Saturday, February 26, 2011

Angry over Education

It's generally pretty rare that the title for my blog is accurate. As I've explained, there's a few issues that get me pretty angry (anti-science being lead among them), but since those topics don't generally come up in my everyday life, I'm not generally an angry person. In fact, as I've noted, I have quite a bit to be happy about.

But the past week and a half has brought into view another topic that has the capability of getting me exceptionally angry: The demonizing of teachers and education.

For those that don't know, when I began college in 2002, I started off as an education major. In 2004, when I started taking my first courses in the topic, I gave up on the field all together. At the time, there were two main reasons. The first was that the instructors seemed to be filled with nothing but hollow "philosophy" that even common sense should have told anyone, wouldn't apply in a high school classroom. The constant harping on something so inherently worthless demonstrated how vacuous the program was.

The second reason was that I'd already heard stories from friends and family that teach, on the arrogance of parents to blame teachers for all their students failings. While I certainly understand the need for a teacher to be experienced and qualified, they're not the entire equation. Students and parents themselves contribute heavily to the equation, and I didn't feel like constantly taking the blame for other people's failings as I knew would happen.

So I left the educational field. But obviously, I've returned to it. I've done so due to the realization that we need good science education. We're dropping the ball and instead of bitching and moaning about it, I would be much better served to actually try to fix things, even if only one class at a time.

I knew that teaching was not an easy job. I knew that teachers didn't get much respect and even less pay. I knew that students today weren't as well behaved as even 10 years ago when I was in high school.

But as bad as all these things were, things have been getting much, much worse in several states lately.

Front and center in all of this is Wisconsin. There, the state is working to implement a law that would essentially destroy the ability of teachers to organize and fight for the right to be successful at their jobs and be compensated adequately for it. The way this is often done is through unions.

The typical argument I've seen against unions is that they protect bad teachers. Almost universally, the example of this is the infamous "rubber rooms" in New York. For those that aren't familiar with these, this is a term applied to reassignment sectors in which teachers accused of misconduct are sent to keep them out of contact with students while their cases are investigated. For whatever reason, sometimes this takes years, all the while, the teachers are drawing their full salaries.

The conclusion is that this is somehow the fault of unions who are protecting child molesters and pedophiles. What the people citing this fail to understand is that people can be wrongly accused. Just as in the criminal justice system, in which people are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and punishment cannot be handed down without proper reason, so too should it be for teachers. A teacher should not be able to lose their job simply because they've been accused of something.

Another reason teachers are sent to these reassignment centers is because of "incompetence". Yet this is poorly defined. While one could argue that we can measure the ability of a teacher by the success of the students, this falls back on the problem I pointed out earlier that teachers are only part of the equation. Teachers should not bear the burden of simply having a class full of students who won't participate. There's no teacher in the world, no matter how experienced, that can fix that. Yet such a situation could easily land a teacher in serious trouble.

And such classes do exist. I've been in them myself. In one of my high school classes, the addition of one student led to the disruption of class every day to the point where the teacher lost the rest of the class' attention trying to deal with him. And our grades suffered for it. Yet she couldn't remove the student because of the red tape involved with doing so. Thus, so quickly dismissing teachers as "incompetent" is a slippery slope.

Similarly, the power to make this pronouncement is consolidated in the principal. This creates a situation in which a principal can simply call a teacher with whom they don't get along "incompetent" and have them removed. No evidence. Just accusations.

This quick and easy system would also allow school districts to unfairly remove senior teachers from positions so they couldn't draw pensions later. Essentially, teachers would become the sacrificial offering to balance budgets, without any sort of say in the matter. No voting. Just dismissal.

Teachers unions are a body that helps ensure teachers receive this basic right. By removing them, saying teachers cannot organize to fight for such rights, it essentially says that we should not be afforded them. Translations:

Teachers don't get the right to due process before being fired.

And being fired in such a manner essentially assures a teacher will not be hired again. It's a career ending deal. So teachers need every protection, because it's not just bad ones that can be the victim of this.

But teachers unions don't just concentrate on teachers. They make sure that teachers are equipped to do their jobs effectively and thus, benefit the students as well. As has been noted in many other articles on this topic, many of the highest achieving states are also ones with the strongest teachers unions. These unions help to do things like keep class sizes to a manageable level.

Class size is a serious concern. Not only because students often need individualized instruction, but because the larger the class size, the more difficult it is to manage students from a disciplinary standpoint. In a class of only 9 students, I already have students this year who think it's appropriate to simply get up and wander around the classroom in the middle of class. Of course, I immediately address the issue and have punishments assigned for such actions, but in the 10 seconds it takes to address the situation, the 8 other students are already gone and more class time is lost trying to coral them again. Imagine the difficulty in a class 3 times as large.

Or worse. Imagine a class size of 60 students. What teacher in the world could handle this? In college, where students are paying to be there and are sufficiently mature enough to not disrupt the class, sure. But not high school. Yet that's exactly what may be happening in Michigan. To close a budget shortfall, the school district plans to close half of its schools and merge classes into an unmanageable mass.

It's not hard to see what will happen. The correlation between class size and scores is already well known; Teachers won't be able to manage the classes and overall success of the system will plummet.

And when scores fall, who's the first that gets blamed? Oh yes. Teachers.

So once again, we're being set up to be a sacrificial offering.

Yet we're not given the right to protest this. Not only are states working to dissolve our right to assemble to ensure our due process, but we've already lost another fundamental right: The right to free speech and self expression.

In taking my teacher certification course, one of the most inane things it stated is that teachers are an "important and valuable part of the community", but if we wanted to have any sort of social life, we should leave the community.

Want to go to a bar with friends? Should probably do it in the neighboring town. Want to do go on a date? Don't do it where your students might see you.

Teachers can be respected, so long as they're nothing but teachers to the community. And without respect, teachers can be suspended and fired, even if it has nothing to do with their behavior in the classroom.

Thus, to keep our underpaid jobs, we must self censure. Even writing anonymously about difficulties in the classroom is dangerous. As such, there is little wonder that people have such a general lack of understanding of the plight of teachers. We're not allowed to point out obvious truths, that students are frequently, "rude, disengaged, lazy whiners. They curse, discuss drugs, talk back, argue for grades, complain about everything, fancy themselves entitled to whatever they desire, and are just generally annoying."

The above quote comes from a Pennsylvania middle school teacher who was suspended for the comments. Often, people argue that if students lack these qualities, teachers must inspire them. Yet most of them come from the home. We can try to engage students, but when families place no emphasis on education even the best efforts can fail. When families allow kids to disrespect the parents, no teacher will be able to command respect.

Those claiming that teachers should be responsible for passing along these skills are heaping on yet another burden: The burden of parenting, and then telling us that we shouldn't have the voice or the right to protest.

Teachers are asked to do more than ever and are receiving less respect for it than ever. We receive little to no support from parents, mild support from administrations, and thus only have each other to rely on. But with efforts to destroy this ability to work together to fight for our ability to teach effectively and fairly, even this thin thread is about to be cut.

We can't let this happen. Not because of the teachers. Not because of the students. But because of what it would mean for us as a nation. We're destroying our own school system by killing the key component of it.

And yes, I'm angry that as hard as I work to teach, it won't mean anything because the anti-intellectualism in the country has reached such epidemic proportions that we're willing to undermine those efforts.

We should be ashamed. But we're too stupid.

EDIT: This post is rather lengthy and hits on many topics so here's the summary -

Teachers are being asked to do more than teach their subject. They are being sabotaged by being handed students that aren't equipped with the basic etiquette to belong in a classroom, as well as potentially overburdened with class sizes and lack of appropriate materials.

No teacher could be expected succeed under such conditions, but we're being asked to anyway. And when we can't, we get blamed. Our only protection has been the protections for which unions have fought. Now, policies are being put forth to remove those protections and the unions that fight for them.

This leaves teachers in a no win situation. And with no teachers, there is no educational system.

8 comments:

winteryknight said...

Rubber rooms:
http://www.nypost.com/p/news/local/brooklyn/rubber_room_dirty_old_man_t4OA6Bw25idPYynCnVJHyO

Wes Widner said...

You make an excellent case for a more free market in the education sector so that win-win situations for all parties, including parents, are more possible and even encouraged.

Ryder said...

Agreed. Free markets are the answer.

I taught a class. Once. I was not paid a dime. I put my all into it. My students told me it was the best class they ever had, and begged me to keep teaching. It was one of the best experiences I have ever had.

My son is now in a public high school (having been in private school for several years), and I spent the last 4 months trying to schedule a meeting with his science teacher... 20 emails later, and threats to use California law to FORCE a meeting, I finally got my meeting, though 2 administrators also came to the meeting, and then proceeded to dominate it. As a result, I spent nearly zero time in conversation with my son's science teacher. (as was the plan of the school). This total non-responsiveness to parents is central to the problems with schools today. Parents have no sway with schools, so they give up and leave it to the schools... Then the schools complain parents aren't involved... then fight parents when parents come to meet with them. It's insane.

Public schools are TERRIBLY run in comparison to private schools, and cost astronomically more.

Are teachers important? Yep. But only if they're good.

Free markets. It's the only way.

Ibid said...

I agree with you in very large part. The unions are necessary to protect many teachers and keep their wages high enough to keep them off welfare. However, they're getting a lot of grief because they do appear to spend more time keeping bad teachers working than they do helping get bad teachers out. Sure, try to help them improve, but at some point you have to tell someone "you're a bad teacher and there's nothing we can do about that". Unions appear to not care about that at all and they really need to.

Wide spread use of private schools are a horrible idea. They have better results for the simple reason that they can kick out bad students and bad behavior. Add to that the fact that those who can afford these schools already have a huge advantage and their parents give a damn. Look, we took all the smart, rich kids and put them in this school and the poor, slow, and violent kids in that school and this school did better. No duh.

In all cases, we need parents who care and teachers who care. Without that the students don't have a chance.

Stephen said...

I agree.

One of the things that i'd like to see to improve education is instituting evidence based education. Got a new idea on how to teach better? Great. We'll do a pilot project and see if it is more effective, and how much it costs. If it shows promise, roll it out to a larger pilot. So, changes go from one class to a school to a district to something bigger to a state to the nation.

But ideas like closing half the schools would have to be done to a single class first. And when it's a disaster, the pilot ends there. No Child Left Behind would not have made the bar. Unless, of course, the comparisons where made using the sharp wits of politics.

Ryder said...

Agreed. Free markets are the answer.

I taught a class. Once. I was not paid a dime. I put my all into it. My students told me it was the best class they ever had, and begged me to keep teaching. It was one of the best experiences I have ever had.

My son is now in a public high school (having been in private school for several years), and I spent the last 4 months trying to schedule a meeting with his science teacher... 20 emails later, and threats to use California law to FORCE a meeting, I finally got my meeting, though 2 administrators also came to the meeting, and then proceeded to dominate it. As a result, I spent nearly zero time in conversation with my son's science teacher. (as was the plan of the school). This total non-responsiveness to parents is central to the problems with schools today. Parents have no sway with schools, so they give up and leave it to the schools... Then the schools complain parents aren't involved... then fight parents when parents come to meet with them. It's insane.

Public schools are TERRIBLY run in comparison to private schools, and cost astronomically more.

Are teachers important? Yep. But only if they're good.

Free markets. It's the only way.

Wes Widner said...

You make an excellent case for a more free market in the education sector so that win-win situations for all parties, including parents, are more possible and even encouraged.

Hans Christian Tesch said...

I have a doctorate degree in education and run a small private school. It is true that in some cases it will be quite difficult to democratize the entire system and afford everyone the kind of education one is entitled to. All children have different skill sets and this is one thing that parents must eventually agree on. One cannot always have a star math student when his r her child prefers music. Yet the blame will always be placed on the school because of what the parents expect and not on what the child can do or can achieve. It is a sad fact of life, that sometimes the children themselves are even more educated than the parents in learning this simple fact.