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Blaming the Educator

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If you’re tired of people blaming teachers for the country’s educational ills, you may want to avoid this week’s issue of Science magazine. It reports on an extensive study of elementary schools funded by the National Institutes of Health that isn’t exactly glowing in its assessment of teachers’ work. Among other things, according to a summary by USA Today, the researchers say teachers focus too much time on basic reading and math skills and too little on science and social studies, and don’t do enough to engage students or foster critical thinking skills. According to the study, only about 14 percent of elementary school students have a consistently rich “instructional climate” in their classrooms. But are teachers necessarily to blame? Kathy Schultz, director of teacher education at the University of Pennsylvania, noted that the study neglects the larger context in which teachers work, including regulatory mandates that can influence instructional content.

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It is a paradox that as teachers increasingly loose control of what and how we teach, we are also increasingly chastised for poor student performance and not teaching science, social studies, physical education or a host of other things.

The curriculum is far too crowded for education policy makers, district and school administrators, and teachers to view science, social studies, mathematic, language arts, art, and music as distinct, discreet areas of study. Schools would better serve students by creating cooperative interdisciplinary teaching contexts that provide richer lessons more representative of the way the world works while, simultaneously, allowing more to be taught in less time by compressing the curriculum.

The timing for such a study comes on the heels of mandates to improve test scores, 'or else'. TGuess what skills are tested...basic reading and math. The fear of losing essential funding is now driving the curriculum. What a cycle! Deven's reference to mandates gives a little insight into curriculum choices. If education hadn't become the political football that it is, quality education (the reason we're in this profession) would have a better climate to progress towards thinking skills.

My education took place in three different Western European countries, so I have had opportunities to experience very different philosophies first hand. The main thing I remember is that the instruction that made the most impression on me was that which allowed me to relate to real life. The lessons that explained how the world worked and how things and subjects all fit together. Seeing my own children being taught "to the test", I do see the attempt to connect with reality in the materials they study, but don't see it in the actual teaching experience at school. It seems that relating by "doing" has taken the back seat to relating by "being told how it is".

The most important knowledge for an educational administrator is how to support classroom teachers with rich training and curriculum coherence. I think we have lost our focus.

Isn't it amazing that there are so many "experts" who know what's wrong with our schools yet have never worked in one or who couldn't wait to get out of the classrooms where they started. Schools structures have not changed appreciably for 75 years, but teachers are expected to change what they teach and how they teach almost yearly. Everyone who actually teaches in a public system agrees that curriculum is always added to and never subtracted from.

My district had a complete curriculum audit done back in the years before standards and testing. One of the weaknesses cited was the lack of curriculum guidance. Another was that, based on systematic classrom observation, the overwhelming majority of instruction was static, teacher focus, individual seat-work.

A recent follow-up, focused on middle school, reiterated this finding. I don't see here strong evidence that outside influences are driving teachers to give up creativity. While some teachers have always been outstanding in this area (with measureable results, when done well), the reality for some time has been that far too much has been done "by the book," lock-step drill fashion, with the monotony relieved from time to time by a movie (NOT necessarily related to the content) or some other special event.

Creative, interdisciplinary teaching does result in learning--even learning in a standards-based environment with annual testing. Remember, we didn't come to standards because of all the wonderful things that were going on and fabulous concepts our children were learning. We got here because of the tremendous discrepancies in who gets and who doesn't.

The schools that are making tremendous turn-arounds are not the ones who are focused on drilling the test questions. They are the ones who are putting their creative energies to work to identify the areas where learning is weak and crafting, locating and employing responsive modes of teaching. That means pulling in all that is known about WHAT WORKS--including flexible grouping, small group instruction, learning related to real life, etc.

I wonder how many teachers think their jobs would be easier and produce better educated students (& less complaints from "society") if children were grouped according to ability. Having been in a "math for dummies" class and an English class for gifted students in the same year, I can say that that being grouped by my ability resulted in proficiency in each subject. Asking teachers to be everything to every kind of student is ridiculous and can only result in mediocre students, through no fault of the teacher!

Many of the news stories I have read recently have talked about the increasing effort of many legislators to tie teacher raises and bonuses to standardized test scores, most of which focus primarily on reading and math. Districts have been threatened with reduced funding or other 'punishments' if their students don't perform well on these tests, regardless of the many underlying issues (poverty, crime, lack of resources, etc.) that these schools are dealing with. I know many teachers who have been forced by the demands of test-based curriculums to give up creative, multi-disciplinary projects that captured their students' interest because the projects did not directly support the test preparation. Is it any surprise that, with the overwhelming pressure placed by these tests, we have lost the opportunities, and the incentives, to present our students with creative methods of pursuing knowledge in a variety of subjects? And, more importantly, are we creating a generation of children who believe that 'learning' can only be measured by a score on a test paper?

Personally, I think that the whole problem of public education can be solved by doing away with the NCLB Act. That is what is destroying schools left, right, and center.

If the Federal Government wants a greater say in the public education of children, I say GREAT! But then, they should start increasing their funding levels from 7% to more like 50% or greater if they want that right. That way property taxes for millions of Americans can be reduced so parents have more disposable income to buy the things they need to live like food and clothing.

We have 50 states in America all doing the same thing 50 different ways which is quite wasteful in terms of money. The time has come for abolishing these lax state standards and replacing them with a high national standard that is the same across the entire nation. One standard would make it easier for students to move around the country, and it would make it easier for educators to collaborate on curriculum, etc. It is time to raise the bar in education - make the standards higher and students will perform.

All NCLB does is make education mediiocre, which does a huge disservice to all students.

Blaming teachers for the country's educational ills is misguided.The problem is the lack of effort on the part of students in mastering the curriculum through classwork,homework and studying.An anti-education climate has developed throughout this country
where entitlement is more important than achievement. Do people really believe there are so many bad teachers out there to create this educational crisis? NCLB is great because it has brought to the surface the magnitude of our educational problems.

The problems in the Iraqi "conflict" are not blamed on the soldier. The problems in a corporation are not blamed on the employees, the blame goes to the policy makers. Yet with teaching, where most statistics indicate that deficiencies are system wide, state-wide and country-wide, the blame is placed on the shoulders of people who control one classroom. If a problem is systemic and all pervasive, one must look at the top of the structure and at the environment at large.

Carolynn Schneider asks "I wonder how many teachers think their jobs would be easier and produce better educated students (& less complaints from "society") if children were grouped according to ability."

A specific study has been done on tracking. It is "Does Secondary School Tracking Affect Performance? Evidence from IALS" IALS is International Adult Literacy Survey. Researchers Kenn Ariga and Giorgio Brunnelo found that tracking "that the contribution of tracking to performance is positive and statistically significant: conditional on total years of schooling, one additional year spent in a track raises average performance by 3.3 to 3.4 percentage points..." The study is IZA Discussion Paper No. 2643, February 2007. Get it free from the Social Sciences Research Network online at

Carolynn Schneider asks "I wonder how many teachers think their jobs would be easier and produce better educated students (& less complaints from "society") if children were grouped according to ability."

A specific study has been done on tracking. It is "Does Secondary School Tracking Affect Performance? Evidence from IALS" IALS is International Adult Literacy Survey. Researchers Kenn Ariga and Giorgio Brunnelo found that tracking "that the contribution of tracking to performance is positive and statistically significant: conditional on total years of schooling, one additional year spent in a track raises average performance by 3.3 to 3.4 percentage points..." The study is IZA Discussion Paper No. 2643, February 2007. Get it free from the Social Sciences Research Network online at

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