Monday, October 18, 2010

The Problem With American Education

The debate over what ails American education has been roiling for decades now and we are no closer to discovering the real answer than we ever were.

Michelle Rhee's announcement last week that she would be moving on from her controversial position which she has held since 2007 as chancellor of the DC school system has brought this conversation back into the forefront.  Rhee, as you recall, raised hackles in DC by firing 266 teachers she said were "incompetent."  This ran afoul of the unions.  I would venture to say that Rhee would be well within the limits of her job description to fire incompetent teachers; I'm not going to second guess her on that one and, to be sure, some of those teachers did in fact have real ethics problems.

My issue with Rhee stems primarily from the fact that she has only three years classroom experience and no previous experience running a school system, yet presumes to advise teachers on how to achieve brilliance in their own classrooms.  Rhee, it should be noted, had her own learning curve in the classroom and her own share of misadventures while she was there:  she admits to taping the mouths of her students with masking tape so they would be quiet in the halls.  One hopes she learned from that little experience.  She also took four kids out on an after-school expedition without knowing where they all lived so she could get them home after the event.  How does that even happen?  No emergency contact forms or parent permission slips were filed?  While Rhee is lauded for raising test scores in DC, there are questions as to how this was accomplished.

My point is only that Michelle Rhee is not Superwoman.  She's fallible like all the rest of us.

In today's American Spectator, Roger Kaplan writes about Rhee and her decision to move "out of the way" in DC so that "reform can continue."  The article is interesting enough, to be sure, but the comments are equally interesting and reflect today's discussion in America about the fate of American education.

One of the problems, as reflected in the comments following Kaplan's article, would be those folks with lots of degrees but no practical experience imposing direction and regulation on teachers.  Another comment addresses the fact that it should all begin in the home:

More to the point of addressing problems in education, learning is hard work, both for the teacher and the student. The excellent performance of Asian students, as a group, owes to their attitude and effort. They work hard, in part because of the attitudes taught in the home.  The interference of politicians in education results in adopting a "program of the month" approach as well as causing teachers to jump through more hoops.  Education starts in the home and will not succeed unless students are taught and disciplined to work hard to learn and to respect the authority of the teachers and administrators.
This comment was disputed by another that suggests the "obey authority" approach isn't exactly correct as it creates automatons who blindly obey; instead we should teach kids to "value others" and "cooperate with others."  That too, I suggest, begins in the home.

In fact, in the home is exactly where a growing number of children are being educated today.  The numbers of kids enrolled in home school programs has grown significantly over the past few years.
Rhee says that the "quality of education that we're providing is not good enough."  I think in many, not necessarily all, but in many classrooms the quality is there but the desire of the student to learn is not always there.  At some point, doesn't the student have some obligation as well as the teacher and the district?  Or should teachers do as Rhee did and just tape students' mouths shut so they can teach?  Motivating students is just one of the challenges teachers face every day.

I don't have the answer to the problems with American education.  The problems are as diverse and as different as the districts across the country.  I would suggest that the federal government get out of the education business and get it back to the state and local level where the individual needs and criteria for each district can be better assessed.  What works in Stuyvesant High School in New York may not work for South Delta High School in Rolling Fork, Mississippi.  I don't think a "one size fits all" criteria works when it comes to education; the needs are as different as the students themselves.

As far as Michelle Rhee, I think she probably did some necessary things in her tenure as DC chancellor, but she wasn't perfect and she leaves behind some unanswered questions.  The problems in DC are not the same problems everywhere.  To assume Rhee has all of the answers, or none of the answers, misses the whole point.  The answers are as diverse as the districts themselves.

(Photo credit:  Gary Landsman)

1 comment:

Adrienne said...

Schools should be privatized. Allow parents to send their children to which ever school does the best job for the least amount of money. Quit taking tax dollars to support a failed system and the people will have more than enough money to pay for school.

Government, in particular the Feds, have no business being in the education business.