EL PASO – Interrogation. Education. Why does a good one cost so much when we pay teachers so poorly? If education is only about training for a job, why not revert to the apprentice system? What are we teaching our children and is that what they are learning?
In El Paso county, with our nine school districts (let’s count them: El Paso, Socorro, Isleta, Clint, San Elizario, Canutillo, Anthony, Tornillo, Fabens), it seems there is always a well-paid superintendent leaving or being fired, a scandal brewing, a different name for the mandated standardized test, or a change in the way drop-out rates are calculated. What doesn’t seem to change is the poor outcome experienced by a majority of students, even the ones who manage to graduate from high school. There are a lot of cooks in this education kitchen, but the food is barely edible. Sometimes it seems criminal, what we’re serving.
I listened to UTEP faculty complain about poor outcomes for 21 years, and I heard a Dean talk about the closed loop: UTEP graduates the teachers that teach the students that UTEP faculty complain about. And where are we now? The optimists among us would say that lots of things have improved and several problems have been fixed. The pessimists (and I now count myself as one) say that despite whatever change has been implemented, the problem has not been solved, and maybe the root of the problem has not even been identified.
As a social scientist, educational research is a nightmare of hundreds if not thousands of variables, some of them so interconnected they cannot be examined separately. Other variables might have tiny effects by themselves, but culminate in success or failure when combined in certain, sometimes surprising and unpredictable, ways with other variables. It could be that everything about a child‘s education is wrong except for one thing, maybe a teacher, maybe a parent, maybe the school librarian or some other kid that child sat next to that nobody thought to include in the research plan.
What do you need to know to be an educated person, or is that one of those questions that gets answered by “you know it when you see it” which is not really an answer at all? What counts as success? Grades? Graduation? Test scores? Happiness? A job? Wealth? What makes one person a good teacher and another one a poor teacher? Is it the students we put in a classroom, some innate quality within the teacher, training or experience, or something else? Are teachers in classrooms with already gifted and motivated students better than ones tasked with turning “at risk” students around?
I certainly don’t have answers to these questions, but I do have some thoughts. They should be chewed well before swallowing, but here they are on a homemade platter. A person who once applied to teach at UTEP did her research on kindergartens at two different schools, one wealthier and one poorer. The kids in the wealthier school were rewarded for academic achievements and for qualities like leadership and creativity. The kids in the poorer school were rewarded for being neat and clean and following directions. This differential evaluation of very young children was supported by both teachers and parents.
Children stand in line for an astonishing amount of time in elementary school. If you don’t believe me, volunteer for a day and take a stop watch. Children are not hard-wired to stand quietly in line or sit at a desk for six or seven hours a day. I personally believe that’s why we diagnose so many of them with ADHD and drug them.
It is nearly impossible to teach anything important in a typical class period when you have to spend large portions of it taking attendance, passing papers to the front or back to students, fussing with audiovisual equipment, listening to announcements on a loud speaker, and waiting for the bell to ring. School uniforms neither disguise socioeconomic inequalities nor create an environment more conducive to learning. They may make it easier to punish rebels or train students to work at places like Walmart, and they give students one more reason not to think, except about colors and collars.
However, students are discerning when it comes to respect. They hardly ever offer it to someone who does not reciprocate. Many teachers think respect is a one-way street.
Emphasis on rote learning and memorization may have a place, but we seem to test for knowledge that will not need to be retrieved often in life and ignore important life skills. It makes sense to memorize what six times seven is without a calculator. But there are some things that even a calculator can’t help if the concept is foreign. Recently, a friend told me about a sales clerk who couldn’t figure out the sales tax on his own or even with her help and a calculator (the cash register wasn’t working). It is harder to test for concepts than it is to test for facts, but the facts are easy to find if you know what to look for. My father used to tell me that the real value of an education was to teach you what it was you didn’t know, that truly educated persons knew the limits of their knowledge. My experience tells me that kids who love to read eventually (emphasis on eventually) learn to write, and generally do well, at least in liberal arts majors, if they don’t get waylaid by tragic life events. One student confessed that he had made it all the way through high school without finishing a single book.
It is absurd to teach children to be docile and obedient for thirteen years and then expect them to miraculously become critical thinkers and independent readers in the first weeks of college… unless we really intend for them to remain docile and obedient for the rest of their lives. I remember vividly the look of horror on students’ faces when I asked them what they thought. “Oh Miss, please, please don’t look at me, don’t call on me, I don’t have any thoughts.”
Where do we go from here? I suggest returning to the aforementioned kindergarten class. But we have thirteen years to get it right. We should try, at least, in every one of them.