State of the Union: Education Should be Priority #1 (Society’s Slideshow)

Barack Obama gave a rousing State of the Union address January 24 calling for a number of bold reforms in this country. Chief among these reforms was the ending of insider trading in Congress, the creation of a Financial Crimes Unit to take on Wall Street’s crimes against the American taxpayer, and improving education. Little can be done to improve the economy if people are not qualified to fill the positions employers offer. Here are several common sense proposals for improving the educational system:

1. Stop mainstreaming special needs students: Colleges have separate programs for teachers who wish to enter general education and teachers who wish to enter special education. They have separate requirements, and work to prepare teachers using different curriculum. Why then are we forcing regular education teachers to deal with students with special needs?

More often than not, a regular education teacher does not have the special training to deal with a student who has a low reading level, is learning disabled, or emotionally impaired. As a result, the teacher in a classroom of 25 or 30 kids may have to divert more of their classroom instruction time helping one or two special needs students and focus less time on the needs of the rest of the class. This leads to an overall drop in performance, especially in today’s high-stakes testing.

Special education teachers are taught how to deal with special needs students, and therefore special needs students should be referred to them for special help. By giving these students the extra time and attention they need in a special education environment, the students who are in regular education will not suffer from less instructional time resulting from a special education student usurping a regular education student’s instructional time.

2. Allow teachers to use classroom time to actually teach: In Michigan’s public schools, there is mandated curriculum surrounding the dangers of texting while driving, how to deal with bullying and cyber-bullying, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender awareness, as well as mandated preparation for the MEAP and the ACT. (I remember a time when you had to take the ACT on your own time. Now, they give the entire school a day off to allow juniors to take the ACT.)

While this curriculum is important, delivering it during normal school hours necessarily cuts into regular instruction time. Schools need to implement a mandatory early morning or after school home room session to deal with the issues I just mentioned. In addition, state boards of education should be required to develop the curriculum for these issues, not teachers. Requiring teachers to develop their own curriculum about texting while driving, bullying, cyber-bullying, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender awareness takes away from their time to develop truly meaningful and fun lesson plans that might interest students in school.

3. Reduce documentation necessary for student discipline: Once upon a time in this country, if a student misbehaved in school, teachers were given the benefit of the doubt. Parents sided with them in their decisions regarding classroom management and the administration’s decisions regarding student discipline. Now more than ever, teachers are being required to document to the last jot and tittle every behavior in which a student engages in the classroom.

This is especially true for special needs and alternative school students. In one two-hour period, I would estimate that I spent at least a half an hour detailing one student’s behavior. In the meantime, other students were asking for help or clarification. Because I had to spend time documenting this student’s ridiculous behaviors, I had to tell the other students to hang on until I finished writing.

This has got to stop. Teachers should never have to take time away from classroom instruction or from helping a confused student to document how one or more ornery students have difficulty following rules and procedures. Until we go back to taking teachers at their word, education will continue to crumble in this country.

4. Encourage parental/guardian involvement in education: There are some parents/guardians who care very deeply for their children, and wish to see them perform well in school. To that end, they go to parent-teacher conferences, volunteer at the school, and help the cause of education in any way they can.

Then there are those who do not involve themselves in their student’s education. The reasons for this vary, but all those reasons boil down to the student perceiving that their parents or guardians don’t care if they succeed. They translate this into a free pass to not care about school themselves.

There is really no way to legislate parental involvement. Making and keeping records for a parental involvement rewards system could prove to be a monumental task, not to mention unfair for people who do not have children, or have children that are not of school age.

However, parents must be held accountable if their student proves to be a behavior problem, needs medication and does not have it, or if their child is performing poorly in school and they are doing nothing to deal with it at home. The government could set up a special fund to aid those who could document a true need in helping their students succeed. The proof and documentation in that case would be handled by the parent/guardian and the government would handle the funding rather than forcing schools to dip into their already constrained budgets to provide school supplies and other necessities for success.

5. Extend the tax break for teachers who spend their own money on classroom materials: The current deduction is a measly $250 for teachers who spend their own money on classroom supplies. However, that tax break expired in 2011, and unless lawmakers extend it, it will disappear.

$250 does not go a long way toward providing necessary learning materials for students, much less toward providing the things that teachers need to purchase to do their job. Before they purchase anything else for their students, they have to buy their gradebooks, lesson planning books, pens, pencils, and classroom decorations.

They sometimes also pay for facial tissue, hand sanitizer, scissors, glue, and writing utensils for students. Sometimes if they want to use special technology as some school district’s best practices curriculum calls for, they have to pay for that too. Some estimate that a teacher may spend as much as 10% of their own income on instructionally-related materials.

This all on an average national salary of $50,000 per year. I can certainly attest to the fact that first year teachers only earn about half of national salary when all is said and done, yet they are expected to provide the same resources as one at the $50,000 level. Tax breaks to cover all their work-related expenses might serve as a financial incentive for them to provide these resources. Another solution is to set up a stipend or fund for teachers to draw from to provide these necessary tools for instruction.

One thing this country cannot afford to do is keep demanding more of teachers and paying them less money for it. Big banking CEO’s who were criticized for their lavish multi-million dollar salaries during the  2008 mortgage defended their salaries by saying “If you want top talent, you have to pay top dollar.” The same goes for education. I can;t think of a single educator who gets into the profession for the money. However, it’s about time that we recognize the passion and dedication that goes into the profession and start making sure that we get top talent by paying top dollar.