Hiding the Real Problems in Education
September 1, 2010
Of all the experiments being tried in the name of education reform, the one for which I’m most interested in seeing the results is beginning this fall at Barbara Jordan Elementary School in Detroit.
At Barbara Jordan Elementary, there will be no principal — the school is to be run by the teachers. Moreover, the school’s staff will have an unusual level of autonomy to make their own decisions about curriculum, purchase of supplies, building repairs and even hiring.
The approach has been tried in a few other cities, such as Los Angeles and Boston, but it is still too new to make a clear assessment of its effectiveness. Barbara Jordan Elementary appears to be the first teacher-led school in Michigan.
The cynic in me suspects education policy makers may have approved this approach as a potential cost saver. By eliminating the principal you can cut out what is normally the highest salary in the building. And autonomy at the building level could, if expanded to multiple schools in a large district, eventually eliminate a level or two of administrative bureaucracy.
But the idealist in me hopes that it marks a turning point in the debate over school reform — a refocusing of our educational system on the relationship between students and teachers.
In March, Newsweek ran a cover story titled, “The Key to Saving American Education.” That headline was superimposed over a chalkboard on which was written (by some recalcitrant student kept after school?) endless repetitions of the statement: “We must fire bad teachers.”
In other words, teachers are the real source of all our educational problems.
I’ll be honest: I found that cover so offensive that I still have difficulty speaking calmly about it.
I come from a family of teachers. I have known teachers as family friends, as my instructors, as colleagues — or as some combination of the three — for all of my nearly 60 years of life. I taught for 10 years in a Detroit high school and have worked, at least briefly, in at least five other school districts. In addition, a significant portion of my journalism career has been spent reporting on education.
I’m here to tell you, teachers are not the problem.
Are there bad teachers? Absolutely. Should bad teachers be removed from the classroom? Certainly.
But find me a profession that doesn’t have bad practitioners. Doctors? Lawyers? Clergy? Restaurant cooks? Auto dealers? Investment bankers? Please.
Teachers are easy to blame because they are so central to the educational enterprise. And they are an appealing target for those whose political agenda is to do away with public education; painting teachers and their unions as villains helps weaken opposition to that agenda. The attacks seem plausible to most people because most have encountered a teacher, sometime in their lives, whom they did not consider good. Of course, the same could be said of doctors, lawyers, restaurant cooks, etc.
The real problem, though, is that taking the easy out by blaming teachers obscures the true nature of the difficulty facing our schools.
For example, let’s look at the state’s list of “persistently lowest achieving schools” that was released in August. The list used standardized test results (that’s an issue for another time) over the last four years to identify 92 schools that have failed to meet federal standards (yet another issue) for student performance. These schools must be “improved” by one of four federally mandated methods — one of which involves firing the principal and half the teachers. (The floggings will continue until morale improves!)
But let’s set aside my nagging little caveats and just look at the list of “failing” schools. Nearly half of the schools on the list are in the Detroit Public School District. Nearly all of the rest are in cities — such as Grand Rapids, Lansing, Flint, Saginaw, Pontiac, Warren, Kalamazoo, River Rouge, Inkster, Ypsilanti — that have substantial low-income and/or minority group populations.
So what does that tell us?
First of all, it tells us that the crisis in American education may not be so all-encompassing as the sound and fury of the public policy pundits would lead us to believe. While any school will have its problems, the most severe difficulties appear to be focused in urban districts that serve low-income populations — in which, not coincidentally, minority groups happen to be disproportionately represented.
Lesson No. 1: Be wary of hyped-up atmospheres of fear and panic because they can lead to bad decisions. (See Iraq War.)
So maybe the key problem facing American schools isn’t bad teachers. Maybe just firing da bums won’t produce better education.
But if the enemy isn’t teachers, if the enemy is, instead, the persistent pernicious and devastating impact of poverty on a large portion of our nation’s children — especially minority children — how do we go about improving education?
Lesson No. 2: Keep your eyes on the prize.
We start by recognizing that while schools may help students get an education they can use to rise out of poverty, schools cannot solve the problem of poverty. Therefore, it makes no sense to punish schools and teachers for not doing something they are unable to do.
Let’s create a program of school reform that is based on encouragement and support rather than degrading labels and punishment. The magazine Educational Leadership ran a cover recently that parodied that Newsweek cover. The headline read, “The Key To Changing The Teaching Profession.” On the chalkboard was the repeated phrase, “We must support good teachers.”
That means doing what we can to promote smaller schools, lower class sizes and greater access to resources for troubled schools — anything we can think of to build strong and supportive relationships between students and their teachers, because that is what makes the difference in learning.
Maybe we should even think about giving teachers — who know best the needs of their students — more control over the way our schools run.
That’s why I look to the experiment at Barbara Jordan Elementary with hopeful optimism. It’s an experiment that good teachers devised and fought for. And the best interests of the children are at its heart.
Stephen A. Jones is a Detroit resident and assistant professor of History at Central Michigan University. He is co-editor with Eric Freedman of African Americans in Congress: A Documentary History (Congressional Quarterly Press).