Posts Tagged ‘failing education system’

The Decline of Public Education

September 11, 2016

Long time readers of this blog may recall I have written numerous articles (see “education”) about the decline and eventual fall of the public education system in this country. Here is one of the tens of thousands of excellent articles I have read on the subject. Nearly all of the articles lamenting this trend are written by teachers; in the meanwhile, the politicians and private industry moguls who control the system just keep smiling all the way to the bank.

This article sounds like when I went back to the Oakland (CA) School District to apply for a job. I was told there was this scripted curriculum, so I asked how I could accommodate individual learning styles and promote interest. I was told, “Well, that’s difficult.” Needless to say, I said thanks, but I’ll go elsewhere.

That is one of the biggest differences between high performing schools and low performing schools. None of the high performing schools I’ve taught at limit what additional materials the teacher can introduce, nor discourage personal teaching styles designed to appeal to individual students.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/8-things-the-us-must-do-now-to-save-public-education_us_57d4af40e4b0273330ac42f5?fb_action_ids=1258265067541383&fb_action_types=og.comments

Our Failing Public Schools, Part II: Politicians

April 12, 2012

Section 2: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Prior to the 1970s, local politicians and school districts had control of both budget and curriculum. Because these people had to answer directly to the local voters, the people generally got the educational system they felt their children deserved. While it is undeniable that more and more authority over the public education system has been given to the legislators by the voters thanks to both public lawsuits and the passage of funding bills, much more has also been appropriated by the state and federal government. There will be a lot more on this, including Serrano vs. Priest and Proposition 13, in Part IV of this series.

A couple of examples that spring to mind are former President Bush and his alleged “No Child Left Behind” policy, and former California Governor Schwarzenegger with his massive budget cuts in education and opposition to Prop. 98. When wielding that power, politicians should bear in mind that education is not their field of expertise (unless they were teachers before being elected), and should therefore tread cautiously when enacting legislation or determining policy that impacts the public school system.

Unfortunately, it seems that most of them really consider themselves experts in the field. When I was in private industry, it was exactly the same attitude with many businessmen. The attitude was: “We went through the educational system. We graduated from college. We’ve read a few articles, talked to a few educators. We understand it perfectly.”

Well, I studied history, government and a little political science. I’ve been governed and otherwise impacted by politicians all of my life. During my years in business, I talked with a number of politicians, some as high as the senate level. I still read and hear reports on the goings on of our government and the politicians on a near daily basis. I’ve actually read many political tracts (not counting “The Prince”), from theory to practical application. Therefore, I must be an expert in politics, and could start my career as a politician tomorrow, right? Of course not. Not any more than the average politician should consider him or herself an expert in education and presume to dictate the inner workings of the public school system. So make policies, be a “watchdog”, but don’t micromanage education.

It’s bad enough that many politicians seriously interfere in the educational system without really understanding how it operates or what its mission should be. What is infinitely worse is that many of them do not care. For many politicians, education is simply a “platform issue”, something that cannot be ignored during election time, but gets short shrift once they are in office—especially when determining budget. When they do become involved, it is often “politics as usual”, a tit-for-tat approach either brokering their vote in exchange for a pet bill of their own or writing some piece of legislation that will appease one of their powerful constituent groups—or, even worse, one of their wealthy lobbyist groups. In the worst case scenario, they support changes in the educational system that will financially benefit publishers, contractors, consultants, or other business concerns that make a profit from the school system. From looking at most of the impacts on how teachers are credentialed, textbooks are chosen, curriculum is developed and how programs are instituted, the last people many politicians seem to care about are those for whom the system was actually intended: the students.

Case Scenario: In the 1970s, English teachers commonly had one textbook for grammar and punctuation, and a lot of literature, both fiction and non-fiction. Some would augment their curriculum with newspapers, magazines, and other periodicals. While academic presses were very big in colleges because professors tended to write their own texts, K-12 teachers used the primary texts that the local school board deemed fit.

After the money shifted from local districts to the state, academic publishers got really interested in producing “classroom packages”. These packages include a dozen or more texts (main text, grammar book, workbook, teacher’s guidelines, variations for different reading levels, etc.) as well as CDs to do all of those things on the computer, as well as accompanying videos, test generators, etc. These packages were different for each grade level, and each cost the district thousands of dollars. If you taught English to three different grades, you got three different sets for you and your students. Most of these materials were so “overkill” that none of the teachers used them. Are the teachers of today more stupid than those of fifty years ago? Nonsense. A good teacher could still pick up a newspaper (if there are any print editions left…) and create a lesson plan for virtually any subject.

However, now that the decision making process has been centralized, it’s easier for the big houses, such as Houghton-Mifflin, Pearson Prentice Hall or McGraw-Hill, to approach the state board of education and a few key legislators (those who serve on education-related committees) to, um, convince them to buy their units, than it was to approach every single board of education in the state. Because they have such a huge investment in a package they had to produce before they could try to sell it, guess how much more they spend wining and dining the decision makers to choose them above the declining competition?

I will leave the last word on this blog to Jennifer Marshall:

“The Constitution does not provide for a federal role in education, and public schools have traditionally been under the jurisdiction of local authorities. Washington’s intervention seems to have brought out the worst in education governance. It has led to ever-increasing spending and bureaucratic bloat while undermining schools’ direct accountability to parents and taxpayers. Federal intervention also creates a compliance burden, sapping time and money (an annual price tag to taxpayers of $25 billion) that could be more effectively deployed to achieve educational excellence.” Jennifer Marshall, “Freeing Schools from Washington’s Education Overreach”, The Heritage Foundation, April 6, 2011

Next: Our Underfunded School System

Our Failing Public Schools, Part II: Politicians

April 7, 2012

Section 1: If Only it Were a Perfect World…

In a perfect world, we would not need government, and hence no politicians. Everyone would be able to govern their own emotions, their own actions. We would find a way to resolve our conflicts. We would find a way to share our wealth, our resources. If this sounds like I’m talking about socialism, I’m not. I’m talking about each individual achieving a state of complete self-responsibility, and understanding that he or she is impacted by the condition of every other person in the world.

Of course, in a perfect academic world, everyone would be an Abraham Lincoln or a Siddhartha Gotama, a dedicated seeker of knowledge who takes care of their own education. Hence, we would need no formal teachers. After all, “teachers” are really just guides, people who facilitate the learning process. Each individual must decide, consciously or unconsciously, what information they will actually absorb, and thus what they will “learn” and believe. A person cannot be forced to learn, although they can be coerced to memorize.

But Man is only one step removed from the lower animals, and it’s probably not that big of a step. We are, in general, self-centered, greedy, lazy, and complacent in our ignorance. Hence, we need people to ensure that there is structure, order, and some viable financial way of making the wheels go ‘round for our society. Thus, the need for government. And thus, the need for a more formal system of education.

The trick, of course, is for those people who have been placed in positions of authority, or responsibility if you are an optimist, to understand their limitations and try to stick to them. Perhaps it is because we teachers have very little power, or perhaps because the primary motivation of most sincere teachers is to help others, but I believe most teachers have come to grips with the fact that they are not demigods and should stick to their duties. On the other hand, having observed politicians both directly (when I was in business I had the pleasure of working with a number of local and state politicians) and indirectly through the media for a number of decades, it is my considered opinion that most of them veer wildly in the other direction.

Section 2: Who Should be Held Accountable?

Because teachers are in the classrooms with the children, and have direct responsibility for education, they are held accountable for the performance of the students, including the standardized scores of those students. However, in many cases, the teachers have no control over the curriculum, and are also very limited in the styles of teaching they may use. (This is especially true in the Oakland Unified School District, where the District, through state direction, has mandated specific materials and methods of teaching into a “guided curriculum” where every teacher is to read the lesson from a manual and be on exactly the same schedule every day as every other teacher in the subject.) Thus, the curriculum of most low-performing schools is controlled by the district which, in most cases, takes its orders directly from the state (see the SAIT process).

Therefore, ultimately, the politicians have direct control not only over curriculum, but certainly over the Teacher Education Program. While the Board of Education fills in the details, the legislation sets all of the standards and parameters for how future teachers are trained. Therefore, how can the politicians claim the primary problem with the public education system is poor teachers, when for many years they have had full authority to create the teachers into exactly the mold they want them? If the teachers are supposed to take responsibility for student performance, even though in many cases they are hamstrung by what they are allowed to do, shouldn’t the legislators take responsibility for the performances of the teachers, when the legislature has complete control over every aspect of how teachers are trained and credentialed?

Next: Section 3: Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

Our Failing Public Schools – Part I, Section 4: Some of the problems teachers face in doing their jobs effectively; Is there a solution?

April 1, 2012

Unrealistic curriculum in Teacher Education Programs (TEP)

I’ve alluded to a few of the requirements in the TEP of California, and perhaps other states as well. One of the most hated by all teachers is CLAD: Cross-cultural Language and Academic Development. As is clear from the title, this was foisted upon teachers both new and existing due to the inordinate amount of immigrants into California, including those who are illegal. (That problem is discussed in depth in “Our Failing Public Schools, Part III: Illegal Immigration”.) CLAD consists of four full courses:

“Learners enrolled in this program gain a depth of knowledge regarding current theories and research in the specialized instruction of English-language development. They will develop a foundation for understanding cultural differences among English learners-and how those differences relate to academic achievement in a culturally inclusive environment. Language structure and use, and first- and second-language development is investigated. Throughout the program, strategies for instruction and assessment of a linguistically diverse student body are addressed.”

No other country in the world allows illegal aliens to attend their public schools, let alone makes special concessions that cost taxpayers vast amounts of money in order to educate them. Teachers pay for the privilege of learning how to accommodate the annual influx of students who do not speak, read or write English. As I recall, one TEP course was devoted to the teaching of children with learning disabilities, one course was devoted to the psychology of children in general, and two courses were intended to teach classroom management, which is the most critical issue all new teachers must face. But four courses are dedicated to “cultural differences”? What ever happened to the “melting pot” theory, where all legal immigrants were welcomed into the American culture?

One of the courses I was forced to take was on cultural diversity. Sounds fine in theory, but the teacher was an African-American and focused on how ill-treated African-Americans were in our public school system. We were assigned to write an essay on the history of Ebonics — that’s right, that alleged sub-language — and I wrote that it was simply poor English, not meeting any of the criteria for a separate language (which has subsequently been determined). Never mind the grade I received; the point is having to take such a course at all that emphasizes separation rather than cohesion.

Within the world of education, there is no disagreement that establishing a “learning environment” is the first priority of a teacher. If the class is unruly, if students feel threatened in any way, they are not going to be able to learn, or not very well. In my opinion, and that of many colleagues, child psychology and classroom management were subjects that should have been stressed in all states. Clearly, California politicians, who established the requirements of the TEP, are much more concerned about political correctness than in what a teacher really needs to know in order to succeed.

Little Teacher Support

In business, a good manager does not only pass on orders, they pass on knowledge and experience. In other words, they mentor the workers under their authority. Of course, they have great incentive to do so. Good workers make a manager look effective, which means raises and promotions. Effective departments usually mean profitability for the company. In all successful companies, there is a clear goal that requires a great deal of teamwork. Usually, lack of teamwork and isolated actions leads to failure.

Traditionally, there has been very little support for teachers in the classroom. While there are principals and vice-principals, those administrators are not managers in the sense of either mentoring or even monitoring the teachers. Even though the scores of students are in many ways a measure of a principal, administrators in most respects are much more closely aligned to outside entities — the school district and board, and now the state — than they are to the workers immediately under their authority. Their primary duties involve budget, supplies, curriculum, discipline, school-wide activities, maintenance, management of external services, and so on, but not the actual process of education. During my first year as a teacher-of-record in classrooms, my “student mentor” visited me three times during the year. My first year as a credentialed teacher, the VP who was responsible for evaluating my performance visited my classroom twice, for less than one period each time. In all cases, they wrote an evaluation of me as a teacher, with nary a word of how I might handle problems or improve my instructional techniques.

In 1997, the California Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA) Induction Program was instituted. During the last few years, many schools and districts have taken this program more seriously, although it is still marginal in many districts. Experienced teachers are given extra pay and some preparation time to mentor new teachers. They go into the classroom on a regular basis, observe the proceedings, and later discuss management, instruction, and other relevant topics to their mentee. If asked, they will on occasion model a lesson or management. While this program has a very limited time and scope, it’s still much better than the nothing that existed before.

While programs such as BTSA were slowly contributing to teacher retention, the current economic situation will soon destroy all gains. Now, even tenured teachers are being laid off, classrooms are being staffed with student teachers in such alternative-certification programs as Teach America and Project Pipeline, and even those teachers face probable layoffs before they gain tenure in order to hire new beginning teachers who come cheaply.

I’m not denigrating any of those programs: how a teacher comes to learn their job does not matter. As in any profession, it takes several years to learn how to put their school training into effective practice. If the system continues to get rid of experienced teachers in order to save money, the students suffer even more, and young people considering a career path are completely discouraged from thinking about teaching.

Is there a solution?

As I stated before, I honestly think most people who go into teaching, both young and old, want to contribute to the society, and want to help children grow into productive adults. If I were to be asked by a high school or college student whether or not they could do the state and country a good service by becoming a teacher, however, I would advise them to study the law. Not that I think we need more lawyers, or that many lawyers have altruistic intentions when entering law school. It’s because I think we need more lawyers who would make good teachers in those positions of power. After all, most politicians have a law degree, whether or not they passed the bar.

Rather than enter the frustration of the current educational system, I would say to those young people: Go into the law. Become an advocate for positive change to our political and economic systems. Become a legislator and fight for bills that will make the system better, that will benefit children and adults alike. As a teacher, you will have very little power to change more than a few lives, and it gets harder every year because of the restrictions put on teachers as to how they can discipline, influence and even teach their students. Teachers are privates in the war; cannon-fodder to be sacrificed by the generals to serve their ambitions. Become one of the generals.

Our Failing Public Schools – Part I, Section 3: Some of the problems teachers face in doing their jobs effectively

March 31, 2012

Low pay

California politicians often claim that the pay for teachers in this state is among the highest in the nation—a reported average of $64,424 in 2007-2008. Frankly, that amazes me. When I retired from teaching — due to the budget crisis, not from desire — I had a clear teaching credential, eight years of teaching experience plus a bonus year for having been in the military, a master’s degree stipend, and additional educational credits. My last year I made a little over $58,000. A major factor in that figure is a few extra thousand dollars in lieu of medical, catastrophic illness, and other insurance benefits, which obviously cannot come close to me having to pay the actual costs for those out of pocket (declining benefits for teachers is another issue). There are many younger teachers I know making less than $40,000 a year, although they admittedly do not have the same qualifications. I can only assume there must be a lot of teachers who are nearing retirement who skew the average salary figure upwards.

Since I do not know how that “average salary” figure was arrived at, I will assume that, on a straight dollar scale, this is true. On a per pupil basis (i.e., size of classes), our teachers are still paid below the national average: $3,479 in California compared to the national average of $3,811. However, a pure dollar comparison fails to take into consideration the extremely high cost of living throughout California. So, if a teacher simply wants to collect a reasonable pay check, this is fine. However, if they actually want to live in California — say, for example, paying their mortgage — they are in deep trouble. Never mind buying a house; the market is so high that even a modest apartment in most urban areas is exorbitant on the national scale.

Now, a lot of hard-working people throughout this country will say: “$58,000 a year sounds pretty good to me!” I can imagine that’s true. But there are many jobs around that pay at least that well, especially if one can earn overtime, that do not require anything above a high-school diploma. So think about the cost of attending a university for six years, let alone the lost wages one could have earned during that time if one were in another job, especially as a union worker. (Yes, public schools have unions, but they are the most pathetic, weak unions in the world, as I have mentioned.)

However, if I compare the salary with other professions that require a master’s degree (which, after the mandatory two years of post-graduate teacher education program, is a close equivalent, even if some teachers do not finish it), it’s pitiful. Many people who do not know what a teacher really does think they only work seven hours a day for nine and a half months. They have no idea of the countless hours each teacher must spend in staff meetings, supervising extra-curricular activities (required), training sessions, parent or student conferences, phone calls home, and other ancillary activities that are above the countless hours some teachers spend in lesson planning and grading. Having previously been an executive in private industry, I can tell you it’s about the same amount of hours — in fact, maybe more than many mid-level managers ever experience. Yet most professionals start at $50,000 or $60,000 rather than winding up there after ten years of experience.

So, other than personal fulfillment in contributing to our future generations, where is the incentive for young college students to go into teaching? It used to be in job security, medical benefits and a solid retirement. Well, those are all rapidly disappearing. Over the past decade or two a number of districts have reduced or eliminated benefits. More recently, actual layoffs of many qualified teachers (not to mention counselors, librarians, and school medical personnel, which impact the quality of education) have occurred in order to meet drastically reduced school budgets.

Next: Unrealistic curriculum in Teacher Education Programs (TEP)

Our Failing Public Schools; Part I, Section 2: Teachers are easy targets for blame

March 30, 2012

Why are teachers easy targets? First, the many teaching unions are totally fragmented, and have no real political power. By nature, most teachers like to remain in their classroom or their department, and are not political activists. They prefer dealing with their students, who might actually listen to them, rather than politicians. Second, they don’t have much direct access to the media. Most news regarding teachers is about strikes, layoffs or declining test scores. Other than the occasional news story about a teacher of the year or a movie about a unique teacher who achieved fabulous results with their students, most of the time you hear about a teacher it’s because of sexual misconduct. When a teacher is caught doing such a terrible and reprehensible crime, they are fired and then imprisoned. When a politician is caught in such an act, the worst that happens is they may have to resign. In some cases, they get to go on being President.

One of those steps in qualifying a teacher is to require stringent tests that show subject matter proficiency; thus, the politicians show they are aware that teachers need to be very knowledgeable in their subject. Today’s teachers are also required to take more courses than before at the graduate level in order to receive their teaching credentials. Thus, they are better trained for the job than ever before. Next, several of the new classes (or a new program for currently credentialed teachers) are geared towards making teachers “culturally sensitive”, because teachers were clearly out of touch with the changing demographics inCalifornia, as well as five other states high in illegal immigrants. Finally, they shortened the time period for which a credential is good, from permanent to five years, during which time teachers must take even more continuing education to re-qualify.

Notice any common threads to all of these great solutions? Number one, not one of them costs the State one penny. The teacher must pay for every single additional qualification, as well as spending the time it takes to receive them. Number two, none of those solutions addresses any of the actual problems. If they did, then the system would be improving, not continuously declining.

Are teachers the main problem?

Why do I say “actual” problems; don’t I think teachers are one of the problems with the decline in the standards? Not really. In the first place, with all of those requirements in place for the past couple of decades, the quality of teachers must clearly have risen, as the credential program essentially requires a Master’s degree now, and many other adjunct prerequisites. In the second place, I have worked with a number of teachers for years now, six of those in low-performing school districts, and it is my personal observation that most teachers really are dedicated, qualified, and hard-working.

Are there teachers who are jaded, incompetent, too set in their ways, arrogant, and just plain bad teachers? Absolutely. However, given the results — or lack thereof — that legislators demonstrate, such as not even being able to agree on a budget for the state until a crisis situation has developed, I would say the average teacher is not only a lot more qualified for their job than the average politician, but a lot more effective. And very few teachers are able to base their job performance on either pork barrel projects or on kickbacks from influential contributors. And, be honest, what percentage of people do you know in your profession that you would say are not highly competent? Teachers have no monopoly on incompetence in their profession.

Nevertheless, as much of the rest of the world (i.e., politicians, students and parents) blame the decline of our educational system on teachers, I will spend some space on a discussion of them. If teachers aren’t the main problem, what are some of the problems they face in doing their jobs?

Next: Some of the problems teachers face in doing their jobs effectively

Our Failing Public Schools (Especially in California)

March 28, 2012

Over the next few weeks, in small chunks, I’ll be discussing our failing public school systems from the standpoint of a teacher.