On Education Reform

A child miseducated is a child lost
-John F. Kennedy

The words of John F. Kennedy should weigh heavily on our minds as we, the next generation of Arkansas schoolteachers, step into the classroom. Ours is the duty, the honor, and the danger of education. Succeed, and we make a positive difference in the lives of hundreds of students. Fail, and we damn them to ignorance. We must therefore carefully reevaluate what makes a teacher great, and reform our education system to better attract and retain those individuals. The task ahead is difficult, but it must be done if we are to fulfill that most basic promise we make to our children – that theirs will be a better world.

This process of reform begins with the realization that the most basic education system possible is a single student and a single teacher, educator and educated. When we look at the modern education system, we see that the educated have increased in number, but not in type. By this, I mean to say there are many more students, but they have not changed in role – they are still the unit to be educated. On the other side of the system, we see that the educator has changed significantly. Unlike the student, singular, becoming the students, plural, the teacher has transformed into the teachers, administrators, janitors, office workers, accountants, school board members, superintendents, and secretaries of education. This is a change both in the numbers and the roles of the educator. The core assumption we must make is that taken together, these diverse manifestations of the educator exist to perform the same task as the teacher in our simplified education system – educate the student

It follows, therefore, that education system as we know it today exists to serve the teacher. It exists to provide everything necessary for the teacher to go about the business of educating students, from buildings to books, pencils to paychecks. In this manner, the education system ensures the quality of its teachers, and the quality of teaching taking place in the classroom. The reality of the situation, however, is that the education system of today focuses more on tests than teachers. The pressures of recent legislation like the No Child Left Behind Act have increased exponentially the importance of standardized testing in the education system. As a result, schools are doing everything they can to prepare students for tests, often at the cost of true education. Not all is gloom and hopelessness, for there is much money to be made in the modern education system. This money is made, not by teachers, but by test purveyors and publishing houses. Desperate school boards are prime markets for these entities, who honey their ears with promises of increased test scores and therefore more federal funding.

The result of this paradigm shift in education is dramatic. Schools no longer deal in such vagaries as knowledge, comprehension, and fulfillment. Teachers are no longer the educated, inspirational communicators of these values. Instead, schools are now the training houses for the skills of test taking. Teachers fill the role of trainer, distributing study materials from the publishing houses and quizzing students on issues of rote memorization. Students are the real victims of these changes. Rather than partners in an education system, they are the products of the new education industry. All the while, test companies and publishing houses pull in billions of dollars. Textbook sales alone accounted for one third of the publishing market in 2004.

The role of the teacher, having been reduced to trainer, requires a different sort of individual. These trainers need not be highly educated in the subject area, they need not be effective communicators, and they are rarely ever inspirational leaders. They lack, in other words, the ability to teach. It is not a job requirement. This is miseducation in its clearest sense, and must be put to an end. This can be accomplished by placing the role of teacher back at the center of the education system. It requires attracting and retaining individuals that hold true to the values of an educator, rather than a trainer. The time of the almighty test has come to an end, because our children are being lost, one perfect score at a time.

Our redefinition of teacher hinges on three key traits. Teachers must, themselves, be rigorously educated to ensure their knowledge of the subject area. They must be effective communicators to relate their knowledge to the students. Finally, they must be inspirational leaders, giving students the motivation to learn. Together, these make up the core principles upon which we, the next generation of teachers, must be built. The next step is to reform the way such individuals are compensated, in order to both attract fresh talent and retain effective teachers.

It is imperative that we as future teachers understand the value of our own educations. Not only must we have comprehensive knowledge of our field, but we must understand the principles of communication and education. Most education degree programs around the nation are set up to offer these skills, but I fear they make a fundamental error. Future teachers in the fields of math and science are desperately needed in our state, and so we have created specialized science and mathematics education degrees at our colleges and universities. These programs replace the upper level math and science classes with education courses to prepare the teacher for the classroom, but I fear at too high a cost. A teacher must have as rigorous a knowledge of the field as possible, and that means taking courses that go above and beyond the scope of the curriculum. By having this deeper understanding, a teacher is much more effective at conveying the subject to the students. These education courses are useful, but they should amend the regular degree program, rather than replace it.

We must be effective communicators if we are to be the teachers of tomorrow. Without the ability to convey a topic to students in an engaging way, all the knowledge we worked so hard to obtain is useless. By becoming effective communicators, we can explain a topic in several different ways to cater to students different learning styles. As in all communication arts, education is a two way process, and we must be experts at answering any questions students might have. The skills of communication allow us to establish a rapport with the students that clearly places us in control, but in an authoritative rather than authoritarian manner. We must be approachable, and yet not so casual as to be taken advantage of. At the end of the day, students must simultaneously love and respect their teachers, or education cannot take place.

The final trait a teacher must possess, that of an inspirational leader, is the hardest to define directly, but the easiest to identify in a classroom. The classrooms of inspirational teachers are filled with students who are motivated to learn. These students are hungry for that most precious commodity we can give them: recognition. By recognizing their hard work, dedication, and curiosity, we make them feel genuinely good about themselves. Students do not naturally value success in the classroom, they must be taught to love learning. It takes an inspirational teacher to create this revolution in a child’s mind, but once made it is never undone. It should be noted that teachers cannot fake this trait, because that is instantly recognizable. Plastering a room in inspirational posters does not make the teacher any more effective, in fact, it usually indicates the opposite.

There are millions of people out there that possess all the traits of a great teacher, but they never take the job. These people work in the private sector, never truly utilizing the innate teaching ability they hold within. If we can somehow make teaching a competitive field in the job market, we attract these individuals to the classroom and keep them there. Currently, the system of teacher pay in the state of Arkansas is a disaster. Exceptional teachers who hold doctorates in their field are paid a smaller bonus than an ineffective teacher who also happens to coach the cheerleaders. There is clearly an important place in education for athletics and extracurricular activities, but in moderation. To pay the coach more than the teacher who spent a lifetime and a fortune earning a doctorate sends the wrong signal, and discourages another qualified teacher from staying in the classroom. We need to come up with a system of compensation that is fair, but perhaps not equal.

As Americans, we value both fairness and equality, but in the area of compensation they are incompatible. To pay someone fairly is to pay them in accordance with their skills, and to pay someone equally is to pay them as you would any other worker. When faced with a situation where one worker clearly has more aptitude for the job than another, what are we to do? If we pay both equally, we start a race to the bottom, where workers put less and less effort into their jobs secure in the knowledge that they will be paid equally. If we pay both fairly, however, we reward the apt worker, and encourage the other worker become better at their job and earn more pay. This, then, seems to be an appropriate pay system for schoolteachers.

If we are to pay teachers on the principle of fairness, we must formulate a system to measure aptitude. This, however, brings us dangerously close to the culture of testing and evaluation that I struggle so hard against. What we must realize is that everything needs to be taken in moderation. Tests are not inherently evil by any means, but when taken to the extremes of usefulness they become dangerous. It should be the role of the principal to evaluate the performance of the teachers they support. The evaluations should be based on a rubric that takes into account the objective and the subjective measures of success. On the one hand, how are the children performing on the national level? How are the children performing compared to others in the state? Or the district? Or the school? Those measures give an objective measure of teacher performance. They should be equally as important as subjective teacher performance. Does the teacher have a rigorous grasp of the subject? Do they effectively communicate that to students? Do they inspire and encourage the students to learn? Do they go above and beyond what is required of them? These measures taken together are an effective way to measure teacher performance.

We are the future teachers of Arkansas, and ours is the duty to embody these changes. As Mahatma Gandhi stated so simply, so eloquently, we must be the change we wish to see in the world. If we want there to be educated teachers in our classrooms, we must become those teachers. If we want there to be inspirational teachers in our classrooms, we must become those teachers. What we begin here today has the potential to change the course of our state, our nation and our world. The future generations that benefit from our hard work will go on to solve problems we cannot, to accomplish things we cannot, and to dream dreams we cannot. We owe it to the future to change the status quo, to remake the education system of our state into something greater than the sum total of its parts. We declare in one voice the end of miseducation, and the beginning of a better future.