Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Blasphemous Truth

OK. I'm going to say it. No one else will, so I'll have to. Here we go:

There's absolutely nothing fundamentally wrong with education in the USA.

I know. This is like telling a child that there is no Santa Claus. They've believed it for so long and with such conviction that the realization that, hey...maybe mom and dad did put those presents under the tree after all...seems shocking. But it's true.

This is not to say that the education world is perfect. There are many things that need to be fixed. But the fundamentals are all in place. The system works, and it always has worked. More importantly, it will continue to work unless we let the education deformers destroy it.

I've known this truth since I first began teaching. In my first year, I had a top class, three general ed classes, and one bottom class (this was back in the days of tracking). And what happened was predictable. Despite my many shortcomings, my top students did great, my middle kids stayed in the middle, and the bottom class stayed right where they began--at the bottom. And had I been a great teacher, which I most certainly was not, the results probably would have been roughly the same. Oh sure, a better teacher probably would have moved a few kids more quickly up the ladder, but the blasphemous truth is that we have always had a top tier of students, a middle tier, and a bottom tier.

The myth that a good teacher is the single greatest factor in a student's education is pure nonsense. Naturally, having a lousy teacher is a detriment, but most teachers are far from lousy. The lousy ones tend not to make it past the first few years--either that, or they improve.

The meme of the "great teacher" has its origins in the worlds of literature and entertainment. From Blackboard Jungle to Stand and Deliver, the media has inundated us with the idea that great teachers can change lives. Don't get me wrong--sometimes we do change lives. But not every day. And not with every student. For the most part, we do our jobs, educating children as best we can, and we hit the occasional home run. But sometimes we strike out. And sometimes we bloop one into center field that looks like a line drive in the boxscore. Even Babe Ruth struck out almost twice as often as he homered.

Despite all the rhetoric and all the changes to what is taught and how it is taught, there is one truth that Klein and all the other ed deformers can't explain away: The results of all their tinkering with the education system have amounted to a big fat zero. NAEP scores in New York--the one test that the state can't dumb down--have flatlined over the last decade. Klein and his crew--along with all the other saviors of education across the country--have not caused scores to budge an inch. Not one inch.

One can reasonably assert that Joel Klein and his ilk have made education worse. After eight years at the helm, with constant test prep, increased periods of ELA and math, and the dreaded 37.5 minutes added to the day, students are doing no better than when Klein began. If anything should have made scores go up, teaching to the test should have done it. But it didn't. It hasn't done it in eight years, and all the charter schools, quality reviews, and micromanagement in the world won't change that in the future, either.

Because of The Truth. We have kids at the top, in the middle, and at the bottom. We always have, and we always will have. If we devoted all our energies to teaching every child the piano, we'd have a few Mozarts, a bunch of kids who can play reasonably well, and some who mangle Chopsticks after ten years of study. Public education has produced both presidents and dropouts, lawyers and laggards. 'Twas ever thus.

As Americans, we see other nations flourishing, and their education systems competing with ours. We see this as our failing, but the reality is that other countries are simply catching up to where we have been for years...we are not falling behind. We've led the race for so long that we're unfamiliar with the feeling of the hot breath on our necks as other countries chase us down.

Some may call this a nihilistic view; I call it reality. If we dropped all the gimmicks and instead focused on teaching children what they need to know to the best of our (and their) ability, we might just see some real improvement. It will never be as it used to be, when America had a great education system and everyone else stank on ice. And it will never again be like those glorious days when we all believed in Santa Claus and Mr. Chips. But the American education system can be great once again, as soon as we stop looking for Mr. GoodTeacher and get down the business of giving our kids the same solid fundamental education that we all received. Then, we can let them soar.

If you feel the need to throw stones as me, please do it in the comments section.


Pissedoffteacher said...

you've said what I have been sying for years, thanks!

ed notes online said...

A much needed statement.

West Coast Teacher said...

Your comments are also supported by reams of columns and books written by the late, great Gerald Bracey, with the stats to go with them.
May he rest in peace...
And may you keep on keepin' on!

Muriel said...

Not only do I wholeheartedly agree, but I will add what I tell students: that it also takes hard work and effort if you really have a motivating goal in mind. Whether the goal is more immediate or in the future,the problem is that this golden "digital age" is an age of immediate response and instant gratification, so acheiving a goal in the near or distant future is, for some, difficult to forsee. I'd love to discuss the use of gimmicks over the years, but they've distracted enough people who appear unknowing, even amongst educators, over the years. We've spent more time on them than these empty "programs" that are just gimmicks deserve.

Anonymous said...

talk about gimmicks, we have kids in the 8th grade still counting on their fingers and getting it wrong.

NYC Educator said...

You've really put your finger on the heart of the matter here. A great piece that ought to get wider attention.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Mr. AT!

Let's take what you said, which is nothing else but the TRUTH, and send it to every idiotic ed reformer in the nation.

Let's tell them to let teachers teach!

To Anon 7:47 a.m.
I have 11th graders who cannot, cannot multiply of a 2-digit number a 2-digit without a calculator. And yes, they, too, use their fingers!

ed notes online said...

While I agree with the essence of this post, I also think that saying that "There's absolutely nothing fundamentally wrong with education in the USA" is a problem. For certain children there has always been something wrong and that needs to be addressed.

Anonymous said...


I hear your concern, but I think the overall picture of the school system with respect to Public schools is what Mr. AT said.

We do a damn good job with all the challenges that teachers must contend with on a daily basis. Should there be improvements, of course, but not to the point where the educraps want to overhaul the entire system. I liken the educraps to someone who has an excellent, used car but get's a flat tire. Because the driver can't get the original tire decides to dump the car and get another modest used car that will have the same problem or may malfunction completely. Those are the educraps that are currently ruining the public schools across the nation.

Our school system is not perfect and I dare someone to say that their running a "perfect" school, but we should repair the minor problems instead of junking a good machine. We need fundings to keep the school machine running well!

Anonymous said...

This post is one major part of what's wrong with education today. Bigger than Klein, bigger than Bloomberg, bigger than Eli Broad and Sam Walton (dead or alive, I think he's dead).

The problem is low expectations.

The other problem is lack of vision and direction, of course - and that's on BloomKlein, etc.

But we have a very clear and persistent achievement gap in this country. The only way that public education in our country has worked so far is to exacerbate the social gaps with which kids enter school, so the rich get richer and the poor...go to jail.

OTE admin said...

So let's see...if you don't "make it" past the first few years, you are a "lousy" teacher? You need a big clue about how school district politics work. I was thrown out after three years of public school teaching because of a district's screw up, and then they had to resort to illegal tactics to "win" a rigged hearing. It happens all the time. Lots of "good" teachers don't make it because of principal/administrator abuse of teachers and teachers being thrown out because of budgetary reasons. Just because your number hasn't come up doesn't mean it won't. And the trends in public education means YOUR day is coming. "Tenure" isn't job security, you know.

Mr. Talk said...

Norm...while I agree that there are things that can be done to improve education, the most worrisome problems are societal ones that school can not address, at least not with any real degree of effectiveness.

Anon 5:38--I'd say much the same to you. The achievement gap is mostly a societal problem, not an problem of education. If we ever begin to address those societal issues, the achievement gap will close. But in my view, education alone won't trump the poverty, crime, and other issues that plague minority neighborhoods

Susan--I believe you misread what I said. I am fully aware that there are bad admins out there who go after good teachers. In fact, this blog was started as a way for me to share my own difficulties working in the NYC DOE.