June 25, 2018
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Respect teaching profession while demanding mastery of it

J. Scott Applewhite | AP
J. Scott Applewhite | AP
President Barack Obama signs a $26 billion jobs bill to protect 300,000 teachers and other nonfederal government workers from election-year layoffs in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2010. Standing from left to right are Rep. Dave Obey, D-Wisc., Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Christina Romer, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, and three out-of-work teachers: Amanda VanNess of Toledo, Ohio, Shannon Lewis, of Romney, W. Va., and Rachel Martin of Richton Park, Ill.

The problem with tackling education reform is that doing so means working on the very pillars of society.

Educational outcomes are affected by family structure and parenting skills, predominant social and moral values and the physical, emotional and psychological health of millions of children. The status of public coffers also is an essential element: If taxpayers are demanding austerity, implementing change will be an uphill climb.

Reform is a never-ending job, the scope of which is enormous. And dragged into the middle of any discussion of how to proceed are some old, unresolved ideological battles. Those battles often pit tight-fisted taxpayers against educators. Taxpayers believe teachers have cushy jobs and are unduly protected and rewarded by their union, while teachers feel underappreciated if not downright attacked for doing important, challenging work.

In the midst of debates about open enrollment, merit-based pay and matching education to jobs, some truths are getting lost.

First, as Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a recent TV appearance, teaching is more of an art than a science. That means mastery comes slowly and depends greatly on qualities and skills that are hard to quantify. Just as the potter or sculptor must start anew with each batch of clay and each slab of stone, teachers face an incredible array of variables with each class. Did last year’s teacher cover the right material? How many children left for school that day from a chaotic, dysfunctional home? How many children have parents who expect them to excel?

A second truth is that teachers should not become defensive and intractable in their response to more evaluation of their work. If they accept that they are not assembly-line workers dumping knowledge into children’s brains, then they should accept that some among them will be very good at what they do, some will be adequate and some need help to improve. And some will have to be let go if they can’t succeed.

As teachers of the baby boom generation retire, Secretary Duncan sees job openings for 1 million new teachers. Preparing young (and older) adults to not only fill but flourish in those positions requires a financial commitment by taxpayers and elected officials.

Secretary Duncan believes teacher status must be raised. “What we’ve done as a country is we’ve beaten down teachers,” he said. “We should significantly increase teachers salaries. No one goes into it for the money, but you shouldn’t have to take a vow of poverty either.”

The U.S. Department of Education wants to create a RESPECT Project, or Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence and Collaborative Teaching. Secretary Duncan wants to “work with educators in rebuilding their profession — and to elevate the teacher voice in shaping federal, state and local education policy. Our larger goal is to make teaching not only America’s most important profession, but America’s most respected profession,” he said.

And the last truth is that teachers should not cling to an outdated school structure. Though some would-be reformers talk of blowing up the traditional school structure, the likely pace of change will be more deliberate. But change must come. Schools remain tied to a 19th century agrarian America that has little in common with the world today.

Much is at stake. By some estimates, 2 million jobs are going unfilled because employers can’t find educated workers. One million students drop out each year, dooming themselves, Secretary Duncan said, to “guaranteed poverty and social failure.” The U.S. is now ranked 16th in the world for college graduates, yet “a generation ago, we were first,” he said.

Surveys often show that most people believe the nation’s public education system is failing, yet those same respondents generally give their local schools high marks. This is because parents see their children’s teachers up close and appreciate their efforts. Though parents and taxpayers at large are right to demand more from schools, they should respect the profession and help build its status, not demean it.

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