An education system under siege

Fred Bruning April 21 1986

An education system under siege

Fred Bruning April 21 1986

An education system under siege


Fred Bruning

Teachers are swell people, generally speaking, and should be treated accordingly. For some, nothing less than Congressional Medals of Honor are in order, such is the magnitude of their service to the republic. Who among us, after all, would care to attempt pedagogic discourse with the Sex Pistols crowd or spend hours extolling Shakespeare to readers of Truly Tasteless Jokes? Let’s salute the heroes who stand guard in lunchrooms while cupcakes whiz overhead and meat loaf specials rise around the ankles. To every stalwart soul who would so much as consider explicating human reproduction to a room full of 14-yearolds, hats off!

When it comes to the subject of teacher appreciation, though, there is far less than consensus. As might be expected, certain critics are immensely provoked by the simple issue of summer leave. Evidently, the human temperament is such that if your neighbor gets two months vacation because he is a teacher and you the standard twoweek reprieve, you will respond negatively upon seeing that individual head his Winnebago toward Yellowstone Park. “Aw, they’ve been on the gravy train too long,” complained an exasperated citizen, referring to educators, one and all. The idea was that teachers should find genuine employment, preferably the type that leads to sore arches and lower back cramps.

To be taken more seriously, are those Americans who worry about the future of our nation as number 1. No doubt we are in peril on that score, if academic achievement is a measure. Findings announced recently by the department of education show that American math students were about as woeful as could be imagined. Our best high school seniors—the top five per cent, the very cream of the crop— came in dead last among 10 nations while, on the junior high level, U.S. students were ahead mainly of kids in Third World countries.

But that’s not the worst of it. Real disaster occurred when the Dallas Times Herald distributed a geography test to 12-year-olds at home and abroad. Not only did American kids rate unimpressively—fourth in a field of eight countries—but 20 per cent of our offspring couldn't find the United States on a map! One can only imagine how these adorable cabbageheads will fare

later in life when searching for smaller targets, say Lake Erie, the State of Idaho or downtown Baltimore, Md.

Unavoidably, such astounding ineptitude on the part of students has raised questions about teachers, too. Many variables affect the learning experience, but who can blame parents for wondering if the schoolroom set really knows its stuff—if the math instructor can solve equations as deftly as his Japanese counterpart, if the social studies maven can locate Europe on the desk-top globe?

So deep are the concerns and, ultimately, so political, that 28 states have been moved to require a basic competency test for prospective teachers. The trend toward qualifying exams for those seeking jobs in education underlines the hunch that younger instructors just aren’t as well equipped as their predecessors, whose reputation is not exactly above reproach either.

Unavoidably, the astounding ineptitude of U.S. students has raised questions about the abilities of teachers

“New recruits to teaching are less academically qualified than those who are leaving,” agreed a Rand Corp. report. There is even some suspicion that a leading qualifying test itself isn’t wellqualified. “Some of the questions, like in science, seemed to be written on about a ninth-grade level,” said a college senior who had just taken the National Teacher Examination. “If you studied those subjects in high school, you’d do all right.”

Rookie teachers aren’t the only ones under pressure. Last month more than 200,000 faculty and administrators in Texas—bona fide, state-certified professionals—were required to take examinations designed to assess basic language skills, and many objected as though assigned to a semester’s duty in detention hall.

Lone Star educators quarrelled that: 1) the tests did not reflect classroom performance; 2) teachers were licensed for life and should not be vulnerable to disqualification; 3) the whole process was undignified and tended to undercut confidence in professional educators. “A competency test implies that

some teachers are incompetent,” reasoned a spokesman for the National Education Association.

Faculty and administrators took the matter to court, lost, and finally trudged off to the test-taking rooms, some wearing stickers that said “Under protest.” Results are yet to be announced, but the optimistic early line suggests a five per cent failure rateworrisome, it would seem, given that the material wasn’t exactly of the brain-twisting variety. One question asked only that test-takers spot the misspelled word “discused.”

Arkansas and Georgia also administer tests to veteran teachers—the exam in Georgia is specific to subject matter being taught—and it’s a good bet other states will follow. The prospect is not cheering for educators, who say they do a tough job for modest pay and just don’t need the grief of a silly, degrading multiple-choice test designed to appease an unappreciative public.

As an alternative to testing, some teachers suggest expanded classroom observation and other civilized means of evaluation. But many educators acknowledge privately that the in-class method is suspect because teachers usually know beforehand when they are to be watched—and because peers and administrators are reluctant to lower the boom on their buddies, in any case. “It’s a sham,” said a former teacher, recalling the process.

No surprise, then, that taxpayers are looking for some nice, straightforward way of confirming that teachers indeed can spell “discuss” and maybe even comprehend a paragraph or two containing words of similar heft. Our kids are turning into world-class airheads, is the fear, and we better be sure their mentors at least are able to read and write.

But educators are only part of the story. If we want our progeny to assume there is more to life than shopping malls and Pac-Man emporiums, then we better bear down on the home front. We should throw a blanket over the TV, talk politics at the dinner table, go broke on books instead of gourmet goat cheese. Hound the kids about homework, stay in touch with the school, never let up. Teachers important enough to take competency tests? Maybe we should check out parents, too.

Fred Bruning is a uniter with Newsday in New York.