Education has been in the cross hairs for decades, though perhaps not in such a polarized way as in the last ten years. The post-Sputnik government report A Nation at Risk, turned a fierce light on public education in the U.S., and particularly on STEM education. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math; the core components of what many, particularly in the governance and businesses worlds, believe are central to our continued success as a nation. In fact, a more recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations did a rehash of that 1983 study, declaring that we’re still pretty much screwed as a country because our schools are “broken.”
I want to preface by saying that, even as a teacher, I understand that education needs to change. However, there are a few broad misconceptions that people have, and a few misplaced solutions, for how to address the need for change in education.
Many in the education reform movement target teachers as the source of the weakness in the system. Truthfully, I know some weak teachers. Most of us do. However, I know twenty times as many strong teachers as weak, and despite poor professional support, mediocre pay, and the vilification of their profession by the broader public, they continue to do the work. The job is tough, and that’s why teachers tend to wash out in their first five years. In the state where I teach, Nebraska, the mode for teachers working in education is one year.
Yes, teachers preparation can be reformed and improved, but saying that only the best people should be recruited to teaching is attacking a symptom before you’ve cured the disease. Make teaching a respected and healthy profession. Stop attacking what benefits teachers are able to count on (pension, health insurance) by cutting budgets. Show some respect to the profession that has had, arguably, a more significant impact upon our social and economic welfare compared than any other. When the teaching profession becomes a widely respected and valued profession, you will see the most able individuals entering into it of their own accord.
Furthermore, simply being intelligent and “having” the information does not make you a good teacher. Take some of the most brilliant minds in finance, physics, or mathematics and their students’ test scores will be atrocious. Why? Because having the information is just as important as knowing how to reach a kid. It’s no longer enough to simply deliver it, you have to prod, cajole, intimidate, intellectualize, humor, and ultimately motivate kids into the learning. That requires empathy, work ethic and Ghandi-like reserves of patience.
Finally, a school is no longer just a school. It is a social service; providing meals, behavioral support, guidance, speech pathology, technological and information resource assistance, and a social mandate to equalize one of the most unequal societies in our country in the last 100 years. Yet budgets are cut, teaching continues to be demonized, and public education treated as a kind of venture capital whipping boy. Amidst all of this, teachers, administrators, and education professionals must figure out how to adequately train and educate children for jobs that don’t even exist yet; for a future that will be more radically different when they graduate than when they entered Kindergarten than any generation that is currently making the decisions.