In a Part I of this series, I shared my wife’s and my history with K–12 public schooling before listing seven reasons why problematic public school classroom conditions have survived decades of education reform efforts. I discussed only the first three:
- Weak, often poorly targeted, incentives for educator effectiveness and parental involvement
- Classroom composition policies that minimize student engagement
- High rates of out-of-subject-field teaching
To complete my diagnosis of America’s classroom woes, this article will focus on the discussion and elaboration of the final four reasons.
- The micro-management of professional educators
- Teacher tenure, combined with high rates of teacher burnout
- Misleading, boring curricula and textbooks
- Discipline problems coupled with related regulation and lawsuit fear among educators
The micro-management of professional educators
Each time I meet a teacher, I ask if the criticism of public schools and the pressure to improve standardized test scores is, as one could reasonably expect from the resulting top-down accountability pressures, leading to the narrowing of curriculum to test prep and increased teacher micro-management. Invariably, the answer was a very quick and resounding, yes. As my wife’s experiences as a 1990s classroom teacher attest, micro-management was in full-bloom before the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2002-induced increase in testing. Likely as part of the frenzy that followed the 1983 Nation at Risk declaration, administrators became determined to force teachers to be “successful.” The increased testing only made it worse. Recognizing the same absurdity and counter-productivity reflected in the first part of the video below of 2006 Boston Teacher of the Year, Oliver Sicat, my wife pretended to comply with the pressure to use highly-scripted lessons on a precise timetable, while actually doing what it took to maximize her students’ progress. The demoralizing need for deceit to do right by her students is part of what drove her to abandon teaching.
Teacher tenure, combined with high rates of teacher burnout
Because of such distressing factors, weak incentives to excel and attempt innovation, and the conflict that invariably arises from an implicit ‘business plan’ to deliver a uniform, one-size-fits-all product to a diverse clientele—teacher burnout is common.
An extensive survey conducted by author Seymour Sarason found that the tension between teachers and many parents of students stuck in a setting that’s not working for them was so unpleasant, a large majority of those surveyed would choose never having to speak to parents again over a large pay raise.
In the normal circumstances of a business, which needs customer satisfaction to survive, burnout forces retirement or a career change. But some tenured, burned out teachers will undoubtedly choose to coast in their jobs with a minimal effort. A system that fosters burnout and simultaneously makes it easy for a teacher who would rather quit to remain in control of hundreds of children’s education is destined to have some negative consequences.
Misleading, boring curricula and textbooks
In a system that gets its marching orders from the political process, the content of schooling that is assigned must be politically correct by definition. Because public school content must not offend any of the special interests that monitor it, public schools classrooms suffer from boring, confusing, and often inaccurate content. Diane Ravitch’s Language Police, Charles Sykes’ Dumbing Down Our Kids, and the Mad, Mad World of Textbook Adoption document the devastation wrought by taking textbook selection away from teaching professionals, accountable through choice, and giving it to political bodies.
Discipline problems coupled with related regulation and lawsuit fear among educators
Sorting children just by age and attendance zone—that is, without regard to their subject-specific abilities and learning styles— creates differentiated instruction challenges that are arguably overwhelming. Top that off with educator compulsion to kow-tow to politically correct discipline policies that, for example, create fear and paralysis in classrooms by seeing discrimination in disparate outcomes of race/gender/ethnicity-neutral discipline practices, and you have an often-realized recipe for dysfunctional, chaotic classrooms. It also could be a recipe for injury as some students act out as their teachers decide what they can do without incurring legal jeopardy. Such a moment of paralysis while my wife was trying to restrain a student put her in physical therapy for a few months, and her story is certainly not the only similar instance among educators. Like other aspects of schooling, disciplinary policies need to be chosen by parents with genuine schooling choices, not created politically to ostensibly “fit” all..
To be clear, policymakers should stay out of the classroom as much as possible. The issues addressed herein should be left to principals, teachers, and parents to solve. So where then do policymakers fit in?
The answer is school choice as Milton Friedman envisioned it. The government should not favor publicly-owned schooling options over those delivered by non-profit and for-profit independent schools. It should favor students no matter their chosen educational setting. That means the same amount of taxpayer dollars support the education of students in public schools, private schools, charter schools, online schools, or home school. The level playing field between schooling options will force all schools to abandon counter-productive practices and ultimately create a better learning environment for students and a better teaching environment for educators…or face replacement by options that do.