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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Education and the Obama Stance

Education on the merry-go-round -- everyone seems to know how to fix the problems with the American public school system, yet all their ideas have been hashed, adopted, dropped, re-hashed, re-adopted, and dropped again. Nothing under the fiery star is new. The mix of administrators, teachers, and students follow state mandates and produce mixed results. Hard fought improvements depend on money, leadership, and teachers in positive learning environments in which students and parents take great responsibility for their advancement.

September 27, President Obama made these points in his "tough love" message to students and teachers. He made the following points in his address. (Erica Werner, "Obama Presses For Longer School Years," Yahoo News - Associated Press, September 27 2010)

1. A sense of urgency for educational reform is needed because American students are falling behind their foreign counterparts, especially in math and science.

2. U.S. schools should increase the length of their school year. U.S. schools through high school now offer an average of 180 instruction days per year, compared to an average of 197 days for lower grades and 196 days for upper grades in countries with the best student achievement levels, including Japan, South Korea, Germany and New Zealand.

3. Teachers and their profession should be more highly honored — as in China and some other countries.

4. Teachers unions should not defend a status quo in which one-third of children are dropping out.

5. Teachers who are doing well should be identified. Teachers who are not doing well must have support and the training to do well. And, teachers who aren't doing a good job should quit or be released.

In the first place, where in the equation for success is the word parents? Not parents as passive participants in the educational process, but parents who are actively involved in classroom endeavors, not just in extracurricular activities: parents who take a big responsibility for their child's work and future.

As much as concerned parents involve themselves in grade school classes, their involvement fades (and even stops) as their child ages and enters high school. Some of this, of course, is due to the trust imparted for the child to self-manage and to use self-control with curriculum concerns. Unfortunately, this freedom of maturity with limited parental involvement does not produce positive results in many immature teens. They need extra guidance and even increased interest from parents.

Let's take just one of the countries that President Obama feels the need to use for comparison to U.S. educational systems -- Japan. These findings were compiled by a U.S. Department of Education study. (

1. Just 6 percent of all Japanese families are headed by a single parent.

2. A man's primary focus is the workplace, which often includes extensive work related socializing with male colleagues during the evening hours. In contrast, a woman's primary focus is her home and family, with particular attention to the rearing of children.

3. Another goal of early training is to instill in the child a deep sense of responsibility to the mother and family. This becomes an important factor in developing motivation for school achievement in Japan.

4. Early childhood training includes attention to manners and proper social behavior required outside of the home, but there is little actual exposure to group situations beyond the family until the preschool experience. The community's perception of a woman's success as a mother depends in large part on how well her children do in school.

5. Secondary school? The common pattern is that students can apply to only one public upper secondary school. (The entrance examinations of private high schools are usually available to anyone who wishes to apply, so a student can apply to both a public and a private institution concurrently.) Schools choose from among the applicants on the basis of their scores on the entrance examination and their lower secondary school record. The school record usually includes a description of the student's special activities, an evaluation of personality, work habits, and behavior, and the school attendance record.

Children who do not perform well academically, and their families, usually pay a heavy price in more ways than one. The youngsters end up in less prestigious high schools with all that foreshadows for future social status and career prospects, and many of the parents have to pay the higher costs of private education -- a further family burden for many parents whose children make up the lower third of the class academically 

The basic lesson regarding high school entrance is "work very hard in school or you will have to end up having to pay for private schooling just to get a diploma, or even worse, miss the chance for college altogether." But regardless of level of school achievement, cost, or prospects for post-secondary education, the great majority of students continue on to senior high school: those who do not succeed in gaining entry to a public or private high school for academic or economic reasons usually turn to public vocational schools. For those students not gaining admission to the lowest ranking vocational schools, the principal remaining alternatives are night school or employment.

The Japanese model of education has much different moorings from its American counterpart. Is it any wonder that the U.S. system would have to rely on major cultural changes outside of the education business  to follow a Japanese lead? Any comparison of the two educational systems seems fruitless without a conversion to Oriental standards of character and mores. Such a change is unrealistic. In fact, American parents would cringe at the suggestion of  converting to a Japanese lifestyle.

Time is the biggest obstacle to pushing educational achievement; however, few consider how the clutter of scheduling and demand for participation take their toll on U.S. students. In class today, teachers devote endless hours to review and study for competency examinations and for other well-meaning state mandates such as the Passport Program. The added responsibilities take time from other subject matter concerns.

Also, most students, by the time they enroll in high school, have enormous demands in terms of time from extracurricular groups, school-related activities, and sports. Administrations alter class time to accommodate these activities; teachers assign limited homework assignments knowing the scarcity of students' prep time; and extracurricular advisers demolish entire weekends of students' leisure time with numerous trips and competitions.

Stress runs high for both students and teachers as actual instruction time is cut. Already, the schools demand student participation during summer months for students who need remediation. In addition, many students often attend programs and camps of special academic and extracurricular interests in these months. Coaches also demand year-around training and skills development. And, during summer, many parents typically plan family vacations. Would merely adding days of instruction help guarantee increased intellectual development?

And, finally, schools do presently address the issue of "bad teachers." Here is the Ohio limited contract language:

1) limited contract: A teacher new to the district is employed on a limited contract for any fixed period of time up to five (5) years in duration. Limited contracts expire at the end of the specified term so long as the teacher has been evaluated in accordance with applicable requirements and is given written notice of non-renewal on or before April 30 of the year in which the contract expires. All supplemental contracts are limited contracts. Regardless of the length of a teacher's employment with a district, if the teacher has only a provisional license, the teacher may only have a limited contract.

So, without a continuing contract, teachers are liable to be non-renewed. Whose responsibility wanes if poor teachers remain on staff? The administration already has the power to terminate employment. Many times, poor teachers remain on staff because of the limited availability of replacement or because the administration fears legal action or because they haven't been fully evaluated.

Besides, most good teachers are made during the campaigns of their first few years of instruction, under fire and in the trenches. College grades and outstanding personalities are not always indicators of a good teacher, especially a beginning teacher. No one wants bad teachers in schools, yet too often they are shifted to positions with limited student contact.

Good teachers with proper materials for good instruction who teach in good learning environments where good students, good parents, and good administrators take active concerns for their own roles make excellent educational systems. Defining any one of those "good" components is very difficult. For example, complete this statement: "A good teacher is ...."

Each person has a personal definition of "good teacher" in mind, but that definition is bound to be limited in scope and, most likely, extremely vague. We have all had good teachers as well as bad teachers whose honest worth defies stated simplistic definitions and descriptions. Mr. President, you are guilty of needless appeals to reinvent the merry-go-round. Stand still long enough and you can grab for your desirable painted horse. Appropriately, the group Blood, Sweat, and Tears once sang: "The spinning wheel's got to go 'round."

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