Tag Archives: education reform

Tenure Bender

Caught Michelle Rhee on Real Time with Bill Maher the other night. She’s the reform educator who closed low-performing schools in the Washington, D.C. school district.

One of the comments she made was that, when she visited a school early one morning, she found classrooms with five students, seven students, three students in them. Wondering where all of the students were, she chanced upon one classroom with thirty students in it. Leaving the school a short time later, she found herself walking behind a couple of the students who had been in that classroom.

Tapping them on the shoulder, she asked what was going on. The students told her that, while their first period teacher was worth the effort of showing up, their next teacher was not worth the effort of staying. Rhee said that, while people noticing these kids hanging around instead of attending class might think they are not motivated, she took away something entirely different from this encounter.

Rhee said that what she realized was that, these students were motivated enough to get themselves up, dressed, and to school in time for the first class of the day. Once they were there, though, they weren’t motivated enough to stick around. In other words, they were being savvy shoppers of their time.

Rhee’s comment on the whole situation was that teachers make a difference. I have something to add to that. Since even students in the worst schools can figure out whether they are learning anything or not, let’s chuck the whole tenure thing, the whole standardized testing thing, and let the students decide whether a teacher is worth his or her salt, or salary.

Set up each teacher with a classroom of thirty students. At the end of six weeks, if the teacher can’t manage to retain at least twenty students in class, that teacher is fired immediately. All of the other teachers keep their jobs until the next semester/quarter, when the process is repeated. And repeated, and repeated, each year.

Instead of tenure, where teachers keep their jobs until they are forced out, make them provide something worthy in order to keep their jobs. Impossible! you say? Anecdotal, you say? The kids will pick the teachers who make life easy for them? Not so. I will repeat my main point: children are programmed from birth to learn. Given their druthers, they will learn.  They must learn. Learning to be productive in the society in which people find themselves is the only way for the species to survive. It’s in our genes. Students will gravitate to the teachers who teach—it’s human nature. That desire must be stomped out of them.

Look at the Khan Academy, which is a corollary to the main point. We lost teaching when we went from requiring teachers to know their subject to requiring teachers to know how to teach. Sure, aspiring teachers need a few pointers on how to engage a class, how to deal with unruly children, and how to create an effective lesson plan. But those pedagogical aspects have overrun the absolute need to be fully conversant with the subject you are trying to get across to the students. Know your stuff, and the teaching will come. Know everything about teaching, and you still can’t teach celestial navigation if you don’t know it.

And Michelle Rhee? She didn’t get tenure, she got fired.


Filed under Critical Thinking, Education, Politics


Okay, so I’ve ranted and raved. Now what? If the first step toward solutions is awareness of the problem, then we’re all ready for the path to step two. Every pundit, every reporter, every guest on every talk show, agrees that the system is broken. Even if we can’t all agree on exactly which problem should be uppermost, or even which situation is a problem, we all know that the current circumstances are unsustainable. I’ve had enough of the doom and gloom. I’m tired of waiting for someone brighter than me to suggest where to go from here. If no one out there is willing to stick his neck out, I guess I’ll get measured for the axe. Since we have to start solving problems somewhere, I’ll begin with education.

I believe that all of the ills of our country, and of the world for that matter, can be solved through education. Before you go calling me an elitist, let me explain. By education, I mean learning to use our brains to learn, to think, to plan, and generally to be aware of the world around us. Education is not confined to the classroom—in fact, that aspect of education comprises but a tiny part of our life-long learning, and should not even be a large part of any formal learning that we may encounter. To that end, to further the goal of learning to learn, learning to be aware, and learning to think, I suggest the following BIG PICTURE IDEA.

First, hire teachers who know their subject matter, and who are enthusiastic about it. Their energy tends to fire up their listeners. Plus, a person who really knows his stuff finds it easier to convey his knowledge to others.

And get rid of degrees in education. A class or two in technique and resources is sufficient to alert an interested teacher-to-be to what is available. What is more important to those who would impart information is that they have it in the first place. Too many teachers are relying on curricula generated by others, because they do not have the necessary subject-matter knowledge themselves. Nothing tamps down a student’s enthusiasm faster than a teacher who tells him to shut up or move on, because the teacher doesn’t have the answer to a question, and doesn’t know where to begin to look for it.

Second, these teachers who are enthusiastic about their subject matter must also get great joy from watching their students’ faces light up when comprehension dawns, knowing that in every aha! moment lie the seeds of creativity and wisdom. If a prospective teacher is not interested in spending time with children, he/she needs to find another career. It is in his elementary school years that a student’s love of formal education will either be fostered or destroyed, and sparking the light of knowledge should be the highest calling for any teacher.

Third, have one of these bright, enthusiastic teachers assigned to each class of students as they enter the formal education arena. This teacher will be the primary educator for this same set of children as they progress through the system for the next five or six years, and will be the teacher in his/her field of study. This method allows the teacher to really get to know, and care for, his/her students. 

I believe that there are at least three reasons that children learn so much and so quickly when they are quite young: 1) they are programmed for learning, 2) they learn in groups, with lots of assistance and feedback, and 3) they have people around them who care about them, are enthusiastic about their progress, and who want them to succeed. The span of 50 minutes, spread over a nine month period, punctuated with holidays, vacations, and other breaks, does not allow for teachers to make much of a connection with their students. This means that the only measure of success can be test scores. We rely way too much on test scores. Parents should easily be able to track the progress of their children through the children’s interest in reading and the world around them, their level of conversation and the topics they choose to discuss, the questions they ask, and the manner in which they attempt to find answers. We need tests only because students are failing these common sense indicators. 

If a teacher progresses along with a group of students, he/she can get to know each of them as individuals and learn each of their strengths and weaknesses. The teacher can truly act in loco parentis, and be much more flexible in dealing with them than the current restrictive standards will permit.

Fourth, at the end of the five or six year period, when the children are entering their teen years, they can break out of their cocoon, say good-bye to the teacher who shepherded them through the critical early years, and begin a whole new phase of learning. Up to this point, they will have been following this curriculum: Math, Science, English and a Second Language, Social Studies, Economics and Business, Arts, and Physical Education and Health. For the next two years, they will take a break from formal learning in these subjects to learn trades: Woodworking, Construction, Plumbing, Electrical, Auto Repair, Culinary Skills, Machining, Welding, and First Aid.

These two years will give a basic education to those students who want to work in the trades after graduating high school. It will also give those students who plan to go on to college some knowledge of these skills. Humans learn not only through their eyes and ears, but through touch and manipulation. Learning how to take things apart and put them together is a necessary part of awareness of the physical world. 

During the hiatus from the original curriculum, the students will be expected to maintain their skills in the original subjects through independent research and practice.

Last, in the remaining years of secondary formal education, the class of students will be split into those who prefer to remain in the trades curriculum, and those who choose college prep. Those in the trades will begin an apprenticeship program, combining class work with on-the-job training, attaining master craftsman status by the time they graduate.

The college prep students will resume the original curriculum, with independent study in their proposed field, to determine their actual interest and suitability for that field. They will graduate high school with a pretty good idea of what their field of interest involves, and how much work it will take to get there.

This may seem like a lot to cover before the end of high school, especially since it seems that students are currently not able to master a much less ambitious curriculum than what I have outlined here. If you toss out the make work, put in teachers who really know what they are doing, and increase expectations of students’ abilities, then you can stand back and watch them shine. If students feel that they are really being prepared for life after school, if they can watch their dreams and ideas come to fruition, then they will accept the challenge of the hard work that is involved in succeeding.

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Filed under Education