‘Solutions’ to education woes just superficial tweaks

Posted Oct. 17, 2010, at 8:12 p.m.

Everyone, including people who have not seen the inside of a classroom since high school, has strong opinions about what’s wrong with education and how to fix it. Most of these “solutions” involve superficial tweaks to the same industrial-age system we’ve had for decades.

The teachers are lazy; let’s make them work harder. Get rid of the unions. Attract better teachers by paying them more. Extend the school day. Privatize. Have the kids start school full time at birth. Less money into bureaucracy, more into the classroom.

Yawn. Wake me up when we’re ready for real reform.

It’s time to question some of our sacred and fundamental assumptions about education.

Recently, I ran into a parent of one of my former students. I asked how his daughter was doing. I remembered her as a creative, but unmotivated student who scraped by with C’s and D’s. She was still unemployed and living at home a year after graduation.

“I’m disappointed in the school system,” he said. “None of her teachers ever found that spark to get her going.”

I was raised to believe that parents bear the responsibility for motivating their kids. You get out of school what you put into it.

When did it become the teacher’s responsibility to reach into the heart of every child and flick that switch? How does anyone reverse years upon years of a given child’s academic frustration and ineffective parenting in under nine months?

It does happen, but anyone who thinks it happens commonly has been watching too many movies.

Sure, teachers have an obligation to improve their methods and empower kids with a sense of relevance regarding coursework. But it has become fashionable to blame teachers for all the ills of public education, as if eradicating these incompetent warts on our schools could solve all our problems and turn our kids into ambitious geniuses.

Not likely, I’m afraid.

Merit pay, heralded as a significant step in correcting all the “bad” teaching that must be going on, actually has no impact on student performance, according to a Vanderbilt University study released Sept. 21.

Researchers offered one set of teachers up to $15,000 a year in bonuses for improved test scores, while a control group of the same size continued on just the traditional pay scale. Over three years, there was no difference between the two groups’ scores.

Immediately, the media raised questions about the idea that you can motivate teachers with more money, a key principle in the Obama administration’s education reform plan. It appears teachers already are doing everything they can, observers reasoned.

The idea that test scores might not be an adequate way to measure teaching or learning never crept into the public discourse. Everyone assumes that the Almighty Bubble Sheet can tell us all we need to know about molding young minds and guiding increasingly diverse and behaviorally challenged kids toward adulthood. It’s not open to question, apparently.

Most of us, if shown a $15,000 carrot, would work harder, and possibly smarter. Is it not possible that teachers given that incentive put in more hours and changed dozens of kids’ lives for the better in ways hard data cannot show us?

As public servants, teachers should be held accountable. But don’t hold us accountable for things beyond our control. If you want to tie pay to test scores, test the teachers themselves, not the kids.

Teacher evaluation must reflect a willingness to employ practices that have been shown to optimize actual learning earnestly, not just temporary information retention. It must include a way to document how well teachers devote themselves to their students while maintaining healthy professional boundaries. It must leave room for academic freedom and the process of honing one’s craft through trial and error.

The merit pay issue illustrates education’s largest and least visible problem: Nobody understands it. Shockingly, one human being’s growth (be it a teacher’s or a child’s) can be nonlinear, and rather complicated. The more you research how learning actually happens, the more likely you are to change your beliefs about how schools should operate.

Chuck McKay is a freelance columnist and a high school teacher from Newport. His e-mail is chuckrates@gmail.com.

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