Why Our Education System Fails, by a Fly on the Wall

After six years of substitute teaching, it’s quite possible that I’ve “taught” my last class. I use quotations, because I’ll readily admit that I was a moderately compensated babysitter. Sure, my bachelor’s degree was in education and I have a current teaching certificate, which raised my daily pay by $10, but my job has generally been to take attendance and make sure no one sets anything on fire.

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I jest… a little. I did just recently announce to a table full of teenage girls that they were going to have to change the subject, because I could hear every detail of their sex lives. There was also that time I didn’t really stop the teenage boys from paying each other to eat dead flies…

… but hey, they were quiet.

 

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I’m practically Dumbledore.

It’s not that I was a bad substitute. They knew my limits. I just also knew theirs. I dare you to go into a public high school classroom and tell everyone to put away their phones, when their teachers let them use them every day. Go ahead. Report back. I’ll wait…

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… which brings me to my point. As a substitute teacher, particularly one with a degree in education, I’ve had the privilege of a unique perspective. You see, no one really pays attention to a substitute teacher. No teacher worries that I’m observing the daily anarchy that is their class, as long as they get a good evaluation from their principal. No student worries that a substitute teacher is going to overhear them discussing their cheating methods. I have truly been a fly on the wall for the past six years, in a wealthy public district that scores quite well on state report cards. For this reason, I can declare, with certainty, that our public schools have hit a downward spiral, and here are my top reasons why.

Cell Phones
Zetus lapetus, what a cliche am I, lamenting the tragedy of youths with cell phones.

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Fine. It’s cliche, but it’s cliche for a reason. I won’t even focus on that time “53 percent of boys and 28 percent of girls (ages 12-15) reported [viewing pornography]”, or that “four out of five 16 year-olds regularly access pornography online”*, or discuss those who’ve been prosecuted as child pornographers for taking naked pictures of themselves*.  For the sake of this post, I’ll limit my rant to school specific issues.

Every day, even the best parents send their child to school with a cell phone, where their teacher competes not only with it and all of the information, entertainment, and communication it contains, but with 24 other devices in the classroom seven times a day. Most people hear the opening statements of my rant on this subject and interject with “They’re allowed to have them out in class?!?!” Do you have any idea how exhausting it is to monitor whether or not 25 people are using their phones for 55 minutes? I’m only speaking from my experience giving tests. The teacher is actually trying to teach what’s on it. If he stops every time he sees a phone, demanding someone put it away/put it on his desk/go to the office, he’s going to accomplish nothing, particularly since he has to uphold this standard throughout the year, because as Sebastian the crab says, “you give them an inch, they swim all over you.” For this reason, most high schools have gone “technology friendly.”

Technology friendly simply means that we’ve given up the fight. If we forbid students from bringing the phones to class at all, their tax paying parents insist they’ll need it “in an emergency.” Keep in mind, these are the same parents who use said phone as a bargaining tool and confiscate it every time they get ticked off, despite the dread of these vague emergencies. The result of this is students discussing the fear that they won’t be able to pass their end of semester Spanish test, because they’ve been using Google translate all year. It’s students watching Netflix on the affluent school’s WiFi, because they know how to get around the safeguards. It’s teachers making the assumption that students will have the internet in their pockets when assigning work, because heaven forbid they create a thought, as opposed to regurgitating ones they find online. It’s students asking to be dismissed from class for a moment, because their parents are calling them. What, might I ask, is so important that you have to call your child’s cell phone, when you know they’re at school?!?

Ultimately, cell phones have created an environment where students are not learning.

College Preparation
My bachelor’s degree was specifically in family and consumer science education – occupational and career technology. Translation: I could teach at a career tech (vo-tech) center as easily as at a high school. Unlike most teachers, my degree focused a great deal on those not going to college. Here are the facts, according to the US Census:

86.8% of Americans have a high school degree.
28% of Americans have a bachelor’s degree.

Why the fuck are we teaching 100% of our high school students as if they’re going to earn a college degree!?!?! 

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This is a blatant waste of funding. You can argue all you want about a “well-rounded” education, but why can’t we redefine what “well-rounded” means? Why does it have to mean five core subject classes and two classes that potentially prepare students to immediately enter the workforce? Why aren’t we allowing students not planning for college to sign up for two hours of core classes and five hours of real world skills? In my state, we have an amazing career tech program, but it’s poorly promoted. We encourage the kids who aren’t “smart enough” for college to take advantage of the free welding, nursing, and computer programming courses and that’s ridiculous. There are skills involved in auto mechanics that I don’t know that I could ever possess. I couldn’t tell a carburetor from a… I CANNOT EVEN THINK OF ANOTHER KEY CAR PART.

We need to end exclusively college preparatory public high school. We need to have real discussions with students about their interests and capabilities. We need to admit when they aren’t suited for a four-year degree and stop implying that that means anything other than that every person has different skills and capabilities. I have a master’s degree. I sit in a temperature controlled library and offer customer service all day long. I have a dozen uncles who lay pipe in subzero temperatures. Could I do that? NO. Could they smile politely when a man hurls a DVD in their face? NO. Does that make either of us less intelligent? NO.

The problem with the current system is that a good 50% of students feel public school curriculum is entirely irrelevant to them. They enjoy their career tech courses, if they’re in them, but get nothing from literature courses. They’ve found a use for marketing class, but chemistry has been a complete waste of their time. So, why are we funding it?!?! Is our society any better for the Shakespeare forgotten by your plumber? NO.

 We’re Wasting Instruction Time
I would vote for a complete removal of funding for art classes in my district.

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I know. That statement doesn’t make me popular, but you substitute a middle school or high school art class and tell me what you see. No matter the instructor in my A+ school district, art class has always been a total waste of time from my vantage point. It’s not because what they do accomplish isn’t worthwhile. It’s because they accomplish so little of it. I get it. These are the Freaks and Geeks, the kids of Empire Records. They’re the outcasts and this is the only place they feel they belong. I wore overalls all of sophomore year. Believe me, I get it.

Art class, however, should be a place for self expression. You don’t have to let students come and go as they please, without a word of explanation, just because you want them to feel accepted. If this is a place of creativity, then they need to be doing something creative. I know I was only substituting these classes and I didn’t get the most accurate sample, but never have I taught another class where students just followed their whim to walk out. Never have I seen them blatantly watch Netflix as I have in art class. They do this, because it’s okay with their teacher and that is not okay. Creativity and productivity are not mutually exclusive and it’s harmful to suggest otherwise.

Art class isn’t the only place I see wasted instruction time. Remember when I stressed a need for strong life skills courses for those immediately entering the workforce after high school? Well, those exist as electives. Leadership is a great example. What a wonderful course to teach, even to those pursuing college. Or so I thought, until I subbed it and my students informed me that all they’d been doing for the last three weeks was painting banners to hang around the school.

A leadership student should be gaining public speaking skills by delivering presentations on effective leaders through history and the impact they’ve had on the world. They should be finding ways to be leaders in the community and possibly spending the occasional field trip volunteering at the local food bank or running winter coat drives. Leadership students should be presenting the awards at ceremonies and taking part in presentations on real world issues that effect teens, such as the consequences of texting while driving. Leadership students should not be spending three weeks painting banners. In fact, that’s actually a great activity for those art students!

Perhaps you’re thinking I’ve just proven we don’t really need those elective courses. You’d be right, were it not for the fact that this regularly occurs in core classes, as well. Because we don’t want to admit that some students aren’t cut from Shakespeare reading cloth, our high school English classes are paced for the mean, or average. If four students can finish Othello in a week and two need three weeks, we write the curriculum for two weeks, which leaves four students playing on their phones for a week and two in tears, because they don’t understand this Shakespeare Shit. We even add whole class blocks for “study hall” or “advisory”, which end up essentially being recess. Kids sit, talk, play cards, or play on their phones. At best, students spend four hours a day learning and another three waiting to learn.

We’re So Top-Heavy
There are a lot of reasons I never taught in a traditional setting and I’ve just outlined three. Another, however, is that my state has nearly the lowest teacher pay in the country. It’s still a living wage, but I make about $16,000 more as a librarian and the benefits are substantially better. Our cost of living is also astoundingly low, but even those states with a lower cost of living often pay teachers more. The result is a few days a year, when teachers rally at the state capitol over the injustice of it all, which I categorize as fitting into the previous heading of a waste of instruction time.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying teachers shouldn’t be paid more. I’m simply saying that they’re protesting at the wrong location. While we could certainly use a little more state funding, the problem is primarily a district one. I just counted my district’s administrators and came up with an astounding 34. If I average each of them at $80,000 per year, that’s over 2.5 million dollars. If I’m averaging too high and it’s closer to $60,000, it’s still over two million dollars in a suburban school district with low teacher pay.

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What if, and this is a crazy suggestion, we actually give the teachers the ability to discipline their students so we don’t need as much on-site administration and enforce consequences more effectively, overall? Why do we allow repeated problem students, particularly when they’ve reached the state’s legal dropout age of 16, to continue coming to public schools? If a student ditches detention X number of times, why not tell him he still has his right to pursue an education, but he’ll now have to do it, either through another district or online schooling? Over 98% of public libraries have Internet access. If that’s inconvenient, so what? They had their chance and got plenty of warnings. Should their behavior impede the learning of other students, add stress to their low paid teachers’ day, and create a need for a more top-heavy district as a whole? NO.

I’m not talking about basic discipline problems here, to be clear. I’m talking about the student who punches his teacher, repeatedly gets in fights or makes threats toward other students or staff, or gets a designated number of detentions for other behaviors that disrupt class. I’m talking about a decision made by a panel, with the opportunity to appeal in one calendar year. Perhaps, in this case, the parent would suddenly care that their child was misbehaving, were they faced with the possibility of having them at home all day and being responsible for helping them pursue an education until age 16. Why don’t we expel students anymore?!?! When we do, it’s always for something that doesn’t effect the big picture or anyone in it, such as a student having a buck knife in his truck, because he forgot it in his truck after his hunting trip or a girl who carries her asthma inhaler on her, even though it’s not allowed. Let’s kick them out, regardless of their lack of previous discipline problems, but nooooo, not the guy who screamed at his teacher that he was going to set her cat on fire.

If the major problem students were gone, usually a very small percentage of the school and a very large percentage of the discipline issues, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to cut administration. If my district cut half its administration, we could afford to raise every teacher’s salary by over $11,000. Carry on with your protests at the state capitol, though. Maybe they’ll designate an administrator to teacher ratio.

Citations

http://www.internetsafety101.org/pornographystatistics.htm

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/09/21/n-c-just-prosecuted-a-teenage-couple-for-making-child-porn-of-themselves/

http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/00000.html

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8 thoughts on “Why Our Education System Fails, by a Fly on the Wall

  1. Teaching in my part of Canada was not like this. In fact, I’ll be taking a $20 000 pay cut in order to work in the library system. Teachers were very well paid. The students could be tough and the marking was atrocious, but most of all the expectation to completely devote yourself to your job for 10 months of the year led to my total burnout.

    • Yeah, we have the same expectation, with little compensation. I do work for a very well funded ($50,000,000 annually) library system, though. The main reason I waited it out to get full time, was that I couldn’t match the pay anywhere else.

  2. Do the teachers really allow all of that to happen? I know it’s been a while since I was in high school, and I’m in Australia, but that’s crazy! I do remember we always took advantage of the substitute teachers (well, I didn’t because I was a bit of a teacher’s pet back in the day!), and the class told all sorts of lies about what our normal teachers allowed to happen – could that be happening too?
    I definitely agree that more vocational training should be offered in schools – I went to a public school in a low performing rural area and we had a huge ‘tech’ program (covering everything from cooking to metalwork) where people could begin apprenticeships – heaps of my peers have gone on to successful trade jobs, and those of us that wanted to go to uni were supported with extension opportunities.

    • It’s really not a case of teachers allowing it. They literally have no power. If they discipline them, their parents call and make a huge fuss and then the child doesn’t show up to detention anyway. The administration caves to the parents, because they need their bond votes and they’re TERRIFIED that they’ll be on the news.

      For some subs, it may be a matter of them being taken advantage of, but I’m certain that’s not the case for me. I’ve had numerous teachers leave notes saying they let them use their phones, unless it’s a test, because the district has declared us technology friendly. Each student also has their very own WiFi password. We definitely need to revamp a lot of things in American schools.

      • Wow, that’s insane. It sounds like the school system is very different over there – we don’t have an administration or bond votes. Each school here has a principal and an assistant principal, and they are the word of god in the school – people can escalate stuff to the Department of Education, but that’s government level and doesn’t happen often. I’ve got to say I’m glad you got the librarian role – it would be immensely frustrating to be a teacher and not be able to help young people develop because the system doesn’t have the oomph to pull them back from their destructive behaviour!

      • Education reform is a major concern in America. Part of the problem is that this country is so large, with so many different cultural dynamics. The needs of a Los Angeles high school recent Mexican immigrant student are vastly different from those of an Arkansas high school football player who’s never left his home state or a privelage Asian American who’s spent his school years in an elite private school in the Northeast. We’ve been attempting to find a one size fits all solution for the last 20 years and it’s not working. Fortunately, a new plan has just been put into action to give individual states a lot more say in how things are run. I’m hoping that will help. Regardless, I’m glad I’m not teaching. As you said, it’s frustrating to have so many obstacles to helping people and in public library, I don’t.

      • I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you all that they can learn to tailor their approaches to the needs of the area. I looked up what bond votes are – that is such a foreign concept to me! Our public education is funded through state government and school fees (minor for public education). If we need to build or expand a school, the school puts forward a proposal/request to the government and hopefully gets funding – no voting required. It’s so interesting how differently countries approach things!

      • Thank you for that finger crossing! If things were done at a more local level, it might be easier to implement something like that. Americans are quick to talk about the virtues of countries the size of Georgia, while refusing to give power back to the states, as was initially intended. We’ll see how this new plan goes, but I’m hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.

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