The Importance of Teachers

I will be randomly posting guest posts on my blog.  This one is by my youngest brother, Jake.  Jake graduated with his degree in History from the University of Central Florida.  He has currently been accepted to the University of Florida Law School on a full scholarship.  Jake was home schooled his entire life, loves debating, thinks he was/is a basketball superstar, and enjoys hanging out with his favorite sister.

                  Public schools, in a general sense, are failing.[1] Not as an idea, of course, but in a practical sense, in the United States, they are failing.  They have actually gotten very slightly better in the past couple of years; this means that they are no longer awful.  They are now just very, very bad.  In my mind, that still equates to failure, given the amount of money that is spent trying to make them good. I could cite a plethora of different statistics to support this claim, but here are a few:

1)     US high school students rank 14th in the world in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math scores.[2]

2)     One out of every four high school students do not graduate at all.[3]

3)     1,550 schools in the US graduate less than 40% of their students, and have become known as drop out factories (this is actually a lower number than in 2002.  I don’t know, however, that it’s a defensible number.)[4]

Again, while public education is excellent in some specific cases, and particularly if you live in certain areas, in a general sense it is perhaps the biggest crisis facing the US today (I would argue that it’s the second biggest crisis.)  Waiting for Superman documents this in a much fuller sense, and despite some of the faults of the film, it does a great job of instilling a feeling of sadness when evaluating the plight of students, particularly those who are poor and ethnic.  It also does a great job of getting one thing right; the best way to ensure a great education is by having great teachers.[5]

That seems excellent.  Let’s just find lots of great teachers and then the problem is resolved! There are several problems with this.  There are many bad teachers, and none of them, or very few of them, can be fired.  The state of New York pays $65 million dollars a year for teachers to not teach.  That’s right.  When a teacher is facing disciplinary hearings or is simply too bad of a teacher, they are paid to go to a room for 8 hours a day and play Scrabble.  Or surf Facebook.  Or take naps.  They get summer vacation and holidays and the whole nine yards.  They just don’t teach.[6]  This is because of the teachers union.  They have made a decision, and I think it’s a counterproductive and anti-intellectual decision, that a teacher is simply a teacher.  There’s no such thing as a good teacher or a bad teacher.  There’s just a teacher.  And because of this, there is no reason to reward good teachers and no way of punishing bad teachers.

One out of every 57 doctors loses the license to practice medicine.  One out every 97 attorneys loses their license to practice law.  One out of every 1000 teachers is fired for performance-related offenses.[7]

Also, if there’s no reward for good teaching, or for higher scores, or for better reviews, than what is the motivation? If a teacher is a teacher, as the Teacher’s Union has stressed, and if no matter your performance you can’t be rewarded or punished, than even someone who is capable of being an excellent teacher has no incentive for attempting to be excellent.  If I can work hard or be lazy, and have no consequences, good or bad, either way, it would take a lot of character for me to work hard.

So that sums up the issue of there being many bad teachers.  The other issue is that it is very difficult for good teachers to be good.  In other words, even if you are a good teacher, you are not put in a position to succeed.  I have a friend who is an elementary public school teacher.  Many of her kids are homeless, and many of them are behind the level of comprehension that they should be at.  Luckily for them, she is an excellent teacher.  When she has kids who are worried about where they are going to sleep that night, she knows that she cannot give them homework and a pop quiz the next day.  So she finds creative, unique ways of teaching that conforms to the needs of her students.  That’s great for her.  But when those kids move up one more grade, their lives will then be consumed for most of the year by FCAT testing.  Whatever your philosophy is about standardized tests (and this is not the post to debate that subject), I think we can all agree that standardized tests mean standardized teaching.[8]  And given the standards that the Teacher’s Union has forced upon public education, this is not a good thing.  My friend, who is a good teacher, in my opinion would not be able to be a good teacher if she was teaching one grade higher than she is.

What’s the point of all this? Well, first, because I love taking potshots at public education.[9]  But also because I believe that the homeschooling program that Jaime is starting at Pine Castle Christian Academy understands the problem, and has a solution.  Jaime has placed her highest priority at finding excellent, qualified teachers.  Her strategy, which I think is the correct one, is to find people who are excellent at what they do and have them only teach that particular subject.  So James, with his graduate studies and degrees related to music theory and guitar performance is teaching subjects related to Music.  Joey, with his degree in Philosophy, is teaching Ethics and Philosophy courses.  A nurse is teaching science courses.  A graduate with a history degree is teaching history.  A community college teacher is helping envision and giving advice.  And so on and so forth.

Of course, none of this means that they will be excellent teachers.  Being knowledgeable doesn’t necessarily mean skill at teaching.  However, this is also not stereotypical homeschooling.  These are people who are great at what they do; more importantly, however, they love what they are knowledgeable about, and they want to instill the love of their subject in the students.  I believe they will, and therefore I believe that the education that students at this homeschooling program receive will be an excellent education.  After all, the best way to ensure a great education is by having great teachers.

[1] Whatever I say in this essay, I cannot say it nearly as convincingly as the 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman, by director Davis Guggenheim (who had previously filmed a documentary supporting public education.) The film wasn’t perfect (it ignored some of Michelle Rhee’s faults) but, overall, it makes a fairly devastating critique of the US public education system.

[2] 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment

[3] Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, America’s Promise Alliance and Civic Enterprises.

[4] Ibid.

[5] It’s hard to quantify this claim in any way statistically, but DePaul University has a great study in their school’s library.  You can access it online, although I can’t link to it.

[7] Waiting for Superman

[8] No Child Left Behind is not a terrible piece of legislation for the reasons that most liberals would have you believe.  But make no mistake; it is a terrible piece of legislation. At least that’s my argument J. If Jaime ever lets me post anything again, perhaps that will be my next subject.

[9] This is a joke.  I am actually a huge fan of public education, if it was done correctly.


3 thoughts on “The Importance of Teachers

  1. I love this! I don’t know (Jamie) you, but I do know Jake. I’m a little stuck in the home school circle and don’t feel like debating this every hour of my life, so it’s nice to see all of this from someone who knows what he’s talking about! I am a history/science teacher at a “homeschool school”. However, I did spend 2 full semester in public middle and high schools and I was both appalled and encouraged every day. I had one great teacher and one teacher who was (in my opinion) average because he was good at building relationships with kids but not a creative instructor. I am also a fan of public education: I attended two excellent public schools and 1 not so great school in elementary/middle school and my youngest sister now attends an above average high school a block from my parents house. All of this being said, I believe there are 2 “biggest” problems in public education and Jake hit hard on one and brushed over the other.
    Crappy teachers and unfeeling administration are one reason public schools are very, very bad. Today, since teaching jobs are harder to get and teaching is no longer the “I’ll teach because I’m guaranteed a job” career, I think that we can see a bright light in students graduating today with teaching degrees–if they get a job, they really wanted it. This, of course, will not eliminate all bad teachers, but I do think that in the next 10 years, it will be much more difficult for the majority of principles to decide on their school’s “teacher of the year.” I won’t get into how unions affect this, because Jake was more than sufficient on that topic!
    The second biggest problem I see in schools is segregation. Say what? Yes, and it’s not because of anything the government has done, other than place a bunch of Section 8 housing all in one place creating a ton of Title 1 schools. In my humble opinion, Section 8 housing and Title 1 schools have an indisputable link. Poorer areas have poorer and less achieved schools because they have poorer parents to participate in fund raisers and less parent involvement because parents are struggling to keep their family alive. And here starts the cycle of poverty. Not every underachieving student can blame poverty but many can, and justifiably so. What Jake did not mention in one of his statistics is that many students who drop out of high school do so for the same reason children haven’t been finishing high school for centuries–they have to go to work. Now granted, reasons such as dugs, pregnancy, behavior, and grades are all cited in a large percentage of drop out cases, but most of these can also be traced back to the poverty cycle. So, am I saying that welfare needs to expand for schools to succeed–no. Am I saying that students should not reap the consequences of their actions–no. What I do say is, kids in low income areas need the social and financial assistance of those who live 1000ft. down the road and are sent to a better school–redistricting would solve a lot of problems (as long as parents don’t freak out and pull their students out in fear of “lowering standards,” but that’s a whole other problem…)

  2. Emily,

    I’m sure I do know you. Which Emily are you, though? :)

    Very good, thoughts. And I agree that the cycle of poverty does impact in a lot of ways, but I wonder if the issue is still related to schools and teachers? In other words, the “cycle of poverty” is a terrible thing and I feel like we’re failing those kids even more than anyone else. But isn’t it more because we’re trying to teach kids as if they are all the same, from the same textbooks, in the same way, no matter who they are or where they come from?

    In other words, what do you think of some of the charter schools? They seem to do very well in impoverished districts. Often, very good charter schools are right down the street from some of the worst public schools in the country, and are generally teaching kids from the same neighborhoods. How would you say that impacts your “cycle of poverty” theory? :)

    • Jake– It’s Georgia Emily–formerly Hollis :)

      And you bring up some good points. Charter schools are a fantastic idea, but the only ones in my area are in affluent areas and geared toward gifted students so I don’t really know much about the ones to which you are referring. I still think that segregation (i.e. placing poorer students in poor schools with fewer or older resources and expecting them and their teachers to “make it”) still has a strong impact on students, even if its not quite as strong an influence as the quality of teachers.

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