Tilting at education could do more harm than good

The national debate over how best to improve public education is spiraling toward the perceived need to increase teacher pay, a trend that misses a fundamental truth about our current system.

Like providing extra water to a dessert blossom, it could do more harm than good.


The national debate over how best to improve public education is spiraling toward the perceived need to increase teacher pay, a trend that misses a fundamental truth about our current system.

Although I am married to a talented teacher, I think most people proposing higher pay and more “accountability” as a solution fail to understand that the current system does not tend to draw to the profession people who are motivated by money.
That’s a broad generalization, of course, but the best teachers I know, while they would like more money, are initially driven by the aha factor — that ultimate reward of seeing the spark in a student’s eye when a new concept has just changed his or her world.

The current effort in a New York charter school where teachers will be paid $125,000 a year, plus bonuses, might work and is worth watching, but it pursues a slow and what should be secondary solution. Princeton’s Professor Alan B. Krueger asks “How much do you want to tilt in that direction?” Twist that question so that “tilt” means a Don Quixotesque battling of an imaginary foe.

The charter school might work and is worth watching. But even if it does, instantly boosting teacher pay to three or four times their current salaries would not change education overnight. That would take at least a decade or two, as teachers motivated by a love of learning and teaching, coupled with a preference for a secure job and summers off, are replaced by those whose motivations to enter the field also include monetary gain and whose ancillary needs have less to do with job security.

After all, “accountability” is a big part of what policy makers promoting merit pay seek to achieve. That means less security for those entering the field, although possibly more pay. But it also includes another trend that is currently destroying public education — less freedom.

Good teaching is as much art as science. In pursuit of its goals, it’s more like hunting than animal husbandry. Teachers must be free to pursue their prey of the stimulated mind, wherever it hides. They can’t do that in a system that insists they stay within the fences designed to raise domestic stock so that what educators do can be easily observed and measured.
That’s why our current obsession with standardized testing is hurting, not helping, the effort to improve education. Born of a general frustration with public education’s perceived failings, that obsession, now nationally monetized through the federal No Child Left Behind Act, is an attempt to objectively measure and label our failures and successes. But the tools are inadequate and even irrelevant. It’s like measuring the success of a piece of art with a ruler. And forcing teachers to practice their art/science to those standards is fencing them in, keeping them from pursuing the real goal.

That’s also what happens when the bell rings and a stimulating lesson in which a teacher has managed to fire up his pupils must come to an end so students can be shuffled, like products on an assembly line, to the next station where some other part can be threaded on the educational chassis. The current school models tend to reduce the amount of teaching inspired by the aha factor, but instead reward those models that stay within the fences.

American schools and their schedules are largely patterned after an early 20th Century invention that enhanced the efficient use of humans as tools to mass produce a product — the assembly line. That model worked for a while, as long as the raw material on the assembly line was predictable and homogenous, and as long as we were willing to reject material that didn’t conform to specs. We accepted in the 1950s that some students just wouldn’t make it on the assembly line. These days, we want no child left behind, no matter if they fit into the white middle class bin of parts or not.

These are the larger problems in education, the solutions to which might not take a generation to implement. One answer probably is for our culture to place so much value on education that we actually pay teachers what one might expect for an artist commissioned to sculpt the future of our society. But the more pressing need is to take down the fences and allow those currently pursuing the art of the hunt the freedom they need to be successful.


About Scott Hunter

Editor of The Star newspaper in Grand Coulee, observer of life, history, patterns in things that matter.
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