The Problems Posed By To Kill A Mockingbird

Recent media reports regarding efforts by a school district in Biloxi, Mississippi to drop To Kill A Mockingbird from their curriculum have generated understandable concern. As schools continue to grapple with both disorienting societal changes and increasing political polarization, we are inevitably going to see more challenges to specific classroom content and practices, which should concern any professional educator. Anger rarely results in good policy decisions.

Our societal discord certainly connects to broader questions regarding what we expect of our K-12 schools. That fine line between education and indoctrination will be ever more difficult to discern as educators struggle to find ways to challenge students to think without falling into the trap of preaching to them. However, given the well-documented deficiencies in critical thinking skills that colleges and employers must grapple with today, it is more important than ever to encourage our K-12 schools to shake students from their easy assumptions and comfortable mental inertia. The question is, of course, how best to do this.

I’ve taught To Kill A Mockingbird to high school students in the past, and they were often shocked to read about the routine degradations inherent in the entrenched racial discrimination of our nation’s history. If nothing else, the novel served as a lesson that allowed us to ladder into discussions about what has—and still has not—changed in America today. It has been many years since I’ve had the opportunity to teach this particular novel, but I suspect that my classroom lessons and activities regarding To Kill A Mockingbird would need to be very different now because I would be compelled to address uncomfortable changes in our perceptions of the characters and their motivations.

The cartoonish delineation between the heroes and villains in To Kill A Mockingbird has always posed pedagogical problems, although it eases reading comprehension for an audience often composed of 8th or 9th graders. On the one side we have the Ewell family, who are a caricature of what we expect—and perhaps prefer—our racists to be, an ignorant and violent clan devoid of even an iota of decency or honesty. Facing off against them, we have Atticus Finch, a caring and compassionate lawyer and tragic widower raising two intelligent and inquisitive children who are miraculously free of the least taint of racism. Caught in the middle we have Tom Robinson, falsely accused of rape by the evil Ewells, and the very personification of stoic dignity in the face of injustice. There are no shades of gray among these main characters; there are only, if I may be forgiven this analogy, broad strokes of black and white.

To Kill A Mockingbird, were it to be published today, would likely face a somewhat more mixed critical reception. Aunt Alexandra’s desperate efforts to put a gloss of girlishness on the tomboyish Scout would likely be more harshly judged by contemporary feminist critics. Mr. Dolphus Raymond’s sexual relationships with African-American women would raise questions regarding power differentials and consent. Boo Radley’s peculiar interest in his prepubescent neighbors, which obviously includes covertly observing them and following them outside the house at night, might not be so wondrously free of any question of pedophilia—or at least “stranger danger”—in today’s less innocent world. It may well be that the year of the novel’s publication back in the mists of 1960 was the very last moment in our cultural and social history when the questions and answers seemed quite obvious and easy, so complexity and nuance could be blithely set aside in the pursuit of an uplifting fable.

I’ve always been a bit leery of joining in the chorus of hosannas regarding To Kill A Mockingbird, and perhaps this is because I have always found Atticus Finch a bit less than admirable—which I realize is near to sacrilege to some. Although he has the best possible intentions in the worst possible situation, Atticus Finch and his legal machinations, in a final and flinty-eyed analysis of outcomes, actually come to nothing. Tom Robinson is dead, no minds are changed, and the Jim Crow system that informs the actions of the town and its people is wholly unaffected.

Atticus Finch’s attitudes and actions are in many respects a foreshadowing of the well-meaning (but ultimately ineffectual) white liberals in the 1960’s whose best intentions would be overrun by the flame and fury that finally destroyed Jim Crow segregation and its many local permutations. Although the novel suggests that readers should derive some cosmic satisfaction from the death of the thoroughly despicable Bob Ewell, which also allowed Boo Radley to finally reveal his essential human decency (although it might be reasonably observed that manslaughter is a mighty odd plot device to get there), it would be impossible to argue the trial of Tom Robinson produced any significant changes in the town or its people.

Of course, all of this speaks to the many moral compromises that inform the book. The worst of the town of Maycomb and its racist attitudes is on display, but the best of the many small but significant accommodations the decent need to make each day to survive in an indecent world also bear our examination. It could be argued, if one really was looking for hope for a better future, that the most moral course of action Atticus Finch could have pursued would have been to refuse to represent Tom Robinson, thereby removing the thin veneer of respectability that placates those whose mute compliance is needed. Imagine how different the novel would have been if Judge Taylor had not been able to use Atticus’ stirring but pointless speech to soothe the consciences of those who knew just how profound an injustice was being done. Moral but meaningless victories serve the needs of tyrannies that need to smooth over the rawness of oppression, and we should not fail to recognize that Atticus’ carefully restrained outrage sounded lovely but changed nothing at all.

All of this is, of course, beside the point of why the novel is now often banned. The norms that now rule in many communities judge the politically incorrect—but historically accurate—usage of the “N-Word” as both insult and casual descriptor to be too much to bear in our sensitive school and social climates. This is understandable, but it also opens up opportunities for classroom discussion of the novel and its context. If we are going to crusade to excise every questionable bit of U.S. history from our schools instead of engaging in the conversation, research, and exploration of our past that is a core mission of education, we condemn our children to facile sloganeering instead of intelligent and well-rounded inquiry that will prepare them for a future where the answers will be neither obvious nor easy.

Perhaps the key to continuing to use To Kill A Mockingbird in our nation’s classroom is to gently remove it from its pedestal and recognize its limitations—just as acknowledging our own human limitations is the precursor to a better understanding of our world and ourselves. To Kill A Mockingbird is not a perfect novel, and the tiresome insistence on canonizing it impedes an honest engagement with what can be learned from a thoughtful and critical reading. Just as a person can be wonderful but flawed, so can a book fall into that same category. If we can accept this, perhaps we can finally move forward instead of squabbling without end, which ultimately does nothing to improve the education of our children.

 

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Education Blues

Listening to people discuss the state of public education in America today often reminds me of that old story of three blind men describing an elephant. One is holding an ear, another is holding a leg, and the last is holding the tail. Therefore, each has an entirely different idea of the elephant based on his limited “reality”.

Such is the case with so many of our assessments of public education today, and the realities described by all concerned many times boil down to naked economic and political self-interests that skew “reality” in one direction or another—and all are blind in their own wonderful ways.

Teachers and administrators working within traditional public schools see K-12 systems that are struggling against a tidal wave of societal dysfunction and doing a great job against all odds. This constituency both hates and discounts the dismal data provided by standardized testing, and they see test advocates as dupes and conspirators in a right-wing plot to defund public schools, destroy democracy, and turn our children onto compliant drones incapable of thinking of anything beyond the narrow interests of their cruel corporate and political masters Anything that even smells like an educational standard is immediately suspect because it might crush a child’s individuality and unique preciousness—and prompt unwelcome questions about academic outcomes. These individuals and their interest groups believe those who seek to highlight deficient educational results are simply partisan and wrong, and their pointed negativity also, by the way, might screw with a lot of paychecks—so cut it out!

Those outside of traditional public schools—particularly those pushing for charter schools and school vouchers—cannot believe that anyone would want to continue to pour money into public school systems that, if the numbers are to be believed, each year graduate vast numbers of young adults who can barely read, write, or perform the most basic arithmetic. They see public schools as entrenched and ossified failure factories that rob taxpayers today while producing generation after generation of illiterates who are fodder for tomorrow’s food stamp, public housing, and Medicaid programs—all of which will help to bankrupt our cities, states, and nation in the decades to come. To ignore problems with our public schools is, as far as they are concerned, a form of slow societal suicide. Give us your money, they shout, and we can definitely do a much better job educating your children than your local public schools.

As for the union bosses, think tank experts, education professors, and politicians lining up on one side or another, they are easy to both understand—and ignore. Their “expertise” is wholly a function of whatever will advance their careers. Whether they are sniffing for money, tenure, or votes, their motivations are obvious, deeply compromised, and unworthy of serious consideration—unless you are particularly partial to circular logic and pretentious posturing. If all of them were never heard from again, it would make not a bit of difference to intelligent discussions about improving the educations of our children.

Three blind men…

Those who advocate for spending more money on public schools are sometimes correct that targeted dollars can help our children, but they fail to account for a pervasive tendency to pencil whip students through the grades regardless whether actual learning has taken place, and their refusal to confront systemic academic shortcomings identified by standardized testing cripples their credibility.

Opponents of charter schools and vouchers are correct that sometimes these don’t work as well as expected, and they typically shirk any responsibility for educating children with special needs, but one simple fact cannot be denied: growing numbers of students who have escaped from traditional public schools are now succeeding in college at far higher rates than those left behind.

Politicians and education “experts” are sometimes correct that what is educationally preferable might not always be possible, but their default settings of blaming families and society for all that ails our public schools neatly avoids any discussion of the roles teachers, administrators, and staff all play and in gaming the numbers to both mask deficiencies and keep their funding flowing.

Given the countless economic and social advantages inherent in our nation, it is simply unbelievable that we stand firmly astride the lower-middle tier of nations in terms of our educational achievement, and it is a perverse tribute to the peculiar power of low expectations, active deception, and willful blindness that so many parents are still content to each day send their children public schools that will rob them of their futures while frittering away mommy and daddy’s tax dollars.

In the final analysis, the only policies that have any hope of helping each child reach their potential are those that give maximum power to parents and the least possible power to education bureaucrats, many of whom have built their careers on that most well-worn of governmental activities—spinning bad news into good. However, the feverish buffing and shining of academic outcome data that range from the mediocre to the disastrous is now unable to conceal that sad fact that we are saddled with a nation full of public schools that many times manage to combine the highest possible costs with the weakest possible results.

What should we do? The only way forward is simple yet revolutionary: partner with the schools and not the systems. I know that the systems currently control the schools and act as gatekeepers, but to the greatest extent possible parents and concerned citizens must find ways to bypass and—if at all possible—ignore those who preoccupy themselves with “adminis-trivia”, battle against any changes that might threaten their sinecures, and refuse to recognize the legitimate educational needs of students because to do so might allow for frightening honesty regarding the shortcomings of our public schools.

This is a tall order that is going to create stress for all concerned, but some discomfort might be exactly what is needed at the moment. Pursuing reforms within the parameters of what will keep the educational bureaucracies happy has produced decade upon decade of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. For all the sound and fury surrounding the many widely-touted reforms to our public schools, shockingly little as actually changed—which is just what one expects when a broken system is asked to fix itself.

The revolution will, as all must, come from below—communities, parents, and students who are tired of being ignored, shortchanged, and shunted aside so that the paychecks can keep flowing to those who are screwing over so many of our children. Stop waiting for politicians and bureaucrats to change the future; they have not yet and never will. Unless those in the trenches are willing to march, boycott, and agitate, the brick walls of bureaucratic obfuscation and impenetrable jargon will continue to serve as obstacles to improving our children’s education—and “school choice” programs are the key to real changes.

Providing parents with the power to control where their child goes to school—public, private, or parochial—is truly the only viable way to ensure that progress is actually made because a system where the money follows the student will compel changes that are never going to happen as long as we stick to funding formulas where the student follows the money. As much as many dislike and distrust President Trump and Secretary of Education DeVos, their push for expanded school vouchers might be our best—and perhaps last—hope for rescuing our children from public schools that promise much, provide little, and push back against any common sense notions of accountability. Watching the frenzied efforts in Washington to bury school choice, a single question should rise in the minds of anyone who cares about our children and our nation: What are they so afraid of?

Any educational reform that fails to maximize parental power over the shape and content of each child’s education has no hope of succeeding. I realize that parents can sometimes be pushy and are occasionally unreasonable, and it is certainly true that we cannot ever allow a loud clique of parents to hold sway over any school because we run the risk of privileging the few at the expense of the needs of the many. However, the changes that are needed in our public schools will not come from above because too many have vested economic and political interests in the dysfunctional status quo—and decade upon decade of failed reforms have amply demonstrated the futility of trying to “work within the system”. It’s just like gambling in Vegas; in the long run the “house” will always win.

Now is the time for our children to win, and this is long overdue….

Why Do Many College Students Fail To Succeed?

A significant component of the conversation surrounding higher education these days has to do with improving student success—particularly for those college students who start off in remedial/developmental courses in Reading, Writing, and Math. Those who have not closely followed the disturbing trends regarding the completion of bachelor’s degrees on America’s ivied campuses over the last couple of decades might be surprised at where we are now, according to the National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education:

The 6-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time undergraduate students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year degree-granting institution in fall 2009 was 59 percent. That is, 59 percent had completed a bachelor’s degree by 2015 at the same institution where they started in 2009. The 6-year graduation rate was 59 percent at public institutions, 66 percent at private nonprofit institutions, and 23 percent at private for-profit institutions. The 6-year graduation rate was 62 percent for females and 56 percent for males; it was higher for females than for males at both public (61 vs. 55 percent) and private nonprofit institutions (68 vs. 62 percent). However, at private for-profit institutions, males had a higher 6-year graduation rate than females (24 vs. 22 percent).” [See “Note” at bottom of this post for explanation of school types.]

Six-year graduation rates for first-time, full-time students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree in fall 2009 varied according to institutional selectivity. In particular, 6-year graduation rates were highest at institutions that were the most selective (i.e., had the lowest admissions acceptance rates) and were lowest at institutions that were the least selective (i.e., had open admissions policies). For example, at 4-year institutions with open admissions policies, 32 percent of students completed a bachelor’s degree within 6 years. At 4-year institutions where the acceptance rate was less than 25 percent of applicants, the 6-year graduation rate was 88 percent.

It should perhaps not be a surprise that 6 year graduation rates, which seems to be the new American standard for completing a 4 year degree, vary so dramatically based solely upon the selectivity of an institution. Indeed, some argue that the overall poor college completion numbers in the United States are simply a function of more and more students seeking college degrees, so we should not be concerned. This is merely, the thinking goes, Darwinian academic selection at work.

However, the fly in the ointment is fairly easy to discern: An educational system that excels at educating only the brightest is failing the vast majority of America’s college students. Fixes that have been proposed or enacted to address problems with college completion rates range from more structured programs of study to increases in financial aid to campus mentoring programs—all of which have the potential to help some students after they arrive on campus but fail to address the underlying causes of their academic distress, our chronically underperforming K-12 public schools, which hobble our nation’s students in three key areas:

Poor Work Habits

After years in pokey and desultory high school classes, many students simply do not understand what will be required when they step foot on a college campus for the first time. They mistakenly presume classroom instruction and assignments will continue to slow down to meet their needs and are shocked college instructors will insist academically-deficient students work extra hard to reach college level proficiency—immediately, if not sooner.

Moreover, given that so much of the work in college must be completed outside the classroom because of the limited time available—a class may meet for only a couple of hours each week—the now-fashionable dismissal of homework as a hopelessly antediluvian educational artifact means that many high school graduates will be thrown into a situation where they are wholly unprepared to succeed, one where well-developed and disciplined study habits are an absolute necessity for academic success.

Weak Academic Preparation

Where does one begin? The problems that our nation’s public schools have with teaching and learning are so well-documented by now that they scarcely bear repeating. Of course, many affluent parents continue to comfort themselves by loudly insisting that their children’s public schools—all shiny and new—are doing a great job, but nothing could many times be further from the truth. The fact of the matter, according to a recent study by Education Reform Now, is that 1 in 4 college students will require remedial coursework—and 45% of these students will come from upper-income and middle-income households. Half of these students placing into remedial classes will start in our nation’s community colleges, but the other half will be enrolled in four-year undergraduate programs. Nonetheless, you will find no shortage of individuals and groups loudly proclaiming that America’s public schools are doing a heck of a job.

Denial: It’s not just a river in Egypt.

Lack Of Proper Time Management

This third problem is inextricably linked to the first two. Because they often fail to understand the amount of work they will be required to complete outside of their weekly class meetings—and are often academically unprepared besides—many students are sunk before they even start because they overbook themselves. Not understanding that a full course load is a full-time job in and of itself, students get crushed beneath their other commitments—jobs, children, family, friends, and recreation—and realize too late that there are only a certain number of hours in the week.

In addition, unlike high school classes, where deadlines are often extremely flexible or simply non-existent, college professors take a unsurprisingly flinty view of vacations booked mid-semester and tales of woe regarding the modern equivalent of “the dog ate my homework”, the lost flash drive. Although it might not seem so seen through the lens of popular culture, college is just like a job, and the “supervisors” expect punctuality and performance. I still find it amazing that so many students think nothing of being chronically tardy or absent and routinely fail to turn in their assignments on time—yet they believe their professors are being completely unreasonable if they give a poor grade.

Of course, more in-depth advisement when registering for classes might be a great help to some, but it is often difficult to convince students that college requires a lot of diligent work when they have little experience with anything beyond the dull reality today’s high school: show up when you can, hang out and pay little attention, turn in something you whipped together at the last minute, get a check mark for effort, advance to the next grade level whether you’ve learned anything or not, and eventually receive your diploma.

Ultimately, one question that many college freshman and their parents should be asking is this:

Why do so many public schools give young adults diplomas if they haven’t learned anything?

I wish I had a good answer for that….

 

Note: Public colleges and universities are those that operate with state supervision and support, and institution names—the University of Illinois, for example—are a clear indication of their nature. Private non-profit colleges and universities—what we typically imagine when we think of a college or university—operate with private funding (tuition, fees, endowments, donations, etc.), and their tax-exempt status allows more spending on students and research. Private for-profit colleges and universities are operated by private companies, often focus on career and technical programs—and are accountable to private shareholders who expect a return on their investment.

Raining In Our Hearts

You Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll
Deliver me from the days of old
Long live, Rock and Roll
The beat of the drum is loud and bold
Rock, rock, Rock and Roll
The feeling is there body and soul….
School Days by Chuck Berry

I have found myself recently taking a deep dive back into the filmed musical performances of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s and marveling at just what an amazing explosion of raw musical talent drove rock and roll in its earliest years. Moreover, the sheer energy with which these young men and women performed is an almost textbook example of the type of innocent exuberance we associate with those years—after we put on our rose-colored glasses.

Of course, we know those years were no more innocent than any other time in our history. Problems still existed behind those bright eyes and bouncy melodies. However, even knowing what we know today, listening to the opening riffs of Johnny B. Goode or Surfin’ U.S.A. will bring a smile to our faces, and we can still hear the joy those artists felt as they reached inside themselves to find new ways to reach us.

How very long ago that all seems….

Today we are perhaps a shade too jaded for our own good. Too self-aware. Too ironic. Too prematurely weary of life. More than once I’ve realized just how impossible it is too suggest that someone’s motives might be pure without being judged to be hopelessly naive.

Part of this problem is basic: many people in our society are damaged—and we have no one to blame but ourselves. Our cultural encouragement for addictions (take your pick!), sybaritic self-indulgence, and a lack of personal responsibility has destroyed more lives than The Black Plague. This has now dragged generation upon generation through horrific family dysfunction and breakdown, which has produced generations of teenagers whose default settings run the gamut from hot rage to cold disappointment. We sadly seem to now excel at producing prematurely burnt-out young men and women, which is not a prescription for a healthy and happy nation.

This all hit home for me some years ago when I was teaching Romeo and Juliet to a group of 9th graders. Aside from the obvious difficulty with working through history and language with which they were not at all familiar, another problem presented itself when we reached the scene with Juliet on the balcony and the love-struck Romeo in the garden below.

The reactions of my students—particularly the girls—to Romeo’s words of love and utter worship were both stark and harsh: Beware! I was, I will admit, a bit taken aback at first by the bitter worldliness and smug assurance of some of their comments:

“Oh, he’s just trying to get in her pants.”
“She’s an idiot if she believes that.”
“He’s got some moves!”
“All guys say stuff like than when they’re wanting some!”
“Just how stupid is this girl?”

The beauty of The Bard’s words of love were lost on these high school students, and I attempted to understand just why I was hearing these responses. I will always remember the chilling reality check that class period provided.

Many of the children in that classroom—and they were all children despite their all-too-mature understandings of human weakness and failure—were the products of home lives that, to be charitable, just plain sucked. Most had parents who were divorced or who had never married. Many had fathers who were largely absent. Some had mothers who were M.I.A. Others had bounced through foster care. A few had direct experiences with police officers or social workers entering their homes because of fights and abuse—and arrests had sometimes followed. “Home Sweet Home” they were not.

It was a litany of horrors until the bell rang, and I had to come back the next day and try to explain that, although it could perhaps be argued that Romeo and Juliet’s love was unhealthfully obsessive in the way that young love sometimes tends to be, it would be a mistake to presume that their emotions were anything other than genuine. If my students were willing to suspend some little portion of their stunning disbelief about the possibility of genuine love between two people, the play might be both intriguing and instructive.

I am not certain how effective of a Shakespeare salesman I actually was, but we made it through the play. Whether I managed to wear down just a little of the rough callous already covering too many of those young hearts, I cannot really say. I shuddered to imagine just how disillusioned and defeated so many of those youngsters would be by the time they hit sixteen. Where were the hopes and dreams that are supposed to be the touchstones of youth?

I wonder sometimes whether we have grown so accustomed to the damage inflicted upon our children that we have grown blind to it. We no longer notice the dreary and depressing—or scary and violent—music and films that fill their days and minds. We perversely celebrate piercing and tattoos as a form of self-expression and empowerment, which they may be for some, instead of recognizing it as simply the more socially acceptable form of “cutting” that it likely is for many. Are the cries resonating across our college campuses for safe spaces and trigger warnings actually desperate pleas for our colleges and universities to substitute for the protective parents that were terribly absent in far too many lives?

Every period in human history has its problems; these problems simply manifest themselves in a manner unique to their time period. Rock and Roll was itself a rebellion against mid-20th century cultural and social norms that many found stifling, and Elvis haunted the nightmares of many parents who were certain their children were going straight to hell in a handbasket. It is certain that every American generation has had its issues and somehow survived them.

However, there is a matter of degree that must be considered. I cannot really see the equivalency between teenagers screeching out their excitement at a Beatles concert and the violent element of the Juggalos exchanging tips for cooking Meth at Insane Clown Posse gatherings. Something has clearly changed, and continuing to blame the pharmaceutical industry, added sugar, Donald Trump, or plastic baby bottles for the skyrocketing diagnoses of depression and anxiety that now are typical among the young—and no longer quite so young—segments of our society is beginning to sound sillier by the day. Cruelty and coarseness now seem baked into virtually every aspect of our daily culture and conversations, and this didn’t happen just because we drank too many cans of Dr. Pepper when we were in middle school.

We often look for easy explanations to complex problems, but perhaps the answer for much that ails our souls and psyches is more obvious than we imagine: we need to address the voids within ourselves in order to begin the hard work of healing our families, communities, and our nation. Although we might desperately wish for some outside semi-parental force to swoop in and rescue us, this is something that we simply must do for ourselves if we want to avoid creating, enabling, or stupidly celebrating more pain in ourselves and others.

So Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll—please

What Can Be Done To Improve Teaching In Our Public Schools?

If you Google the terms “Teacher Shortage” and “Teacher Turnover”, your hits will light up rather forebodingly. Obviously local conditions affect individual districts in a variety of ways, so not all schools or regions are suffering to the same degree. However, there does seem to be a fairly broad-based national problem of recruitment and retention of K-12 teachers that is becoming yet one more problem affecting our public schools.

Talented individuals leave the teaching profession—or avoid it altogether—for a variety of reasons. Poor pay, stress, lack of professional support, workplace dysfunction, administrative micro-management, long hours of bureaucratic busywork, disrespect and abuse from students and their parents, and many other factors have—and will continue to—make it difficult to recruit and retain top quality elementary and secondary educators. Moreover, our current model of training and credentialing teachers is costly and time-consuming, yet it still leaves many graduates lacking the basic pedagogical and student management skills necessary for creating a respectful and successful classroom environment.

I remember my own trip through “teacher education” after I left the advertising business—what an incredible waste of time and money. Although alternative teacher training programs obviously exist, the profession is still is dominated by the traditional model of teacher training and licensing, which—despite its documented shortcomings—persists because it is a cash cow for colleges and universities and creates lots and lots of jobs for local and state education bureaucrats.

The meandering and pointless journey through Ed School coursework that often seems only tangentially related to actual classroom practice also serves as a gigantic disincentive to mid-career entry for those who can bring real world experience to their teaching. This seems an obvious drawback—and it is generally acknowledged to be so—but we still blindly press forward with a model that pushes twenty-two year old young adults who have done nothing much other than sit in a classroom for their entire lives into yet another classroom—where they will now try to educate our children. Doesn’t make much sense, does it?

Even worse, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow no longer seems to be attractive enough to hang onto many who go through the process—as evidenced by the many problems with recruitment and retention. What can be done?

I have a modest proposal…. Four, really.

Close all Colleges of Education.

Why continue to support a system that produces graduates who often don’t turn out to be very good teachers—or who quickly quit the profession altogether because they just can’t cut it? Our schools of “mis-education” are clearly not up to the job, and noodling around the edges with some cosmetic changes after year upon year of study and discussion is just a further waste of time, money, and human capital.

A simpler and more direct system of teacher training and licensure can certainly be devised, but it will run into a brick wall of bureaucratic resistance unless the public is willing to push for change. Obviously, I believe our students and society will benefit if we improve and streamline teacher training, but I fear that the political will—and this is all about politics—to do what is necessary is lacking. As long as one of our two major political parties is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the National Education Association, bold and inventive thinking will certainly be discouraged by many.

Require that all new teachers must have worked in jobs outside of education for five years before they step into a classroom.

Maybe I’m just looking at this all wrong, but I want people in my public schools who have lived some kind of life outside of a classroom before teaching my children. Work in a restaurant. Sell insurance. Join the Army. Presenting our public schools with truckloads of fresh college graduates who more than likely still had their moms doing their laundry the week before they begin teaching for the first time is kind of insane. We need individuals with a little grit under their nails and life experience under their belts so they are better prepared to deal with the challenges that now daily face our K-12 teachers.

License teachers based on proven performance—not college or continuing education credits alone.

Yes, teachers should go to college—and preferably graduate school—to earn degrees in the subject area that they plan to teach (no more “education” majors, please!). In addition, teachers should continue to sharpen their skills with classes and workshops throughout their careers.

However, how cool would it be to unlock the schoolhouse doors and get some real world experience into our nation’s classrooms? What parent wouldn’t be thrilled to have a chemist teaching their child Chemistry, a Physician Assistant teaching anatomy in their local high school, an editor helping their child learn how to write, or a local farmer showing that lucky student the practical aspects of how the business actually works? The possibilities would be endless, but it might obvious endanger an ossified status quo that likes everything just the way it is because it privileges paper credentials over job-proven competence.

Community colleges, for example, make outstanding use of practitioners in their classrooms—which is a great benefit to the students who are there to learn the skills they need to succeed. Recruiting teachers from the workplace is a proven winner at the 2 year college level, so why not extend this strategy to K-12?

If these working professionals can teach at their local public school only part of the day or the year, offer them a prorated salary and don’t waste their valuable time making them hop through a million hoops in order to share their valuable experience—and please don’t assign them to bus duty or lunch supervision. We desperately need more practitioners and fewer pretenders in our classrooms—particularly in our middle and high schools where content knowledge is so important. Assign the brain-dead busywork to minimum wage hires or parent volunteers.

End teacher tenure and pay based on seniority.

I know changing to a free market for teacher hires runs counter to the civil service model that has dominated public education for many, many decades, but it would be a game changer. It would encourage excellence, create desperately needed fluidity in the job market, and incentivize mid-career entrants who could bring job skills and life experience into the classroom. If we start to pay teachers based on their value rather than how many years they’ve sat in a school building—a measure that is typically divorced from actual performance—we can start to address the many problems caused by our highly uncompetitive system.

Can’t find a Math teacher for your district? Hire a local engineer who can show students how mathematics is used in the real world—and has the actual work experience to teach it. Need a Business teacher? Hire a manager at a local manufacturer—and also build a bridge with a local employer that might hire your graduates. Have a truly wonderful Music teacher you want to hold onto? Find a way to adjust their duties so they’ll want to stick around—instead of treating that talented person like just another replaceable cog.

In other words, instead of running public schools like hermetically-sealed vaults, open the doors and innovate. It will be scary as hell for some and drive the “edu-crats” crazy because they will lose control—and perhaps their jobs as well—but the alternative is to continue to sacrifice our children on an altar built out of rulebooks and dusty theories about education that do nothing but ensure that little learning actually happens. Think this isn’t true? Google the “college and career-ready” or “college preparedness” statistics for your local school or entire state and decide for yourself. The actual data can be a real eye-opener.

I think the time for a real education revolution is long overdue—and maybe we are now ready for it!