Read an Excerpt
Who's Teaching Your Children? Why the Teacher Crisis Is Worse Than You Think and What Can Be Done about It
By Vivian Troen
Yale University Press Copyright © 2004 Vivian Troen
All right reserved.
Chapter One Your Children Aren't Getting the Teachers They Deserve
I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. -Mark Twain
According to a recent Lou Harris poll, nearly 90 percent of Americans believe that putting a well-qualified teacher in every public school classroom is the best way to raise student achievement. They also believe that the quality of the current teaching force does not measure up to what children need and what the nation's educational goals demand. Fewer than a quarter believe that their local school district always hires fully qualified teachers. Fewer than a third believe that their state's current teacher licensing requirements ensure that teachers really know how to teach. Fewer than a fifth say that teachers in their own community are highly qualified. Seventy-eight percent say that the problem of incompetent teachers is widespread. Unequivocally, Americans state that the highest priority of education reform should be to fix teaching first.
The Big Questions
We believe that the American public is smarter about education reform than most of the people who are put in charge of it.
A majority of American parents secretly suspect, or openly acknowledge, that too many of the teachers who are teaching their children are just not as good as the teachers they had when they themselves were in school. Why is it, they wonder, that their children aren't learning math or reading at grade level, and that teachers are failing to take responsibility for their lack of success in teaching the fundamentals? Why is it, after all the time, energy, money, and brain-power devoted to improving public education, that nothing seems to have any substantial or lasting effect? Why is it, after all is said and done, that the quality of classroom teaching seems to get worse year after year?
Parents' suspicions and concerns are well founded.
My daughter will be kindergarten age in the fall, so I started to scope out the schools in my area. There aren't a lot of choices, so I thought I'd begin with a visit to the local elementary school. I went to public schools, my husband went to public schools, my mother and grandmother were public school teachers, and I thought, given a choice, I'd rather have my kids in the public schools. We're paying the taxes. My visit was an eye-opener, and a shock I wasn't prepared for. The class was being taught by a young, low-energy woman who seemed most of the time to be mentally somewhere else. The kids weren't excited. She wasn't excited. The kids sat in desultory circles, sang desultory songs, accomplished desultory tasks while the teacher appeared to be sleep-walking. Okay, I thought, maybe she's just having a bad day. When they sat down to draw, though, was where I went over the edge. "Take out your green crayons," she said, "you won't need any other colors, because we're going to be drawing frogs, and frogs are green." Oh my God, I thought. Not only does this teacher not want any child to have any free expression, she doesn't even know that there are such things as orange frogs and blue frogs and purple frogs! Get me outta here! I enrolled my girl in a private school. It's a stretch financially, but I wouldn't subject my daughter to that environment. I don't care what it takes. -Parent, Bowdoinham, Maine
In our opinion, classroom teaching competency is lower now than it has been since the era of the one-room schoolhouse. Nationally, public education is in a state of disarray. The 1999 Third International Mathematics and Science Study-Repeat (TIMSS-R), showed U.S. eighth graders ranking seventeenth among the thirty-eight countries that participated in the study. Commenting on that study, a writer for the journal Education Week observed, "If the United States ranked seventeenth in the world in Olympic medals, it would be a national embarrassment.... Why can't the same be true of education?" Desperate parents are pulling their children out of public schools and looking for alternatives. Private school admissions and homeschooling are on the rise. Educators and policy makers continue to propose one short-sighted and ineffective solution after another. Education reform is a term on everyone's lips, but it is a phrase without meaning unless the underlying causes of declining teacher quality are being addressed. And they aren't.
It is time to ask why the shortage of qualified teachers is so acute. In the next decade we will need to hire more than 2.2 million new teachers, and nobody knows where we are going to find them. To compound the problem, the best teachers are leaving Americas classrooms at an accelerating rate. As experienced teachers retire or leave for better career opportunities elsewhere, they are being replaced with underqualified, poorly trained novices with little or no experience who, when they enter the classroom, receive inadequate supervision and even less support. One in five will leave within the first three years. The quality of teaching therefore continues to decline nationwide. The problem is most critical in inner-city schools, but even the wealthiest school districts are not immune. There are simply not enough good teachers to go around. In the United States, a technologically advanced democracy dependent on education to produce an informed electorate, 30 percent of novice teachers entering the classroom scored in the bottom quartile on their college entrance exams.
Teaching-as it should be practiced-requires years of training, immense technical knowledge, and intellectual rigor. But there is a gap between how teaching ought to be practiced and how it is practiced in today's classrooms. Within that gap lie the seeds of failure for the American system of public education.
Quality education begins with quality teaching, but teaching is a job that fewer and fewer people of quality want to do. Why are fewer good people attracted to teaching? Why are they so poorly trained? Why do so many good people leave?
The Big Picture
To answer those questions, let's begin by taking a look at the late 1970s. At that time President Jimmy Carter, fearing that the economy was in serious trouble, spoke of a "national malaise." Japan was surpassing the United States in industrial efficiency; American industry was in a state of disrepair. Reindustrialization was clearly necessary. Factories were crumbling, and the tried and true American systems-the assembly line and a hierarchical business structure-were seen as contributing to deterioration and obsolescence. Productivity was down. The nation's infrastructure-roads and bridges, harbors, railroads, sewer systems-was showing dramatic signs of decay. Traditional family life was in disarray, with the divorce rate at an all-time high, and the number of Americans who had slipped below the poverty line, despite the Great Society's war on poverty, seemed to be increasing. Women were entering the workforce in ever larger numbers, but now it took two medium incomes to sustain a family in the middle class instead of the single income that had been sufficient in the post-World War II years.
Unemployment was soaring, and the high school dropout rate, though lower than in the 1950s, seemed more acute because fewer jobs were available. In the 1950s a 50 percent high school dropout rate was acceptable: there was plenty of work. Members of the "blue-collar aristocracy" earned high salaries, and the standard of living in the United States during the 1950s was the envy of the world.
By the 1970s though, the booming Japanese economy was eating away at Americas economic lead, and its self-confidence. Japan had new factories, new industrial methods, new products-and its educational system provided industry with technologically savvy graduates. The Cold War was waning, but a new war was looming, a war of international corporate competition, and it did not look as if the United States would win. A crisis was in the making.
In the search for solutions, the spotlight was turned on American education, and it was found wanting. Already, SAT verbal scores had dropped more than fifty points between 1963 and 1980 (among students who are today's parents and who protest that their children aren't even getting teachers as good as theirs). Although more students remained in high school than in the 1950s, they were far less able on graduation to meet the demands of the changing workplace. Industry leaders complained that the students they hired were not well educated and did not have the skills necessary to help boost American productivity and compete in the global economy.
One reaction to the problems in public education was to turn away from the public schools and look to private schools for solutions. In the late 1970s a battle took place in Congress over tuition tax credits that would enable parents to send their children to parochial and private schools. The House of Representatives passed legislation supporting the use of tax vouchers, but the Democratic Senate under President Carter (narrowly) defeated it. Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called this brush with disaster the wake-up call for America. Unless the education establishment rose to the challenge, he warned, the days of public education were numbered. Growing concern over the politics and processes of public education also gave birth to the movement which was to become known as homeschooling.
With the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980, the debate gained in intensity. Reagan (who as governor of California had been instrumental in disemboweling one of the country's finest education systems) directed his secretary of education, T. H. Bell, to create the National Commission on Excellence in Education. Its mission was to examine the quality of education in the United States and deliver a report to the country within eighteen months.
Among other things, the commission was charged with assessing the quality of teaching and learning in U.S. schools, comparing American schools with those of other nations, and identifying the problems that needed to be overcome in order for America to achieve educational excellence.
The commission's thirty-six-page report, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, was released in April 1983. It was a bombshell. The report stated that American education as a system was "being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity." Presenting statistic after statistic, A Nation at Risk laid bare the failings and inadequacies of American education at virtually every level and in chilling detail. Some 13 percent of all seventeen-year-olds in the United States were found to be functionally illiterate. International comparisons of student achievement revealed that on nineteen academic tests American students never finished first or second and, in comparison with other industrialized nations, came in last seven times. The average achievement of American high school students on most standardized tests had fallen below the levels as tested twenty-six years previously, at the time Sputnik was launched. The report revealed manifold failures: in the quality of school curricula, in school year scheduling and the use of school time, in low expectations of student achievement, and in the recruitment, training, qualification, pay, and working conditions of the nation's teachers. In summarizing its findings regarding teaching, the commission reported "that not enough of the academically able students are being attracted to teaching; that teacher preparation programs need substantial improvement; that the professional life of teachers is on the whole unacceptable; and that a serious shortage of teachers exists in key fields."
Presented under the auspices of a popular president who had elected to take on the education establishment, A Nation at Risk garnered national, media-fueled attention. The damning assessment of the ill health of Americas schools was followed by a flurry of reports and numerous state reform initiatives. These initiatives called for the implementation of new rules and regulations to improve schools significantly.
The first states to rise to the challenge were in the South. Southern states, which had a legacy of poor education systems, were experiencing their greatest population growth and economic resurgence since the end of the Civil War. Lured by cheap labor, the low cost of real estate, and attractive tax breaks, industries were moving south. Corporate recruiters, however, were dismayed by the low skills of Southern workers. Southern governors, realizing that businesses would more readily relocate to areas with an educated workforce, determined that investing in education would be the key to sustaining the new economic growth.
Texas was first. Under the leadership of Mark White, an education-minded governor who had a major involvement in the business community, Texas established an education commission that decided on massive regulatory changes and poured large sums of money into education. In return, the state demanded that teachers be tested. A parallel development took place in Tennessee. Under Governor Lamar Alexander, a "better schools program" was created that established a so-called career ladder for teachers, which consisted mostly of increased pay for greater classroom experience and included teacher testing as well. Kentucky reformed its entire funding structure for education and significantly increased its spending on school improvement. Suddenly, it seemed, the country was paying attention to education.
A Nation At Risk had started the ball rolling, and soon there would be other, equally damning studies and reports on the state of American education. The gauntlet had been flung down, creating both a new agenda for educators and policy makers and a weapon for would-be reformers.
Publication of A Nation At Risk attracted attention to the broad range of problems in the nation's schools, from high dropout rates to low reading comprehension. In reaction, a blizzard of legislative proposals called for periodic standardized testing, merit pay programs, and more strenuous graduation requirements. Those solutions, which were initiated from above but never embraced at the classroom level, failed to realize their desired goal. In spite of all efforts, student achievement remained disappointingly low.
There was a general sense of stagnation in Americas schools, the gnawing fear that we were going to be left behind in the global economy unless strong measures were taken to solve "the problems of education," however those were defined.
Excerpted from Who's Teaching Your Children? by Vivian Troen Copyright © 2004 by Vivian Troen. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.