Politics of EducationBy Dr. Brad Johnson and Tammy Maxson McElroy
Have you noticed the increased attacks on the teaching profession? The media and many politicians seem to think that many teachers are lazy and incompetent. It’s not just an article here or there, it seems to be everywhere! While we are aware that there are some teachers who may be ineffective, isn’t that true of any field or occupation? The reality is that the majority of our teachers do a great job and work harder as a group than probably any other profession. However, it has become such a thankless job that one wonders why any of us ever taught in the first place.
However, I also realize that the teacher blame game has risen out what I call the “Politics of Education.” Interestingly, our politicians and “powers that be” are quick to proffer their plans to fix education and “get teachers in line” with a bombardment of new initiatives (NCLB, Race to Top, etc.), more accountability, and the latest in educational programs that will “fix” education. They dare not place the accountability on flawed initiatives, lack of parental support or the decay of respect and morals in our culture. Why? Because its hard to rally support when it requires self reflection of the general population. However, simply find a scapegoat to focus on and they will get endless support for funding with very little scrutiny of their actions.
We are all aware of the emphasis placed upon standardized testing. While there does need to be instruments in place to check the progress of students, it seems education is more about test taking than actually educating students. One reason for their pervasive use is that they are relatively easy to administer on a wide scale, which is no small matter when dealing with a large population. However, the problem with placing so much emphasis on testing alone is that too much authority is vested in these test. The results of testing can determine the way programs and initiatives are developed, what is taught, and the climate of teaching and learning. It shapes legislation and the funding policies of public agencies. Basically, it drives the governments control of the purse strings to education. Those strings are used to make teachers dance like puppets rather than treat them like professionals.
Presently, a major focus in education is on teacher training. While teacher training for specific areas of need may be helpful, the reality is that most of the training is simply preparing teachers for new programs that will be implemented. These aren’t workshops that focus on teaching or leadership training but rather on how to implement the latest reading or math initiatives. In fact, workshops are rarely developed that are of real interest or actual need to the teachers.
Another problem is the inconsistencies within school districts as well. Millions of dollars are spent every year trying the latest reading or math programs, which replace the ones implemented within the last year or two which also costs millions of dollars. There are school systems that change literacy or math programs more often than they change their lunch menu. How effective can a reading program be when a program like SRA is used one year and the next year a school changes to a program like Soar with Reading. Here again, any teacher training is used to prepare them for the new program.
Yet, the powers that be are seriously going to blame the teachers? It’s no wonder teachers don’t typically speak up for themselves; they are too busy trying to incorporate all the different programs, initiatives, methods, philosophies, and curriculum into a school day without losing their minds!
On top of all of this, now there is a renewed buzz over the education systems from top performing countries. I have recently received several links from people about articles on the greatness of the Finnish education system. There are Finnish educators speaking throughout the US about their effective education system. Now, I am not putting down any other country, and I think teachers in any country should be appreciated for the wonderful work they do everyday. But, before we shut down our schools and send all of our children to Finland, let’s see how the two really measure up. First of all, Finland has a grand sum of 540,000 students. In comparison, the US has more students (573,000) identified as Intellectually Challenged ( mentally retarded) than the total number of students in Finland. In fact the US has more students in special education programs ( 6.1 million) than the total population of Finland (5.4 million). By the way, the US has over 81 million students!
The students in Finland are also a more homogenous group. 90% of the Finnish population actually speaks Finnish. In the US, only 70% of the population speaks English. If these percentages are used to break down student population, then approximately 486,000 of the 540,000 students in Finland speak the native language. In the US, 57 million of the 81.5 million speak the native language. Even a conservative estimate would mean that over 20 million students don’t speak English.
Remember the buzz about Singapore math? Here again the powers that be look to another country because they must do things better than our teachers. Singapore has about the same student population as Finland (532,000). Singapore does have a more diverse population than Finland. However, in Singapore students with disabilities are not required to attend school and there are no public schools for students with disabilities. This means that students with disabilities are not included in their educational statistics. [Continue to page 2]