Teachers often complain that their jobs have never been harder and that their profession has lost respect in the eyes of the public. It's true - and obvious - that education has never been a more complicated endeavor and that teachers play a critical role in our culture and our economy. On this Labor Day especially their efforts should be recognized and appreciated. But I think teachers often misunderstand key reasons Americans have grown so skeptical and frustrated with the education system.
Americans are not necessarily dismayed with teachers per se, but with an educational system that seems increasingly inefficient and ineffective at meeting the needs of individual children and their families. If teachers would stand up more vocally for fundamental changes in the way schools are structured, instead of defending a system based on many outdated assumptions, I believe their credibility with the public would increase.
Case in point: this video in which teachers reflect on the sources of the teacher shortage facing many states around the country:
The vast majority of teachers I know personally are extremely hard working and love their students, so it's safe to assume the teachers in this video do too. But to hear them tell it, the only thing we need to improve our schools is more money and less accountability. "Just pay us more and leave us alone to do our jobs, and everything will be okay." But if we really care about improving student learning, there isn't much evidence that this would be the case.
It's true that education spending has been cut since the recession of 2008, but when you look back farther - say four decades back, you see that inflation-adjusted per-pupil education spending has skyrocketed. And yet, despite some modest gains at the elementary level, high school student achievement hasn't budged during that same period.
I'm not saying money doesn't matter. The truth is that schools face a much bigger challenge in educating all students to proficiency than the schools of the 1970s (when we assumed many students would simply drop out). But there's little evidence that all our additional spending - or all of our state and nationally-mandated school reforms - has changed much about student learning. This is not necessarily because of poor teaching, as I'll argue momentarily, but to suggest that schools should have the autonomy of yesteryear (when our embarrassing national achievement gaps were born) but with more money to boot just isn't a credible argument.
What I'd like to suggest is that the traditional structure of schools just isn't capable of adequately educating today's students to 21st century levels of learning. Teachers can work as hard as they can and their efforts will ultimately be frustrated by the structures of a system that was never designed to meet the needs of all children.
I've written extensively on this blog about this problem, and you can see a list of links that further this argument at the end of this post. The bottom line is that our schools are structured as learning factories, designed to educate the mass of children at the lowest possible cost in a standardized process that regards all students as essentially the same. This system was built on the idea that teachers are the experts and that children learn best when they passively comply with teacher directives to absorb and reproduce new content knowledge and skills. It is also a system that assumes most children need to be educated to a minimum level for work in factories and farms, while a small contingent should be prepared for college and leadership roles in business and industry.
This system made (some) sense in the late 1800's and early 1900's when American education was catching up to the economic needs of the Industrial Revolution (though I highly recommend John Taylor Gatto's Weapons of Mass Instruction, which I reviewed here and here, for a treatment of the more sinister aspects of this system). But a factory design to schooling does not make sense in the 21st century and does not reflect the vast amount we've discovered about how human beings learn, new economic realities, or the implications of now having the entire body of human knowledge available to us at our fingertips.
Present realities call for schools that emphasize students' natural curiosity for learning, foster student choice, and use digital tools to provide a maximum of personalization in terms of flexibility and pace of learning. Families desire more options and customization of learning for their children's individual needs. A wider variety of school choices for all families is needed, regardless of income, so that parents can choose the schooling model or philosophy that best matches the needs of their children. Under this new paradigm of schooling, teachers could have considerably more autonomy and the possibilities of reaching students who are essentially marginalized by the current system would be vastly improved.
And yet, instead of leading the charge to remake education, many teachers actively resist these innovations, preferring to hold on to a teacher-driven model of instruction that offers little differentiation for individual student readiness. Even standards-based assessment of student learning, the most basic level of personalization, is steadfastly opposed or undermined by teachers in many schools.
On the policy front, public school teachers are often the most vehement opponents of school choice. In the video above, one of the teachers laments the amount of money spent on political battles around education at the national level. But I'll bet she's not thinking about the huge sums spent by the National Education Association and other teachers unions to lobby against policies that would expand parental choice for low-income families.
In so many cases, teachers seem to be upholding a system that wasn't designed to accomplish the goal I believe really motivates their vocation: helping every child succeed at high levels. This contradiction is a problem that must be addressed if we want to make teaching more attractive and to raise the esteem of teaching as a profession.
So yes, teachers: we love you and appreciate your work. But understand that the public is frustrated with the lack of academic progress in our schools, parents want more choices, and students want a system that gives them a larger role in the learning process and treats them more like an individual and less like a widget on the factory production line. Let us educators be the first to respond and remake schools into something far more innovative and exciting than we've ever seen before. Your credibility will be vastly improved if we do.
For further reading: