Anyone who has read a newspaper or looked at a television news program in the last few years is well aware that the American public education system is considered to be in crisis. How to describe the crisis, how to understand the reasons for the crisis, and above all what to do about it are all hotly contested issues. Nevertheless, there has recently emerged a sort of consensus that teachers are to blame, and that the way to fix the problem is to improve the quality of the teachers, both those coming into the system and those who are already there.
Well, all of us could stand improvement. We here at TBS do not wish to defend the teachers’ unions who resist all change to a system that clearly is not working. That said, however, it remains to be seen whether the sort of ordinary teachers who taught most of us the “three R’s” in the past are really at the root of the problem, and whether turning such “good-enough teachers” into “super teachers” is really the solution.
The Wall Street Journal recently published an op-ed piece by Steven Brill, CEO of RR Donnelley, which is an interesting combination of critical thinking and received opinion on this subject. He interviews a number of outstanding teachers in charter schools—teachers who are “on” every minute they are in front of a class, who never sit down, who, as he puts it, are always moving at a “sprint”—and they tell him that such a pace is simply unsustainable. Teachers like that tend to burn out quickly and leave the profession.
Now, between such “super teachers” and the “dead wood” (meaning teachers whose heart is not in what they are doing, who just go through the motions) there is a vast middle ground. And Mr. Brill has a few suggestions for incorporating the best practices of the super teachers into the training of ordinary teachers.
This is all quite sensible and we have nothing to say against it. But the most revealing line in the piece is one that he slips in, and then drops. It is a quotation by one of his super teachers, explaining one of the reasons for her burnout and her decision to quit teaching:
I get disrespectful pushback from parents all the time when I try to give their kids consequences.
We submit that this statement holds a too-little-discussed key to the problem. The debate so far has been all about teacher accountability, but there is a good argument to be made that it is at least as important to reinstitute the kind of student and, yes, parent accountability that used to exist, and that many of us remember quite well from our own elementary and high school years. Some of the conditions that teachers tell us exist today in the public schools—swearing tolerated as part of the students’ “culture,” teachers who regularly have to shout over the uproar in the classroom in order to be heard because their hands are tied when it comes to meting out punishment—are simply unthinkable to us. How did things ever come to this sorry pass?
Obviously, this drastic change in attitudes toward student and parent accountability over the past few decades did not happen all by itself. It happened as a result of a new educational philosophy that became widespread in the nation’s teaching colleges beginning in the 1970s. From being held to be the linchpin of a well-run school, classroom order came to be viewed as “oppression.” From being viewed as the core task of public education, the handing down of a cultural tradition took a back seat to developing a child’s “creativity” and “self-esteem.” Whatever one thinks about these deep philosophical changes in the landscape of American public education, one has to admit that they have coincided with the decline we all now deplore.
We submit that this is no accident. If that is so, then the crisis we are now experiencing will never be resolved without a frank public discussion of two questions that are at present large elephants in the room: What is the purpose of public education? and What is the proper role in public education for student and parent accountability—or, to use an old-fashioned term—discipline?