May 2, 2011

Reteaching America

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There are a lot of things wrong with our current public education system. We base success on standardized tests, fail to provide enough arts education, overcrowd classrooms, mandate prescribed lesson plans and instill endless levels of bureaucracy — the list goes on. The flaws in the education system create an enormous and lasting detriment for both individual students and society as a whole.

Students inculcated with the ideology that learning revolves around knowing one right answer cannot also be expected to learn to analyze information and develop informed opinions — we are then expected to vote for president. Students never exposed to or instructed in arts will never learn to cultivate interests and realize talent — yet our culture values successful artists (singers, musicians, actors, movie producers, clothing designers, etc.) and depends on public critique through art.

The problems with inadequate education go beyond these fundamental impediments to a functional democracy, however. The flaws in the system stem from an inverted view of education, a problem explained in a recent New York Times Op-Ed piece — “The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries,” by Dave Eggers and Níve Clements Calegari, who cofounded 826 national tutoring centers. The current system holds teachers accountable for low student achievement, while they’re simultaneously held to prescribed lessons, given little to no control and paid a salary that makes the job an unlikely first choice. If becoming a teacher required enough training to warrant trust and some control in the classroom, and if teachers were paid enough to make people want to stay in the profession, our national perception of education could begin to change.

Eggers and Calegari cite three countries as points of comparison, the three countries with the highest standardized test scores: Singapore, Finland and South Korea.  As the article notes, these three countries all have lower teacher turnover rates. In fact, their rates are three, two and one percent, respectively. Lower attrition means that most teachers in these countries have significant classroom experience and new teachers are more than likely to acquire it.

In contrast, according to the Times article, “46 percent of [U.S.] teachers quit before their fifth year.” This means 46 percent of our teachers are in their first to fifth year of teaching — schools are filled with inexperienced (though perhaps enthusiastic) teachers who may not have a vested interest in long-term improvement in their respective schools. This is not to say that new teachers are necessarily bad, but any skill requires practice and learning. New teachers have less practice and therefore less opportunity to learn and acquire skill.

Further, in the U.S., becoming a teacher is relatively easy. While in Singapore, Finland and South Korea teachers require at least a master’s degree, in the U.S., new B.A. recipients can teach immediately out of college, acquiring the necessary credentials through internships, experience at private schools or other programs, such as Teach For America.

The problem here is, while Teach For America may be a great way to recruit young, enthusiastic potential teachers into public schools, the formal training acquired does not nearly equal that required by those countries with better educational systems. According to the program’s official website, training takes place during a five-week intensive session and then continues while the new teachers start teaching for real. According to the statistics, these new teachers are likely to leave the profession within five years, and the process starts over again. While in theory direct classroom experience can over time breed wonderful teachers, many of them never get there. The process perpetuates an endless cycle of inexperienced classroom leaders. It’s no wonder the curriculum system doesn’t trust teachers.

To reverse this cycle and stop relying on government-regulated curricula, the requirements for becoming a classroom teacher should be higher and salaries should increase. Prestige surrounding the profession would rise (as it well should; we provide education as a mandatory and fundamental right, and teachers put it into effect) and the job would become desirable.

This level of regard is given to teachers in Singapore, Finland and South Korea, and, in turn, teachers are valued and the field is competitive. As a result, teachers hold a significant amount of power in the classroom. According to the Finnish National Board of Education’s website, “Teachers enjoy pedagogical autonomy in the classroom. Teachers are considered pedagogical experts, and are entrusted with considerable independence in the classroom, and also have decision-making authority as concerns school policy and management. They are deeply involved in drafting the local curricula and in development work. Furthermore, they have almost exclusive responsibility for the choice of textbooks and teaching methods.”

Our educators should be pedagogical experts. Perhaps then teachers would warrant high pay, people would want to become teachers and the government would allow some freedom in lesson planning — it’s absurd to think the same lesson plan will work with every classroom in a country as enormous and diverse as the U.S. Maybe then the quality of schooling, learning and in turn, our society as a whole may improve.

Ruby Perlmutter is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be contacted at rperlmutter@cornellsun.com. Having Said That appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Ruby Perlmutter