Is Public Education Essential to our Leaders Anymore?
By Shawn Beightol
This was published in the Progresso Weekly in February 2003:
Last Friday, in my chemistry class, a young man took out his saxophone during his presentation on electron affinity, a measure of how the addition of an electron affects an atom energetically. He played a chaotic, but oddly predictable set of notes, concluding with the explanation “that’s what I felt when I looked at the graph of how affinity varies with the number of protons an atom has.
I then asked him to play the first stanza of “Joy to the World” (a romp down the musical scale) and our discussion led into the old theories of triads and octaves that scientists had found in nature, concluding with the revelation that only recently, biochemists have begun looking for musical patterns in the human genome. A sense of hushed wonder settled over the class as the students processed these disparate yet wonderfully connected ideas.
For me, trained in both philosophy and chemistry, it was another day of risky teaching – artfully grasping and pulling the pieces together, daring to let the students question, speak, and ponder. Not every class can be finessed to end this way, but with the right training and a little luck, it happens.
Down the hall, other broadly trained teachers weave their own multidisciplinary training into the curriculum, bringing to life with wit and experience the material that students would otherwise call “dull.” Creating a learning environment at which any observer would marvel, knowing that solid education was taking place.
We do this skillfully day by day. I won’t say it’s effortless, but after years of study, training, research, and practice, we come in each morning capable of taking student concerns and questions, interruptions, fire drills, and news flashes, and we produce teachable moments. Moments that students will remember for the rest of their lives.
My fear is that such moments will become rarer and rarer for our children. That education will erode or devolve into a set of drill and practice exercises, whether via a script reading class monitor or a flashy webpage with hyperlinks to the next state standard. Though both could theoretically produce a set of successful test takers, neither would be capable of dealing artfully and skillfully with the infinitely variable and multifaceted social and intellectual needs of our children.
I fear this because I extrapolate the current conditions, shortages, and attitudes into the near future where predictions for a shortage of teachers reach the millions. I don’t see us moving strategically to be prepared for this moment. The fact is, it won’t be a moment, and there won’t be a last minute fix to save the day.
We are already challenged to find sufficiently trained personnel to fill positions. Try it sometime – ask a principal to locate on the district network a qualified replacement for the various disciplines that she or he would be willing to hire. I’ve sat through hiring interviews and observed the reactions that the interviewers had, during and after the interview.
What we are offering potential educators right now is not sufficient to attract enough talented and motivated academics with the character to engage and hold students’ attention to fill our current needs. Apparently, from the statistics that Colleges of Education are reporting, neither is it enough to attract them to enroll in the programs to become educators in the first place.
If we cannot meet the current level of need for these, how do we imagine we will be able to handle the millions of retirements that face our teaching corps in the near future.
My suspicions are that we are either playing ostrich with our head in the sand or someone somewhere sees this as the opportunity to use a crisis to achieve a budgetary coup d’etat: that is, wait until the crisis becomes undeniable and use it to pass emergency measures that allow for the lowering of standards and commensurately, the lowering of cost per teacher.
The latter scenario might even be modified to include the question of whether or not our representatives truly believe public education to be essential, at least in the sense that many have taken it. Our schools have been the bedrock of our middle class, a paid receipt, the admission ticket to the “American Dream.” They have given credibility to the belief that this truly is the land of opportunity. That all, even as this son of a small time fisherman, really could be anything he wanted, including president of this nation.
But perhaps we of the “we, the people,” assume too much. Perhaps public education to the degree and of the quality we have envisioned is just not essential to the end that our representatives have in mind. Are there not sufficient private schools with prohibitive tuitions that filter out all but the privileged, providing them with the quality of educators needed for those destined to wear the mantle of leadership tomorrow? The generals, the kings, the philosophers? What more is needed for factory workers; service industry members; push-button, microchip heeding technicians than simple training in following directions and filling out forms? Perhaps the decision has already been made that it simply is not cost effective to provide a store clerk or bus driver with background in Thoreau, Keats, Kant, or Copernicus.
Since I’ve never been much of on conspiracy theories, I’ll go with the belief that we are simply and blindly hiding our collective head in the sand. Whether it’s hapless ignorance or evil conspiracy, the result of each is the same: the threat of an overwhelming teacher shortage due to unattractive conditions and the peak of the baby-boomers passing into retirement age. The danger faced is hasty, reactive, crisis management rather than the calm assurance of crisis prevention.
This past fall, Florida took a step toward acknowledging that public education should be protected, that our children could do more than dream the “American Dream,” that academic crises could be averted. Florida circumvented unhearing elected officials and took to the streets, collecting hundreds of thousands of signatures and turning these into votes, guaranteeing, to the best of our simple desires and vocabulary, that our children should not be warehoused in crowded classrooms.
Whether State and local authorities will honor the democratic voice yet must be determined as we await their implementation of our expressed will. I’d like to think that they’d be fools to toy with our statement. That they really did accept their nomination and election as our voice out of belief in representative democracy, and not just out of lust for power, prestige, and wealth.
Regardless, we learned something from this, and we need to apply it to the overall educational picture – we learned that we can make our voices heard. That we can blend our individual cries into one and bring about legislative action – our own action – rather than waiting for the interminable rate of change that seems to accompany actions sponsored by the elected. Odd, wasn’t it, how quickly after 9/11 our leaders were able to railroad through many of the measures that gave them more power and ‘we the people’ got less? Imagine if all legislation were able to proceed like this!
Now what we must do is very similar – we must spell out for ourselves those elements of public education that are essential, that are in need of protection from the bloodlust of the elected, and we must specify this in amendment. We’ve learned we can no longer entrust the quality of education – from the attraction of quality educators with professional conditions and compensations, the safety and sanctity of the classroom, the size and equipping of the classroom, and numerous other characteristics – to the whim of those we’ve elected. There just seems to be too many other things that win votes in their 2-4 year electoral cycle than the educational process with its12+ year turnaround needed to see market results.
Among those elements needed to return public education to a level of respected and possible professionalism are:
- High entrance standards in both the individual discipline and in the field of education.
- Meaningful internships (prior), in-services, and sabbaticals.
- Competitive salaries.
- Collegial relations between faculty and administration.
- Sufficient numbers of faculty to provide optimal student-teacher ratios and sufficient amounts of study and preparation time.
- Meaningful disciplinary patterns/processes to provide both students and teachers the environment they need to pursue education.
With children our greatest and most important resource, is it too much to expect that their academic protection and development be provided for legislatively? If not, then we must begin work quickly to do so. My challenge to you is that you contact your elected officials with the list above and request that they begin working on defining and specifying legislatively these essentials to education.
Let’s make it so teachers should never have to stand in the street begging the public for improved conditions again. Let’s mandate what essential conditions for quality education are. When we are free from this concern and we can return our full focus to the classroom, perhaps the mellow sounds of artistic, highly creative education won’t be so uncommon.