Saturday, March 31, 2012

Our Declining Schools

Laments about the poor quality of American public schools have long been matched by a blizzard of remedies by politicians, often joined by corporations, foundations and nearly every Op-ed writer. Most of these include rewarding teachers using standardized tests as a measure of academic success.

In a recent two-part article in the New York Review of Books, Diane Ravitch has focused on studies of what happens in Finland, where the evaluation of students is made by the teachers, not by state-mandated standardized tests--and only at the end of high school. The nine-year comprehensive school is a "standardized-test-free zone," she writers, one that encourages kids to learn, think, and create.

Of course, what happens in tiny Finland can hardly be comparied to the vast educational-indusutrial complex we have the U.S. A central part of this system, to which I and many of my university colleagues often fault, are the schools of education (teacher training), which have long been held in low esteeem in the academic world.

I remember my own undergraduate experience in St. Louis, where no one was allowed to major in education and take mindless courses to give them tips on how to manage a classroom or design a syllabus. I took a few of these courses for certification and found them generally useless: much theory, little substance.

When I came to Florida to teach full-time, I was shocked to see students being allowed to enroll in the College of Education and major in "math education" or "language education." Why not insist that future teachers major in the subject(s) they intend to teach? This was the message I and many of my colleagues in the arts and sciences promoted.

If you want to teach English, I told my students, learn all you can about literature and writing, not ways to teach them; and get a master's degree, something many states and districts still do not require. They are all for state certification, based on teacher-training courses.

Ravitch's article includes the weakness of most education programs, but they are part of the vast bureaucracy of the educational establishment, along with standardized tests, that never seem to change because so many corporate reformers who speak from business experience rather than from an academic viewpoint support them.

If we are to learn anything from the Finnish experience, it would be to made a radical break with the practices of the past 75 years. It would require master's degrees for teachers and incentives to keep them in the profession. It's too easy to enter teaching in this country and too tempting to leave (low pay) and so up to 50 percent of teachers leave, typically, after the first year or two. Sadly, as Ravitch says, teaching in the public schools has become a revolving door.

The message many students grow up with is: anyone can teach. It's a fall-back position for too many. Let the teachers be skilled professionals in their fields, allowed to test their students' proficiency, rewarded not with threats of state-mandated tests but with good pay based on their performance. Eliminate much of the peripheral nonsense that takes place in public schools, which should model themselves on the private and parochial model where discipline and respect in the classroom are taken for granted.

All this is easy to pontificate about, but changes can occur if we eliminiate much of the political interference and allow teachers the freedom to do their real job: to educate each student to the best of his or her ability. This does not include teaching to the test, which is what I see throughout Florida, where students live in annual fear of the FCAT, the state-mandated evaluation exam--seen as a panacea for learning but in fact a simplistic solution to a complex problem.

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