People Who Know Nothing About Schools Telling Us How to Fix Them

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Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

People Who Know Nothing About Schools Telling Us How to Fix Them

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Today's rash of quick fix answers started with Steve Jobs telling us the teacher unions are broken in the worst possible way. Principals can't get rid of poorly performing teachers. Plus Jobs says we need online books that are updated like Wikipedia. Brilliant job of stating the obvious and repeating things everyone in education knows. Yes, teacher unions help protect the jobs of poor teachers and yes textbooks are not being updated fast enough. I have yet to meet a teacher, a principal or a school board member who doesn't agree with those statements.

Don Dodge jumps in to support Jobs and to add that the other part of the problem is that principals have no way to reward top performers. Is there someone in education who doesn't know that this is a problem? It is a problem hardly anyone wants to fix though because it depends on people being fair and no one respects principals enough to give them a job like that. Robert Scoble agrees with both Jobs and Dodge and suggests that teachers need to be paid more. And he should know because he used to be married to someone who used to be a teacher. They all mean well but the problem is bigger than they think it is. In fact it is much too large to cover in a blog post. One of these days I'll write a book.

Heaven save us from experts. They all seem to have one thing in common - they think that teachers are, if not the only problem, the largest problem with American education. By my reckoning there are several groups that are a much larger problem. They are:

  • Government officials and the rules they lay down
  • Parents and the lack of support they give education
  • Students and their lack of willingness to do their part
  • Voters for not supporting the needs of good education

Yes there is work that can be done to improve teaching and teachers (let's start with schools of education by the way) and also school administrators. No question that there is room for improvement. But for the most part we are looking to fix large problems by fixing small things. Look at it like trying to fix a car by putting new tires on it while ignoring the fact that the engine is missing.

Every time the subject of school vouchers comes up someone tells me "schools that receive vouchers should have to follow the same rules that public schools do." Let me translate that to English. "Schools that receive vouchers much be required to fail." The government creates sets of rules with fairness as a theoretical goal but with a practical effect of making money for lawyers and life hard for teachers. It's not really about education as much as it is about control and covering peoples rear ends. It is about taking the easy way out regardless of results.

Take some of the aspects of no child left behind for example. If a school is failing the principal will be replaced. Will the new principal have any more power to effect change than the person they replace? Good grief no! That would be wrong. Is it any wonder schools don't improve. Or better yet, if the school doesn't have enough resources to do a good job let's take some of those resources away until they do a better job. Yeah that makes sense. If the board is too short cut it again.

Parents? Oh you don't even want to get me started on parents. Help a teacher control their child in class? Oh no that is the teacher's job. And oh by the way the child has heard the parent say that they don't respect teachers because people who make that little don't deserve their respect. And the parent who explains that the reason their child's report is word for word the same as the article in the Encyclopedia is coincidence? What about the parents who take their kids out of school for a week (or more) for a family vacation and demands that the teacher make it up when the child returns? Ask any teacher and you'll get stories like that for hours. How do we hold parents accountable for helping their children learn?

What about the student who refuses to do the work? Or who is disruptive in class on a regular basis? Why do we hold a teacher responsible for a student who thinks that filling in the bubble sheet (for a standardized test) in a pretty pattern is more fun than actually trying to figure out the answers? Or the student who comes to class to sleep because they were up late watching their friends play hockey? Or they worked late earning money for designer jeans and a new iPod? My father believed my job as a school aged child was to be a student. That's what I told my son his job was. In some parts of the work that is still the case. Not in the US of A though. Fix that problem Steve Jobs! No, you're not interested because it would cut back on iTunes sales wouldn't it!

I hear a lot of talk from voters about school issues. Cut the budget. Books out of date? Too bad. Computers old? Too bad. Teachers can't afford to live near work? Too bad. Cut cut cut. Do more with less!

Now I'm not a real expert. Yes I did teach in the classroom for nine years. I only spent one year teaching in elementary schools though. Although I did teach every grade from kindergarten through eighth grade that year I spent most of my teaching in a high school. I did serve six years on a (private) school board and another six years as an elected member of a public school district's budget committee. My wife and son are both public school teachers. My son teaches special education BTW. So I think I understand a little bit about how schools work. But I'm sure people will be happy to tell me where I am wrong.

The problems are huge. The need is for a complete restructuring of our education system. We need more choices for students and more responsibility placed on them and their parents. We need a way to remove the kids who refuse to learn and extra support for the students who want to do more (that means for gifted and for special needs both).

We need a new culture that values education above sports. We need teachers who are trained to teach using technology and who are provided with the resources (including paid training like most other professionals get) and the chance to be rewarded for doing a good job. We need principals who can get rid of bad teachers, reward good teachers and deal in a fair way with problem students and parents. We need testing that is reasonable but we need to lose the idea that we can test quality into the system. We need to teach the things that are hard to test. Things like creativity, problem solving, critical thinking and initiative. We need parents and other adults who lead by example - being life long learners and putting their time and money into education for themselves and their children.

As hard a problem as Steve Jobs may think fixing education is in actual fact it is harder than that.

  • As a former high school techer and current adjunct faculty at a large university, I say bring on the criticisms.  One of the worst characteristics of school systems is the entrenched thinking.  The unions do support that in their current configurations.  Terrible teachers are kept on, side-by-side with excellent instructors.  

    The education system needs to be shaken up radically to turn a corner.

  • Oh the discussion is great. And I agree that there is too much entrenched thinking in schools. I would like to see people like Steve Jobs putting some of their money where their mouth is though. Bill Gates has been doing so and while there hasn't been the success he and others would like I am more impressed with actions than just words.

  • Every one wants a simple problem with a simple fix.  The truth is that this issue is so mind numbly complex no one probably can understand it.  But the idea that there are some bad teachers that cause all the problems and that the unions are responsible for keeping them employed. That is easy to buy into.

    My wife is a teacher, I hear her stories.  I don't know if there is a answer.

  • April Castro:In a rare joint appearance, Jobs shared the stage with competitor Michael Dell, founder and CEO of Dell Inc. Both spoke to the gathering about the potential for bringing technological advances to classrooms. "I believe that what is wrong..

  • About your title:

    "People Who Know Nothing About Schools Telling Us How to Fix Them"

    Change "schools" to "politics", and "them" to "government".

    Hmm - doesn't seem nearly so intelligent a catch phrase now, hmm?  For the same reason we have civilian control of the military, we need to have non-educator control of education.

  • James, we have always had non-educator control of education for the most part in this country. Any idiot can get elected to the local school board. That hasn't really worked out, now has it?

  • Umm, Steve was discussing the problem with school unions back in Feb. 1996 with an interview with Wired - he was still working at NeXT at the time.  I quote the interview (

    "It's a political problem. The problems are sociopolitical. The problems are unions. You plot the growth of the NEA [National Education Association] and the dropping of SAT scores, and they're inversely proportional. The problems are unions in the schools. The problem is bureaucracy. I'm one of these people who believes the best thing we could ever do is go to the full voucher system."

    So, Steve is being consistent in voicing his opinion about the educational system.  But, he's being inconsistent when it comes to his view's on technology solving the problem of education - as of recent he cites Wikipedia has one solution to the problem, but in the Wired interview he chides technology as solving very little:

    "Lincoln did not have a Web site at the log cabin where his parents home-schooled him, and he turned out pretty interesting. Historical precedent shows that we can turn out amazing human beings without technology. Precedent also shows that we can turn out very uninteresting human beings with technology."

  • Unions are completely unnecessary in this day and age.  They served their purpose in the early to mid 1900's, and are now completely useless.

  • I recently sat down to think about the school system, as a person that recently got out of public school.  And yes the problems are vast and there are huge holes everywhere.

    I have to agree with the overall theme of the post that it isn't a simple fix.  To fix the school system things accross the board have to change, not just in public education.  

    To truly change things in the education system almost ever aspect of our lives needs to be examined and broken down to fundamental parts and analyzed as to what is working and not.  When we find a part that isn't working fix it reanalyze the situation until the fundamentals of how our society "thinks" about education is change for the better.

    Right now a lot of people think that education system is a lost cause or that public school is a government funded daycare, have actually heard people call it that in complete sincerity.  It would probably take a complete book to write out how to effectivly change the school system because the problem doesn't just lie in the school system i lies in how we view the world around us.

  • Eric, please cite your reasons for this broad statement. How, exactly, are they useless as a concept? As a special education teacher for 10 years, our union was barely able to keep ahead of the abuses that made us unable to perform our jobs correctly on a daily basis. My union had its problems, but it was FAR from useless. I would have burned out 7 years before I did had it not existed. Are you a teacher? If not, you have no right to make such a silly statement in response to a post regarding teacher unions. You, much like Jobs, have no idea what you're talking about. And if you are, I certainly hope you open your eyes.

  • Alfred Thompson has, so far, made the most intelligent comments on this topic. It is easy to blame the teachers union, but a big share of blame must lie on the number of mind numbing politically correct rules and regulations that teachers have to cope with. When i was at school, the teacher was allowed to give me the odd whack around the head to get my attention (it worked!). Now he has to beg me! That hardly ever works, wastes time, and results in less learning.

  • Unions are a sign of poor management not a cause of it. Where unions have outlived their usefulness is with companies that try to be fair to employees and the unions try to over reach. While that happens (unions over reaching) in education, with protecting bad teachers being the one big example, there is still the matter of protecting teachers from arbatrary and often unfair treatment by political administrators and unreasonable work rules. If we treated teachers fairly unions would fade away quickly as many teachers do seem to object to the bad sides of them.

  • " If we treated teachers fairly unions would fade away quickly as many teachers do seem to object to the bad sides of them."

    In other words, teacher unions remain vital.

  • As a current high school teacher and _not_ a university professor (take it with a grain of salt, folks, but the tension is there), the issue isn't so much teachers who are in rut in their thinking, it's the idea of this article: folks at the top make a lot of decisions and have been for lots of years.

    Teachers, though, are left to make it look as though they are making some of the changes of the current 5-7 year cycle, but at the same time continue to do what they, as professional educators, know to be the best thing for students and parents.

    It amazes me that the same people who are making education the whipping boy of society's problems were educated under the "old and imperfect" educational system.

    If you really want to change society (which is what really everyone wants to do, for some reason) change professional journalism. Sounds silly, but watch 5 minutes of local news and then try to stomach the 24-hour news, and you will see where and what our thinking as a society has gone.

    Don't blame it on your 3rd grade teacher, or your high school English teacher who made you read and write; go after the shapers of what we talk about during the day in the name of "importance."

    Now, I need to figure out how OJ is connected with Anna Nicole.


  • What a defensive title.  Obviously everyone knows something about schools.  We've all had to endure them.

    You should pay heed to someone like Mr. Jobs who obviously thinks outside of the boring four-wall classroom setting.

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