For all of them, the reason why Johnny and Jane cannot learn and why some schools are failing is that there are too many bad teachers. Variations of this argument are that unions protect bad teachers, we do not hold them accountable enough, that we need pay for performance, or that we need other measures to improve the quality of teaching. If only teachers taught better, it seems, our educational problems would be solved. This is a large part of the logic of Bush’s No Child Left Behind, a policy that Obama has largely left in place, of Minnesota’s Governor Tim Pawlenty, and of Tom Emmer who is running for governor.
Were this the cause of our educational failings it would be nice and simplistic and perhaps the solutions would be obvious. Yet educational reform is far more complex than simply seeking to hold more teachers accountable. This approach really demonizes teachers, and it misses the complex reasons for understanding why American K-12 works and fails.
I write about K-12 today for several reasons, First, education reform is front and center in the Minnesota governor’s race. The three candidates offer contrasting views on education reform with Emmer mostly taking the demonizing approach. Second, instead of talking about the horse race and polls, education policy is something worth examining. Third, I am an educator who sees the product of K-12 in my classroom. I first walked in the classroom at age 20, giving me more than 30 years of experience teaching. Unlike most college professors who have never taken education classes, I have. I originally wanted to teach high school history but changed to college. Yet I regularly visit high schools and talk to students. I have some sense and knowledge about teaching and learning.
My first observation is that demonizing teachers solves nothing except to demoralize them and drive away the best. If the focus is on attacking them, nothing will change.
My second observation is one from one of the first education classes I ever took. My teacher drew a triangle on the board and on one corner wrote school, and then home and community on the other two corners. He then said that students are educated in all three places–school, home, and community–with teachers, parents, and others all working to educate. His point was to drive home that schools and teachers at best are responsible for one-third of all the learning that takes place with students. Teachers cannot teach unless parents and other reinforce what they do and what their children learn in school. Clinton may have caught the idea of this years ago when she wrote It Takes a Village.
How can teachers be so responsible for student learning when students go to school only a few hours a day and for barely 180 days? They are being asked to take full responsibility for the success or failure of their students when they see them so little. We are perhaps asking teachers to do the impossible–to do too much–often without parental support.
My third observation is that public K-12 has to take students as it gets them. Teachers receive students at age five, and in all states of preparedness for school. As Jonathan Kozel has demonstrated in Savage Inequalities (a book everyone in America should read), we have a dual educational system in the US. If you are white, middle class, and affluent, the system works well, if you are Black, Hispanic, Indian, another person of color, or poor, the system is a failure. Child poverty is huge, many students come to school ill-clothed, ill-fed, and ill-housed. The crisis of American education is that for too many students they cannot learn because of the poverty they endure.
When in the 60s school lunch programs and Head Start began, it was recognized that kids cannot learn on empty stomachs or when for the first five years of their lives they endured poverty. One cannot compete in an educational 100-yard dash if everyone else begins the race at the starting line and you are ten yards back initially. No one, including Obama, or the major gubernatorial candidates in Minnesota, seems to recognize the real crisis is the context of race and poverty that encompass K-12. Ken Pentel, one of the minor party gubernatorial candidates, talks about this but no one listens.
My fourth observation is that teachers need to teach. They need discretion to use their skills and work with students. Too much of K-12 is prescribed by accountability tests that lead to teaching to the test and hamper the ability of teachers to do what they know to do. I find it ironic that politicians, few who are teachers, are drooling out ideas about education and why students cannot learn when they have no experience or knowledge about teaching and schooling. Ludwig Wittgenstein, a famous philosophy, once said: “That of which you have no experience you should remain silent about.” Good advise.
Finally, over the years I tell my students that learning is a cooperative venture. I will work hard but they have to do the same. The same is true for K-12. Students have to do their share, requiring parents and the community to provide the resources and encouragement to motivate students.
Thus, where should we start with real education reform?
- Address the race and poverty issues enveloping schools. Fund quality preschool (as Art Rolnick urges) and quality day care. Fully fund Head Start and address the other social needs of students.
- Lengthen the school year by considering year round school.
- Free teachers up to teach.