The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Friday, March 18, 2005

Fixing the school system

Heard a political ad this morning, saying that California's Governator has stolen two billion dollars from the school system ehre, and complaining that this will hurt our children. Nodoubt there is some truth there, and I don't know the specifics, but I thought I'd comment on my own thoughts on how to fix the schools.
1) Clarify goals. I believe that the intent is to produce students who can become productive, voting citizens capable of re-paying society for the gift of their education. Certainly we want more than that, but this must be the bottom line.
2) Find Role Models. Begin to study those schools and teachers who have, consistently, performed above average in accomplishing the above goal. They are doing something different. What is it?
3) Reward good teachers, punish bad ones. And do it financially. Now understand, I am aware that Teacher's Unions hate the idea of pinning salary to performance. They would rather have it pinned to time in grade. Now, any teacher who believes that grades are useless and tests test nothing can take this position with honor. A teacher who is such a free-thinker can be believed when they say that, in their opinion, a teacher's ability cannot be measured with any set of tests or standards, however carefully designed. I might disagree, but I can respect them and consider them honorable. But a teacher who believes in tests and grades for students, who then turns around and says that a teacher's ability cannot be measured, evaluated, and differentially rewarded is, in my opinion, a liar and a coward. THEY ARE AFRAID TO COMPETE, and in my mind, should be driven from the profession--our children deserve better.
4) The top 10% of teachers should be modeled with great care, and programs evolved to allow less capable teachers to utilize the sophisticated models of the better ones. No insult intended here, but in any profession or art or science, some peopple are just better than others, whether due to innate differences, or environment. Allow the leaders, as proven by performance, to show the way. How do you find the best? A telling thing here is that the teachers I'vespoken to about this immediately leap to the "well,teachers in better neighborhoods would be rewarded because their students are better--" this is cowardly stupidity, their minds literally not working. Are they really so uncreative, so ignorant that they don't know that one can create measurements that take socioeconomics into account? That hold a teacher responsible only for relative change of students, so that slow students brought to an "average" standing is seen quite clearly as a greater accomplishment than exceptional students merely getting another A+? Are they really that dim? I think not. I think what we see here is raving fear that they are mediocre, that they cannot compete. I think they are wrong, that there is greater genius within our teachers than they know how to tap, and that if they can't have confidence in themselves, how inthe hell will they instil that confidence in their students? Can't they see that their fear to stand naked and be judged for their ability is the only thing that they really have to convey to their students? If they don't grasp this, we are in deep, deep trouble.
5) We must teach on more than the visual-digital level. This is the dominant representational system of Europe, and it is a damned fine one. But some students(and cultures!) are more kinesthetic, or more auditory. To craft lessons that allow these students to enter into the world of learning through their natural mode is not just a kindness, but a necessity.
6) Keep English as the dominant language system in schools. When non-English speaking students come in, their first job must be to learn the language. To give them special classes in their native tongue may seem to be a kindness, but it is actually setting them on the path to long-term disadvantage in life, and triggering a cultural war that distracts us all from what we are attempting to do--build a society that works for all of us. It takes maybe a year of focused study to become sufficiently fluent in a new language. It's worth the time.
7) Recruit teachers on the basis of passion and excellence. I remember hearing a teacher complaining about the differential between teacher's salaries and those of professional athletes. I hope to God this teacher isn't teaching economics--his self-serving ignorance was staggering. There are maybe 1000 well-paid professional athletes in the entire country. There are MILLIONS of teachers. What we spend on education, as a whole, completely dwarfs what is spent on sports entertainment--but that money is divided among a much smaller pool of people with short careers and no guarantees. If they went into teaching to get rich, and aren't willing to compete for the top dollars, they are nuts. Teachers could get rich if the very best teachers made hundreds of times as much as the worst--the exact same situation that exists in sports. Are they willing? Hell no. Then shut the hell up!

Anyway, that's my two cents. I LOVE teaching. I owe so much to the great teachers I have had--about six of them, over the entirecourse of my public education. And if those six had been rewarded and held up as exemplars, the entiresystem would benifit, and so would the students. The only ones to suffer would be mediocre teachers just putting in their time, afraid to be evaluated for their worth. Andfrankly? I care about the students, not the teachers. Remember the students? THEY'RE the ones the system was created for. Let's take it back.


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