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Monday, April 26, 2010

"FIRST, LET'S HANG ALL THE TEACHERS"

Ever since the debacle that was the 2000 election—you know, the one that saw Al Gore defeated by hanging chads and five members of the Supreme Court--Florida has been an especially newsworthy state. Tea Partiers are much in evidence, and have had a lot to do with forcing Republican governor Charlie Crist to consider running for the Senate as a Moderate. That’s because he’s not “pure” enough for conservatives.

The strongest evidence that Crist is not fit came last week when he vetoed a bill to eliminate teacher tenure, and tie teacher pay to student test scores. Right wingers love this sort of thing: it’s driven by their favorite Platonic ideal--free markets. I had to write about it. NOTE: Golden Apples are awarded in Naples, Florida to top-rated teachers.

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In chapter four of The Dilbert Principle, “Great Lies of Management,” author/cartoonist Scott Adams examines the thirteen bogus assertions relied on most often by managers. Number one is “Employees are our most valuable asset.” Number two is “I have an open-door policy,” and three is “You could earn more money under the new plan.”

The cartoon sequence to illustrate Number 3 presents the Dilbert regulars being informed about the new plan by their pointy-haired boss: “From now on,” he says, “twenty percent of your pay will depend on the company meeting its sales targets. In effect, we’ll cut your pay and tell you it’s your own darn fault.” Dilbert has a question: “Will the sales target be based on a complex formula and involve numbers that can’t be accurately measured?” The pointy-haired boss yells, “You broke the code!”

If all this suggests the current assault on teachers and public education in Florida, that’s what is intended. Conservatives bent on pursuing an ideological mission—“market capitalism everywhere, all the time!”—claim they need to punish teachers as a group in order to rid the system of those who are incompetent. But the underlying goal is actually something else.

The conservative vision calls for implementation of a pure business model, in which students are customers, schools are businesses, and teachers are employees subject to a variation on the pointy-haired boss’s “new plan.” That plan calls for the elimination of teacher tenure (“No business gives anyone guarantees”), and the linkage of pay to student test scores (Dilbert’s “complex formula” involving hard-to-measure quantitative data). In other words, there is to be no job security, and no pay raises based on either seniority or academic credentials.

If you don’t know what’s wrong with this new “plan,” here it is: given the low opinion our society has of teachers, what on earth is going to provide the motive for any sane young man or woman to pursue a career in primary or secondary education without these inducements? In a time of social dissonance and change, multi-cultural complexity and violence, again, why would anyone freely choose to teach?

Whether you like it or not, Norman Rockwell’s America cannot figure any longer, not even as the cozy myth of a happy past that never was. The reality in schools is much more demanding. And here’s another simple truth: our society pays lip service, and lip service only to primary and secondary education as a profession. Yes, it is viewed as a decent job, with good benefits and a retirement package, but it is not respected as a career on a par with law, accounting, medicine, etc. If this weren’t so, the current attacks would not be taking place.

Nor does the field of teaching operate in a way likely to induce bright young people to be interested. Contrary to the broken-record critiques of those attacking public education, these operational problems are not principally the fault of unions or tenure or the small percentage of ineffectual teachers the system protects along with everyone else. It has to do with the College of Education in every large state university in the country. Here is where social change is leading to more and more hours of instruction being devoted to diversity training, learning technology and other areas unrelated to academics. Here is where you find departments made up of faculty whose discipline is how to teach, not what to teach.

It is easy to criticize colleges of education, but hard to offer meaningful suggestions for change. One thing is certain: the many hours devoted to “instruction on instruction” make the process of educating future teachers much less effective.

What can be done? One thing is to concentrate on identifying those people who, in the face of all impediments, still demonstrate a true gift for teaching. Once those with the special attributes that lead to actual learning are known, a better way becomes possible.

What is it? Instead of leaving great teachers no other path to advancement but to once again enact the Peter Principle by becoming school administrators, these best-of-breed in the classroom should be lavished with serious money and perks to STAY teachers. They should be rewarded for continuing to serve as examples of how it’s done for everyone else, and they should be used accordingly in their schools. Over time, they are the ones who can provide a true resource for their colleagues.

Again: “teacher education” needs to give more emphasis to academic disciplines—math, chem, literature, history. In other words, it should probably take as long and be as tough to become a teacher as it is to become a lawyer—but only if we’re willing to make it worth the hard work. Do you know how many hours in an academic discipline are actually required of future teachers? Have you ever heard stories of teachers who teach the textbook, and are just one chapter ahead of their students? The reason is the high number of contact hours in their programs that must be devoted to Education courses.

If you don’t know what teachers are taught, or how the good ones habitually leave what they do well to become administrators, and if you’re among those beating the drum to end tenure and tie teacher pay to easily manipulated tests--shame on you. Find out a thing or two about what is expected of young people who major in Education instead of math, English, history, etc.

And after you find this out, ask yourself the following: in a community that masks an underlying disregard for teachers with Golden Apple awards, then reveals its true feelings with hostility and ideologically charged politics, why would anyone in his or her right mind still want to be a teacher? You might safely argue that under such conditions, choosing to apply to Ed school is in itself reason enough for being rejected.

3 comments:

  1. Barry,
    Things never change. My mother (who had a long and successful teaching career) took education courses in Kansas in the 1920s. She told me that the only useful thing she got from her education courses was that she took the notes in Spanish to practice her language skills.

    My other interesting fact is that the faculty member in the Chemistry Department at the University of Texas who taught the course on teaching chemistry to education majors, while I was there, was the worst teacher I ever had in chemistry.

    Bernard

    ReplyDelete
  2. Bernard-
    I'm afraid it's so. Until the profession of primary and secondary teaching becomes more rigorous, more demanding, and the best teachers are induced to continue teaching, I don't see things getting better.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Barry, this is so on target. May I suggest sending an edited down version to the editors of your local newspapers.

    ReplyDelete

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