jasonbwatson

January 22, 2013

And we wonder…

The December 15 issue of WORLD magazine included a page with short articles about education issues (page 72). Collectively, these three articles reveal quite a bit about the problems with public education in America today.

The first article is entitled “School’s Out,” and looks at the battles going on in Chicago and Washington, D.C. over school closings. Of course, Michelle Rhee faced incredible pressure over closing underperforming (a very polite way to say “failing”) schools during her tenure as chancellor of D.C. schools. But the reality is that Chicago and D.C. are losing students at a considerable rate–Chicago’s student is down 6% over the last decade, but D.C. is down around 35%. (And while the percentages are staggeringly different, the difference in number of students is small: 25,270 students lost in Chicago, 27,681 lost in D.C.).

There are, of course, many factors that may contribute to the decrease in enrollment in urban areas, including families moving into the suburbs, more families choosing nonpublic schools, and the poor quality of the public school systems.

Regardless of the reason, though, anyone with any knowledge about business operations would recognize that maintaining things “as they are” in light of a 6% or 35% decrease in consumers is a recipe for failure. What restaurant would maintain the same number of locations or the same staffing levels after a 35% decrease in customers, for example? And yet the Chicago Teachers Union is vehemently opposing the closing of any schools. Of course this should not come as a huge surprise after Chicago teachers went on strike early this school year, and had the audacity to claim that their demands were in the interests of students. CTU vice president Jesse Sharkey stated, “If you close our schools, there will be no peace in the city.” Ah…how refreshing to see such a spirit of compromise, or even a willingness to acknowledge that sometimes tough decisions have to be made in order to save a sinking ship.

In Chicago half of the students drop out; in D.C. the figure is 40%. Eighty percent of fourth graders in both cities struggle to read. And in D.C. the opposition to embracing reality is not only among the public school teachers, but among city council members, who strenuously oppose the closing of schools in their wards, despite the fact that new Chancellor Kaya Henderson says that many schools are half-empty, resulting in a considerable waste of money.

Moving on, beneath “School’s Out” is an article entitled “Musical chairs.” This article begins by introducing Jessica Keskitalo, a high school history teacher in Beaverton, Oregon who is teaching seventh-grade math this year, after all of a “half day of math training.” And Keskitalo is not alone as she spends the year in unfamiliar territory; according to the article, she is one of 365 teachers in the Beaverton district who were “shifted by seniority” to replace teachers who were laid off. In other words, the school district needed to make cuts, and they did. But, “Oregon requires districts to lay off teachers with the least experience first, instead of assessing expertise and classroom needs.” Oh good…another example of putting the needs of the students first! (Sorry, sarcasm seems to be dripping out of me today).

According to Beaverton officials, some 160 teachers were placed in “significantly different positions” this year. Keskitalo, for example, had never taught mathematics, and her only experience teaching middle school students came during one month of her student teaching. The article states that neither the principals in Beaverton nor the teachers had any say over the new assignments. Another example provided? Beaverton “transferred district librarian Jenny Takeda into a third-grade classroom one week before the Oregon Association of School Libraries named her the Librarian of the Year.” Takeda opted not to accept the assignment, so she is now a substitute teacher as she tries to figure out what her future holds.

The National Council on Teacher Quality, as cited in the article, reports that, “the overwhelming majority of school districts use seniority as the only determinant of teacher layoff decisions.”

Lastly, the right column of the page contains an article entitled “Fox in the Henhouse.” This one describes the fact that union official Glenda Ritz was chosen by voters to be the new state superintendent of Indiana schools, ousting Tony Bennett (not the singer, but a “nationally recognized school reformer”). Why is that a problem? Because Indiana has in place one of the “biggest statewide voucher program[s], teacher evaluations tied to student test scores, and new grade-by-grade tests and curriculum requirements shared by 46 states.” Ritz, however, “dislikes evaluating schools.” Hmmm…I wonder why? As a union official, her focus was undoubtedly on maintaining teacher jobs and increasing teacher salary and benefits, not on student achievement.

If this news is illustrative of the condition of public education in America is it any wonder that our students consistently lag behind students on other countries on tests? Should we be surprised that so many students drop out when council members and superintendents are focused more on teacher jobs than on student learning? Should we be surprised that students struggle to learn when teachers are randomly placed in classrooms because they have tenure, not because they have any training or even any clue how to teach the age and/or subject matter they have been assigned? I think there are a lot of very capable and very dedicated teachers in the nation’s public schools…but I think, for the most part, they’re swimming against the tide. They’re trying to do something that, despite the rhetoric, simply has not been made a priority–actually teaching students to learn.

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