True Education Reform
It is no secret. America’s public education system is broken. Underfunded and overcrowded, schools are expected not only to educate students in reading, writing, and arithmetic, but schools also extend hours for working parents and provide breakfast to students who otherwise might go to school hungry. Schools have also been tasked with instilling morals and values within their students. Our society has set a high bar for public education, and, unfortunately, many schools do not meet even minimum expectations, and teachers and administrators are then often blamed for not preparing students for college and the 21st century. Even more alarming, a growing number of students never finish high school. Many end up in prison where over 70% of inmates cannot read above a fourth grade level. For over a decade, thought leaders and policymakers’ have debated education reform. Some call for abolishing teachers’ unions; others opt for more charter schools; still others feel schools’ problems can be solved if more money was allocated to them; and, finally, a misinformed group feels that all of the problems in our public education system would be solved if only there was local control over the schools.
None of these supposed remedies will significantly move the needle with regard to educating our nation’s students. Instead, discussions involving these solutions only serve to distract us from what must happen to truly make a difference. The public, thought leaders, policymakers, and teachers and administrators must throw away old conceptions both of what the teaching profession is and how the profession needs to go about its business.
Teachers often complain that society does not value the profession. They feel that many in the general public believe that teachers enter the profession because they want to work just nine months a year or that they couldn’t qualify for a job in a higher-paying, more respected profession. We must change these public perceptions and in doing so elevate the status of the teaching profession. But how?
A successful public school system starts with the teacher. The profession needs extremely bright and motivated people who want to become teachers and who have had positive interactions with kids as coaches, youth church leaders, camp counselors, etc. The teaching profession should be opened to bright liberal arts majors who have had these positive experiences with youth and who can be trained in both deep content knowledge and in best educational practices. Liberal arts graduates have not been indoctrinated with erroneous information about how children learn to read or learn math. Teachers with current licenses should be considered too as long as they are willing to accept professional development that offers a radically different perspective to the teaching profession than what they have been exposed to.
This new breed of teacher needs to be willing to work extremely hard to engage in deep professional development opportunities while engaging in meaningful conversations with respect to improving their craft. To do this, they need to be willing to teach for ten months a year and then become engaged as students during six weeks of the summer so that they can deepen their knowledge base in reading, mathematics, and their content areas, while sharpening their instructional practices. This summer professional development time should be an expectation throughout the tenure of every teacher. As a society, we must raise the image of the teaching profession and be willing to pay teachers like we pay other professionals including attorneys and doctors. Teachers hold the keys to our future. They are literally our way to a better tomorrow and a more civilized and democratized country. We cannot place too high a value on highly-competent teachers and the positive impact they have on both students and on society at large. A strong argument can be made that teaching is the most important of all the professions, and society needs to value teachers as such.
For this new breed of teacher to emerge, the power of teachers’ unions will have to be curbed. No longer should a union be able to protect teachers who are ineffective or who refuse to participate in all facets of the new profession. When teachers are given the tools to be effective in the classroom and when society places the proper value on the profession, bright, motivated individuals will flock to teaching. Politicians cannot continue to allow teachers’ unions to stand in the way of elevating the profession by blocking legitimate efforts either to raise the knowledge standards required to be an effective teacher or the standards of best instructional practice. In the past, this has happened too often.
Even the very best trained teachers will not be effective if the school does not have capable and knowledgeable administrators who are willing to support teachers. Principals and vice principals need to be more than good administrators, they also need to have content knowledge in reading and mathematics, and they must understand best instructional practices so that they can offer professional development for teachers that will provide them the needed tools to become most effective in the classroom. After providing teachers with the professional development and administrative support required to develop highly-competent students, administrators must set high expectations for teachers, students, and parents and hold everyone accountable.
Finally, we must understand a decentralized approach to education that gives local districts and schools control of creating academic standards is foolhardy. Our current educational system is largely decentralized with neighboring school, even schools within districts, taking very different approaches to the teaching of reading or math. As one public school teacher recently noted, “The district can tell us what to teach, but as soon as my classroom door closes, I am on my own and can teach what I want, how I want to.”