Monday, May 17, 2010

IT’S ELEMENTARY: EDUCATION IS WHAT TEACHERS TEACH

“The generation now entering the workforce is less well educated, on average, than the generation about to retire” (The Economist, 12 July, p. 42). For decades, national media, relying on reports or studies (e.g., A Nation at Risk, 1983), have reported that U.S. students are less well educated than their parents, who, in turn, are less well educated than their parents. History knows few instances of prospering nations failing to educate their youth to the level of their adults.

For decades, the U.S. has spent about twice per student what two-dozen other countries with advanced economies have spent. But according to international measures of educational achievement in major academic subjects—language, history, mathematics, science—the U.S. ranks well toward the bottom. In short, the U.S. spends much on labor-intensive public school education and gets little for its tax dollar.

Taken together, two 1963 books suggest explanations: James D. Koerner’s The Miseducation of American Teachers and Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique. Koerner surveyed the literature on intelligence and academic abilities and achievements across majors and professions; education majors and teachers measured near or at the bottom on all measures. Freidan argued that women deserved equality, not least in careers. Until then, intelligent, well-educated women had few suitable career choices: legal secretary, librarian, nurse, or teacher.

Since then, many talented women have entered fields like business, computer science, engineering, journalism, law, mathematics, medicine—good for them—, eschewed the field of education, and thereby reduced its already modest intellectual capital. The effect is most noticeable in elementary school teachers. The decline in their academic qualifications reflects the steady dilution of the pre-college curriculum. Their college majors in educational psychology, child development, or elementary education do not supplement their academic deficiencies; instead, they support their primary commitment to nurturing student emotional and social growth. The increasing academic mediocrity of these teachers matches the declining academic achievement of their students.

Were it not for the growth of teacher unions to protect them, unions might otherwise seem a redundancy. All public school teachers are civil servants, with assured salaries, job rights and security (tenure in fact, if not in law), and health and retirement benefits. Teacher unions represent teachers in negotiating compensation and work conditions. But they abuse power by defending incompetents and dumbing down standards and qualifications for teaching certification. By making public schools union shops closed to those without education degrees or equivalent coursework, unions protect their members from competition from and comparison with those well suited by expertise, experience, and temperament for teaching.

Case in point: teachers of English give bogus reasons—it cannot be taught formally, only in context; it does not improve writing; it stifles creativity—for no longer teaching grammar; the real reason: they do not know it or appreciate that it helps careful reading and enhances precise writing. But a retired copy editor with a degree in English could teach grammar at the elementary school level and show how it works in business or professional writing at the high school level (and teach literature with sensitivity to the language which powers it at any level).

Elementary school teachers help define the curriculum content and structure, and instructional approaches and means to fit their limited academic background and reduce their job demands. They cannot set high standards for their students because they lack what it takes to teach to those standards. Their deficiencies and failures make problems for middle and high school teachers, who cannot set high standards because their students come to them undereducated, thus unable to meet them. Teachers’ decisions define the decline of academic performance.

By now, some readers will be in high dudgeon and will urge the standard defenses and excuses—bad parents, bad students, and low salaries. But we should first ponder three questions. One, given college training which they believe indispensable, why are elementary school teachers unable to adapt effective strategies to educate their students? Two, given nationwide academic decline, why are teachers incapable of admitting their part in it and accepting responsibility for it? Three, why do teachers not criticize themselves, identify and address their inadequacies, and offer plausible remedies?

Because the transmission of knowledge and skills from teacher to student is central to teaching, elementary school teachers are the first to start the cumulative process of transmission. They must teach the information and skills which students must master if they are to learn in middle and high schools. If they are not well enough educated to do the job, they must get re-educated, by “professional development” or self-study.

The most important skill is reading. If elementary school teachers, with or without help from reading specialists, fail to teach reading—not just word recognition, but text comprehension—by the end of fourth grade, then they have failed to teach the most important skill for continued learning. For those unable to read well thereafter will have almost irremediable difficulties with all academic subjects. Bad behavior and poor attendance in response to frustration or failure are not surprising consequences. Much of the fault rests with those teachers who, knowing too little, expect and teach too little.

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