Assault on Public Education

February 17, 2010

I spent 37 years of my life "in the trenches" and would be the first to admit that there are problems in public education.  However, assaults from people who have never set foot in a public school classroom, and probably wouldn't last two days if they did, are infuriating to me.  I worked in a suburban high school for 31 of these 37 years and, though we had problems, my situation paled in comparison with reports I heard from teachers who worked  in the intercity schools.  I spent four years in the early 70s substitute teaching and one semester fulltime in  intercity schools.   There were a couple of schools that I refused to go back to because of the problems I faced there.  Yet, many dedicated teachers have spent years in these situations.  I would say that it is a rare case where the teacher is to blame for the lack of progress of the students. When changes in public education are discussed, rarely do the "experts" consult the people who are on the front lines every day.

Public education is the bedrock of our democracy.  The United States is unique among the countries of the world in our attempt to educate every student.   In most countries, it is only the top tier of students (maybe 20% or less) who are offered twelve years of free academic education.   Yet, our average test scores which include the 100% are compared with the top 20% from these countries.   There are studies that show that the top 20% of US students compare quite favorably with those of other advanced countries such as Germany, Japan, China, and India.  

In the film series Two Million Minutes , Robert A. Compton criticizes United States public education but draws the comparisons with students from small private schools where they have a rigorious selection process for admission.   Yet, our public schools have to take everybody.  He puts blame on teachers and vilifies Schools of Education and Teacher's organizations.  His answer is what is portrayed by these private, selective schools in the US, China, and India.  Yes, our private schools who only take the top students could compare favorably but what happens to the rest of the students who can't qualify for these schools? 

He touts that American students don't go into scientific fields while those from China and India do.  He makes a point that when American companies are looking for people in scientific fields, they go to other countries.  However, both of these countries are only educating their elite students and it is my opinon that the major motivation of American corporations is that people in these countries will work for lower wages than Americans will--not that there are no Americans capable of these jobs

At the HASTI conference recently, we met many dedicated science teachers who are working everyday to advance science education in our schools--some against overwhelming odds.  Teachers don't just work an 8-hour-day.  Most of the school day is spent with students but then there is preparation, paper grading, and extra activites beyond that.  They have to work the number of hours it takes to get the job done--not just those for which they are officially paid.   Summers are often spent
taking additional courses to keep their licenses as well as second jobs to supplement their income.  

I started my teaching career in 1962 at a salary of $4,300 and finished in 2005 at about $70,000.  In Indiana a teacher with 18 years of experience makes twice what a beginning teacher does.  After 18 years, there are no automatic raises per year for experience.  My salary was probably one of the highest in the district because I had a masters degree, the maximum credit hours above the masters degree for which extra pay was given, as a guidance counselor I was paid for three weeks more than teachers were, and I taught summer school for 20 years which added to my total  salary.   So, most teachers, especially the younger ones with families were paid much less than I was and usually worked summer jobs to supplement their incomes. 

Without the bargaining power of Indiana State Teachers Association and the National Education Association , teacher salaries would not have increased over the years as they did.  There is much criticism of "teacher's unions."  However, most any profession that is not represented by some kind of union or professional organization is still in the lower pay brackets.  ISTA and NEA are also the strongest lobbies for advances in education that benefit students. 

I will have to admit that the education courses that I took in undergraduate and graduate school were basically worthless as far as any practicality in the classroom.  However, from my contact with student teachers and younger teachers going into the profession there seems to be improvement.  No one can learn how to manage a classroom and teach in a public school by sitting in classes listening to professors--many of whom are the poorest teachers and could not survive in a public school classroom.   It has to be "on-the-job" training and the newer teacher preparation programs seem to be requiring more actual classroom observations and experiences than I ever had.   Much of teaching, especially in a public school, is somewhat of an art and depends on personality and ability to relate to students.  I found that even the most unruly student would "come around" when there was time to establish a personal rapport with them.

I plan to write some future blogs on the subject of public education and explore more of the assaults being levied against it by people with various motivations as well as propose some ideas to make public education better.  The future of our country depends on it.