The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Nine tenths of education is encouragement."...  ...Anatole France.

Commentary of the Day - February 11, 2010:  Two Observations from a Long-Time Teacher.  Guest Commentary by Rick Fowler.

Observation Number 1: Public perceptions outweigh the essentials of education.

Just how far our educational system has lapsed was reinforced the other day in a conversation I had with a younger colleague.  Though he is an excellent teacher there is a fear of reprisal that has been instilled in his teaching philosophy.  In a recent discussion we had about the lack of energy, drive, determination, and work ethic in one of my sophomore classes, I was shocked by one of his responses.  Because of this poor work ethic, lack of listening skills and general apathy towards the consequences, I remarked that 19 of the 28 students were currently flunking this English class.  His response, "I can't flunk that many kids.  The administration and their parents would be on me so fast!  Since you are the veteran teacher you can get away with it.  I can't!"

Huh?  Teachers are now afraid to fail students because of the ramifications it might cause?  Whoa, could this be another offshoot of the (NCLB) "No Child Left Behind Act?"   Might flunking a student be proof that a teacher is not doing his or her job correctly.  In an era where student progress may be linked to teacher compensation, an idea that many lawmakers and future candidates support, giving failing grades to students might affect a teacher's take-home pay.

There is yet another trend filtering through at the administrative levels.  Instead of assigning a failing grade to those students who do not turn in assignments teachers are encouraged just to give them a zero, but leaving it possible for them to turn in the assignment later.  Huh?  I'll bet the business world wouldn't accept failure to complete a job assignment with an excuse like, "Give me a zero for now.  I'll get to it eventually!"

I've been at this teaching gig for over 31 years.  Yet, in three decades of teaching high school English, there still are constants: discipline in the classroom, structure, communication, fairness, and high expectations.  I have never; repeat never failed a student who tried to better him or herself.  I have never failed a kid who is shy and withdrawn but hands in his or her work.  I have never failed a kid who doesn't agree with me.  However, would all of the kids who have entered my humble classroom have been able to pass our state's current proficiency exam (ACT-based)?  The answer is of course no.  I stress reading and writing, and the need to master those areas.  I also stress humanity, caring, sincerity, and striving for the best possible paper and/or assignment. Now I wonder if, in the future, I will I be docked in pay because some of my students won't be able to pass the state-mandated exit exams.

Are we so frightened of public perceptions that we are change the curriculum, inflate grades and teach to the test to appease parents and leaders

Observation Number 2: Education legislation will doom us.

I find it rather terrifying that the "Race to the Top"
initiative has generated so much excitement among legislators and many school administrators.  It seems like educators have just fended off some of the problems caused by the "No Child Left Behind Act" when they now realize that they need to have their hands taped again for another heavy weight battle.  Why is it that such legislation captures the imagination of so many law makers who: a) have never been trained as teachers, b) have never taught in any classroom setting, and c) sincerely believe that every child can be taught in the same manner regardless of setting, age, ability, background, or demographics?   What is it that causes such magical thinking by so many administrators who: a) haven't been in the class room in years, b) have themselves taught for only a few years, and who c) sincerely believe that every child can be taught in the same manner regardless of those same factors?

There is no getting around the fact that outside money is imperative if many school districts hope to survive.  However, too often some administrators and some local officials see any new initiative that might bring in outside money as way for their particular school district to rise from the financial abyss, and to get the money it needs to survive.  This explains the bandwagon appeal of many programs like "No Child Left Behind" and "Race to the Top."  In my nearly 32 years of teaching I have witnessed a myriad of "cutting edge" programs that offer new ways to "Teach for Top Performance", "How To Reach All Kids", and my share of "discipline gurus" who promote their books and CDs along with their performance in front of teachers.  It is, in fact, a rather sad joke among many veteran teachers that many of the new programs they're subjected to at current in-service training program were, in fact, presented years earlier under different names.

And, w
hy is it that our nation has to be number one in every endeavor?  What’s wrong with being number two or three or four?  Why is it that many of the countries who have scored far better then US kids in many venues are now adapting their curriculums to be more in alignment with ours?  Might if be because in addition to teaching the academic subjects we also try to help each student develop skills in other areas as well, including athletics, music, social interaction, and the like.

owever, this broad approach to education will change if teachers are pressured to teach only to the test which initiatives like "Race to the Top" are likely to do.  If teachers performance in the classrooms is judged solely on the performance of their students on standardized tests, we may well be doomed.

2010, Rick Fowler.
Rick Fowler teaches high-school English in Michigan.  He has also been a varsity football, basketball, and cross-country coach during his tenure as a teacher.

The Irascible Professor comments: Rick's observations are shared by many teachers.  The only point that the IP would add is that fear of reprisal by itself often causes teachers to avoid giving a failing grade to students in their classes.


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