Uneducated Educators

Every attempt to upgrade the quality of education in America has failed because the members of the K-12 public education establishment—Federal, state and local educrats; school of education professors; teacher union officials; superintendents; principals, administrators and teachers — are for the most part too poorly educated themselves to know what a real education is.

Particularly egregious are the educational deficiencies elementary school teachers. As much as 60% of the typical school-of-education curriculum for elementary education majors consists mainly of crowd-control courses. Further diluting their education is the option of meeting core academic requirements with watered-down courses designed especially for them, like how to teach math to first-graders, instead of the real math.

Ask elementary school teachers why they chose to major in education rather than earn a standard B.A. or B.S. degree, and most will confess that they dreaded the math requirement. Thus it is not surprising that later, as teachers, they invariably project their fears onto their students by making math sound so dreadfully boring and difficult that they tend to sugarcoat the subject beyond recognition. The main reason why so many American high school students have trouble mastering Algebra is not so much their Algebra teachers are inept, though more than a few are, but because their teachers back in elementary school failed to teach them the fundamentals of arithmetic. And much the same holds true with science, language skills and social studies.

So given the entrenched shortcomings of the public education establishment, there is no reason to assume that Barack’s Obama’s proposed Race to the Top program to improve the quality of K-12 will work any better than George Bush’s No Child Behind, Eisenhower’s National Defense Education Ace or any such other government plan. Try as you might, you cannot get seeds to germinate in unfertile soil.

Yet something must be done, and fast, for it is clear that without a well-educated labor force, this country cannot hope to compete successfully in today’s global economy. Many scientists and engineers employed in the U.S and half of students in those fields enrolled in U.S. universities at present come from foreign countries where a solid state-supported K-12 education is top priority. But we cannot expect this brain-drain to continue indefinitely. Some of those highly-skilled professionals and university graduates will settle permanently in the U.S., but just as many are likely to return to their home countries once economic and social conditions there improve, and when their universities catch up with ours, there will no need to for their students to come to the U.S. to complete their education.

Free market advocates--the late Milton Friedman, for one--have suggested that privatizing K-12 public schools and forcing them to compete with one another would compel them to provide their charges with an optimum education in order to stay in business. This free market approach might work if education were a tangible, easily measured product like, say, houses or automobiles. But success or failure in education takes years to asses. It would not show up in quarterly balance sheets. Much like national defense and law enforcement, education is one of those intangible social institutions that doesn’t lend itself to the "invisible hand" of capitalism.

And, rewarding good teachers with promotions and higher salaries, wouldn’t work either, because, by the same token, it would takes years for a teacher’s competence or lack thereof to manifest itself. Seemingly boring, plodding teachers may turn out to be better educators than perky ones who keep their classes entertained. Nor can end-of-year standardized test scores be relied upon to measure long-range progress. So what to do? Two suggestions for starters:
One, dismantle the entire K-12 public education establishment, from the U.S. Department of Education, (which Ronald Reagan had promised to do but never got around to it), to university school-of-education departments, to local school bureaucracies. Some members of the Libertarian Cato Institute have already made a similar recommendations. State governors of New Jersey, Colorado, Nevada, Mississippi and California, among others, have, in effect, started the dismantling process by drastically cutting the fat off their K-12 education budget.
Two, require that teachers earn legitimate undergraduate degrees from duly accredited colleges and universities. Some new hires, no doubt, will turn out to be poor educators. But those who do make the grade will, at least, have the intellectual heft to do right by their students. The nuts and bolts of classroom management they can quickly, intuitively learn on the job and from informal consultation with colleagues.

That done, other corrective measures will present themselves as the need for them arise.

Limit Specialization. Rather than solve problems as they arise, the usual practice in public education is to create specialists to deal with the problem. For example, if students are having trouble learning to read, a degree or certificate in "Reading," properly couched in the latest sociological jargon, is created, Classroom teachers then send their poor readers to the reading specialist, and though the students, predictably, come back as illiterate as ever, school officials, when pressed for an explanation, will argue that by implementing the program, scientifically proven to work over time, they are doing all they can to help those students. So al in all, the only ones who benefit from the reading program are the School of Education professors who concocted the program, classroom teacher who are spared the burden of working with underachievers, and, most of all, the reading specialist, whose class ratios are small, usually one-to-one, a cushy job, to say the least. Moreover, the specialists have no incentive to solve the problems, for if they did, they would be out of a job And the same holds true for math, Special Ed, Conflict Resolution, Diversity Counseling, Bilingual Ed and ESL specialists. (As I can attest from my personal experience as a 14-year-old Cuban immigrant, foreign students naturally pick up English from their American peers, not from ESL specialists.)
Eliminate superintendents and school boards. Public school superintendents typically are outsiders who bungle things in the district where they served, and then move on to do the same in a new district, usually in a distant part the country, where their record is not well known. In their first year in office, they tend to make all sorts of superficial changes—transferring teachers and principals from one school to another, rehashing old programs, issuing gilded press releases, holding public meeting, etc.—and by the time it becomes evident, four years or so later, that these changes were no more effective, or even worse, than those made by their failed predecessors, they resign and move on to their next job.
As for school boards members, too many tend to be aspiring politicians who use the board as a means of launching a career into higher office. Many mayors, state congresspersons, and governors started out serving on school boards. Others board members are in it for personal gain, like a building contractor in our district who has made a sizable fortune remodeling schools that needed not remodeling. Superintendents and school boards may have at one time served a useful purpose, but no more. The taxpayer money spend on them is largely wasted. Their traditionally job—approving the hiring of new teachers and staff, reporting to the city council, keeping the public informed, promoting fund-raising events—could easily be done by a revolving ad hoc committee of principals and teachers, at no extra cost to the taxpayers, provide, course, that the principals and teachers are well-educated professionals educators--which takes us back to the recommendation that the entire public education establishment must first be dismantled. Teacher unions and government officials beholden to them will, of course, raise a big howl, as they are wont to do when challenged do, but they must be told in no uncertain terms that their howling is no longer convincing.

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