An earlier version of this essay appeared in educational Horizons 80,2 (Winter 2002) pp. 263 - 275
Political Support, Smaller Classes
& National Board Certification
Three Good Ideas?
by Wade A.
Carpenter, Ph. D.
Good news! Only fifteen of the state governors attended this year’s “Education Summit” (Education Week,October 17, 2001, p. 1). Please, dear Lord, let this be a harbinger of things to come. . . .
Why should we regard this as good news? Isn’t political support for public education reform a good idea? Of course it is. But there are many reasons why reforms are adopted, only one of which is instructional merit. I think we can safely conclude that instructional merit has been the least important element of this generation of reforms. Maybe, just maybe, the low turnout at the education summit is the first sign that the politicians will get off educators’ backs.
So spread the word far and wide: American public schools are alive as educational institutions, but they may soon be dead as a political issue. With an economy in the dumps, major elections two years off, and an unusually nasty new type of war rightly absorbing public interest, maybe there just aren’t enough votes to merit the attention of our representatives.
Ironic, isn’t it? Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s I was begging for anyone to pay attention to the problems of the schools; now I’m cheerleading a new, golden age of benign neglect. Back then, the only response an upset teacher would get at cocktail parties was a dismissive “That’s a noble job....” or a patronizing “Gosh, I don’t think I could do that....” followed by the unspoken but nonetheless audible “Why the hell do you?” Immediately following that, the civilian would walk away to start talking with anybody else who was close by (I once saw a fellow actually initiate a conversation with a known insurance agent . . . honest!).
I used to wonder if I was the only teacher of that generation who got thoroughly disgusted with those and similar platitudes. It got to the point that at one party, when a well-known big shot gave me the “I don’t think I could do that” line, I just looked him square in the eyes and replied, “No, I don’t suppose you could, could you?” It may not have won me any friends, but it put an end to the b.s., p.d.q.
Then, after the publication of A Nation at Risk, the pendulum swung to the opposite extreme. Everybody was interested in education, and predictably, politicians were drawn to it like hogs to slop. As a candidate in the comic strip “Doonesbury” once remarked: “There are no social problems; there are only political issues, and I promise to respond to each of them.”True . . . so true.
Now, almost two decades later, I’ve survived four “education governors” in two states and one “education president” (plus the one who was into sex education), and I have only seen one significant improvement, and that one was of very limited application: here in Georgia, our lottery has led to something I couldn’t have imagined even ten years ago — well-funded public schools. I hate to say anything nice about a politician, but I’ve got to give our former governor (now U.S. Senator), Zell Miller, credit on that one. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not implying that the money is being spent intelligently, but it is there.
Otherwise, just about all the reform has been either unhelpful or downright pernicious (see Carpenter, 2000, 2001; Carpenter and Laseter, 2001). To the delight of advocacy groups but the dismay of teachers, what may be called “predatory democracy” has reached the point that we have to respond to every splashy idea that makes a headline. Much of the burden from this falls directly upon the teachers, and teachers are increasingly fed up with it. As I’ve said before in educational HORIZONS: the good teachers have been reformed half to death, and the bad teachers will never be reformed. So let’s encourage the politicians just to forget all about education reform and go on to issues that might be solvable by political action.
For our sake down here, I’m hoping that George W. will show a spirit of bipartisanship and elevate our current governor, Roy “le Roi” Barnes, to some federal position, preferably one as politically suicidal as the Homeland Security post he created for the former Pennsylvania governor, Tom Ridge. (Many of our victories in the war on terrorism will undoubtedly have to remain covert for our lifetimes—but he will take the heat for any losses.) Maybe le Roi Barnes can be the next “drug czar,” or ambassador to Colombia, or even be given the responsibility of securing an Israeli-Palestinian peace.
What if I’m wrong, and education reform is not moribund after all? What are some of the reforms that we could be facing if the politicians are not successfully distracted? I can think of two more ideas that might seem good but have the potential for disaster for teachers and kids.
Smaller class size
Odd as it may seem, this long-needed system tweak is already showing a dark side: easier entry into the teaching force. Much easier, in fact. It is estimated that over the next ten years American schools will have to hire around 2 million new teachers (Latham, Gitomer, and Ziomek, 1999). And because of recent standards-oriented reform here in Georgia, personnel directors tell me they are already facing a seller’s market. Hmmmmm. Now, bear with me here: the “noblest” job in the world, a job that in its essence—the teaching part—is really a delight for most of us, a job with steady if not enviable pay, pretty good fringies, a comparatively high degree of job security, a job that attracts zillions of vendors trying to sell us teaching aids, a job with perhaps the highest frequency of acts of kindness of any in the world— and we can’t fill the classrooms with qualified people?
That should tell us that something is wrong with the conditions of work. We and the public should understand that there is really no teacher shortage at all—although there may be a shortage of qualified, knowledgeable people who are willing to teach. There are millions of fully prepared, certified teachers “out there” not teaching because the salary or the working conditions are unacceptable.
I have written about the specifics of teacher abuse in this column before, so I won’t assault you with yet another litany of despair. But certainly large class size has been one of the major problems, and the efforts of some politicians, including le Roi, to remedy this have been almost smart. Sadly, instead of making teaching more attractive and rewarding, our governor and some others are going “outside” to look for cheap labor. In Barnes’“alternative certification,” career changers receive twenty days’ training in what their own instructors call “survival skills” and are then dumped into classrooms. The first cohort was highly selective, and I’m perfectly willing to believe that these are fine people. But from what their instructors tell me, these fine people have little or no idea what they are getting into, and there is no time at all in this program to tell them. They will find out the hard way, with thousands of kids in their hands.
Perhaps more significantly, they have had little or no preparation in assessment. Given that we are in the age of accountability, in which the Ten Commandments have been rewritten— “Thou shalt take the third-grade test, the fourth-grade test, the fifth-grade test, the sixth-grade test, the seventh-grade test, the eighth-grade test, the SAT, the state graduation test, and, if you’re going to be a certified teacher, Praxis and the state test” — this is intolerable.
Not only have they been given no instruction in preparing kids for the standardized tests, they have not even had any preparation in writing test items for teacher-given tests, the stuff of which grades are made. As all veteran teachers know, writing test items and designing a reliable and valid test for even a single textbook chapter is a difficult technical task. And since, like it or not, grades are the primary determinant of which colleges and careers are open to children, I’d say testing is not just a technical skill — it is a moral issue. I wonder what would happen if the parents learned about this hole in the twenty-day wonders’ preparation? Granted, many parents pay almost no attention to educational concerns, but when it comes to their little darlings’ grades, you can bet money we’ll get a heap of response!
That leads us to the opposite problem, the third good idea for this issue’s column. At the same time that we have this push for easy access to teaching for some, the demands on those who go the traditional routes through college or university teacher education programs are becoming prohibitive for all but the very few. Are we being set up for a two-tiered teaching force in which the mass of teachers are inexpensive short-timers trained to efficiently carry out idiot-proofed curricula under the guidance of a small,elite corps of career teachers prepared with the greatest rigor? And I’m afraid the central component for these elite teachers will be —
National Board Certification
Please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. I am not saying the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is a bad idea. Far from it: there is not a single thing in its program that I object to. I’m not against any of it. I am, however, against all of it.
It’s just way too much. Throughout the last four or five presentations I have heard on it, one thought kept going through my mind: “Ya know,I can think of at least 5,000 other ways to improve teacher quality, 4,999 of which are less punitive on teachers.” I agree: National Board Certification could be a valuable way to (a) improve teaching and learning, (b) give master teachers new challenges and better pay, and (c) get better publicity for all of us. But you know just as well as I do that some politician will hear about this wonderful idea, climb aboard, and ride it all the way into public office. Then you can be certain it will become a really bad idea.
Whenever I bring this up, advocates assure me, “Nope. Couldn’t happen. It would be too expensive.” To which I respond, “Yeah ...right. That’s what I said about computers.” In addition to the Doonesbury Principle, we also need to remember that regardless of instructional merit, no cost is too great, if paid by the taxpayer, when there are enough votes in it for the politician. And again, there’s the ubiquitous politicians’ logic: “Something must be done! This is something. Therefore . . .” We can safely predict that the subsequent implementation will be either so watered down that it will be worthless, or it will be idiotically burdensome for the teachers. Probably both.
This will happen, unless we act now to convince our leaders that we are no longer important. We’ve got to stop them, before they strike again.
Carpenter, W. A. (2000) Behind Every Silver Lining . . .: The Other Side of Dedication. Educational Horizons 79 (1): 13–15.
Carpenter, W. A. (2001) Behind Every Silver Lining . . .: The Other Side of Teacher Leadership. Educational Horizons 79 (3): 108–109.
Carpenter, W. A. and Laseter, J. (2001) Teachers and the Ever- Present Danger of Reform. Kappa Delta Pi Record 37 (3): 116–121.
Latham, A. S., Gitomer, D., and Ziomek, R. (1999, May) What the Tests Tell Us about New Teachers. Educational Leadership 56 (8): 23–26.