The simplest solution may be the best…unless it really isn’t that simple at all.
Recently, a 32-year veteran teacher, Amy Weisberg, wrote an article for the Huffington Post outlining five necessary steps for improving education in this country. She never claims that the solution is simple, and rightfully so. Furthermore, her claims are based on her long experience as an educator, watching the ups and downs of the fads in educational theory.
Lastly, she points the finger of blame squarely at the so-called “experts” outside of the field of education, as she begins her article:
“It seems that everyone has an opinion about what is wrong with our educational program today…but few have solutions that are organically designed to meet the needs of the student population we currently teach in our nation’s public schools.”
That a blueprint for solving our education problems would come from a veteran teacher makes all the sense in the world. Yet as she explains her necessary 5 steps for improvement, you can just sense that each one seems a little too easy:
“1. Start Young. Early Education is a fundamental factor to children’s school success and funding it adequately gives more children a chance to learn curriculum, early skills and about the world of school. Smaller class size has a profound impact on both classroom dynamics and the amount of attention a teacher can give to students and by reducing class size in kindergarten-3rd grade to 20 or less, and grade 4-12 to 25 or less we could see a dramatic improvement. Private schools and privately funded Charter schools provide this. We cannot compare public and private schools until the class size issue has been resolved and the scales are even.”
This is really two solutions, not one: funding early education and limiting class size. Early education funding has had an extraordinarily rocky history in this country: starting with Head Start in the 1970s, controversy has raged about the funding, curriculum, scope and accountability of early childhood programs. Pumping money is one thing: establishing the right atmosphere that allows a young child to thrive in the school environment is another matter—one that isn’t so easy to solve.
Class size is one issue where I echo Ms. Weisberg’s concerns. This year, I taught close to 90 kids, three sections of at least 30 kids a pop. To be honest, some kids fell through the cracks, not because I was mean or malicious, but because I had so many kids to keep track of I had to prioritize between those who really needed a lot of help and those who needed less. It’s a tough balancing act with ONE classroom, let alone three.
“2. Treat Teachers as Professionals. Respect the training, education and experience teachers have in the field of education and pay them accordingly. A student’s test scores are not the sole indicator of a teacher’s worth and teachers are not motivated to further their education solely for the joy of learning. Most professionals are compensated for their expertise and given opportunities to further their knowledge in their professional field. Teachers have an extremely important job and huge responsibilities and we like to be respected, taken seriously and able to afford the cost of living in the cities we teach.”
This really is beating a dead horse. Yes, teachers are underpaid. Yes, teachers should be compensated for the education and training we receive and utilize. Yes, teachers should be treated like professionals.
However, this can only happen if the teaching profession treats ITSELF like a professional. Today, education is prone to self-abuse; the land of broken toys for those who can’t hack it in the real world. This is the common myth because teaching treats it that way—if anyone can be a teacher, with lax rules of admission and lack of rigor in instruction, then it is NOT a professional career choice. Professions develop by weeding out the chaff at the VERY BEGINNING.
This can only be done through massive reforms at the university level, propelled by government guidance. How many education schools in this country are willing to change their diploma mill status—and take the requisite revenue cut—to make teaching a truly professional calling? You tell me.
“3. Hold Parents Accountable. Parents must be held responsible for meeting their childrens’ basic needs and supporting their children in their educational program. We need to teach those who do not know, how to become better parents, in order to provide a supportive home environment that complements the educational program. Parenting is a life long responsibility and providing education and training for parents can have a positive impact on our students.”
In the areas that are struggling the most, this is absolutely important. Many parents are barely kids themselves, and struggle raising children not out of any malice, but out of sheer ignorance. They never learned about real parenting, sometimes never had real parents as role models, so they do the best they can with the knowledge that they have. To bridge this gap is essential to keeping a home life that supports school.
However, the role of the parent as educational partner with the teacher is often ill-defined. In today’s universe, it has come to mean that parents have final say in everything, no questions asked. If teachers are to be professionals, they must be treated as masters, absolute experts whose advice may be ignored, but should be questioned openly. If # 2 is implemented and teacher training made more professional, then the parent-teacher partnership can be most effective.
Both parents and teachers require a little more professionalism, in that sense.
“4. Fund Education. Our priority must be education because our students are our country’s future wage earners and tax payers. By funding education we are insuring our own future. We need to establish a permanent source of government funding for our public schools to take the stress off of the parents and individual schools currently forced to fundraise endlessly in order to provide a basic, quality educational program. Funding should include the arts, sports and physical education, and trade skills as well as the academic program.”
A permanent fund for education? Wow. Now were you thinking one national fund or 50 separate funds for each state plus one for DC? Where would the revenue come from? Property taxes, as they are now in many states? Payroll taxes? Direct government expenditures? Oil money? Gold bricks from Fort Knox?
The funding issue is NEVER as simple as it sounds. The tie between schools and property taxes, in particular, is problematic. To give an example, certain districts in Rockland County, NY are populated by Hasidic Jews who send their children to private religious schools. The public schools are populated by Hispanic, black, Asian and some white families. However, the school boards are often packed with Hasidic residents with little or no stake in the public school system, and they are determining education spending.
These situations where spending is misaligned and mismanaged need to be addressed. Permanent funds, for the immediate future, seem like a pipe dream.
“5. Provide Support. Financial and personal support is needed to educate special needs students, lower class ratio and size, and to support the physical, intellectual, emotional and social development of all students. Schools need full-time nurses, psychologists, counselors and support staff to allow equal access to education and academic success for all students.”
See all of the above, particularly numbers 2 and 4.
I don’t want to belittle Ms. Weisberg: after her many years as an educator, her recommendations, on the surface, should be Gospel by now. The sad fact is that they are not, and they aren’t because the microscope shows the complex and often nasty realities that need to be addressed that have no clear solution.
It shows school districts packed with children from broken homes, teen parents and families hovering the poverty line.
It shows diploma mills where teachers are cranked out regardless of intelligence or ability, along with alternative programs that throw idealistic young people to the lions of high-needs educational reality.
It shows parents that are confused, frustrated, underinformed, overinformed, brow-beaten, and talked down to when they should be seen at eye level.
It shows teachers that are treated the same way, if not worse.
It shows an incredibly misaligned funding scheme where property taxes are tied to education, even if the property owners have little if any stake in the public education process.
It shows issues of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, socioeconomic class, and political affiliation.
Can these issues and others be addressed using these five points? Ms. Weisberg seems to think so in her closing, where she states that governments must “own these suggestions and form working committees to dedicate time and energy to developing a funding method that begins with our youngest students, limits class size, educates parents, compensates educators, and provides the support needed for all students including those with special needs.”
I really wish it were that simple.
The Education War – Who is winning?
The word “quagmire” gets thrown around pretty casually these days.
Civil unrest. “Nation building.” Revolutions. Economic crisis. Natural disasters. The Q-word has been used repeatedly for so many of the dangerous, sticky situations we find ourselves as a society.
Yet does the education war—the clash of “reformers” that has stretched over a decade—deserve the dreaded label?
It depends on what you hear.
Many news outlets, in print and online, picture the education reform movement as clearly on the defensive. Attacks on charter schools have increased as never before, viewed as undemocratic, tyrannical and ultimately ineffective. The latest report on how Eva Moskowitz’ Success Academy charter schools were caught on record attempting to push out a special-needs student is particularly galling.
New tests based on the Common Core Learning Standards showed massive drops in scores, giving a giant raspberry to all earlier reform attempts. Companies cashing in on the testing craze—Pearson, McGraw-Hill, etc.—are under the microscope for botched questions and poor scoring in state after state. The Common Core itself is under attack, as state after state elects to opt out of the supposedly nationwide initiative—regardless of the DOE carrot-and-stick policy about Common Core adoption.
Even reform stalwarts like Teach for America, Michelle Rhee and the Gates Foundation find themselves under siege as critics wail on their status and perceived impact on public education.
Yet if you look at actual policy, it paints a very different picture.
Education reformers, backed bipartisanly, have pushed standardized testing into almost every classroom in America. Teacher evaluation systems across the country are aligning teacher effectiveness with student scores on state tests, with unions knuckling under in the process. The Common Core, though embattled, is now the rule in reform strongholds like New York, California and Massachusetts. Governors from both parties are backing more draconian measures to shut down failing schools.
Even worse, the media machine of education reform has recently launched a counter-offensive. Long criticized for not developing effective veteran teachers, TFA and other reform movements are now saying it is BETTER to have short-term teachers who won’t become veterans because their enthusiasm, their innate intelligence and God’s good graces are enough to provide a quality education for children.
This conflict looks like it qualifies as a quagmire… and part of fault lies with the opposition.
Personally, I’m not a huge fan of standardized tests, TFA, charters, etc. Most readers here already know that. However, I am a very big fan of improving teacher selection and preparation, which is high on the education reform agenda. I don’t like that it’s relatively easy access into our profession, and it hurts our reputation in the process.
I have feet in two very different parts of the swamp. They shouldn’t be. Both sides should be having real, meaningful policymaking sessions by now. Why aren’t they?
The education reform movement does not take the opposition seriously.
This is a similar problem with the Occupy Wall Street movement. It was a grassroots movement, to be sure, but there was no definition of victory: no goals, no leadership, no direction. It “started a dialogue”, and you know how much J.P. Morgan and the like shake in their wingtips over that.
Occupy Wall Street failed because Wall Street itself never saw them as a threat. They didn’t become an electoral force, backing candidates allied to them for Congress and Senate. They didn’t become a fundraising power, soliciting funds so that candidates from both parties kowtow to them in alternating order. They didn’t become a lobby, oiling and adjusting the rusty gears of the filthy gearbox called legislative politics.
The Tea Party, on the other hand, though still disorganized nationally, managed to become a force because it knew how to monopolize the conversation and the ballot box. It wasn’t just Koch Brothers money that put the Tea Party boot on the throat of the Republican Party. The Tea Party quickly moved from “starting a dialogue” to “kicking the shit out of anyone in their way.” Moderate republicans fell like dominoes. Their candidates, whether they won or lost, made sure the Tea Party was firmly at the big boys table in the RNC.
The Tea Party became a threat. They became feared. Occupy Wall Street didn’t…and the education reform opposition isn’t much of a fear either.
As much as the opposition boasts numerous media outlets, a lightning-rod leader in Diane Ravitch, and numerous movements like Save Our Schools, etc., there is little to show for their efforts other than scathing editorials, page after page of incendiary blogs, reams of online petitions and packed comments on Facebook pages.
Victory is not “opening a dialogue.” It is when the policies of the state and nation are changed. That does not happen with a spirited debate.
If the opposition wants a seat at the education table, rightly placed across from the reformers, it has to fight for it.
Like Wall Street, the only thing many of these reformers will listen to is their wallet and the ballot box. The opposition needs to attack both, ferociously and brutally.
It must out-Koch the Koch brothers and out-Gates the Gates Foundation. It must attain its own billionaire allies to fund PACs, lobbies, and candidates to state and national office. It must push their agenda by any means necessary.
It has to turn the media conversation forcefully, repeatedly and effectively to counter the sound-bites of the reformers. The phrase “for the children”, co-opted by both sides, is both tired and unrealistic. It ceased to be about children a long time ago, unfortunately. This fight is about the adults, and hopefully the policies will serve children best. But to say that each side is exclusively serving the children is to be in an extreme state of delusion.
More than anything, however, the opposition needs to get its hands dirty with the business of politics. I know many in the opposition, and they are smart, savvy, earnest people who genuinely want to make a difference. They want to “maintain the moral high ground” and not stoop to the level of the Broads, Kochs, Gates and the rest. Their methods, frankly, will do nothing but create coffee-house chatter.
To change policy is a filthy, brutal, demoralizing and demeaning business. Only by beating the reformers at their own game can the opposition sit with them and negotiate as rivals to pound out the policies that best serve everyone.
As for maintaining the moral high ground…that only works when your opponent has morals to maintain.
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