A commentary on an Op-Ed in the New York Times by Joe Nocera, “How to Fix the Schools,” 18 September 2012.
Joe Nocero’s post in the New York Times today points out that the reason the Chicago schools won’t be helped by the teacher’s union strike that began this week is that both the teacher’s union and Rahm Emanuel are both focusing on the wrong issues. He quotes Marc Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) that has research comparing the American educational system with those of other countries and comparing successful with poor performing systems. As quoted by Nocero, Tucker points to poor education of teachers as the problem. Teacher education programs stress neither how to teach nor mastery of subject matter.
The Problem is Not Teacher Education
The education of teachers is truly horrible but why? When I was at the University of Illinois in the mid-1960s, the new dean of the school of education wrote an article for the student newspaper pointing out how bad the School of Education was and it landed on the front page of the newspaper. Embarrassing for the students, but they knew it was well. A fellow student who was required to take 12 hours of education courses took a course on visual aids for the classroom because she was a biology student and visual aids were very important. The course consisted entirely of designing bulletin boards to depict the major holidays. Four bulletin boards for 3 credits. Graduate credits. A 500-level course. This was before today’s highly developed visual aids technology but still they could have done better than bulletin boards unrelated to subject matter.
This was in the 1960s. This problem has long been understood and attempts to correct it legendary. It can’t be THE problem. Otherwise it would have been corrected.
The education of teachers is still a problem. Low standards are a problem. Lack of understanding of what is required to teach is a problem. But attempting to fix these will fix education.
If Hospitals Were Run Like Schools
The problem is how schools and school systems are organized. They are autocratic bureaucracies run by people who never set a foot in a classroom—well, maybe one or two but not for very long. They use an ineffective outdated governance system that was designed by Ford to produce identical cars on an assembly line staffed with people trained not to make decisions. It would not be advocated by any school of management in any of the colleges that have failed to educate teachers well.
Consider what the medical profession would be like if public hospitals were managed the way schools are. All purchases and procedures would be determined by a hospital board of members of the general public—usually well-meaning wives of rich men, with a token community leader thrown in. For their own family, board members use private hospitals so they have no personal experience with public hospitals. The janitorial staff would not be hired or managed by or accountable to the individual hospital. The hospital staff would have no control over cleanliness. Instruments would be purchased centrally and dispensed to the nursing staff who may never have seen them before and have to learn how to use them a few hours before they enter surgery. The same hours in which they have to set up the surgery to be sure they have an operating table and clean sheets. Education on drugs and surgical implants would come from the manufacturers.
Representatives of medical supply and drug companies would make their pitches to hospital board, not to doctors or nurses. The board might have medical consultants but they would make the final decisions based on budget and public pressure. Since their husbands or they themselves are most likely to be in business, they would make their judgements by analyzing which products come from impressive businesses, not on the quality of their educational content about which they know nothing except what the publishers tell them. Since board members represent only one socio-economic class, they decide what medical care is “good enough” other people, people who cannot afford private hospitals.
How long would it take for the most qualified and dedicated students to stop applying to medical and nursing schools? How long before medical schools lowered their standards because schools are expected to do the best they can to educate the students they actually have as well as possible. How long would hospitals resist hiring poorly educated and qualified doctors when they have patients standing in line with life threatening illnesses who at least need minimal care?
If hospitals were run the way the schools are, they would be equally unsuccessful.
How to Fix the Schools
We can fix the schools by fixing the school system. The current system, just like the medical profession under the same conditions, prevents teachers from doing their best. It also allows them not to do their best. Millions of teachers are excellent and do a fabulous job, just as doctors and nurses would do. But they do it in spite of the system, not because of it. It is not only human energy, financial resources, and the futures of children that are wasted. Millions of teachers are wasted as well. They lower their own standards because it is easier to go along than to fight. Easier to do the best then can than to try to change the system at the same time they are trying to cope with 43 children in a classroom designed for 23. If they have a classroom; they may be teaching in a hallway.
Teaching and learning require the same dedication that it takes to be or to become a lawyer or a doctor. It requires the same supports that are provided to teachers, doctors, and lawyers in the private sector.
Just like the legal system and the medical system, schools systems are an opportunity to correct the problems of society—poor nutrition, inability to speak English, unstable homes, poor preparation for employment, etc.—and are our only means to create a democratic society. One in which everyone, to the extent that they are capable, can live freely and equally.
Education can only happen with teachers and students in the classroom working together. Neither unions, nor principals, nor school boards, can be in charge of education. We need to turn the system upside down so teachers and students receive the materials and support they need.