Saturday, September 14, 2013


In the 50s, when I was a teenager, my head was in my books, not under the hood.  So what I knew about cars I knew from driving.  In the 80s, soon after I bought a diesel station wagon, it became increasingly sluggish.  I took it to my mechanic, who asked me what the problem was.  I told him and, meaning to be helpful, volunteered that it was probably the result of a clogged carburetor.  My mechanic immediately rejected that diagnosis.  Taken aback, I asked him how he could be so sure so quickly, without even a glance under the hood.  “Mr. Hays,” he drawled, “diesels don’t have carburetors.”

I recall that story when the subject is education and its many ills.  Very few people have any formal education in education or experience teaching in a public school.  But most went to one, and, on that basis, diagnose its problem as a “clogged carburetor.”  Most pick from a long list of parts: students, parents, teachers, principals, district officials, school boards, politicians, and professors in schools of education.  I can prioritize my “auto parts” (in order, too!), but I know that the problem is really all of the above.  Most arguments, debates, or controversies amount to simple disagreements about which parts are most likely or most importantly at fault, with personal stories to support over-generalizations.  Discussions go nowhere, and those concerned about public education, especially parents who worry about their children’s education, are ineffective in articulating what they want of their schools.

Officials equally ignorant or inarticulate in state legislatures and governors’ mansions follow the fashions or fads recommended by the educational Pooh-Bahs in state departments of education and enact one dumb, distracting, and expensive educational “reform” after another.  Implementing Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and associated tests in English and mathematics is projected to cost New Mexico roughly $50 million; in other, richer, and more populous states, the projected costs run over $1 billion.  Whether the implementation of the CCSS curriculums will do any educational, as opposed to commercial, good is highly doubtful; whether the costs will displace opportunities for smarter investments is almost certain.

The latest fashion or fad is the application of “business” practices as best practices for education.  Hypocritically, nothing claimed as a best practice in business is a business practice, certainly not as applied in education.  Ironically, this industrializing of education, with all states, schools, and students in the CCSS curriculum and schedule lock-step, will stifle curiosity and critical thinking, and produce high–school graduates ready for menial career work or mindless college study.  It will not yield a “world-class” education or even a competitive workforce.  By the time the country recovers from this federalized, business-oriented disaster, public education may be beyond recovery.  Who will be able to teach?  Who will want to learn?  (Private opinion: the effects of business-oriented practices on public education are the primary cause of the dramatic increase and high level of Attention Deficit Disorder in K-12 students.  The alternative, non-technical designation is boredom.)

To by-pass the unresolvable disagreements about which component is (most) responsible for the decline in public education, and the hype versus the skepticism about the latest fashion or fad, we should get back to basics.  The first question is a deceptively simple one: what is education?  Articles and books answering this question in many different and interesting ways have proliferated over the centuries.  In general, education is the process or the result of transmitting what society deems important from someone who knows or can do more to someone who knows or can do less.

The implications of this traditional definition are enormous.  Its primary emphasis is on the content of what society wishes to transmit.  Before the Vietnam War, there was a national consensus on that content; after it, that consensus collapsed as the culture wars divided the country into traditionalists and progressives.  This consensus—the literary works to teach or not; the emphasis on American Indians, women, and minorities in American history; the understanding of the Constitution, the Civil War (Northern term) or the War between the States (Southern term), and economics in American history; and the information about astronomical and biological evolution—fractured.  These and other topics like health and sex education, and religion—became contentious.  (I omit the related but less important issues of instructional methods.)  One reason for difficulties in designing curriculums in the humanities and some areas of science are the inevitable controversies which arise.  But the resort to an anodyne treatment of reality or an empty formalism of activities and procedures minimizes or eliminates an important part of education: the transmission of cultural values, including those in conflict.

The secondary emphasis of this definition is on the teacher.  Again, the Vietnam War marks the watershed in the professional attainments and societal status of many teachers.  The truth of the matter is that the teachers as a group of professionals have long been less accomplished than all other groups of professionals by every academic measure.  The disparity is greater today because so many of the best and the brightest who had been confined to a career in K-12 teaching by constraints on women’s career opportunities have been liberated to become professors, lawyers, doctors, architects—you name it.  At the same time, the weakening of the curriculum—its so-called “dumbing down”—affected future teachers as much as others.  As a group of professionals, today’s teachers are even less academically capable and even less well prepared in the subjects which they teach than their predecessors were.  This result is more pronounced in elementary school teachers than in others, with enormous consequences for the preparation of students for middle and high school.  Indeed, one measure of the failure of elementary school teachers is the mediocre proficiency rates of fourth-graders in English and mathematics, rates which remain the same for eighth-graders in those subjects.  Not surprisingly, the dropout rate spikes after eighth grade, as students choose the promise of jobs over the promise of academic frustration or failure.

The definition puts almost no emphasis on the student.  Of course, learning takes work, and only students can do it, though it is not always easy for many reasons quite apart from natural endowments.  Some students come to school ready and expected to learn, from comfortable lives in solid families.  Others come to school because the bus picks them up or their parents drop them off; some arrive hungry, ill-clothed, and abused; or distracted by worries about family coherence, finances, or health.

Much depends on whether all students have teachers who accept and welcome, respect and encourage, them regardless of their backgrounds.  Teachers must teach the way card players play cards: they try to win with the cards which they are dealt; they never win by complaining about the cards which they are not dealt.  Teachers must teach all as they are; they must never use students as excuses.  Much thus depends on whether teachers demonstrate their regard for their students by having competence in, and commitment to, the subject; having self-confidence in their capabilities; and having the conviction that students need to acquire mastery of subject-matter knowledge and skills.  Their message to their students must be clear: we shall not waste your time and effort because what we shall teach you benefits you, not us—a view eroded, if not erased, by evaluating teachers on the basis of student test scores.

Here’s the killer implication: everything else, though important, is peripheral to the teacher-student relationship because everything else exists only to serve and support the transmission of subject-matter information and skills, and much else in terms of human relationships.   No computer-based instruction will inspire students, or counsel or comfort those with problems interfering with their learning—aspects of education which the business-minded simply discount because they are uncountable.  They forget famous words commonly attributed to Einstein: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

This advice flies in the face to today’s trendy business-oriented approach modeling itself on an industrial-age production model, with its stress on lower costs, regularity, efficiency, and product testing.  In its thrall, federal and state government leaders—Obama/Duncan Democrats and Martinez/Skandera Republicans—are trying to replace labor with capital, teachers with technology.  In the meantime, they are trying—CCSS are the first nationwide move in this direction—to reshape teaching into scripted routines standardizing the curriculum and regularizing instruction.  They are also trying to shrink the teaching force by keeping salaries low and flat, and making work conditions abusive and degrading (believe nothing about attracting good teachers).  Although teacher salaries constitute over half of the nation’s education budget, national expenditures on facilities and equipment are disproportionately large and growing larger.  Worse, this business-oriented approach not only emphasizes capital purchases to replace teachers or reduce them to drones, but also uses testing of student “products” to gauge drone performance, and to continually tweak the production line to achieve greater regularity and efficiency.  However, these industrial desiderata have nothing to do with educating students for the variety of careers or courses of college study which they may wish to pursue.  The business-oriented approach prescribes academic straightjacketing for all.

Today’s business-oriented approach to public education is an impending disaster on an unprecedented scale because of federal and widespread state government support.  What is required is not “reform,” but revitalization.  I want quickly to suggest a few common-sense, though hard-headed and perhaps cold-hearted, suggestions toward that end.

Although business management scapegoats teachers’ unions, teachers’ unions have very little responsibility for the decline of public education over the past 40 years or so.  Nevertheless, they must face the realities of the declining quality of teachers, especially in the elementary (K-4) grades.

First, teachers’ unions must take a concerted and constructive role in teacher education and teacher improvement.  They should lobby for reforms in teacher education programs in colleges of education for training prospective teachers and for re-training practicing teachers.  They should insist on higher academic standards for admission and graduation, and courses which prepare them for the curriculums, such as they are, which they will be expected to teach.  Then everyone else should let teachers be teachers.  We should let them, according to character and competence, find their way to teach so students can learn.

Second, far more controversially, teachers’ unions must do what other unions have done—which is to accept a different pay scale for new hires so that districts can attract more highly qualified teachers.  Usually, alternative pay scales for prospective workers are lower ones than those for current workers.  The new pay scale for prospective teachers would be higher—I hope, much higher—than that for current teachers.  This inequality of salary is the only feasible—that is, affordable—way to attract and retain teachers who might otherwise go into more remunerative fields.  The costs of raising all salaries to the same high level would make this effort to upgrade the teaching workforce unaffordable.  And increased salaries for current teachers would do nothing to improve the quality of their teaching—one of my reasons for opposing merit pay for nearly 30 years.  If the present rank-and-file object to an elevated salary scale for this purpose and insist on an equivalent salary scale for themselves, the teachers’ unions would thereby send a clear message that they approve of continued mediocrity.

Revitalization means that everyone understands and accepts the importance of putting curriculums first—and not settling for the mish-mash which the English CCSS imposes—and putting teachers a close second.  It means rejecting or replacing the CCSS.  At least in English, they are so incompetent that they disqualify the “experts” in state departments of education from a dominant role in re-creating an English curriculum of quality.  Revitalization also means that teachers’ unions, despite justifiable concerns for salaries and working conditions at this time, nevertheless accept some responsibility to act more like organizations of professionals with a concern for real academic standards.

Revitalization means that the business community and its federal and state government enablers acknowledge the errors of their educationally sinful ways.  It means that states should adopt the one business practice which they have avoided: you want good people, you offer competitive salaries and benefit packages, and attractive and collegial, not competitive, work environments.  Revitalization means that states must refuse or reverse business practices used in the factories of a by-gone era: low wages, few benefits, and hostile working conditions.  I know to a moral certainty that these business-oriented practices, which are demeaning or punitive—of state-certified professionals, no less—are intended to erode the quality of, and public confidence in, public education.  For these manifest abuses, we can thank business for not sticking to its business.

Finally, revitalization means reverting to a democratic, not an oligarchic, style of governance in public education.  The CCSS reflect precisely what one should expect of a priesthood of federal and state experts entirely out of touch with the public and its interest in public education.  In the long and elaborate process of developing these curriculums in English and mathematics, no governor, no federal or state secretary of education, and no state official or expert in education urged outreach to the public; they deliberately excluded citizen participation.  The only consolation is that the disgrace of the CCSS is entirely theirs.  The only question is whom they will blame when they collapse because of their costs or fail because of their consequences.

A few simple steps to revitalization would be the merging of general and education elections (as effected by amendment of state constitutions), the greater empowerment of local school boards to operate their districts, and the requirement that school board elections be at-large (not by meaningless but gerrymandered districts).  In addition, legislators should find ways to ensure public participation in the process of developing major statewide proposals.  Since education is a social function, in a democratic society, it should be democratic in defining the content of education, and in designing the system for transmitting it.  Education must not be the privileged domain of experts, politicians, or plutocrats; no less than government, it must be of, for, and by the people.


  1. Interesting article Michael. My experience of 23 years as a middle school teacher agrees with much you write. One difference: teacher's unions are for teachers, not students, not parents, not education in general. Only teachers pay dues, therefore, the union should represent teachers and teachers alone. In fact, I would argue that unions attempting to do other than just their one function is part of what is wrong with unions. Another difference we have is your pre-supposition that a more highly educated person, or a smarter person makes a better teacher. You state that paying new teachers more would attract more qualified applicants. This may be true for individuals, but my experience of watching these "highly advanced" people who come into the field tells me they often fail miserably. Their deepest struggle is in finding ways to make the knowledge they possess available to students. You refer to the "dumbing down" of teachers. I understand what people mean by that term, but I also know from personal experience if you try to teach a 7th grader at the appropriate level, when they are in fact, at the 2nd grade are doomed to failure. The problem is systemic, as you allude to, but the solution is not to bring a group of "egg-heads" into education. It is as you mention, give teachers the basics of what they need and need to do, then get out of the way and allow them to perform "the art" not "the science" of educating students. Like you've written to me before, we agree far more than we disagree. I always enjoy reading your articles on education. Jim Coyle

  2. Jim, good to hear from you again and to have your views. When I read them, however, I suspected that you disagreed with my views on points which you misconstrue; when I re-read my column, I confirmed my suspicions.

    Unions: Teachers unions are, as you say, for teachers. However, unions can act in ways which, while serving their interests, serve others’ interests. For example, UAW sometimes gave back on salary and other benefits to help the automobile makers for the good of their members. Likewise, teacher unions can take steps to improve the quality of teachers, etc., for the long-term good of teachers and their unions, if only self-interestedly to counter the impression and the anti-union policies and practices based on it that unions are little more than shields for incompetent teachers.

    Highly qualified teachers: I am sorry that you link “’highly advanced’ people” with classroom failure. I disbelieve that, anti-intellectualism aside (as suggested by your term—it surprises me as revealing precisely this attitude—“egg-heads”), there is an inverse correlation between intelligence or subject-matter competence and unsuitability for the classroom. I would argue that those whom you deride would be not only more competent, but also more comfortable and caring than those who are less competent and who seem to be doing a bad enough job, both with educating and mentoring.

  3. The term "egg head" was utilized only to identify a specific group that, (in my observation) has failed miserably in the classroom. I'm sure there are natural teachers that fall into this section of the academic community. I, however, have never seen one of them have long-term success in the classroom. The term was not intended to insult but to identify, that it insulted is regrettable, and I apologize for that poor choice of words. I do however, stand by the meaning of my words. Jim

    1. I appreciate the apology for poor word choice--which nonetheless surprises me. The slur, and it can be nothing else, means people intelligent, informed, and sometimes intellectual. You need to get beyond your personal and inevitably limited experience and both show that it is typical and explain why such people make bad teachers. The elaboration of the "egghead" stereotype does not count; what counts is evidence, of which, I am sure, there is none (or to the contrary).