What’s wrong with American public education? That’s certainly an easy question to answer. Our children aren’t learning; at least, they’re not learning what we think and believe they need to know and to do. We have high school students who cannot or will not read books. We have students in college who cannot compose a clear or cogent sentence, let alone a paragraph or essay. We place students in courses they aren’t prepared for and expect them to learn.As a maths teacher I know puts it, “just as you can’t properly read if you know only 65% of the alphabet, you can’t do Algebra II if you don’t have algebra skills.” In many high schools the vast majority of students graduate, nearly all of whom are unprepared for college. According to a recent New York Times article, two public high schools in Manhattan bearing the name “Academy,” for example, boast graduate rates of over 80%, yet 99% of those graduates would need remediation in college. Of course, many of these students will not go on to college, and perhaps they shouldn’t. But what can a high school diploma mean when it promises such little promise?
The causes are too multitudinous to measure or even to discuss in a short essay, but I can identify a few particulars. We know that poor students are ill served. We know the awful effects of racial and class distinctions. We know that for many people sports prowess—especially in football—trumps scholarship. We also recognise the dizzying effects of information technology and the corrosive influence that distraction has on learning. We promote the use and extol the virtues of technology to young students who have not developed first those literacy skills necessary for its critical and intelligent use—and act as if there were a technology, not a literacy, crisis. But as Jonathan Franzen puts it: “For every reader who dies today, a viewer is born.” Technological development and sports dominance are likely here to stay, and the eradication of poverty, prejudice, and injustice is beyond my powers of suggestion and certainly beyond the scope of this essay.
But we can improve our schools by changing conditions for both teachers and students. First, doesn’t it make sense that teachers in all areas should be experts in the subject matter that they will teach? After fifth grade, students are generally assigned to classes taught by different teachers according to separate subjects. With this in mind, teachers of grades six through twelve should be required to earn not only a bachelor’s degree in their subjects, but a masters degree as well. Those teaching kindergarten through grade five should earn a bachelor’s degree in an academic subject and a masters in childhood education. From what I have observed across the country, our degree granting institutions have created programs that leave teachers, especially new teachers of academic subjects, ill prepared in the subjects they will be required to teach. Surely those teachers who have addressed the rigors of scholarship in a discipline they love will be better prepared than those who study education as a subject. Moreover they will be more inspirational to their students.
Next, working conditions for teachers should be made equitable. Many people think teachers have it made, and to be honest, I have to say they’re right. Yes, many teachers are underworked and consequently, overpaid. In our system, where every teacher, of any subject, from kindergarten through twelfth grade, is paid the same salary (something I suspect many people don’t realise), many teachers work at least 50% more than those who take no work home. In what other industry or professional area is everyone compensated equally regardless of the number of hours worked? And what other public institution so shamefully squanders its resources?
If you think I’m complaining, you may be right, but about equity, not salary. Why shouldn’t physical education teachers, and special area teachers who have small class loads, some between three and 10 per class, as I’ve witnessed, and who take no work home for grading or planning, be assigned teaching assignments all day except for a lunch period? And why not have them take care of all of the proctoring and duty assignments so that those teachers who have to write comments on student work may be given the time at work to do so? Of course, elementary school teachers and high school teachers of subjects such as art work long hours preparing projects, and maths teachers offer extra help sessions regularly after school, but why should teachers of high school English have the same number of class assignments as everyone else? A teacher of English or history with 100 students collects 100 papers each time a piece of writing is assigned. If the students are going to be encouraged to improve their writing, they have to write often and the teacher needs to spend at least 15 minutes per paper, writing specific comments and suggestions tailored to each student’s needs. The arithmetic here isn’t hard: anyone can see that that teacher has an additional three days of work per week, distributed over evenings, weekends, and vacations. And those teachers admit, sotto voce, that they sometimes feel compelled to call in sick—not to play golf or spend time with their families—but to mark papers. And if a teacher does not spend that kind of time carefully with student papers, then that teacher is not teaching but merely scoring. And the students are not learning; they are merely being assessed.
The alarming news is that that is exactly what is happening. In my work with teachers across the United States, I meet many who have 150 students or more. With conditions so inimical to good teaching, it is impossible for them to do their jobs in a way that engenders student learning. In a system that ensures that teachers cannot do their job adequately, our students, whom the system is designed to serve, become the victims. Our problem is manifestly clear, but it resists attention from within the institution. As Emerson says, “You can’t see the field from within the field.”
In that field where we find our students, where it is our job to cultivate their minds and help them grow, I have found that what my students in average level classes did 20 years ago can be attempted only in AP classes now, and is quite beyond the typical college freshman. The teacher’s work has become more onerous as student knowledge, interest, and effort, have flagged. As Mark Bauerliein observes in The Dumbest Generation, “I’ve noticed in the last 10 years that students are no less intelligent, no less ambitious, but there are two big differences: Reading habits have slipped, along with general knowledge. You can quote me on this: You guys don’t know anything.”
Ours is an era of low expectations. Students complain: “I don’t understand.” “It’s too hard.” “I don’t have time.” “I have practice.” And how do we respond? Students over the years have stopped doing homework, so teachers have stopped assigning it. Otherwise, they might have an unacceptable failure rate. What Flannery O’Connor said a half century ago is certainly true today: we teach children “what they will tolerate learning.” We capitulate. We enable immaturity. We countenance privilege. We inflate grades. We use simplified texts because ‘the language is too hard.” But isn’t using a simplified text of Shakespeare rather like using only round numbers in maths? We provide “extra” credit, surely a misnomer, since what it really means is additional, or make-up credit.
Because students no longer study, we have reduced the required material and skills so that they won’t have to. It’s very easy to score 65% when you’re tested on a reduced curriculum. We have become more concerned that students should feel good about themselves than that they should know anything. I estimate that about half of the students sitting in public school classrooms in America are not learning enough to earn passing grades. But teachers are “encouraged” to have high passing rates while failing students move on, unprepared for life after high school.
We hear much talk of passing and graduation rates: “We need to raise our graduation rate,” the argument runs. But doesn’t that beg the question: what does that rate indicate? Why do we require high passing and graduation rates, when those rates are not required to demonstrate learning? To my students I like to paraphrase Alan Watts: “If your concern is for grades, then you should go to the restaurant and eat the menu.” Why, at year’s end in my high school, was I required to explain how I was integrating technology into my instruction, which begs all kinds of questions, but never asked to explain or demonstrate how my students had improved as close readers, cogent writers, or critical thinkers? Why, in our public discourse, do we talk about rates and not about learning itself?
I have tried to describe a condition that we know exists, but somehow pretend not to see, since the consequences attendant upon that recognition are too frightening or troublesome to consider. In our schools we need to stop capitulating; we need to reverse the entropic tendency of education so that it may become generative and productive again. Institutional change is slow. Of course any concerned citizen realises that. The hard news is that it will not be easy. And we—citizens all—must embrace the struggle to rescue education itself from the grips of inertia. Soon a college degree will mean as little as a high school diploma does now. But before that happens, “regime change,” even in education, is possible. The emperor stands naked before us, if only we will see.
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