As a result of an ever-bigger federal involvement in education, which includes the promise of substantial funding, American children have become test-takers not learners.
In such educational areas as language arts, science and math, our international standing among the world’s industrial nations continues to free-fall. Despite the political and professional disclaimers and promises to tax-payers that the next “fix” will make things better, the sour results and free-fall continue and cannot be ignored.
There are plenty of fix-it attempts: End-term State-required high school tests – which determine which students graduate – have been made easier because so many students are failing. America does not graduate 50% of its students from high school. Comparison results show that the highly-favored charter schools rarely do much better than “regular” public schools despite supposed advantages in the teachers and students selected for them. College SAT test scores have been lowered to help high school graduates enter college. In college, expectations have been reduced to keep students from dropping out.
Such “fixes” as direct political involvement (Mayors being put in charge), family contracts to get parents involved, smaller schools and classrooms, have all failed to produce better results There is no genuine improvement in learning as determined by the results of the very tests established to “raise standards”.
And in New York City, where after eight years the administration points to enormous progress, the schools fail to graduate 50% of students in four years…and even in six years. While they claim an end to so-called social promotions, they offer failing students a brief make-up prep period and then a test to get them to the next grade. If a student fails that test, there is another test opportunity.
But are students learning anything? Among those who do graduate high school, three of every four students – 75% – must receive months of remedial work before they can pass enrollment tests to get into a two year community college. The drop-out rate in community colleges locally and nationally is more than 50%.
But perhaps the most damning statistic of all in our dying public education system is that three of five new teachers leave teaching within five years of beginning their careers. How many are leaving in New York? The New York City union has 80,000+ members. Yet there are only 55,000 teachers with tenure. 25,000 teachers have not yet been in the system long enough to gain tenure. On the primary and secondary levels time is the principle consideration for tenure.
There is no other professional field where the ‘drop-out’ rate is so high.
“No Child Left Behind” is the federal program which has had the greatest negative impact on education. It is the result of a national political (not professional) effort to “fix” education, to demand a form of standardization where none exists,. The point is not to improve education but to be able to measure whether improvement is taking place. It has turned today’s teachers into test-givers – openly teaching to the test to insure success; altering test scores within a school by keeping slower learners from actually taking the tests or helping an overall grade by raising it – supposedly to give encouragement to a child who is slipping behind.
Increasingly there is news of a test results-changing scandal. A recent investigation in Georgia found hundreds of schools involved in changing test scores. How was this discovered? Erasures on thousands of tests were so obvious and numerous that red flags began popping up all over the State.
But the testing business gets worse. Today, as a further inducement to using tests to measure success, teachers are going to be evaluated for salary increases and tenure on the basis of test scores. Despite a growing public discussion of all of this, no one has even dared to suggest that teachers, whose very livelihood will now depend on test scores, won’t be subject to the obvious temptation of “fixing” what exists to help their own status.
Is this criticism cynical or real?
The Liberal Party was the first political party in America to push for real wages for teachers; for their right to unionize; for their academic freedom; for the necessity of tenure to protect them from all kinds of political and community interference or the whims of an administrator. Some of the Liberal Party’s greatest leaders were university and secondary school educators.
But it’s time to recognize that what liberals helped to build – the education system that brought America to its position of power and influence in the world – has been failing for the last three decades and all the fixes in the world haven’t stopped the decline or even slowed it down.
What we see today are teachers threatened by continuing failure protecting themselves by any means. It is what happens when those earning a living in an institution come to put their own needs before the needs of the people (children in this case) they are supposed to be serving.
The institution is broken. Systems must be changed.
EXAMINING THE SYSTEMIC DAMAGE
In November, 1999 shortly after the launch of the Liberal Party website, we published an analysis of America’s education system . We knew by then that what was happening in New York was happening throughout every city, town and village in the country. It was as if a virus was attacking everywhere. Here was an institution so broken, that the same problems existed everywhere and no one could find a solution.
That analysis can still be found on this website by searching everything on education in the archives. Sadly, all the facts and conclusions are still valid. We said then, and we repeat it more than a decade later: America has tried everything to fix a failing education system but has never touched the main obstacle to success: TEACHERS WHO CANNOT TEACH TODAY’S CHILDREN.
The news is that charter schools in New York and across the country, which have become the “new best thing” because they can select the best teachers and students without interference from School Boards or local unions, rarely do much better than the public schools in their area. The “test results” used everywhere indicate that only a handful of these schools do better than ‘normal’ schools in school districts throughout the country.
The reason? The failure of teachers to teach is pervasive.
There are school boards all over the country – but most especially in suburbia where everything is so magnified by the constant struggle over increasing school taxes – who have come to recognize that teachers are not doing the job. Many will tell you that school is boring the bright kids to death and failing to meet the needs of all the others. Scholl Board members will tell you that they see one of their children struggling with hours of homework while another doesn’t have much homework at all. They’ll tell you that they’ll see fourth grade children coming home with third grade homework. The problem is that these Board members don’t know what to do about it.
Can it be just an accident that in the last twenty years – culminating with “No Child Left Behind” and the total commitment to testing as the primary form of teaching – that more and more teaching has become nothing more than test preparation? Is this an accident of circumstance or a recognition that something must compensate for too many teachers not knowing their subject matter well enough to teach it?
It is a fact that Principals hire teachers often without certification and then give them scripts to read and lesson plans based simply on teaching the tests.
As the teacher shortage grows and schools need someone in front of classes, more and more classes are structured homogeneously – that is, the best kids in one class, children in the ‘middle’ in another class, the ones who are desperate for help but are not getting it, in another
Despite a supposed end to what is called ‘social promotion’, there’s no way schools can fail all the children who are not “getting it” …the backlog of kids who need to repeat a class would overwhelm every school system in the country.
And yet despite all kinds of “fixes” to help make schools better, new teachers, fully accredited graduates of schools of education, continue to leave their chosen profession within five years. In 1999, that number was 40% of new teachers; today it has risen to almost 60% of new teachers just walking away.
What’s causing this to happen?
Dr. Arthur Levine, the much-quoted, long-time President of Columbia University’s prestigious Teacher’s College – which only grants graduate degrees and so is not a School of Education providing America with teachers – responded to a question about the problems in education by saying that
“Women no longer have to turn to teaching or for that matter to nursing or secretarial work to get a job with some money and prestige. Today’s woman can go anywhere and become anything she wants – an investment banker, an accountant, a CEO, a physician, a lawyer. The best of them go into those fields.”
It is a very revealing statement.
Speak to any student studying teaching in college. What she’ll say is:
“Teaching is great. I can have a husband and be a wife, have children and be there when they get home from school, have plenty of vacation time, make a good salary and have a really good pension and healthcare program.”
It too is a revealing statement because you may never hear her say that she loves children and wants to help them learn.
Randi Weingarten was president of the American Federation of Teachers in New York City for twenty years or so. That union has 80,000+ members and as such is the largest teacher union in the country. She has now become the head of the national AFT which is based in Washington, DC.
Randi’s success in gaining ever-growing salary increases, health and pension plans and better working conditions for her members made her a power among New York unions and her success often was the benchmark for other unions pressing various city administrations for more.
Randi is a consummate union leader which means that her members’ needs come first – and last. She is not an educator. She is not a watchdog for the educational needs of children. That’s not her job. She can make speeches about the needs of her members sound as if she’s talking about the needs of children because she is ever the union leader and not a Superintendent of Schools.
Randi followed the reign of Albert Shanker who fought the good fight early and long and and with the help of forces like the Liberal Party, gave NYC teachers the ‘way to go’. Randi was a superb successor.
But what they never did for NYC teachers (nor does any teacher’s union in any school district in the country) was to help make being a teacher a genuine professional career in the eyes of the public. The public has never treated teachers with the same respect and appreciation that it affords a doctor or lawyer or engineer, or a pharmacist, for that matter. As a group, teachers have never attained that elevated standing within the American community. Teaching is a profession the way the others are, but it is treated by the public with only lip-service respect as just another job…one with lots of time off.
While that is not true in Europe or Asia, it is certainly true in America. The old adage “If you can’t do…teach” is an American expression.
Much of that ‘attitude’ is about teacher income as compared with the others’ where far more money is made and potential always exists for more. Much of it is about the educational process in the other professions – where a law school or medical school has ‘top dog’ status at most universities. Most schools of education are essentially new to campuses, have no educational or professional standing within the campus community and are considered more a profit center for the institution than as a learning center.
Recently, desperate to keep up with the annual loss of teachers, big-city public schools have further damaged the professional status of teachers by hiring people with absolutely no teaching experience, giving them a quick six months of training – mostly in pedagogy and not subject matter – and then placing them in a the “worst” schools in the city.
While the teacher’s union claimed not to approve of this practice, they’ve done nothing to stop it as long as the new teachers join the union. The AFT has fought with city administrations and statewide politicians to limit the development of charter schools – a fight that is quieting down because charter school teachers are becoming union members…even if they are immune from certain union rules or demands of ‘normal’ schools.
Now the union is sponsoring a charter school in NYC and Randi, in her new job, is promoting sponsorships in other cities.
The point is that the union need do nothing to improve teacher performance in our public schools – and it has not. And yet (best kept secret) the NYC union has a special, carefully designed and detailed program of improvement for teachers and it has a special department of teacher development – trainers ready to go at any request from a principal. Yet, the mandated use of these programs for teacher improvement have never been part of a union bargaining demand.
SEEKING INSTITUTIONAL CHANGE
The premise here is that teachers cannot teach today’s children. We see that fact as the root cause of the failing institution of public education in America.
Here’s what must be done:
We need to retrain the overwhelming majority of our present teachers.
We need a new approach to the recruitment and education of future teachers. This dual effort must be approached with the same urgency as the challenge of putting a man on the moon in the fiercest days of the Cold War and John F. Kennedy’s brief tenure as President.
We need to establish a standard of learning – what and how – at all Schools of Education throughout the country. Standards like these are found at all other professional schools at colleges and universities throughout the country.Until such standards are adopted, we need to suspend and withhold the accreditation of every School of Education.
Teachers must expect a program of continuing education throughout their teaching career. This means course work and examinations at prescribed periods. This is not about advanced degrees but about the opportunity to advance a knowledge base.
Teacher development within each school should be conducted by expert and independent master-teachers. Not staff colleagues selected to makeup such a program as is so often done today. All of this in-school development work must be tested in practicum or on paper so that valid advances are made and ‘certified’.
If you believe that ‘Timing is everything’, the timing for this challenge might be right now. America is experiencing a pervasive employment crisis – one which has put 15 million people out of work – with more than six million unemployed for more than six months as of this writing. There seems to be every indication that many jobs have disappeared completely and have either moved overseas (as part of an industrial policy designed to increase profits by sending employment abroad) or are in industries that have seriously downsized or don’t exist anymore. (See Jobs in America – part of this analysis).
For college students ready for graduation or for those soon to enter college, the old way – an expectation of employment at the conclusion of their education – may be over. Soon many will begin to realize that the present job shortage has become permanent. Perhaps this is a perfect time for a national effort to elevate teaching as a profession – complete with the promise of the kind of preparation they’ll need to be good at it and with the status they deserve built into the recruitment strategy.
People shouldn’t necessarily go into teaching as a short-term altruistic activity though the essential success of the non-profit organization Teach for America, indicates that’s not too bad a reason – at least for a while. Optimally, teacher-recruits should be led to a career in teaching as people are led to other professional situations – with a sense of mission and pride, an expectation of a many-leveled success and a starting salary commensurate with other professionals.
We need to change the status and curricula of Schools of Education. To do so will mean developing a standard of learning – what must be taught and how – as we find in other professional schools.
To make such changes at every School of Education, may require taking a hard position on each school’s accreditation to teach and suspending those that refuse to cooperate. That suspension will in effect put that school’ out of business’ as the work of its students will not be recognized by the State.
Teaching is not easy. While many people teach, one has to work hard to do it well. It is essential that student-teachers receive an education that truly prepares them for the day to day rigors of managing the lives of 25 children for five hours each day – year after year.
Teaching should mimic the other professions: advanced degrees that matter from institutions with excellent reputations. Mandatory postgraduate education that continuously provides additional knowledge as well as practical classroom.
Teaching has been called a noble profession. That sounds so high-toned complimentary – but what it really means is hard work for all and but for a few large cities where salaries are very reasonable, not a lot of money for all that important work.
We must improve the education of teachers – for those wanting to be teachers and most especially for those already in classrooms across America. All of this is possible now if we abandon the quick fix approach. At the moment, quick fix is all we know.
Take for example, the approach of our new Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan Dr. Duncan seems to be a well-meaning, sincere man. His answer to problems in Chicago, by present evaluation standards, the worst big-city school system in the nation, where he was Superintendent of Schools for a relatively short time, was to close a poorly performing school, fire all the teachers and start again with a new school leader and the selection of an entirely new staff.
There is no indication yet that such an approach has worked because it is all so new and too early for an evaluation. That has not stopped Dr. Duncan from developing and promoting a new Federal program which financially rewards schools with a decent performance rating, and gives “failing schools” the option of firing their entire teaching staff and gaining funds or going with the same staff and not receiving funds. A Long Island school system is facing just such a problem as this is written. It has announced that it will fire all its teachers at the end of the school year and start again. You can imagine the chaos in that school.
As this analysis was being completed President Obama released his new initiative to deal with America’s 2,000 “failing schools”. These are schools in which 60% of the students fail to graduate. Using this as a benchmark – and therefore excusing the schools which only graduate 50% of their students – the President proposes a four point program and an additional $900 million to add to his previous allocation of $3.5 billion as part of the Stimulus Bill.
The program: The Transformation – which calls for changes in the curriculum, school governance and structure;
The Turnaround – in which the School District fires the Principal and half the staff;
The Closure – in which the entire school is closed and all the children in that school are enrolled in the rest of the school district;
The Restart Program – in which the school is closed and reopened as a charter school with a new Principal and staff.
There is absolutely nothing in the program about teacher training or new standards for hiring new teachers or retraining remaining teachers.
If we continue with the quick fix method and refuse to teach our teachers to teach today’s children, we will continue to lose ground among nations by producing adults with a very flimsy education – one which among other results, makes them incapable of smart self-government.
If we continue our slide as an influential power, we will fail to produce much of anything but a fighting force to police the world.