We Can Fix Our Public Schools If We Care Enough

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

[Note: The following article originated as a comment (10.19.11) to Bonnie Bracey Sutton’s “Who Speaks for Teachers?” (10.16.11). -Editor]

I don’t have your answer. So, don’t misinterpret my musings on this subject. That’s all they are.

Lots of people blame teachers for our problems because they’re an easy target. It’s not so simple. I see several sides to this discussion.

On one side, you have hard-working, capable teachers who just cannot cope with all that’s going on. Their class sizes have exploded, and their budgets have shrunk. Meaningful learning is hard to create under these circumstances except for the most talented and motivated (at the same time) teachers.

Another side shows us teachers who have chosen the wrong profession for whatever reason. Their personalities just don’t fit the necessities of teaching. Most of these will self-select themselves out of the profession, but some remain.

Some teachers have been assigned classes for which they were never trained. You see this problem in science where a life science teacher is given physical science classes or where the science teacher was trained in mathematics and not in science. Someone recently pointed out that only about 10% of K-12 STEM teachers have adequate training in their subject.

Some teachers really have stagnated. They have their lesson plans from ten years ago and keep to them (the “tried and true”) no matter what. They’re pretty good at basic teaching but do not renew; they become stale. It’s hard to rebuild lesson plans when you barely can keep up with an increasing workload. Yet, ways must be found.

As I think about these ideas, I keep coming back to the conclusion that part of the problem is administrative and part is political (yes, local, state, and federal politics). I shouldn’t have to elaborate.

What happens in this environment? Gradually, year by year, the cachet of teaching as a profession degrades. It becomes harder to get college graduates to choose the profession. Salaries haven’t kept up with other, alternate professions, especially in math and science. I hate to say it, but the pool of potential teachers becomes less capable. No matter how hard they try, more and more just cannot do the job as it must be done. The profession gets more negative reviews. People respect it less. They choose to pay them less or provide fewer benefits. And the downward spiral continues.

Our political will, as a country, is inadequate to address this problem by raising salaries and benefits and by having higher standards for hiring. In addition, the help that a new teacher must have to succeed is missing. The colleges of education don’t have enough real teaching opportunities for students, and the schools don’t create adequate mentoring programs.

The old saw that “Those who can, do; and those who can’t, teach” becomes a self-fulling prophecy. This phrase need not be true and isn’t in many countries. In fact, it’s often just the opposite. In some, those who can, teach, and the rest are left to do regular work. Teachers are held in the highest esteem. In South Korea, teachers are called “nation builders” and are highly respected.

Several U.S. Presidents have said that education, especially science and math, is a national priority and even a matter of national defense. However, until our representatives stand up and tell the American people that they must pay higher taxes to ensure that our country can remain competitive and our children have the best possible careers instead of ending up on welfare or in prison, things are not likely to change much. The wealthy don’t care, for large part, because their children go to expensive private schools with tuition that can exceed $40,000 per year, while public school students often get less than $10,000 per year spent on them.

Good education costs lots of money. For our country, the lack of a good education costs us all much more in the long term and the price will continue to rise unless something changes.

Blaming the teachers will not change anything. Disrespecting the teaching profession only makes things worse. Teachers that aren’t doing well in their jobs either were selected poorly or were trained poorly or have inadequate support or have been put in untenable positions — or any combination thereof. None of these issues are the teacher’s fault. It’s the fault of the system. Blaming the teachers is like burying your head in the sand in order to avoid facing up to a broken system that will take lots of effort and money to fix.

Believing that charter schools or school vouchers or NCLB penalties will fix things makes a mockery of our intelligence. These and other similar “fixes” will not help, except around the edges, and some will actually make things worse.

Until our country can stand up and respect education and be willing to invest heavily in improving it, nothing will change significantly. I happen to believe that some technology ideas can help out a great deal by elevating the base line of learning. But that’s not nearly enough. We have to make fundamental changes to our public education system and do so without destroying it. These changes involve funding, recruiting teachers, training teachers, reducing class sizes, allowing for a different curriculum structure, improving school administration, and educating the public about education.

We can do it if we care enough. Do we? Will we?

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