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Monday, August 22, 2022

Email from America (12): The destruction of education in the US

When I moved to the US in 1978, teaching was a fairly well-respected union job that could keep someone solidly in the middle class. The pay was not huge compared with union truck drivers and auto workers, but school districts had a pay scale which rose with additional education, and seniority pay bumps every 1-3 years for the first 20 years or more, on top of cost of living adjustments. Pension and health insurance were totally paid by the school districts. Overall, the pay package was more generous in many places than I received as an Assistant Professor at a state university.

Then came the Reagan Revolution of the 1980's . A large percentage of the population became convinced that government, unions, pensions and taxes were all terrible things, which could be replaced and improved by the private sector. The conviction that 'private is better' extended to education, even though standardized measures such as the ACT show that public schools outperform private ones. Once one factors out special education, which most private schools do not do, the per-pupil cost is even comparable.

This hatred of government and taxes led many communities to fail school levies, meaning layoffs and benefit cuts, larger classes, and cuts in offerings, except for the all-important athletics.

These financial issues coincided with studies showing that the average results of the US education system were at best mediocre in world rankings.
This led to a great many self-proclaimed 'experts' to offer their solutions.

Those people included Bill Gates, with his conviction that we could replace teachers with AI. The past couple of years, including the lockdown period, have shown how important the human interaction is to learning and that he is dead wrong.

Other 'solutions' included requiring ever-higher largely useless qualifications for teachers, costing them a great deal of time and money, and making Colleges of Education further inflate their sense of importance.

2001 brought the delightfully-named No Child Left Behind act, yet another attempt to 'fix' education. Rather than adopting the European model of testing mastery at various levels, the act went the route of egalitarianism. Each state was allowed to set its own standards, with the utterly insane mandate that every single student, regardless of ability or disability, would demonstrate 'proficiency' by 2012. In one extreme case in Florida, a blind, wheelchair-bound, non-verbal and brain-damaged student was ordered by a court to have to take the tests.

While these awful tests did nothing to improve student performance, they could be used to punish teachers, who were 'obviously' the problem. This in turn led to teachers in some cities to game the system by teaching the specific answers to questions, telling students the answers, or erasing and correcting wrong answers.

Interestingly, when some quasi-private charter schools tried to improve student performance by a combination of bonuses for teachers and firing 'under-performing' ones, it also failed. It is almost as if bad student performance is not primarily attributable to the teachers.

Now add more pressure.

In the past few years, we have seen the rise of the helicopter parents (hovering over their children), the lawnmower parents (who mow down all obstacles in the path of their children), and the jackhammer parents (who smash their way through everything). Teachers are criticized by parents and GOP politicians for discussing sex, slavery, or actual history. Some have been physically threatened.

Not surprisingly, many are leaving the profession in droves, especially those in the STEM areas, who can make much more money in insurance analysis and other technical jobs.

And what is the solution proposed by Republican politicians in Arizona, Florida, Wisconsin and elsewhere? Require no college degree or other qualifications, under the argument that anyone admitted to college must know enough to teach every subject in K-12 education, even ones which they themselves have never taken. There are, after all, education consultants who specialize in training teachers to follow scripts to teach classes.

How could all of this go wrong?


Paddington said...

In Florida, Governor deSantis believes that being a military veteran is equivalent in experience to being trained as a teacher.

Sackerson said...

I think that should be the other way round.

James Higham said...

Teachers are criticized by parents and GOP politicians for discussing sex, slavery, or actual history.

Quite right. They're teaching CRT and anything but traditional teaching. Need to be deregistered now.

Paddington said...

@James - except that not a single person has provided evidence that CRT is taught anywhere except very specialized programs in graduate schools.