Category Archives: Education

Re-education

Having homeschooled kids has proven to be challenging and enjoyable at the same time. I’m finding myself re-learning skills long gone idle, and in some cases learning new topics I’m fairly sure I was never exposed to when I was in school. Verb tenses are a good example; I of course knew the past, present and future, but if I was ever taught about past perfect, present perfect and future perfect, it was apparently so brief that I remember nothing of it.

Grammar is interesting to be sure, and I’m glad for the chance to refresh and refine my knowledge of it, but mathematics is where I feel like I belong. This year has been a treat for me, since one of my kids is taking high-school geometry. When I was in school, I believe geometry and trigonometry were taught together, and neither in much depth. Certain things seem familiar to be sure, such as how use the Pythagorean Theorem, but so much of what is in this new geometry class is completely new to me. I find myself engrossed in the subject, spending hours at a time working through entire chapters. How to use the Pythagorean Theorem is a small thing; how to prove it in 10 different ways is real understanding.

This new thirst for knowledge pulls me in all directions. Where to go next? Learn to speak Chinese? Learn a new programming language? Design a mobile app? Write a novel? The possibilities are endless, are they not?

Ooops.

Shouldn’t letters and notices that come home from teachers and school administrators be checked for spelling and grammar? For example, it’s not “Jack and Jill is tumbling down the hill”,  it’s “Jack and Jill are tumbling down the hill”.

Series: Improving education part 3

Teachers’ Unions

This series has been slow to develop, but not for lack of things to talk about. I’ve tried so far to be fair with my comments, as I don’t need a lynch-mob of teacher-relatives and teacher-friends breaking down my door.

Unions, or organized labor, developed over 200 years ago as a way for workers to put pressure on employers to improve working conditions and pay. If you go back and read about some of the dangerous factories and what workers went through, it seems completely reasonable that unions were created. Individual workers couldn’t make things happen, but if they all protested together, they could get the attention of management and push for improvements. It was a good idea, and it worked.

Flash-forward to today. Today’s unions are still groups of employees working in a concerted fashion to demand change from their employers. The difference is, those employees aren’t in dangerous jobs, they aren’t being mistreated, they aren’t being underpaid… In most cases union workers are already paid more and given more benefits than their private-sector counterparts. They’re no longer fighting against the “man” to solve their grievances, since they don’t really have any. They’re just pushing to get as much money and as many benefits for their members as they can.

Now that we understand where unions came from, why they exist, and what they work towards, let me explain why they are detrimental to the public education system.

1) Tenure. Tenure is a very bad thing. It’s a benefit pushed by the unions which means that once a teacher has worked a certain number of years at a school, they can no longer be fired without cause. Many private-sector employees are “at-will”, which means either the employee or the employer can terminate at any time without giving cause.

2) Job description and seniority-based pay. Unions have negotiated pay levels that are tied to specific job descriptions and years of service. Two teachers with the same qualifications, doing the same job, teaching the same subject, with the same number of years of experience, get the same pay. They get paid the same, regardless of how good they are at their job or how hard they work. What happens is that poor-performing teachers aren’t penalized and given reason to improve. High-performing teachers see the poor-performing ones getting the same pay and it demoralizes them to know that their hard work isn’t going to be rewarded.

3) An us-against-them attitude. Unions have cultivated this attitude among their ranks. If you’re in the union, you’re on our side, and if you’re not in the union, you’re the enemy. Any suggestion that puts even the slightest crack in the unions’ control of the situation is treated as an attack on the teachers themselves. Schools are struggling to find ways to make budgets work, but if they suggest that teachers should help pay for their health insurance for example, they’re labeled as anti-teacher.

4) It’s all about the kids. Unions love to use this one. Everything they do, they claim that it’s for the kids. If you’re against the union (see #3 above), you’re against the kids. What they don’t explain, and no one ever presses them to, is how asking teachers to contribute to health insurance is going to hurt the kids? Wouldn’t it be harder on the educational process if the school board has to lay off teachers and increase class sizes to meet the budget? Really, if all they care about is the kids, why aren’t they teaching for free? It’s an extreme example, but it makes the point that when unions negotiate for better pay or benefits, it’s about pay and benefits – nothing else.

5) Bad teachers. No one likes to admit it, but there ARE bad teachers in the system. Education is no different than any other industry. It has good employees and bad employees. The difference is, in private non-union industry management can terminate bad employees (see #1 above). In education bad teachers languish in the system for years, collecting salaries but either doing nothing at all or just doing a bad job. For the most well-known example, read this article at the New Yorker about New York City’s Rubber Rooms. Schools need to be given the ability to weed these teachers out. This would also help #2 above.

Overall, what needs to happen is to move education towards a business-type employment environment. Give control back to management. Use merit-based pay to encourage teachers to succeed. Discontinue the tenure program, good teachers don’t need it to hide behind. Eliminate bad teachers and fill their spots with someone who wants to succeed. If these things were done, it would have a positive affect on the education system as a whole and would show the community that teachers aren’t just a faceless union unwilling to change.

Next Installment: Curriculum

 

 

Series: Improving education part 2

Dealing with the lack of discipline and respect in schools

This is arguably the biggest and most difficult to solve problem that we have in our schools today. Face it, many kids are disrespectful, lazy, and lack any real ambition or drive. They expect life to be easy and for everything to be handed to them. This problem isn’t isolated to the school environment. It’s pervasive throughout our society. I attended high school from 1988 – 90. I look back now and feel ashamed at how we treated teachers then, but that pales in comparison to today.

So, how do we fix it? How do we bring back respect? How do we encourage kids to work hard and strive to achieve? There’s no one magic answer, but there are a few things that can be done to get things moving in the right direction.

1) Recognize excellence. We encourage, recognize and reward excellence in sports. Cheering crowds, trophies, rides through town after a big tournament on a fire engine… We place a lot of pressure on kids to do their best in sports and to win. Kids have been known to cry when they lose the big game. Do we treat academics in the same way? We all remember the basketball stars – who remembers the name of the valedictorian those years? In our local school gym there are signs and banners commemorating scoring records and wins, but nothing about any academic success. The drive for success in sports is something that needs to be brought back into education. Kids should WANT to do their best.

2) Command respect. Too many teachers are trying to be friends with their students. This was the case when I was in school and I’m still seeing it today with my kids’ teachers. The ones that have the biggest problem controlling their classrooms are the ones who want to be liked by the kids. They encourage kids to call them by their first name. They share their personal life with their students. Eventually the kids become familiar to the point where they feel they are peers with their teacher. When that happens they no longer respect the teacher as an authority figure and basically ignore any attempt by the teacher to keep things under control. Teachers should be Mr. or Mrs. X. Keep your private life private. Don’t forget, these are kids; consistency and clarity are key. Kids constantly test their boundaries and it is important to establish those boundaries. It’s not my job to be my kids’ friend, it’s my job to be their parent. Teachers, it’s not your job to be their friend, it’s your job to be their teacher.

3) Enforce discipline. “Back in the day”, there were paddles, switches, rulers across the hands… We all know that the squishy liberals took corporal punishment out of the schools a long time ago. It took awhile for kids to adjust. For example, I remember a paddle hanging in the front of the bus and another in the principal’s office. I never saw it used, but we always thought it could be. Kids today know it can’t be and won’t be used. They know they can’t be touched. What we can do is to put pressure on the parents to deal with the discipline problem before it gets to the school. Schools should be suspending and expelling students that are violent, disrepectful or disruptive. Send the kids home and refuse to let them back in the door until the parents agree to make them behave. If things don’t change, their parents need to find somewhere else to send them, like a school for problem children. They aren’t learning anything at school anyway, why have them bring down the other students around them?

As I said, these aren’t magic bullets that will immediately fix the respect and discipline problem. Things didn’t go bad overnight and they won’t be fixed overnight either. It’s a good start however, and if we don’t do something to turn things around, it’s just going to get worse.

Next installment: Teachers’ Unions

School Speed Limit Signs

For years in our area we’ve had the usual School Speed Limits signs. On the bottom of the sign it’s always said, “on school days when children are present”. I’ve never liked that wording because it’s far too vague. Am I supposed to know it’s a school day? If I don’t see any kids does that mean I don’t have to slow down? What about at 10PM at night on a Wednesday while a basketball game is over and kids are walking to cars?

So, I was very pleased several years ago to see new signs where the wording was replaced with a simple, “From 7AM til 4PM”. It’s simple, clear, and easy to obey. Every day of the year, regardless of circumstances, if the time is between 7AM and 4PM, you have to slow down. I don’t like writing checks to the court, so I follow these new signs to the letter. That upsets people following me on a Sunday who assume the signs don’t apply on that day, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s just too bad.

I had thought all the schools in our town had gotten the new signs, with the exception of one south of town that’s a little out of the town proper. However, lately I’ve noticed a sign that was either missed or was changed back to the old version. Oddly enough, it’s part of a school zone where all the rest of the signs are the new “7 til 4” type. In fact, I pass the old sign, go through an intersection, and the pass a new sign.

I’m against spending money for no reason, and in fact just posted an example of where signs are being replaced pointlessly. In this case, it makes sense to fix what is otherwise a confusing situation.

 

Series: Improving education part 1

Education, and usually public school education, is always a hot topic in the news and politics. Bring up the subject in a group and you’ll quickly see people choosing sides, those who think that more money can fix the problems, and those who think that the system is broken beyond what money can repair.

Also, my part postings about public schools tend to get a lot of hits, so apparently it’s something people want to read about. So, I’ve decided to put together a series of articles addressing what I feel are the main problems in our education system in this country, as well as what needs to be done to address them.

To begin, I think it’s necessary for me to explain where I stand on the subject of public education as a whole. On a federal level, government has no business being involved in education – period. It’s not within the Constitution as a function of the federal government, which means that it resides with the States. So, things like the US Department of Education are unconstitutional and need to be eliminated.

At the state level, each state has the ability to decide, based on their state Constitution, whether or not that state should be involved in education. If a particular state wants to establish a public school system, that’s up to them.

With that said, on a philosophical level I don’t think government should be involved in education at all, which means that we should not have a public education system. There are few things that government does efficiently or effectively, and public education isn’t one of them. When a few government bureaucrats in the state capitol are making decisions for schools in remote parts of the state, there are going to be problems. Pushing the control down closer to the schools such as the Regional Office of Education or local school board helps, because they understand better the needs of the school, but even at that level there is the tendency to spend a lot of energy on politics rather than results.

Ultimately, if there were no public schools and only private ones, some interesting things would happen. There would be competition between schools to attract students, since more students (customers) equals more profit. Parents (customers) would be able to choose a school for their children.

To put this in the simplest terms, in our local system the budget works out to around $11,000 per student. Cut a check to every parent – $11,000 per student. Give them the option of sending their child to the local public school for that $11K or sending them to a private school for $11K. Suddenly there would be a lot of empty chairs in the public school, and the private schools, which don’t charge anywhere close to $11K, would be thriving.

Now, obviously it’s not as simple as just cutting everyone $11K checks per student. Some people pay in very little and others pay in far more than they will ever receive. However, the fewer levels of government involved in the process, the less money is wasted in the bureaucracy. Get the government out of the schools, cut taxes severely so that less is wasted in the bureaucrat shuffle, and if you need to have a safety net to help cover those few that genuinely can’t afford to educate their kids, that’s up to each individual community.

This all seems pretty radical since everyone has gotten so used to the government-run public school system, but when you really think about it, this is how things worked back before the government got involved. Local communities started their own schools, funded them locally, and communities helped out those who needed it.

Next installment: Dealing with the lack of discipline and respect in schools.