Saturday, July 18, 2009

“Education... From Cradle Through a Career”

I appreciate that the President talks so often about the importance of education, most recently at the Centennial of the NAACP.

All of us can agree that we need to offer every child in this country -- every child --
...every child in this country the best education the world has to offer from cradle through a career.

No argument there. The debate centers around how to do it while still allowing competing interests to perpetuate and prosper. There are reasons society has settled for the current education system. One other thing we can agree on is the value of excellent teachers.
the job of a teacher is too important for us to accept anything less than the best. 

It may surprise you to learn that many, maybe most, school districts have a pernicious policy of rejecting the best school teachers. If a teacher moves from one community to another, that teacher has become what is called an “out-of-district” teacher. These teachers are proven successes with demonstrated competence and experience. They face a good chance of being rejected when they apply for teaching position in their new district. Most districts have a policy of rejecting applicants with more than around five years of teaching experience. And even if they hire the applicant, they will start the teacher on the pay scale at no higher than the five-year-experience level.

If America adopts nothing else from the Japanese education system, America needs, NEEDS, to adopt the idea that teachers are among the most esteemed members of society and teaching is among the most prestigious of professions, a profession capable of attracting our best students.

We need to walk back from the increasingly prevalent idea in American society that teachers are mere technicians. The Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) recently held a conference. One of the workshop presenters, Susan Ohanian, addressed the trend toward making teachers technicians. From a description of her workshop:

19. Teacher Professionalism At Risk
Presenter: Susan Ohanian
Teacher professionalism is at risk, under bombardment by Democratic and Republican corporate-politicos. When a teacher becomes a technician whose existence is dependent on directives from the State, then the very term 'teacher professionalism' becomes an oxymoron. This jeopardizes alternative schools as well as public schools. We are all At Risk.
What Ms. Ohanian is referring to is the increasing desire of schools to have their teachers become “facilitators” who manage computer-based courses, or deliver prepackaged curriculum. Schools have begun making teachers into technicians as a way to overcome the problem with teacher quality. Every teacher hates these scripted packages precisely because using them infringes on teacher autonomy and professionalism. Schools feel they have no choice. Schools feel that entrusting teachers (autonomy) is too risky because too many teachers lack quality (professionalism). Allowing the trend toward teachers as technician to continue will only debilitate our education system further by making what some believe to be true to become really true, that anyone can be a teacher.
Any parent is witness to the learning power of a babies and toddlers. Another thing we can agree on is that the earliest years are the foundational years.
And we should raise the bar when it comes to early learning programs.  It's not enough just to have a babysitter.  We need our young people stimulated and engaged and involved. .. some (early learning programs) are wasting what studies show are by far a child's most formative years.

But we cannot rely on the government. Nor should we.

Government programs alone won't get our children to the Promised Land.  We need a new mind set, a new set of attitudes -- because one of the most durable and destructive legacies of discrimination is the way we've internalized a sense of limitation; how so many in our community have come to expect so little from the world and from themselves.

That's a description of one mindset. I encountered that mindset in the person of a junior high boy at an urban school. He was in my science class. I was constantly encouraging students to use education as the way out of the ghetto. This boy said, “Why bother? My father is a janitor and that's all I'll ever get to be.”

But there's another mindset he did not mention, a competing mindset no less debilitating. That is the mindset of entitlement manifested by students who believe that do not need an education, their future as members of a privileged group is assured, school is for meeting friends, playing around, and messing with the teacher if possible. They think they are rich, but do not perceive their poverty.

The key to students with a positive attitude towards school is parents.

You can't just contract out parenting.  For our kids to excel, we have to accept our responsibility to help them learn...  And by the way, it means we need to be there for our neighbor's sons and daughters... That's the meaning of community.

With the support of parents, children can aspire to their potential.

It also means pushing our children to set their sights a little bit higher... I want them aspiring to be scientists and engineers -- (applause) -- doctors and teachers -- (applause) -- not just ballers and rappers.  I want them aspiring to be a Supreme Court Justice.  (Applause.)  I want them aspiring to be the President of the United States of America.  (Applause.)

America needs an attitude makeover. Society needs to to respect and esteem teachers. The colleges of education need to turn out teachers worthy of esteem and respect. Many disruptive students yearn to have a teacher who is worthy of their respect. Oftentimes their disruption is a search for someone, please, someone to earn that respect. Schools need to pay teachers a salary befitting a professional. Once the esteem of society is the norm, colleges of education will have no difficulty attracting a full cohort of the the best and the brightest.

kids are smarter than we give them credit for

Kids are smarter than we give them credit for. In America, we really do not believe in our children. By an interesting turn of circumstances, I once found myself teaching high school biology, and also, high school chemistry to a multi-age group of students from second grade through high school. I found the youngest children could responsibly handle the equipment, record data, and discuss the implications of their data as well as the oldest students. Where the older students excelled was in writing the lab report. The children loved learning biology and chemistry. It was fun, challenging and built real self-esteem, not the specious self-esteem so common in schools.

At the conclusion of his speech, the President waxed poetic:

One hundred years from now,
on the 200th anniversary of the NAACP,
let it be said that this generation did its part;
that we too ran the race;

that full of the faith that our dark past has taught us,
full of the hope that the present has brought us,
we faced, in our own lives and all across this nation,
the rising sun of a new day begun.

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