Friday, June 15, 2007

Memo to Diane Ravitch: It's Not Just Students, Parents, and the Culture to Blame for School Failure

Dr. Diane Ravitch, former Assistant Secretary of Education, current professor at New York University, and fellow of both the Brookings Institution and the Hoover Institution, has written an op-ed piece for the New York Sun entitled "Don't Blame the Teachers". In it, she blames the dismal state of public education in the United States on students, parents, school administrators, politicians, and popular culture - basically everybody involved except for teachers. She writes:
"Next time there is a conference about the state of American education — or the problems found in each and every school district — why don't we take a hard look at why so many of our students are slackers? Why don't we look at the popular culture and its effects on students' readiness to apply themselves to learning? Why don't we investigate the influence of the role models of "success" that surround our children in the press? Why don't we ask how often our children see models of success who are doctors, nurses, educators, scientists, engineers, and others who enable our society to function and who contribute to our common good?"
I certainly agree with Dr. Ravitch that these are serious problems that do contribute to school failure. A recurring theme of this blog is my frustration with the anti-intellectualism so prevalent in American culture. She's also correct in her criticisms of student apathy, lack of parental support of and involvement in their children's education, administrators and politicians who micromanage teachers, and so on. They all play a role in school failure and we as a society need to address them.

However, Dr. Ravitch glosses over the very real problem of teacher incompetency in many schools. Most teachers are indeed "
hardworking, earnest, and deeply committed to their students" as Dr. Ravitch points out but all their good intentions come to nothing if they are poorly trained, dumb, or both. Certainly not all, but sadly too many in this country.

According to the recently released report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, the average SAT score of a new K-12 teacher in this country places him/her in the bottom third of college graduates. That is the lowest average test score of any professional occupation. The National Survey of America's College Students (NSACS) found that education majors had the lowest average prose and quantitative literacy scores of all majors studied. When Massachusetts started requiring prospective teachers to first pass an exam testing 10th grade English and Math in 1998, an astonishing 59% flunked. While it's true that one does not need to be a rocket scientist to be an effective teacher, these statistics are downright shameful!

Even teachers who are bright can lack competence due to poor training. My sister-in-law is a public school math teacher and she told me that the coursework for her B.Ed was a complete joke. Her high school classes were harder! I looked into the requirements for a M.A.T. at a local state college and of the 12 classes, only 1 was on subject-specific methods. The rest were edubabble with names such as "Multicultural foundations of a diverse classroom" and other such nonsense. Yes, classrooms today are diverse (particularly here in California) but devoting a full course to the topic? Can't multiculturalism simply be incorporated into training on subject matter such as literature or history?

Doctors and lawyers seeking a license have to complete rigorous graduate-level coursework and pass a very challenging exam to prove basic competence. Shouldn't teachers have to do the same?

If we as a society want to fix our schools, it's not enough just to address the problems of student & parent apathy and the anti-intellectualism of our pop culture. We also need to totally revamp how we select and train teachers. Teachers aren't the only ones at fault, but the incompetence of many of them does play a significant role in school failure.


Mom not Mum said...

I was a middle school language arts teacher before I decided to be a sahm. I once turned down a job offer because the offer was on my answering machine before I even made it home from the interview. I knew that meant they were desperate and I refused to work for a school that would hire just any warm body. Unfortunately there are plenty of those schools and those warm bodies.

Candlestring said...

I assume you've read John Gatto. I think we should also blame the system, as in the entire artificial environment of age segregation and time restrictions, etc.

Good blog, btw. I think you make some good points in your various posts.

Mom not Mum said...

Oops, posted this on the wrong thread - should go with the one above. I'll figure it out sooner or later.