We don’t have to wait for Superman to save our public schools. We can save our schools ourselves. Right now. Without firing the teachers or disbanding their unions. Without creating more standardized tests. Without pitting schools against each other in a race for dollars which should rightfully be divided equally among the school-age children of this country.
As with many complex problems, the answer is a simple one -- so simple that it is overlooked.
The answer can be stated in seven words that even a child could understand: Train teachers well -- then let them teach.
The problem with public schools isn’t lack of parental support or computers or equipment. It isn’t an overabundance of television or junk food or violence. Those things contribute to the problem.
No argument. And money is helpful. But throughout the world, there always have been students who learned to think and read and write with very limited supplies, sometimes without a classroom or textbooks, without standardized tests, without merit pay for their teachers. Those students learned because their teachers were permitted to teach.
Most American teachers are good at their jobs -- when they are allowed to do their jobs. And that is the primary problem with our public schools. Teachers are not allowed to teach.
Or rather, they are told how to teach in such great detail and required to document what they are teaching in such great detail and expected to spend so much time teaching students to pass the tests that will prove the teachers have paid such great attention to detail that the teachers don’t have time to teach the information and skills their students need.
Money isn’t the answer.
Teachers appreciate being well-paid, but most of them don’t enter the profession for the money and that is another reason why so many people misunderstand the situation. Many people work for their paychecks.
Of course, teachers appreciate being paid for their work, but most of us are willing to work for far less than we could earn elsewhere because we are passionate about the work we do. We know how important it is to educate the next generation of Americans. We don’t work for paychecks -- we work for pupils. Paying us more will make us happier but it won’t make us better teachers.
Better training and preparation make us better teachers. Objective observation and helpful feedback make us better teachers. Mentoring and staff development and sharing best practices make us better teachers.
Mediocre teachers don’t need to be fired. They need to be observed and mentored and properly trained. They need to be supported by administrators and peers and parents. They need the opportunity to watch excellent teachers in action. They need to be given the time and the tools to become good teachers -- and then if they still can’t or won’t do the job, it’s time to say goodbye.
Firing bad teachers is expensive, and firing teachers doesn’t solve the problem. The solution, again, is simple: The colleges and universities who prepare mediocre teachers, and the state licensing bureaus who license those mediocre teachers, need to be held accountable.
It is their job to train and evaluate teachers so that when those teachers are licensed and hired, they are prepared to do their jobs well. Teacher training programs and licensing bureaus need to establish and uphold high professional standards. Which brings us to the final piece of the problem puzzle.
Teachers aren’t treated or viewed as professionals by their fellow Americans, most of whom believe that because they once attended school, they are now qualified to teach school and to tell teachers how to do their jobs. Very probably, those same people have flown in airplanes, undergone surgery, or paid somebody to prepare their tax forms. Yet they don’t feel entitled to provide instruction to their pilots, doctors and accountants.
Licensed American teachers hold earned bachelor’s degrees in either a secondary content area or in elementary, childhood or special education. In addition, they have completed between two and four years of postgraduate study, including an internship or field experience comparable to the internships of medical doctors where they learn how to do their jobs under the guidance of experienced mentors .
After completing their academic programs, teachers undergo criminal background checks and apply for licensure, at their own expense. They spend days taking hundreds of dollars worth of tests -- again at their own expense -- to prove that they have the basic skills (math, science, reading, and writing) and the content knowledge (English, social studies, visual arts, mathematics, and so on), and the pedagogical expertise (zone of proximal development, designing assessment rubrics, differentiating instruction, engaging the amygdala) required to do their jobs.
Don’t know what the zone of proximal development is or how to identify it? Don’t know how to design an assessment rubric or how to differentiate instruction effectively? Haven’t got a clue how to grab the attention of an adolescent amygdala?
Then you probably aren’t a teacher.