The Teaching Challenge

By Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

In this week’s news, we feature a new study by the DC-based Alliance for Excellent Education, which finds that over $1.4 billion is spent at US two-year institutions for developmental (remedial) education. The issue of remediation continues to become an increasing challenge for educational institutions in the US and Canada. Critics of remedial programming suggest that if high schools did their job better, this wouldn’t be an issue. That’s a hard point to argue. Certainly, if our middle and high schools better prepared students for higher education, we would rely less on remedial programs later in the education process. However, education reform doesn’t happen overnight and, given our track record over the past 20 years, it hardly occurs at all.

There is much I could talk about this week (especially on Friday the 13th) at the Congressional level. The House passed the College Cost Reduction Act of 2007, only to have it vetoed by the President (since that’s all he does now). But I previously spoke on the content of the Act (“The Hill is Alive”), so I’ll not bore you with the details.

This week I point to an article we highlight in our Week in Review by David M. Herszenhorn of the New York Times titled “How Hard Can It Be to Teach? The Challenges Go Well Beyond the Classroom.” This caught my fancy, especially as a former middle-school teacher in my home town of Winnipeg, Manitoba and in Hampton, Virginia.

Herszenhorn describes the difficulty of teaching, not as much from the academic perspective, but the knowledge of what it takes to “teach” students who, especially at the younger grades, can’t put too many pieces together at the same time. It is a process of reductionism, or as my California colleague David Roth would say, it is about “deconstructing” knowledge.

Teaching is tough work, and I will always side with teachers about conditions and the taxing work they do. My brother argues that teaching is an easy job; heck, they get 2-3 months off. That much is true, but if I calculate all the time spend developing new curricula, grading papers and assignments, phoning parents and keeping up with students, let alone coordinating the “Odyssey of the Mind” clubs and the technology clubs, and also my adjunct teaching to teach teachers to teach better (which was a professional obligation), I was a pretty busy guy as a teacher. My wife, the former German teacher, left teaching in part because of the “evening” expectation and responsibility of teaching. Good teachers don’t leave their work at the office.

Still, we don’t teach well enough in the US or in Canada, from my perspective. Perhaps I’ve been out of the classroom too long (1993), but I don’t see enough “good” teachers and good teaching in the field. I see “great” teachers along my research travels, but not enough of them. Herszenhorn quotes the Chancellor of the NYC Public School system, Joel Klein: “The most important thing in education is the quality of teachers.” And this is undeniably true. Take away everything else, and the quality of our teaching force is critical to the development of our youth and our economy.

But other factors participate, too. Klein continues: “The two major ingredients are what you get paid and a combination of working conditions and job satisfaction.” As a teacher, I enjoyed teaching, but there were “conditions” that made my job very difficult. When I was teaching in Hampton, my lab (I was a technology teacher) was not air conditioned. Let me give you a visual. Hampton, Virginia, where the June average temperature is in the 90s with a humidity rate of about 150 percent (OK, my math may be off). But I basically taught in a sweatshop, until I lobbied and finally “won” air conditioning in my final year of teaching. I was fortunate that I was a good lobbyist at the time, a skill that not everybody has or appreciates.

We’ll get better teachers if we raise the profession via salaries and conditions. Teaching is one of those vocations that borderlines on a “profession.” Every teacher believes it; almost no parent does. It doesn’t hold much esteem in the public, which is truly too bad, because, beyond a pediatrician, what other group of people hold so much sway with the development of your children? But this is an issue where the teaching “profession” has some responsibility, because it has allowed that perception to permeate society. But teachers need to take a stand, and hopefully the NEA and the AFT will do more than just act like the Teamsters outlet.

In December the National Center on Education and the Economy released a report called “Tough Choices or Tough Times.” I commented on this in my column A Revolution in School Reform (December 15, 2006). I strongly urge Week in Review readers to check out that column again and also the report, because it presents a foundation for how we can improve teaching and learning in the United States, and I think in Canada, too.

Of course, if only we have the political will to do so.

So we’re stuck with this remedial problem for the foreseeable future. A few years ago, the State of New York decided that remedial programs didn’t belong in four-year institutions, so they pushed them down to the community college level. Other states followed New York’s lead. In some ways, this approach makes sense: community colleges are less expensive on a per capita/per course basis than universities. Beyond the fiscal horizon, we do not know if the quality of remedial education is as good as it was at the university level. To my knowledge, that research question has not been addressed (and if anyone contests, please bring it to my attention).

This remedial issue is a bigger problem than one might perceive. With No Child Left Behind and the increasing focus on accountability by the Bush Administration and policymakers across the country, it is significant that high school graduates are requiring extensive remediation at the postsecondary level. They are graduating with a diploma, but unprepared—at some level—for college-level work.

The Alliance report is correct in suggesting that this is a huge pink elephant in the education big-top, but let’s be clear: there is no silver bullet here. There is no simple policy to rectify the situation. If students are unprepared for postsecondary work but aspire to study at that level, remediation is their only avenue. Forcing down remediation to the community college level, as in New York, was meant as an effort to do so, but there is little or no evidence to suggest that this policy, except on a fiscal level, has been successful.

At one level I would support a federal program that rewards schools and institutions for reducing remedial/developmental needs for underrepresented groups at the postsecondary level. The challenge, of course, is that our vision of “K-16” education is mostly a cliché; accountability from secondary to postsecondary education is pathetic. No one owns “the problem,” and the system isn’t built to share the responsibility or blame. Ultimately, we need to continue the conversations about K-16 or K-20 partnerships, but we need to up the ante. At some level, governments need to make it known that this is serious stuff. K-12 won’t like that, nor will higher education. But it may be the only carrot/cattle prod to which those two entities will respond.

Like every other conversation, I could easily segue into the need for a national unit-record database, so we could truly see where these issues hit home. But that will have to wait for another week.

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