Friday, May 6, 2011

Parents Just Don't Understand

Offer a few totally underinformed, random thoughts on the state of modern education? Sure, don't mind if I do.

This topic has been occupying an ever-larger chunk of my thoughts lately, as my wife has been studying to become a teacher for the last two years, as my son inches ever closer to beginning proper school -- he will be in pre-K in the fall, so we have less than a year to figure out where he's going to begin his proper education. Public school seems a terrifying option in New York City -- as I write this, the mayor is preparing to cut 4,200+ teachers' jobs from the system, despite generally dismal test scores and graduation rates -- but private school is not economically feasible.

What's the matter with the public schools? Nationwide, success rates are going down by every metric. Everybody seems to want to blame the teachers and the teachers' unions. The teachers' unions, to be sure, need to be taken down a peg or two. For too long, they've strong-armed municipalities into paying teachers the exorbitant salaries that afford them such extravagances as 1-bedroom apartments and pre-owned cars with minimal rust damage, for doing little more than caring for and educating our children eight hours a day.

I can't pretend to know the ins and outs of teachers' benefits or their union's struggles with local governments. But it looks to me like the union is the one thing that affords teachers their one and only true job benefit: job security. What other reason is there to go into a field that pays so little and requires so much? You might say, "Teachers get off work at 3:30 every day. I wish I got off work at 3:30 every day." It's true that they leave the office at 3:30, but then they have hours of work ahead of them, grading papers and preparing the next day's lessons. "Teachers get the summer off." Yes they do, but the time off is reflected in their salaries. A teacher in the NYC public schools of my wife's acquaintance revealed her salary for full-time work and it compares unfavorably to what I make bartending two nights a week. (And that's my side job.) Add to that the daily ordeal of handling unruly students and you've got a job that's almost all downside; a little job security makes it a more attractive option, and I would argue that it's an important enough job that we should be doing all we can to tart it up.

But what about the bad teachers? The bad teachers who are leading our children to ruin? If we can't fire them at will, what will their incentive be to do better, to TEACH OUR CHILDREN WELL? I don't have an answer to this, but I do have a related opinion. And I will offer that opinion by way of a short anecdote.

My lovely wife became interested in dog training several years ago, so interested that she became an expert on it and decided to try and make a living at it. She was good at it, and she scared up clients pretty quickly, but she became frustrated when it became apparent that most of her customers were not returning after the initial consultation. The problem was not with her -- she is smart, knowledgeable, easy on the eyes, and a general pleasure to be around -- but with what she told them: that she was not going to train the clients' dogs. She was going to train the clients on how to train their own dogs. This is not what the clients thought they were signing up for; they wanted to show up for an hour a week and after six weeks, have a fully trained dog with no further effort from them.

This seems to be the approach a lot of parents have toward their children's education. We want to drop our kids off at school and have the teachers do 100% of the educating, with zero effort on our part. But I don't see how a kid can get a decent education without his or her parents' active involvement -- discussing what the kid learned each day, keeping tabs on whether they're doing the work, making sure they're absorbing the material. Otherwise, what is going to get a kid to care about learning? Left to their own devices, all they want to do is play Call of Duty and text each other photos of their privates. They are children, not short adults. If it's up to them, they will try to subsist on whipped cream. Unless they fear consequences at home for not doing the work, THEY'RE NOT GOING TO DO THE WORK, they're going to keep listening to their outsized ids.

The odd and disturbing trend where education, learning and knowledge are disdained as "elitism" by a certain segment of the population and simply "uncool" by another is just more chilling evidence that people need to take an active role in their kids' educations if they want them to get one at all.
The teacher my wife has been assisting as a student teacher this semester told her the following story, which I mangle here to illustrate my point: the teacher began sending text messages to one parent to tell her that her child was totally disruptive in class, did none of the work, and was going to fail unless something changed soon. After several such messages over a period of time came the first and only reply: "Don't ever bother me with anything like this again." Now, when that kid gets a failing grade, is that the teacher's fault? Does that teacher deserve to be fired?
I have no doubt that there are a lot of bad teachers out there. I would say more than half of the teachers I encountered as a kid were less than competent. But when I was having difficulty understanding algebra, thanks largely to an awful teacher who hated me (to be fair, I was not an easy kid to like), I was still able to (barely) pass the class because my dad sat down with me for hours and worked with me on it until I (barely) got it.

The way I see it is, the teacher provides the road map. "This week we're going to talk about the Gettysburg Address." Great. Maybe as a parent you get lucky, and your questioning of the kid reveals the teacher was able to capture his imagination in explaining the content and significance of the Gettysburg Address. In that case, crack open a Bud silo and turn on Celebrity Apprentice, because the work is done. More likely, though, the kid slept through the presentation because the teacher bored him, or the kid thinks the teacher doesn't like him, or WHATEVER, and that's when you have to roll up your sleeves and teach him yourself. Hopefully this close contact will be enough to motivate the kid to pay closer attention during class and spare himself the extra lessons. The point is, you are putting a value on the kid's education, and letting the kid know that.

Though I really think it would be nice if the people who do one of the most important jobs in our society were compensated in such a way that more talented and motivated people might be attracted to that profession, at the same time all the money in the world isn't going to solve this problem. It starts and ends with parents' involvement.

On the other hand, all this reminds me of my brother. My brother is one of the smartest people I've ever met, and he always has been. At some point in high school, though, he started flunking all his classes (except, tellingly, Pascal computer programming, which he aced). Our parents knew he was more than smart enough to ace all his classes, and assumed he was just bored with an unchallenging curriculum, so they tried to motivate him by threatening him: they said if he didn't get his grades up by the end of the year, he'd be grounded for the whole summer. For the rest of the year, he basically stared coldly into their eyes and flunked the rest of his classes (except Pascal, which he aced), and indifferently spent the summer at home.

So I dunno.

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