How did we get to a place in this country where our teaching force of than three million professionals (elementary and high school) is being made the scapegoat for all the mistakes and ills of an educational system that has been in decline for more than five decades?
The scapegoat, as any good teacher of literature will teach their tenth graders, is an age-old historical device that has been used by political leaders, religious figures and novelists as a convenient device to shift blame and derision in times of crisis.
In 21st century America, we are alarmed each year when we learn that countries around the world are passing us easily in the left lane on the global education highway. Our elected leaders, many of whom have not set foot in a classroom in decades, reshuffle the deck chairs on the Titanic by closing down “failing schools” and insist that we “test” children more, weed out “bad” teachers and then all will be solved, like a Euclidean equation that has eluded mathematicians for decades.
However, then when things don’t improve, they look for excuses and continue their misguided attempts to measure progress of students and teachers by allowing testing companies to make millions of dollars to administer ineffective tests that tell us that our kids are falling further and further behind their peers in other countries.
It is an old truism that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and each time expecting a different result. Our education system, led by elected leaders who should try teaching five classes of 35 kids each for just one week, is, unfortunately, “insane.” There are some “cures” for this insanity. Yet, like medicine, we need to properly diagnose the ills of the patient before we can prescribe the proper remedies.
Firstly, our children are not being stimulated from an early age and many lose interest in learning by the time they are in elementary school. We think that the “one size fits all” public education system, an industrial model designed in the mid-1900s, should work in this post-information and digital age. This is clearly wrong and we must now design curriculums that set every child’s mind “on fire,” even if it means using digital technology much more in the classroom, incorporate online learning, animation and vocational training for those who are not traditional academic learners.
The most important function of learning, is to find something that excites each student and makes them feel successful. This is step number one in making our children “lifelong learners.” Along these lines, we need to attract, train and retain teachers who can inspire and motivate students. As prominent education historian Diane Ravitch wrote in her book, The Death and Life of the American Education System, it was her third grade teacher who inspired her, but who may not have scored high on “value added” evaluation systems we now administer in New York City.
Teachers are probably the most valuable commodity this country has and yet we spend so little to train them properly and retain them. A little-known National Education Association report a few years ago highlighted the shortcomings of teacher training in America and prescribed numerous ways to remedy this national crisis.
Training teachers is not a one week series of seminars before their first days in the classroom. It’s not a theoretical class in one of our educational graduate programs. It means at least one year of vigorous apprenticeship before entering the classroom as a lead teacher and then a 5-10 year series of mentoring programs that are conducted by “master teachers” or “mentors,” two new tiers of teaching that I would recommend to remedy our teacher training and retaining crisis (50 percent of American teachers leave the profession in their first five years).
There is another intangible issue necessary to lift our country out of our downward spiral: R-E-S-P-E-C-T for teachers and the teaching profession.
We need to emulate Finland and Singapore and other education systems that are working: attract the top quartile from colleges graduating classes to teach in public schools, pay them well, train them continuously AND give them an exalted place in society. They need tax breaks and housing subsidies or stipends, bonuses for “master teachers” and “mentors.”
Furthermore, give teachers and students great working environments and facilities; rebuild our schools and ensure they have broadband and great auditoriums, gymnasiums, science labs and technology centers. Use public real estate – the land that exists beneath and above our current public schools – and wisely trade it for new schools with public-minded developers who want to do well while doing good.
The path to education victory is not as simple as A-B-C. It’s also not as hard as the Pythagorian Theorem. It just takes a paradigm shift for our elected leaders to stop searching for scapegoats and start acting like real superheroes.
Our kids – this generation and the next one – can’t wait any longer. We need the fierce urgency of now to stop the educational insanity which plagues our society. However first, we must put our teachers and students first – ahead of politicians and the testing industry.
Tom Allon is a Liberal and Democratic candidate for Mayor of New York City in 2013. He is a former public school English teacher who has helped create two successful public high schools in New York.