Education reform and unintended consequences

One of my favorite stories growing up was Call of the Wild.  On one level, it is an exciting adventure story about dogs set in the tundra of the north.

Thing_dogUnlike “The Thing”, London’s story doesn’t have shape-shifting alien parasites

 

Those who know Jack London, the book’s author, London was also writing a bit metaphorically and with a little more subtlety than George Orwell.  Even if London somewhat misinterpreted Darwin in using bad science as an influence, there is still a lot of good writing.  Among other things, the book’s hero, Buck, is owned for a while by three very inexperienced (if well meaning … early in their ownership, they overfeed the dogs, which leads to a lack of food later) city slickers who manage to completely foul things up, leading to their own deaths as well as the deaths of Buck’s teammates.

Which takes us to the state of American education.

 

I have been working on a post for many months now, but it seems that every time I turn back to it, some new bit of news pops up.  This time, I thought I would shre one of those bits of news that came down the pike, compliments of a science teachers association I belong to.

 

First:  Because of changing population, and the last large impending retirement of Baby Boomers coming in the next 4-10 years, the U.S. Department of Education estimates that the US will need to add about 100,000 new STEM teachers by 2023.  I’m not sure where they got that number, but that is what the target is.

Add in roll backs on teacher benefits + new evaluation systems that are both unrealistic and /or holding teachers responsible for things they shouldn’t be responsible for.  This has had a big impact on driving teachers out of teaching at a faster rate.  Worse, it is having a significant effect on the number of people trying to get in to teaching.

The people who give the ACT have released the results of their annual survey of graduating high school seniors.  The good news is that there appears to be a greater understanding about the connection between STEM and money.  A record number of students … 49% .. showed at least some degree of interest in entering those fields in some capacity.

The problem is the number of students who are showing any interest in entering STEM teaching.

 

Of the 1.8 million graduating high school seniors, only 5,539 said they had any interest in considering a job in teaching in the STEM fields.  The breakdown is more alarming in the sciences:  4,424 in math and only 1115 in science.

 

When you look at the state-by-state breakdown, it is dumbfounding. In the state of Massachusetts, home to MIT and Harvard, only 8 graduating seniors reported that they would consider math or science teaching.  Here is a partial breakdown  (teh number in parentheses is the number of graduating seniors in that state who signified they showed some interest in pursuing STEM related fields of work).

Arkansas:  12 (out of 1846 high school seniors who indicated an interest in STEM careers)
Arizona:     14 (out of 2236 …)
Illinios:     111 (out of 8807 …)
Kansas:     10 (out of 1,806 …)
Massachusetts:  8 (almost 2000 …)
No. Carolina:  60 (out of 6553 …)
New York:   44 (out of 6,703 …)
Ohio:            80 (out of 7116 …)
Tennessee: 35 (out of 4,170 …)
Texas:          65 (out of 10,071 …)
Utah:            16 (out of almost 2000 …)
Wisconsin:  39 (out of  4419 …)

 

Notable on that list is Illinois which had a had one of the higher interests in STEM (notably higher than bigger population New York), and by far had the highest number of potential teachers.  Why?

For once, Illinois’ political gridlock may have done something wonderfully unintended.  Illinois has been slower than other states to fully adopt many of the Obama administration education policies.  This is partially due to the General Assembly being the General Assembly, and also at least partially due to the fact that teachers unions still have a little bit of sway, and have managed to slow down some of the changes that have started to negatively effect education elsewhere.  Now that Illinois has a new governor who says he wants to turn Illinois into he next Wisconsin, that may soon change.

So here we are … the Obama administration, based on a very poor understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of American education (and a very poor understanding that American education does not even really exist as much as there are 50 different states and tens of thousands of districts), attempted to do something well meaning.  Much like those prospectors in London’s story, the lack of knowing what is really going on has caused a lot of unintended consequences.  Mainly they have started scaring a lot of teachers away … and while that sounds appetizing to the anti-school crowd, it also has now completely scared off a lot of people who might otherwise have gone in to teaching.  And that will hurt everyone (unless you are home schooling, but even then, you have to beware of how common core has affected your textbook selections).  Charter schools are already learning a harsh lesson in adapting business models for education:  As a part of the same group that I received this information from, I also received job posting updates.  A lot of them are for charter schools, and a lot of them are “immediate position available” … and these come every month of the year.  In the public schools I am familiar with, a teacher would almost never leave mid-year unless they were being disciplined, there was an emergency condition, or they were trying to send the administration a message.

 Rogers_FingerThis would be that message.  Thanks, Fred.

 

In business, there is less loyalty to the customers than teachers generally have to students, and since there is more of a business relationship with the staff, they feel less compelled to stick around, especially if they feel that teaching is no longer for them.

Is this all doom and gloom?  It is hard to say.  A one year drop does not a trend make … even if the previous years have also seen drops.  Certainly, there are people who are planning on  exciting jobs as engineers and doctors who will soon enough learn that the sight of a finger getting cut off in a lathe or getting sued for malpractice is not their bag, and they will consider teaching.  On the other hand, some of those people who indicated that they would consider STEM teaching are not going to make it either by choice or because they won’t be able to hack it.  Sadly, I suspect that in this push to get rid of bad teachers and really drive our best and brightest into the field, they have scared off the best and brightest, and will be forced to retain some who really shouldn’t be in a classroom.

 

My hope is that sooner vs later (it won’t be sooner … more likely it will be no sooner than 4-5 years from now, which will be way too late) something will be done to realize that you can’t measure education as scientifically as politicians and researchers think, and that there is a lot more unmeasurable art .  Unfortunately, politicians have not given me any faith that they will either react in time, or take the proper steps to fix the damage.  I can only hope by that time that the damage will be far more obvious, and the support from the electorate, which is already waning, will give politicians permission to throw out the Obama plan and come up with something that is good for students and fair for teachers.  This is what will get those numbers going up again.

 

About a month ago, I got an e-mail from a former student through my linked-in account.  He is getting ready to graduate and to enter the profession, and he thanked me for encouraging him through my actions and words, and asked me for advice.

It took me three weeks to respond.  Normally, those are the nicest, kindest words that a teacher can hear.  This letter hit me like a brick to the gut.  I felt horribly guilty.  I wanted to build a time machine, go back to his senior year, and tell him to not do this.  I wanted to tell him now to give up and go do something else.

Ultimately, I decided to tell him that I thought the bad things happening to kids and teachers was almost certainly bound to go away and improve … maybe he wouldn’t have to see that for too long.  That said, I told him he had better have a plan B and C in case he decided that he could no longer help kids through teaching.

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