Tuesday, June 25, 2013

My Thoughts on Tennessee's Education Dilemma.

It would seem that many of Tennessee's public school teachers are upset about recent legislation regarding teacher pay. You can get the details here, and then read my comments below.

First off, let me begin by saying I am not an educator. I say this because I myself hold in contempt those who venture to comment on subjects they know nothing about. I try not to jest at wounds I have never suffered. If you choose to stop reading this upon those grounds, you are justified. In the past, I have been, de facto, offered positions in both the public and private sector to teach the skills of my own vocation (technical drawing and engineering graphics, like CAD, solid modeling, parametric modeling, etc) at higher education levels, but I have never actually taught. The point is, my qualifications for making some of the statements I am about to make are questionable at best.

Second, let me make clear at once that I am a libertarian who believes education would be better managed on a local level instead of being managed under the broad umbrella of State or Federal Bureaucracies. Better yet, I believe that education completely out of the hands of any government, at any level, and delegated to the private sector (private schools) would better educate our children. If you’re a proponent of government involvement in education, if you could kindly explain to me how a bunch of bureaucrats with I-Phones, briefcases, and Armani suits, typically hundreds of miles away are contributing to the education of your child, I will be glad to recant my stance on government regulated education. But until then, I think government and education make poor bedmates.

In such a scenario, private schools would compete for children the way private colleges and universities do. Competition drives innovation. And in order to be competitive, schools would have to have a proven track record of top-notch education. In such a scenario, there would be no need for government standardized testing or government regulations. The competition would keep the stakes high.

For years now… In fact, one can probably trace it all the way back to Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” legislation, teachers in the public school system have been plagued with standardized testing. Now while I agree that teachers do bear some accountability, I think the grades of students are not good barometers for gauging a teacher’s abilities or effectiveness. Of course, if education was privatized, as stated in my second paragraph, teacher accountability would be cut-and-dried. Teacher evaluations would be handled in the same manner all employees of private companies are evaluated. But as it is, the majority of our childrens’ education is conducted in the public sector, so we have the hurdle of how to properly gauge the performance of teachers.

Let me give you my prescription on a possibility of how this can be done.

I presume every public school has its own autonomous administrative staff. Why not let the local administrative staff determine how teachers are to be evaluated? Perhaps it could be done through live classroom monitoring. Or maybe it can be done through annual teacher evaluations based on parental complaints. There are myriads of ways for employees to be evaluated, just ask any company manager.

True, this opens doors for greasy hands, lecherous liaisons, and various and sundry other corruptions to take place to preserve one position in the hierarchy. But hey, you are the one that wanted to work for the government. Political ousting is a time-honored tradition among the politically elite. And no government worker is immune.

Think about it like this. How do the cafeteria ladies or the school nurse get evaluated? Are they graded on how fat the children are, or how sick the children are? Such an asinine notion, and yet this is precisely what standardized testing does. Evaluating teachers based upon test scores is like evaluating the cafeteria ladies on how fat the children are, or evaluating the school nurse on how sick the children are.

The point being, too much of the result lies beyond the control of the teacher. A teacher can be the best of the best. But that doesn’t mean their students will pay attention, apply themselves, or do their homework at night. This is beyond the teacher’s control.

In some ways, it is ironic. When I was in school, some of the best teachers were marked by students with low scores. It didn’t mean the teacher was bad. It meant the teacher was tough. The class they taught suggested that students that were genuinely interested only need apply. The classes these teachers taught were not mere time fillers, but required the whole of one’s intellect.

It is funny when you think about it. If test scores determine a teacher’s performance level, and consequently, their pay level, what teacher in their right mind would want to teach advanced classes? Couple this with the fact that the Tennessee Legislature has removed all motivation for educators to further their job skills by acquiring additional degrees. How can we compete unless we challenge the students? Challenging the students can only be done with teachers with high degrees. Now that there is scarcely a reason for a teacher to pursue education beyond a Bachelor’s Degree, can students really be challenged?

There is one aspect to all this that no one is talking about, but is actually quite prominent. When I was in school, I could always tell a good teacher from a bad one. There was something that I can only describe as a spark. This spark transcended all subject matter being taught. These teachers had the knack for taking the students beyond the subject material into realms of understanding that isn’t found on any test. The indomitable, “Why?” and, “What for?” of education. I had precious few of these teachers during my time in school (some of whom I daresay will read this), and I thank God for them.

In fact, I could write an entire blog about some of them. I could mention my fifth grade teacher who was the first to undertake reading to us a little every day from a book. It is doubtful that I have been without a book on my person since. Or perhaps my freshman English teacher, who read us Greek Mythology, which nurtured my interest in ancient cultures. Or my Algebra teacher, who somehow kept me signing up for her classes, even though it seemed like a perpetual struggle just to get a passing grade. Or the seventh grade history teacher who brought history to life, instead of just giving us dates and events to memorize.

We have all heard of the phenomenon called “Teaching to the test”. This is what occurs when a teacher knows their job, and their pay grade, relies on the results of a test, so they simply emphasize those aspects of the subject matter to the children they know will be on the test, while leaving other aspects of the subject untouched, or breezed over. The product of this type of teaching is children with a head full of facts, but no real intellectual mechanism to parse and critically analyze those facts.

In summary, standardized testing destroys the transmission of “critical thinking”, which should be an intrinsic aspect of any subject.

You can tell a child that 2+2=4. But what do you tell the child when he asks why 2+2=4, and what he is supposed to do with it? If you’re a teacher, and you teach a child that 2+2=4, are you teaching the child in such a way that he will commit it to memory so that when he sees “2+2=” on a standardized test, he will know the answer, or are you teaching them in such a way as to lay the groundwork for higher mathematical and logical reasoning, which serves as the foundation for what’s to come in higher education and various vocational fields of study? Are you merely inputting data the way one might input data in a computer, or are you creating the “spark”?

None of the books read in the fifth grade, or the Greek Myths I learned in my freshman year, were on any standardized test. And I could have graduated just as easily, nay, easier, if I had only taken the required years of algebra instead of doubling up on it. And I cannot recall ever answering a question about Longstreet’s march through Bean Station to Knoxville on a standardized test. I doubt those “long-in-the-tooth” old-fart bureaucrats know who Lee’s old warhorse even is.

But, it is these things that nurtured me. That is because these teachers were not teaching to the test. They were attempting to create the spark.

C. S. Lewis, the famous Christian apologist and literary author, wrote a small book based upon a series of lectures entitled “The Abolition of Man”. I highly recommend it to any educator who hasn’t read it. In it, he outlines the necessity of taking education beyond the mere intellect. He argues that a proper education must pervade the intellect and the viscera of an individual. If you’ve never heard the word “viscera”, it simply is in reference to man’s more instinctive “animal” nature, symbolized in man’s stomach the way the intellect is symbolized by a man’s head. Lewis argues that education should saturate and stimulate both the head (intellect) and the stomach (viscera), and should have open and free commute between the two. The path connecting the two is through the chest, obviously.

The most troubling aspect of the whole treatise is that he defines an education system where this isn’t the case, where educators essentially create “men without chests”, or in other words, where education is confined, most often in the head, and not permitted to pervade the whole of the man. No critical thinking. No mechanism for utilizing an education. No way to incorporate an education into an adult life. A world of “men without chests” is not a scenario for social stability in a world where education determines your place on the world’s totem pole. It brings about the true "Abolition of Man".

What concerns me is that the actions of the past decade in regards our education is seemingly bringing Lewis’ dystopian predictions to fruition. Even our institutions of higher education, which must meet Federal regulations to be “accredited”, seem to be engaged in what I call “shotgun” teaching. Today’s graduates of both high school and college seem to have heads crammed with more facts than even the graduates of my own generation had. But they seem so ill prepared in their proper use. “Outside the box” thinkers are practically extinct. Critical thinkers are a dying breed. They know 2+2=4, but they don’t know why and what to do with it. Students are trained to parrot what schools teach them, and to never even test the tolerances of known rules. This will eventually kill true innovation. Consider, while we have grown rather adept at improving existing inventions and ideas, how long has it been since something new came down the pike? Something like the car, or the computer, or the telephone, or the light-bulb? Yeah, we have improved our cars and telephones and light-bulbs. But has there been anything new that isn’t simply an improvement or derivative of an existing design?

I honestly cannot think of anything.

Are we, perhaps, further into Lewis’ dystopia that even I am willing to speculate?

To end, I predict that as long as education lies in the power of government to regulate, things will not change and will only get worse. And with government, as with all ruling bodies of men, acquired power is not easily relinquished.

In the end, it is up to educators to bind together and make a change. It may take something radical, like a mass walkout. Or, if principals and administrators are level-headed enough, it might only take a few good, well-informed, and eloquent people to really outline the problem and how Tennessee’s prescribed treatment will only perpetuate and worsen the problem. And then, most importantly, outline the real solution.

I admit I am not hopeful. This transition from educating to indoctrination seems to be close to complete. At risk of sounding conspiratorial, and sounding like an outright fruit-loop, it seems engineered. This erosion in our education seems to be on a fast track, and is a result of planning and design. I might have just discredited everything I said in saying that. But I’d rather be honest about how I feel about it.

But if I am right, the next question will be the indomitable, “Why?” Why is our educational system being structured in this way? What is hoped to be accomplished? Conspiracy theorists call it the "dumbing down" of America, but I think it goes deeper. Our graduating students have never had more quantified facts in their brains, so you really cannot, objectively speaking, say they are dumber. I think they want people who don't think, at least, not for themselves. They want mainstream thoughts in the minds of people. Constrained thoughts, based on constrained facts. This paralyzes any intellectual dexterity the mind might have possessed. The mind loses its pliability, unable to process information outside the mainstream. Perhaps we have already seen the firstfruits. Creative television programming has given way to mindless "reality telelvision". Interesting and provocative movie plots have been forfeited to "remakes" and "reboots" with more pretty, and less plot. Our culture is giving us all the warning signs of this academic atrophy. But whose able to recognize it?

It is all somewhat reminiscent of Orwell's "Thought-Police". But will there be anyone around who will be able to ask, "Why?" when the time comes?