U.S. Public Education — Can We Catch Up?

U.S. Public Education – Can We Catch Up?

I agree, many, if not most of our public schools need restructuring if this nation is to compete globally. The U.S. ranks a dismal 17th worldwide—which is embarrassing and unacceptable, here are the rankings:  1-Finland, 2-South Korea, 3-Hong Kong, 4-Japan, 5-Singapore, 6-UK, 7-Netherlands, 8-New Zealand, 9-Switzerland, 10-Canada, 11-Ireland, 12-Denmark, 13-Australia, 14-Poland, 15-Germany, 16-Belgium, 17-USA, 18-Hungary, 19-Slovakia, 20-Russia.

If the U.S. is to ever lead the world in public education, we need to understand why/how other nations rank so far ahead of us, learn from them, and make changes. As I see it, we are deficient in five areas: 1) teacher quality and investment; 2) creative/flexible curriculum, 3) technology investment, 4) social and emotional skills development, 5) parental involvement.

FIRST: Teacher Quality and Investment:

Finland’s success is because “Teachers” are chosen from the top 10% of college graduates, and are required to obtain a Master’s Degree. Not meaning to be offensive, but the truth of the matter is there are a significant number of deficient teachers in our schools. Why? Three reasons—education, tenure/rating, and compensation.

     Education: A B.S. in Education is not enough. A teacher not wishing to advance is simply not a teacher we want in our schools. We should require all teachers to earn a Master’s Degree—at no cost to them. School systems should send teachers to teaching conferences and other teacher training. We must “invest” in our teachers by giving and supporting opportunities to advance in their subject matter and in the matter of teaching methods and responsibilities. We must require advancement until they are proven “teachers.”

    Tenure/Rating: Too many poor teachers use tenure to stay in the classroom without having to do anything but follow some inadequate curricula dictated by the state with no true understanding of how to teach. Tenure is important to keep “good” teachers in the classroom. A quality teacher should never be replaced simply because there are new graduates that would take their position for less money—this is wrong. However, a poor teacher should not be able to use tenure to keep their job. We should have an annual teacher rating by both administrators AND students—YES students. Even a very tough and demanding teacher will be rated highly by his/her students—most kids are quite honest, and outlier ratings can be tossed. A consistently poorly rated teacher must be replaced, tenure should not be able to prevent it. Teaching is both an art and a science; if you aren’t a quality teacher, no matter how much you want to continue, you need to find a different career—for teaching is not for you—so says students and administrators.

    Compensation: We must pay teachers according to their responsibility, experience, degree, and rating. A quality teacher should make more than a good plumber—sorry, it’s true. Plumbers do get fair pay, but a plumbing problem doesn’t affect the quality of our society—education does. Why shouldn’t teachers be compensated equal to or above a plumber, electrician, or an engineer? Engineers get recognized in name and $$$ by developing a great structure, but do we recognize a teacher who continually develops great “Students?” And which of those has greater impact on the USA? Too, teachers work far more than an 8-hour day—they take a great deal of work home with them, remain after school, and work weekends. A plumber or electrician gets full pay for every hour they work, not so with teachers.

SECOND: Creativity/Flexible Curriculum:

I taught 7th through 12th grades in Northwestern HS in Mendon, Mo. “I” developed my own curriculum, “I” chose the text books, and “I” was responsible to each student. I taught Life Science, Biology, Earth Science, Chemistry, and Zoology—Yes, 5-different classes. I took the kids ‘outside’ for field studies, and in my classroom laboratory there were no less than 15 or 20 different research experiments underway with plants, animals, and fishes. We had at least 20-white rats, 30-mice, aquariums of fish for experiments, earthworm beds, ant farms, fruit-flies, flesh-eating beetles to make skeletons, and much more. I could use my creativity to, yes, “Teach.” Today’s science teachers are not allowed to use “live” animals in experiments—animal cruelty. When my kids used a low d.c. voltage to shock minnows at one end of an aquarium to determine if fish can see color (which they could), this was not animal cruelty. When they shaved a patch on a white rat to determine effects of different dandruff shampoos, I doubt the rat had much pain. When my kids fed mice different proteins, and had some smoke cigarettes (they created a device—smart kids) to determine weight change and chemical changes in their droppings, was this cruel? I taught my kids to think, analyze, question, create ideas, and see if they panned out. Yet today, teachers can’t do any of that.

A required curriculum restricts teacher creativity. There must be more focus on the process of education rather than teaching mere facts to pass a test. Giving children a less pressured, enjoyable approach to learning, by thinking, increases their intellect and attitude. Teachers should be given a state recommended curriculum and let the teacher teach it in their own manner.  Yes, entrust them with their profession and obligation to “TEACH” using their creativity and expertise. We don’t tell a plumber how to plumb, surgeons how to operate, chefs how to cook, yet we tell teacher how to do their job. Teachers today have no flexibility and no time to be creative, they must follow a state regiment so “all” students are taught the “same facts” in the “same way.” This is pure bull. Take away teacher creativity and a teacher can not teach creativity to kids—PERIOD. Teachers are expected to teach facts so kids can regurgitate and pass a state exam, instead of teaching kids how to think and ‘use’ the facts they learned. Facts are soon forgotten, but when you “use” them to think and create, it stays with you, and more, it teaches kids how to figure things out using their creative minds.

Standard exams are not how we should evaluate students. Some students “memorize” easily, some don’t. Some students have no problem taking tests, while equally intelligent kids hate tests and do poorly. I was one of those, I hated tests and never did well, even in subjects I loved, yet I earned a PhD. I taught very intelligent kids who did poorly on tests, yet when I asked them to explain something they missed without them knowing it was a test question, more often than not they knew it fully. Intelligence is not how well a person can remember a fact, it’s how a person thinks, evaluates, creates, and comprehends.

THIRD: Technology Investment:

Singapore has achieved some of the highest education statistics in the world. They have invested a great deal in technology support within the classroom for students and teachers. Our world today is highly technological, and growing rapidly. We must keep pace with advancements, which requires the best in computer technology with access to technological advancements in the myriad of scientific, mathematic, biological, medical, environmental, government, political, and social arenas. Kids must know what’s going on in the world today. We must have an emphasis on technology being a leverage to improving our schools and the opportunity for children to access this information by investing in digital learning with high-speed internet access for all, and digital textbooks, making learning materials much more accessible, especially to students from lower income households. They need to be able to use that expertise in the classroom and at home.

FORTH: Social and Emotional Skills Development:

For the most part, our schools have ignored teaching our children social and emotional skills. Finland realized their deficiency and developed an aggressive social and emotional skills curriculum that focuses on recent discoveries on positive psychology for a child’s mindset leading to resilience, understanding, acceptance, and maturity of young minds. This is as true for teachers as well. A “Positive” education in all subjects is a fundamental and important integration in the classroom. It cultivates and shapes the way in which subjects are taught, and to educate children on the myriad of ways of encouraging empathy and positivity in their daily lives. Positive thinking and attitude is a skill that can and must be taught in our schools—students and teachers. So many children have little or no empathy. Empathy will go a long way toward preventing bullying. Investment in emotional skills, positive thinking, and empathy will help shape a child in a way that encourages a healthy mindset that will help in all areas of their life.

FIFTH: Parental Involvement:

Many parents today are so busy with their careers and their lives that they use this chaos as an excuse to relegate every aspect of their child’s growth and education to the school system. This is so wrong. They are apathetic parents and their children thus suffer. One reason for the very successful school systems in Hong Kong is that school systems put a great deal of emphasis on parent and community participation in and out of the classroom. This includes parents actively involved in student’s school projects, research, helping with homework, and studying for exams. As well, there is often good opportunity for parent participation in the classroom by giving professional talks in nearly every subject, as well as career and vocation experience.

Personally, I have given talks in creative writing at many schools and still do. I usually dress as Mark Twain and talk about the marvelous world of “reading” and “writing” and present many examples. I have worked in the classroom directly with student in many different areas of creative and professional writing and reporting. I taught them about reporting and had them do it on their own; I sponsored various writing projects, including the writing of a professional environmental document each year, which became a national standard, and was repeated by other professionals at other schools throughout the U.S. The photo at the top is the group of seniors who wrote one of those reports and received a Tennessee award (being presented to the teacher in white and the students–I’m at the upper left). The photo at the left is one of the many annual reports the kids wrote, and all the many illustrations and drawing within the report were done by the kids, including the cover drawings–yes a student drew that fox–such talent. The kids wrote the documents, all I did was guide and assist. During a trip to Washington DC, one of the students visited the White House with her parents and saw one of these documents on a table–talk about excited.

A writing group I belong to, annually sponsors a writing contest for our local schools. We provide monetary and scholarship awards for student writing, from 4th thru 12th grades. As well, we publish their works—they become “Published Writers.” This is one of those books. We still do this. I sponsored a poetry writing contest and the winning poem was published in the Knoxville News Sentinel. The City Counsel saw it and the student was recognized by being given his “Own Knoxville Day.” Yes, he now has a day named after him–imagine how proud he is. There are many ways individuals and community organizations can become a valuable entity in the education of student in their local schools–these are only a few examples of what I do, think of what you can do.

One last thought I’m sure will not be supported by many, is this. I believe a school should indeed have optional “Advanced” classes which are not required by all students, but the term ‘Advanced Placement’ should be eliminated. This simply segregates our children into two classes, Average and Advanced. All general classes should cultivate equality and integrate all student levels without bias, and shape the way in which subjects are taught so to educate all children in a positive way. Should a child wish to take a more difficult class, great. But when a child feels he/she is not smart enough to make the “Advanced Placement” group of kids, this can affect their attitude throughout their education in a negative manner—this is not healthy.

I taught a required High School Biology course, and quickly saw I had students at every level. It was not difficult to teach them all in the same class. I had higher expectations for some, and graded accordingly, but didn’t segregate based on their individual intelligence. I also offered an “Advanced Biology” course, not required, and those students received college credit. But students didn’t feel less of themselves because they didn’t take the advanced class. We should not segregate our children based on their intelligence, we should simply educate at all levels without any hint of higher or lower intellectual status–no tags. NOT taking an “Advanced” course does not carry the stigma of NOT being in “Advanced Placement.” We shouldn’t categorize “Placement” of students by intelligence, it sends a negative message to average kids and, as well, it can send an equally incorrect message to the advanced placement kids that they are better people—fostering arrogance, not empathy.

Yes, our public schools need work, and the only way anything will happen is if this country can realize the deficiencies, study the methods of successful nations, and implement change, including those I have outlined. Will this happen? I doubt it. Sadly, I don’t see the leadership needed to make this happen, nor the support of the Federal or State Governments in terms of money or process. Education has always taken a back burner in this country, and I see nothing ahead to suggest it will change. The first thing we need is National and State leadership BIG-TIME.  Without it we will continue to drop. We’re 17th now, how low are we willing to go? Nothing is more important to the future of the United States than quality “Education” of our kids, yet it ranks at the bottom in National and State politics—how sad. We will never become first or even tenth, if we can’t keep quality teachers in the classroom, for the most critical aspect of public education is the TEACHER, when are we going to recognize this by paying them what they deserve?

To all those GREAT teachers out there, know you make a difference. I commend you, as do millions of Americans who do understand. I just wish there were more of us, and maybe we could force a change in Washington. I’m so sorry we aren’t able to. Just don’t stop your hard work and dedication—we, and your students, appreciate you more than you know—you are the jewels of the U.S.A. And PLEASE don’t leave your job for more money, for you could never be more valuable, no matter what salary a corporation will pay. THANKS

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