Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

CROSSROADS COMMENT -- Teachers Are Still the Answer

Milton Friedman says:

"The schooling system was in much better shape 50 years ago than it is now."

Ah, the golden age. Way back when. We can all remember those days as if they were yesterday. At least we can remember what we want from those good ol’ days. What we remember, of course, is what best serves as a positive foil to our reading of the bad ol’ present, the world going to hell in a hand basket, etc., etc.. For a moment, please stop being such nostalgic old grumps and/or such conservative ideolgues with an axe to grind.

What was good about public education 50, 60 years ago was the high percentage of exceptional teachers in the primary grades (the deciding years on the education ladder for most students). And it is not beside the point that these exceptional and exceptionally dedicated teachers were 90% women. Professions fully open to women at this time were limited–aside from teaching you could take your pick of professions, as long as that pick was nursing, stewardess, public librarian or secretarial work. Need I tell you these women were the cream of the crop--an underused, untapped human resource.

At this time women had to overcome and/or juggle the obstacles of sex discrimination and the pull of tradition (marriage and family) in order to pursue careers in education. Deciding on a bachelors degree in education and a career as a teacher was a major step across an abyss and through a sexist jungle.

The women who took these steps were amazing–and public schools in general, and Milton Friedman in particular, were rewarded for their courage and perseverance.

Times have changed and after a hard struggle (not yet finished) so have the opportunities for women. Do we still attract and hold the very best women (and men as well) to the teaching profession? Particularly at the primary grade level? If you were one of the best and the brightest starting out in college, what field would be the object of your ambitions? If you chose education, would you envision a career of thirty, forty, fifty years teaching reading in the first and second grades? What would be needed to make this your passionate life career goal? When it was time to add a graduate degree to your bachelors, would you focus on a subject matter degree--math, science, history, literature? Or would the siren call of an “easier” (usually, not always) Masters or EdD in “Educational Administration” be the way to go? And remember, you’re the top student type and one of the best teachers at your school.

Rewards and recognition are as out of whack in the field of education as they are in major corporations. Educational administrative czars don’t come near to matching the out of the ball park and into the yachts salaries CEOs pull down, but the gulf between the big corner office with plenty of support staff, the one that gets redecorated every couple of years, and the dingy classroom in need of basic teaching tools is wide and galling.

More importantly, this all demonstrates again the public’s failure to put their money where it really counts. Note how every public discussion of teacher’s salaries inevitably includes comments about teaching being a “calling,” a profession not to be sullied by a discussion of filthy lucre. “Our teachers are above all of that.” Try that “calling” business on a lawyer, engineer, or MBA and see what kind of reaction you get if you’re trying to hire one of these important professionals–men, and now women, who study hard, and work hard. Men and women just like teachers, except they don’t have the responsibility of educating your children and grandchildren.

I have no assurance or evidence that vouchers or charter schools or faith based initiatives would change any of this. I absolutely know the “magic” of the marketplace and the voodoo fake accountability of “No Child Left Behind” testing of kids into the ground are not the answer.

Every day you can read about this or that business failure, ethical scandal, defrauding of shareholders, or just plain dumb decisions (think American auto manufacturing) that are the doings of high placed pooh-bahs in the private sector. Every day evidence piles up about the failings and flaws of the mind deadening drills that go along with incessant testing–the latest quick cheap fix that will not work, that makes things harder for creative teachers to excel and are a godsend to those teachers who are only timeservers.

Friedman's private sector solutions (sic), the miracle market and the testing establishment stakeholders, may be able to absorb, or even thrive on, these failures. For our children and our country this is not an option.

The problems of education today are complex. But the answer starts with questioning the failures at the top of the administrative pyramid and a lack of support at the base. Smart legislation is needed to deal with the top rungs and the smart use of money, big dollars, is needed at the base–you know, where teachers and students come together every day of the week.

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