Monday, November 15, 2010

Hot for Teacher II: Hakkaa päälle

I usually run from op-ed pieces recommending "solutions" to the "education problem" like a vampire from sunlight or a priest from a pedophilia investigation, but this article was inescapable, being as it was on the front page (above the fold) of the opinion section of my local paper.The idea that there's a hidden key somewhere (typically Finland) that will unlock the education door and make American schools something more like the shiny, happy ideals we see in Heritage Foundation fliers and pedagogical conference brochures seems almost unkillable. Somehow our nation always seems to be At Risk; at risk of failing, at risk of falling behind those regimented Europeans and cunning Asians unless we do X. Y. and Z, at risk of economic and intellectual desuetude unless we Do Something Brilliant Now.

What's the latest flavor of brilliance?

Apparently it resides in Finland. That's where they train only the "best" students to be teachers. This is our authors' notion, while they recommend somehow magically ensuring that the number of teachers trained matches the teaching jobs available to avoid the current oversupply of discouraged teachers. Let's pay them handsomely, too, finding all those tax dollars' special secret place where the voters have hidden them, and with it we'll also somehow make all schools safe, intellectually challenging places to work. Oh, yeah, then we'll find even more money to evaluate and mentor these outstanding teachers thoroughly, and finally we'll make word "teacher" the semantic and social equivalent of "investment banker" or "major league baseball benchwarmer" resulting in all sorts of public love and respect for teachers.

What could be wrong with that?

Well, nothing, of course. If teaching were like trial law, biomedical research, or writing computer code. You'd jack the pay scale, jigger the working conditions a tittle, and the Stanford and Cornell grads would come shouting in.But teaching is nothing like these sorts of technical professions. Teaching is, fundamentally, a mixture of performance art and artisanal craft with technical knowledge thrown in on top. It is almost entirely personal, and the ability to teach well is highly reliant on the quick development of people skills.

And, what's more, as a teacher you're working with the Great Unwashed, the Average American; many of them will come to your classroom raised on television and video games, short of attention, patience, and ingenuity, trained to expect learning to be "fun", often poorly literate and numerate, impatient with being told that their "effort" is inconsequential and that they will not be rewarded for mediocrity.

I know, because I went from being a professional scientist to a teacher and back again.

As a registered geologist I was presented with a suite of challenging and often innovative tasks to solve in company with other professionals whom I respected and who listened to me with respect. I worked closely with my peers, my supervisors, and the clients, who acknowledged me as the subject matter expert that they were paying well for an opinion. I was able to maintain a stable family life and a fulfilling work life.

As a teacher I spent the vast majority of my day with adolescents who typically considered me an mildly entertaining irrelevance at best and an irritating nuisance at worst. I barely saw my peers and my supervisors were almost invisible. My workday consisted of attempting to introduce the most fundamental aspects of my profession to an audience that generally considered the subject (when they considered it at all) an obstacle to their social lives. I had to spend a hell of a lot of my time dealing with personal issues of people whose lives had been utterly fucked up for years prior to my encounter with them. For which time I was paid roughly half of what I made previously.

I did teach some great students, and agree that with good students teaching is among the most rewarding of tasks. But I also spent a ton of time on "classroom management" - in a setting with gave me a tenth of the tools I had had as a drill sergeant while expecting me to accomplish twice the instruction.

And possibly the worst part was the parents; many of whom didn't care or didn't know what their children were doing. many of whom were manifestly overwhelmed by their children, almost all of whom were struggling desperately under loads of work, family, debt, and a crippling lack of time and intellectual resource.

So the notion that somehow we can just wave a magic policy/money wand and make every public school Saddle River Country Day School?

Well...I think the key here is to look at the examples used in the article.

South Korea

All of them relatively tiny, homogeneous, intensely urbanized and highly urbane polities, typically with cultures that emphasize unity, conformity, hard work and achievement. You might as well start making plans for American public schools in urban Detroit, Seattle, and Los Angeles by looking at the systems currently working so well in Grosse Pointe, Scarsdale, and Beverly Hills.

Of course the educational systems in Finland, Singapore, and South Korea work well.Given the starting points, you'd have to be a thermonuclear-grade moron to fuck them up. I'm just guessing here, but I highly suspect that it has as much to do with the qualities of the Finns, Singaporeans, and South Koreans in the classroms as it does with picking teachers from the top 25% of the ACT and putting scented piss-pucks in the boys bathrooms.
(True fact: the boys bathrooms in the high school I taught in stank like year-old piss. One of my classes started with the idea of raising money to put those disk-shaped odor absorbers in the urinals to help make the bogs a little less nasty, assuming that the lack of pucks was a budget problem. We were informed that, no, the practice had been intentionally halted because of the number of times the pucks had been stuffed into toilets and plugged them up.

Think about that for a moment; what sort of human fishes in a public urinal for a piss-soaked disk to then shove into a public toilet.

Okay, here's the real bottom line.

In 1965 the Coleman Report identified economic class as the single largest factor in predicting academic achievement.

That conclusion has never been refuted.

If you take a look at "failing" schools identified by the NCLB, most of them are in urban or rural poor areas. It's the same here in Portland; our "good" schools are in the parts of town that look like Finland or Scarsdale (wealthy, white) - Grant, Lincoln, Wilson. The marginal ones - Madison, Franklin, Cleveland - are in the browner, more marginal parts of town. The "failing" ones - Roosevelt here in our NoPo and Jefferson - are in the hood, either Hispanic as up here or black in the case of Jefferson. This despite a PPS policy that has been in place for years to encourage the better teachers to choose the tougher schools.They don't - no one would. Because an American classroom in a tough neighborhood is never going to look like Singapore. Or Sweden. Or fucking Finland.

In fact, I'm going to now suggest a goddamn federal law banning on any educational nostrums, prescriptions, seminars, or on-line classes that mention the fucking word "Finland". Or "Singapore". You want to suggest a fix for education? Take something more like us or go to jail, dammit.

I suggest Brazil, maybe.

And this "education problem" isn't going away any other way, either. Income disparity in the U.S. is rising, and the percentage of people falling behind is growing, at a rate we haven't seen since the end of WW2. And the current political climate makes the notion of raising tax money to help the schools where the new underclasses will be warehoused somewhere south of unlikely and a quarter to "ain't ever gonna happen".

So, sorry, boys. I agree we can do better with our schools - though I will argue that they're not as bad as they're made to be, given the available cash and the human timber we're starting with. I won't argue that there needs to be better teacher training, testing, and mentoring, either.But it doesn't have as much to do with finding the academic superstars as it does the great actors, improvisational standups, skilled craftsmen, and savants. I can teach math to a great teacher - I can't teach a great mathematician how to teach.

And let's face it - there's no way in hell the teacher training schools will cut back their numbers and the American public ain't gonna vote the money you'd need for all this stuff, anyway. Your little piece was a nice dream. But it was a dream.

And dreaming of Finland isn't going to solve our problems. Hell, dreaming of Finland isn't even going to lead you to the right problems.

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