycle is not easy and may never be accomplished but education is at least one route that has demonstrable success.

    5) Changing the current system so that it more readily encourages good teaching is likely to be more helpful to the cause that we both seem to espouse than suggesting that urban kids are hyenas and teachers zoo keepers who cannot be blamed for their charges inherent instincts (which instincts, are, in the case of actual hyenas destructive but in the case of human beings, both maleable and given the right environment, good, or the wrong environment, bad.

  5. all true, but you still seem to think that the situation can be greatly improved by better teachers. That can only help a little bit.... much better to attack the real problem of the inner city communities themselves. How to do that is way beyond me and probably beyond anything government can do. Culture changes slowly. Our American culture has eroded in terms of things like education and standards in almost all areas. Culturally we are poorer than we were 40 years ago. Something has to happen to allow the culture to change toward the better, toward something deeper and richer, and to help the urban and rural poor to realize there is more to life than apathy, drugs and low income jobs!
    Whatever the solution is, however things may get better, if they do, is probably something that will happen organically over time.But in the meantime..... focusing on getting better teachers as the best solution is like focusing on getting better pilots when the plane has already lost both wings!

  6. I think a problem like this needs to begin with a question. The question is, Why do we go to school? The obvious answer is, "To learn."
    But I bet if you were to survey people, you'd end up with tons of different answers. And that's part of the problem. Because if we're all going to school for different reasons, then what school does for us varies to that degree. For instance, many people go to school to get into a good college so they can get a good job. So they devote all their educational experience to that goal, potentially missing out on certain areas such as arts education. Meanwhile, people who go to school because they "have to" only get out of it what interests them. And so on, and so on. We've lost sight of the original purpose of school, to learn.
    So when you walk into your average classroom, you now have 20-40 people, all with different goals, trying to have their needs met (or not, in the case of kids who just don't care) by one institution, which probably has one mission: to teach. To tweak your pilot comparison a bit, this is like asking 20 people to fly a plane when only one person has any interest or ability to do so.
    In order to fix this problem, we need to agree upon the goal of why we send our kids to school. And then we can worry about how to best accomplish this goal. Right now we're expecting schools to either be all things to all people (in the case of people who expect teachers to do both teaching and parenting) or else we expect them to follow Lowest Common Denominator mandates (in the case of those vocal people who want to dictate what THEIR child, and subsequently what every child, learns or doesn't learn). There are too many mixed signals when there needs to be more common ground. How can teachers and kids work together to find that ground?



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