Listen, My Children...

Every Little Helps

Monday, September 01, 2003

On Teachers

Something is obviously wrong in our schools. Students are going through school and coming out illiterate; teachers complain of drug and sex problems in classrooms; many bright children with potential are, despite the President's programs, being left behind.

Bob was telling me a few days ago how he sees a reduction in class size as the solution to most of the problems. Rush Limbaugh is arguing for increased teacher salaries today. The Houston Chronicle a while back said that stricter teacher hiring standards would be the way to go. Another popular solution is more tax money directed to school districts. While all of those are nice, none will fix the problem alone.

Smaller class size can be helpful in some areas. If a teacher has twelve misbehaving, undisciplined children, it's a lot easier than having thirty such children. Additionally, for the same reason I love being in tiny academic departments, there is more opportunity for one-on-one attention, attention which can really make a difference. Legally mandated small class sizes, however, can do more harm than good. Teachers are forced to give passing grades to students who have not made any progress whatsoever, because, if they hold the students back, their class size will be over the limit. Further classes end up with a larger and larger gap between students who are making the grade and students who are being passed through to keep class size down (or being passed along to keep the school's statistics up). Especially in districts where teachers are told to teach at the level of the slower students (to help self-esteem or what have you), this situation is highly detrimental to overall academic achievement. Comparative studies, in fact, show very little difference between districts with small class sizes and those with larger classes.

One other drawback to reducing class sizes is that it necessitates more teachers. Simply put: if you have sixty students, and classes can have twenty students, you need three teachers; if classes are limited at fifteen students, you need four teachers. There are teacher shortages all over the place, so simply hiring more teachers (ceteris paribus) is not feasible.

Why is it so difficult to find more teachers? Many quite qualified people who would otherwise be teachers are in other professions because they need a higher income than a teacher's salary provides. I quite agree that public school teachers ought to be paid more -- not purely because they work hard and deserve more money, but also because a higher salary would induce more people to apply for jobs.

Many teachers have spouses with higher-paying jobs. When the spouse is relocated to another state (or sometimes even another part of the same state), the teacher often must take a year-long teacher certification course, a course the teacher has already taken in the previous location. These teachers frequently find it easier to take off time, spend it at home with the kids, or find another line of work -- often teaching at more tolerant private schools -- especially if they find it likely that their spouse will be moved again in the next few years. That restriction is counterproductive and should be dropped (while I know that there are differences between school districts, a simple examination or brief training session could pick out which teachers are capable of making the transition without a new certification).

There are also many students who apply to Teach For America; large numbers of those students are rejected. Why? They may not be qualified (a Harvard graduate with a Sanskrit degree is much less useful than a Houston Community College graduate with a Spanish or Early Childhood Education degree). Many schools do not like taking in TFA teachers, as they have no teaching experience, often burn out quickly, and rarely stay beyond their two years, so have minimal lasting impact.

What about inept teachers? Stricter hiring standards for teachers are extremely necessary. Public schoolteachers -- and superintendents -- are failing basic literacy tests. Something like one in four Houston Independent School District teachers are teaching subjects in which they have no university-level training (yes, I am aware that that number sounds higher than it really is -- a first-grade math teacher needs no college math to tell people how to add -- but this number does also include high school teachers; unfortunately, the report with that figure did not break it up by age level). Teachers should be adequately trained and sufficiently educated themselves. But there is a drawback here as well: stricter hiring standards mean fewer of the applicants can be accepted as teachers, and we are stuck with the teacher shortage. Back to higher teacher salaries to counteract that, then.

And what of higher school funding? Useless. Yes, yes, there are schools where teachers are buying pencils and paper for their students out of their own pockets because the students can't afford them and the district either can't or won't provide them. Obviously, there does need to be enough school funding that textbooks and school supplies are available for students who cannot afford them. But huge government grants for all sorts of fabulous doo-dads to enrich learning experiences (which one must not restrict to pencil-and-paper classroom lessons)? They don't do much good. DC and NYC have quite high funding per student and they do quite poorly. We have hugely more funding per student today than we did fifty years ago and students do much worse. Obviously, school funding does not help students to learn more. OK, OK, field trips to all sorts of places may help students learn about crayon factories (just watch Mr. Rogers!) or conservation or whatnot, but I'm talking about mathematics, grammar, traditional science, history, and so forth.

There are several programs already in place that I believe to be much better than smaller class sizes or more school funding (not teacher salaries, school funding). One program in Houston goes around giving lower school students eye exams and providing them with glasses. Several students just can't see the blackboard, so they can't read what's on it, so the teachers and their classmates tell them they're stupid, so they goof off and misbehave and drag their classmates down with them. Friends working with this program say they have seen huge improvements in student behavior and performance when the students can finally see what's on the board and realize they're capable of learning after all. It sounds ridiculous, but it's remarkably simple and seems to work.

Another program, one my family is quite involved in, is Character Education. In many schools, students have not been brought up in involved families and have had no positive role models at all. They have never been taught basic manners or how to behave. Teachers are punished for calling down students or sending them to the principal. Students physically and verbally assault teachers and teachers cannot defend themselves for fear of a lawsuit. Joshua Kaplowitz's well-circulated article is simply a well-written and elaborate version of the story I hear from many teachers disgusted with the the district-enforced lack of discipline in their schools. Character Education and several similar programs attempt to teach students the merits of respecting their teachers and each other; they teach both teachers and students the importance of trying to merit respect themselves -- and of respecting themselves by treating themselves well; they try to improve students' self-image not by approving everything they do, right or wrong, but by pushing them to do what is right and telling them they can do what is right. These programs get yelled at by New England liberals for promoting old-fashioned "morality" (CE is not a religious program but does hold that certain things are right and wrong), for promoting cooperation over individualism, and for teaching children to obey authority figures rather than fighting against them -- what higher praise could a program have? Such programs work better when they start at the youngest age of schoolchildren, but even high schools have been turned around in just a few years. Violence drops precipitously while performance soars. This without shrinking class size, having expensive field trips or state-of-the-art technology, or changing teacher salaries or hiring practices.

Even the most talented teacher cannot teach a class of students who do not want to learn and who are taught by the example of their parents, their peers, and their life experiences that they do not have to do anything they do not want to. Smaller classes, fancy ornaments, and well-educated and -paid teachers are all good things but are all useless without the right environment.

Parents are another problem, and I believe parents should be held accountable for their children's behavior. Low-income parents should be paid to attend parenting classes and should be given financial incentives to be involved in their children's education. Houston has programs where parents under 21 are paid (minimum wage, but that's better than nothing) to go to classes teaching them how to care for their infants; the eventual economic benefit of such programs makes them worthwhile. There are occasional proposals to extend these programs both in number and to older children. There is hope for the future, if only parents can be involved in their children's life, children can be brought up correctly, and we make it possible to pick talented teachers.


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