By Dave Palmer
One of this year’s main talking points for politicians facing re-election or vying for an incumbent’s seat is the state of our nation’s education system. We are past the argument about whether or not schools are broken; most people know they are. The arguments now surround what is the best method to fix them. The purpose of this column is not to examine all these arguments in terms of their merit or whether I agree with them or not. Instead, I will draw attention to some systemic problems in education that politicians among others seem to ignore in their attempts at school reform. Such problems involve school funding and resources, administrative support, parental involvement/student responsibility, high-stakes testing, and schools’ calling to prepare students for college and/or a career in the workplace.
Teachers have the only occupation in which one is required to use materials that don’t suit their needs, including outdated textbooks and obsolete technology. They are often required to use electronic grade books which are set up to record grades and assignments in an identical fashion at every grade level from one teacher to the next, which assumes that all teachers give the same assignments and that they all record grades in the same fashion. They are given a specific amount of funding for each student, which increases slower than the rate of inflation, and often lose that funding if a student decides to attend school in another public school district. (This is how Michigan has their school funding set up, to “promote competition” between school districts.) Sometimes teachers either have to take a pay cut mid way thorough the school year, or are simply laid off, to meet the budget.
Now imagine that you work for a construction company, and your company has just won a multi-million dollar contract to build a new high-rise in downtown Detroit. Now, imagine that when you show up to the site, they have 1970’s wood paneling, 1980’s shag carpeting, and paint from the 1990’s for your materials. Then, your foreman tells you that you are not allowed to use your DeWalt power tools for the job, and hands you a set of Black & Decker tools instead. The drill set is missing the Phillips driver, and the battery for the cordless tools only holds a charge for about an hour. You are told to produce the modern building specified in the 2013 plans on time and under budget. Halfway through the job, your foreman tells you everyone has to take a 10% pay cut due to budget cuts. How many construction companies do you know that would put up with these conditions?
Another problem in some schools is lack of administrative support. There are some hard-nosed principals out there who enforce school policies that wind up being counter-productive to education. Sometimes, they are lackadaisical in granting a simple request for supplies, and other times have no supplies to grant due to budget constraints. Yet, each administrator gets an administrative assistant of their own in addition to the assistants for counselors and the assistants who handle the attendance and the switchboard. That means for every administrative position, two people draw a salary. Yet, administrators and administrative assistants almost always manage to dodge school district pay cuts while providing redundant services that often provide more red tape than solutions to problems. Plus, administrators do not have to undergo a yearly evaluation of their abilities to run a school, and almost never have to answer for their school if it is labeled as “failing.”
Another part of education that are rarely addressed but has a great impact on educational outcome is parental involvement. The teacher can assign homework every day if they like, but it does the student no good if they refuse to do it or don’t have parents that enforce homework time for their children. If a student misbehaves at school, it is up to the parent to reinforce the lessons learned from in-school discipline at home. If there is no reinforcement, there can be no additional learning. If you are a parent who is dissatisfied with how your student is doing at school, do you express it to your child or to the teacher? Do you coordinate with the teacher for extra help or referrals to tutoring? If not, you can expect that your child will continue to struggle, and your failure to demand the best for your student can hardly be blamed on the teacher.
By the same token, students need to take responsibility for their education as well. Many teachers are willing to provide extra help if they are asked. If the student is embarrassed to do it in class, there is always between classes or after school when fewer people are around. The same goes for behavior. The student needs to understand that schools have behavior policies and attendance policies because employers have them.
Schools are called upon to prepare students for college and/or a career. Think for a moment what would happen to you at your place of employment if you were late to work several times in a row without informing your boss. Now think of what would happened if you ran out of sick days and continued to call in sick, or you were absent several times without informing your superior. What would your boss do if he told you to do some work, gave you a deadline, and when the deadline came, you had no work done? What would happen if you told your boss “F@#$ you” in response to him or her addressing concerns regarding excessive tardiness and absences or not getting assigned work completed? The teachers that students frequently hate are the ones that expect students to arrive to class on time, turn their work in on time, and accept no excuses for failure to do either.
Perhaps the most counter-productive thing to education ever enacted in schools is high-stakes testing. They require teachers to administer a test to students at the beginning of the school year ostensibly to evaluate what students already know about the subject matter. The sales line to get the public on board is that they will help teachers focus on sections of the curriculum for which most of the students have little knowledge.
However, teachers are given a different picture of the meaning of these pre-tests based on current Michigan law. Teachers are told that students take the pre-test to evaluate their prior knowledge, and take the post-test to see if they have actually learned anything in their class. If the student scores higher on the post-test than the pre-test, the teacher was successful in teaching. If the student scores an 85% on both tests, teachers are told that the identical scores means that the student learned no additional knowledge, and therefore the teacher was unsuccessful. Oh yeah, and these tests are used as part of the teacher evaluation process, which means that teachers in alternative education and AP classes alike are automatically at a disadvantage due to the nature of the population they teach.
There is no doubt that the educational system in this country is in desperate need of reform. However, the top-down, one-size-fits-all approach is not the way to achieve meaningful change. The paragraphs above provide just a brief glimpse into the daily struggle of K-12 educators not only in Michigan but across the nation. Many educators in this state have seen their pay cut, their insurance and pension costs go up, and the overall funding for schools go down. Some school districts have gone as far as to refuse to negotiate new contracts with their tenured teachers, forcing them to work with no due process protections for layoffs, firings, and pay cuts. Since it is illegal for teachers to strike to protest their treatment, they are left powerless to advocate for either their students or themselves.
We as a society can do better than the wholesale blaming of teachers for the failure of our education system. We can hold politicians and locally elected school board members responsible for their mismanagement of education. We can join or form our own parent teacher associations to become actively involved in what happened in schools. We can demand that tax breaks for wealthy be rolled back and that millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share of the educational burden. We can get directly involved in our students’ education by demanding better things from them. We can hold them accountable for their failures and praise their successes. Most of all, society can work directly with teachers to achieve all of these things rather than blaming and by extension working against their educational mission.