By Stuart L. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle
I look at my retirement with a blend of joy and sorrow.
I love that the pension provided by my forty years of service allows me to pursue many of my passions. I can now commit hours creating meals, write a book about my experiences as a teacher, spend quality time with family all while bloviating about education on a regular basis in this space. But what saddens me is the knowledge that after leaving the classroom a mere five years ago, in all honesty I would not want to return to the profession that defined and enriched my life.
So many problems; so few solutions
I am in awe of the individuals who occupy the classrooms and administrative wings of schools in 2013. The obstacles that are constantly being placed into their paths are beyond daunting. And yet as another academic year begins, the heroic efforts commence anew. The challenges being faced by today’s educators are diverse. Here is a list (in no particular order) of the reasons I am now content to watch from the sidelines.
A lethal mix of politics and policy
An educational leader I greatly respect told me of a meeting he attended to design educational policy. “There were twenty of us in the room and I was the only person who had ever stood in front of a classroom or led a school. It was amazing to watch an important conversation in which so little hands-on experience was available.” Such situations are neither unique nor isolated. One former national teacher-of-the-year lamented his lack of input during a similar gathering comparing his presence to a piece of the furniture in the room.
The classic example of unrealistic political goals being attached to educational policy was The No Child Left Behind provision requiring a pass rate of 100% by 2014. Only a misguided idealist with no clear understanding of the classroom would design a program that would allow one disgruntled student to bring down an entire school. But such attitudes are constantly being reflected in educational mandates. Currently, school systems across the country are being weighed down by directives and requirements that would never have been implemented by a panel composed of teachers and administrators.
Dealing with technology
The explosion of technology has been a mixed bag for education. Smart boards, graphing calculators, grade programs and state-of-the-art lab equipment have brought academics into the 21st century. But the issues of cell phones and social media are wreaking havoc on schools. In 2008 the major concern with cell phones was their ability to take pictures of exams which could be then passed on to other students. Today that issue pales in comparison to the problems inherent with smart phones. Social media has moved bullying from the school yard where it could be controlled to the uncharted arena of cyber space. The glut of misinformation on the internet has raised havoc with student research. The continuing evolution of this field creates a growing list of problems for schools. It is clear the questions surrounding the use and misuse of technology far outnumber the answers.
As educators struggle to remain current with their own devices, it is virtually impossible to simultaneously battle those who would abuse them in academic settings.
The agrarian calendar
A “pro” and “con” evaluation of year-round school versus the current model makes for a fascinating journey into decision making. On the positive side for 12-month education would be such items as “no academic loss”, “better continuity of instruction”, “increased usage of expensive facilities”, “greater access to important programs such as free and reduced lunch and Head Start” and “full time employment for educators.” On the negative ledger would be the inconvenience to family summer vacations.
The simplistic answer to all of education’s problems—evaluate an educator’s performance based on test scores—would be laughable if it were not being implemented across the country. Close scrutiny of such an approach reveals its shortcomings. Even the basic premise—test scores—is flawed. In the typical high school two out of every three courses does NOT have a state-mandated exam. Add to that the general consensus that the quality of these tests is less than stellar.
The tools to analyze the results have been equally ineffective. For example, some systems actually do employ an “apples to oranges” approach. They measure this year’s Algebra scores with those from the previous year even though they represent the work of a totally different group of individuals. Others have tried to incorporate something called “value-added” which purports to measure improvement by specific students, but has no ability to account for high mobility and other constantly changing variables in the lives of adolescents.
Overall teacher evaluations continue to be a hodge-podge of constantly changing targets and assessments that do little to measure true educational effectiveness. Administrators are required to perform this critical task while also fulfilling a group of responsibilities that already demand far more than the time allotted. If the teacher is the most important component to academic success, the method employed to measure that individual needs to have far more resources, financial and human, invested into it.
The recurring lead sentence that appears in articles across the country on a regular basis says it all: “Due to the tight economic times educational funding has been…” You can fill in the rest.
They never give up, never surrender
Despite all of these difficulties over the next few weeks millions of students will be greeted by enthusiastic, dedicated and undeterred teachers and administrators. These noble individuals will battle through every poorly designed directive, absurd requirement and mechanical obstacle to provide the best education possible under the circumstances.
They deserve nothing but praise. I only wish I possessed the fortitude to rejoin the skirmish.