Robert M. Thornton
Robert M. Thornton writes from Fort Mitchell, Kentucky.
I have been reading about education in the United States for over fifty years and have published a few modest essays on the subject but I have never asked a teacher to tell me what goes on "in the trenches."
My friend is in her fifties and teaches fifth grade in a midsize Southern city where she lives with her husband and daughter. She has about twenty years teaching experience and has earned a Bachelor's Degree and a Master's Degree. I shall call her S. P.
S. P. loves teaching and has since she was a little girl "playing school." She wants to be a positive influence on children's lives:
The possibility that I've instilled in them the notion that they are capable of learning anything is an awesome experience. To see a child's eyes light up when they have that "light bulb" moment is indescribable.
S. P. loves what she does and would probably continue to love it even if she had to leave because of the stress. The thought is sad to her but one consolation is that she will know she fought the good fight and did her best for the children.
What is so frustrating that a woman who loves teaching might leave the profession? Well, the pay is low; many teachers take work home to do on their own time; recognition and appreciation are almost nil; some have to eat lunch with the kids because they require supervision; some only get a twenty-minute break from duties all day. All of these are frustrating but there is more to it than that!
Imagine being a teacher and beginning a day facing not youngsters eager to learn -- or at least willing -- but bored looking kids with:
. . . elbow on desk, head resting on hand; both arms laying on desk, chin laying on arms; legs stretched out, butt on edge of chair; sitting sideways on a chair; or leaning chair back on two legs.
Their appearance may be described as "aggressively unkempt: and their attitude a challenge to 'teach me if you can.'" Neither is conducive to learning.
The kids "talk back," don't do what they are told the first time or the second or third, and pretend they don't hear you talking to them. When told to stop arguing with another pupil, they look away. They use foul language and write sexually explicit notes -- in the fifth grade.
The parents of S. P.'s pupils fail to check their children's homework and let them stay up late watching questionable television, so they try to nap in class. Parents avoid meeting with the teacher to discuss problems with their children. In earlier times parents backed up the teachers, but not anymore. Nowadays they treat teachers as the enemy rather than supporting them. They tell their kids to watch teachers closely and tell them if they "slip up" in any way. When there is a meeting of teacher, parent, and child in the principal's office, the parent sides with the child and gets angry with the teacher and the principal.
Teachers must also face the threat of parental complaints being taken to the school board or the filing of a lawsuit. If that happens, they have to go on administrative leave until the matter is investigated and they are cleared. Nothing holds the parent accountable for unfounded allegations.
Principals do not give you unconditional support because they try so hard to be diplomatic and keep everybody happy. In earlier times punishment for breaking rules was swift. Nowadays students have less fear of going to the principal's office because they know that not much will be done. They will maybe get a suspension which means the pupil gets to stay home for a couple of days.
The procedure to expel the very bad kids is a long and complicated process. Under the present system the pupil can behave very badly every year and get by with it because in S. P.'s school system the child's behavior records do not continue into the next grade. The process starts all over again every school year.
S. P. is shocked at the incompetence of new teachers who don't understand the curriculum well enough to teach it. From what I have read this is not surprising. The brightest young students are not interested in the teaching profession because they are discomfited by the education courses required for certification. They see the "methods" taught are mere words spinning, and the subjects are the last concern of education. S. P. herself wanted to get a Master's Degree because with it came a substantial increase in salary. Instead of taking courses on the subjects she teaches, she had to endure such brain-numbing ones as Teaching Reading with Children, Principles of Teaching and Curriculum, Problems in Elementary Education, and Curriculum Integration of Technology.
Jacques Barzun wrote that training has been done by people unfitted for the job because they have no interest in learning. Rather they are bent not on instruction but on social work.
They care little about history or science or good English but they grow keen about any scheme of betterment; one recent proposal is to teach the importance of washing the hands.
Teachers should be concerned with reading and writing skills, history, science, and math, and literature, and not try to be "social workers, baby-sitters, policemen, diagnosticians, drug counselors, or psychotherapists."
In his recent book, George Will wrote that the "Surest, quickest way to add quality to primary and secondary education would be to close all the schools of education."
Arthur Bestor said the issue is between those who believe good teaching should be directed to sound intellectual ends instead of cultivating techniques of teaching in an intellectual and cultural vacuum. He insisted that "No professional man or woman has greater need than the elementary school teacher to cultivate mature intellectual interests."
Thanks to the Federal "No Child Left Behind Act" a testing craze is upon us. At S. P.'s school they test for reading, math, and science but not history and civics. Since "what gets tested is what gets taught" many grade school pupils are not proficient in history. One scholar warned that standardized testing has swelled and mutated to the point where it threatens to swallow our schools whole. School districts "have made higher scores the highest good in their work." Tricks "can be used to pump up scores in the short run, a good number of them worthless distractions from real education." This can be bad because "they represent the triumph of short-term thinking over long-term thinking."
"Because the modern world lives by machine industry," Barzun wrote, "it favors the mechanical in all things, whether all benefit from it or not." In schools this takes the form of multiple-choice tests and "their obvious convenience has concealed a series of harmful side effects." One is that with printed tests "students do not write as often as they once did." The consequence is a "writing problem" because good writing comes only with frequent practice. Multiple-choice tests do positive harm, declared Barzun:
. . . because the so-called objective question does not call for active usable knowledge; it calls only for single-fact recognition; knowing something means the power to summon up facts out of the blue and their significance in the right relation.
Mechanical testing does not foster this power. The basic defect of multiple-choice tests, wrote Barzun, is "that they call for choices but not for reasons for choices. Defective test questions tend to turn multiple-choice tests into lotteries."
In the craze for testing we have forgotten the observation that:
. . . all psychologists and many mental testers know that the best indication of a child's ability in regard to school work should be his progress in school work.
Most are agreed that our public school system is badly in need of repair but about the only thing suggested is to form organizations. Rufus Jones observed that:
We select officials. We make motions. We hold endless conferences. We issue propaganda material. We have street processions. We use placards and billboards. We found institutions and devise machinery.
Jacques Barzun has remarked on the staggering number of councils, centers, and associations busy about reforming the schools.
Other parents and concerned persons have followed other paths to reform. The number of councils, centers, and associations busied about the public schools is staggering. They hold forums, raise money, and keep publicizing their work. The amount of energy and goodwill expended is praiseworthy, but on the evidence the results at best are puny and local. One cause is the national mania for studies and reports and the passion for debating lists of "goals and guidelines." Education is a topic that encourages verbalism when what is needed is material help dedicated to action -- to teaching and its optimum environment.
It would be wise for teachers, parents, and administrators to refrain from routine pieties and enthusiasms, from promises and slogans of the kind we hear from advertisers and candidates for office such as "The Right to Read," "Teach America," and "Goals 2000." Educators and parents should seek satisfaction in each day's conscientious work, rather than the empty abstractions such as "Excellence" and "Innovation." As Albert Jay Nock remarked:
All the progress in civilization that society has ever made has been brought about, not by machinery, not by political programs, platforms, parties, not even by revolutions, but by right thinking.
Some "right thinking" about our schools should convince us that Walter Williams was right when he declared that "Without a civilized learning environment, academic excellence is impossible no matter how much money is spent."
It is a scandal that so little is said about the violence in public schools. Why is it tolerated? One answer is that our compulsory education system forces young people to stay in school even though they are not interested in book knowledge or they are not bright enough to learn more than the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Let these kids leave school and get jobs or attend a vocational school instead of being troublemakers in the classroom. Empower teachers and principals to punish those who misbehave.
Charles Murray declared there is no excuse for schools in which competent teachers have to endure misbehavior in their classrooms. We "must give a safe and orderly classroom to every student who is trying to learn, no matter what." S. P. states forcefully that students who "are guilty of violent behavior should be expelled and not allowed to return."
Unfortunately S. P.'s school was not overly concerned about maintaining discipline in the classroom when the principal told the teachers out-of-school suspensions would be cut back so their attendance rating would improve.
Several years ago, George Roche observed that:
. . . many parents have been unwilling to assume primary responsibility for their offspring. It is true that the modern school has tended to assume functions for which it was ill-suited, thus becoming a poor substitute for the parent, but the primary blame must rest with the negligence of many parents. Parental responsibility does not rule out the importance of the teacher. The dedicated teacher, who has mastered himself and who would spend his life in helping the young to master their lives, is engaged in one of the highest callings. Without such men and women, the school as an extension of parental responsibility would be impossible. In fact, it has been the devotion to duty of many teachers and administrators that has enabled our educational system to keep operating successfully, despite bureaucratic rigidity and parental flight from responsibility. Still, the good teacher is fighting a losing fight unless the home enforces the discipline and standards necessary to support the learning experience of the classroom.
Mortimer Smith believes
. . . modern teachers are a little frightened by the word "discipline" because of the harshness in earlier times when children were beaten. They should take a moderate view and think of discipline as something to be imposed with enlightened and patient common sense. Discipline is not an adult conspiracy against children; it is a response adults owe to children.
Bernard Iddings Bell wrote that parents should firmly but lovingly discipline their children. Instead:
. . . the parents dump their progeny at the feet of the schoolmaster and schoolmistress and say, "Here, we have no time to bring these youngsters up, nor have we any stomach for the job. You take them over, as totally as possible, and do what we will not do for our own. Train them in character; that is what you get paid for."
And some teachers with a "puffed up sense of imagined omnipotence" try to do their own difficult work and the work of parents. S. P. knows better. She says:
. . . to have to teach them reading, math, spelling, language, science, and social studies along with respect, manners, conflict resolution, anger control, accountability, and so on is just too much.
Robert M. Hutchins agreed. He declared that:
Education cannot do everything. It cannot do everything equally well. It cannot do some things as well as other social institutions can do them or could do them if these institutions were forced to discharge their responsibilities instead of leaving the educational system to struggle along with them by default.
It is time for teachers to tell parents:
If you want your children to learn to read, to spell, to count, then send them to us prepared to do so. We're only responsible for their learning. Your child is impeding the educational progress of others. You as the parents are responsible.
That puts the onus back on parents for their kid's behavior.
B. I. Bell wrote that teachers would be wise if they said to parents:
We refuse to take on ourselves responsibility for the character development of your children. We shall do our bit by them, but you must give them the more important part of that training in your own homes. If because of community maladjustments you can no longer do this, then rectify the social wrongs; do not push off the malformed and stunted youngsters on us and then blame us for their deficiencies. If you can do your job and will not, let the responsibility for what your boys and girls turn out to be rest where it belongs -- on your own heads, not on ours. If as seems not unlikely, our civilization comes to ruin because the oncoming generation lacks character, that will be too bad; but if it happens, know this: we will not take the blame. *
"If a nation expects to be ignorant -- and free . . . it expects what never was and never will be." --Thomas Jefferson