Why School Reform Won't Work


December 15, 1992|By AUSTIN GISRIEL

The leaders of Maryland's public school system should take a lesson from one of the great leaders of history, Robert E. Lee, who got more out of his under-manned and under-supplied troops than anyone believed possible.

In spite of their condition, Lee's troops were as committed to their cause as he was, because they knew that he would always do two things: Though often risky, Lee designed his strategies to maximize the potential success of his army; and he never asked more from that army than it was possible to give.

Judging from the huge percentage of tax dollars spent on education in Maryland, no one can say that our educational army is under-manned or under-supplied. Nevertheless, the battle to improve our decaying educational system is not succeeding, and the reason is basic. Unlike Lee's troops, we teachers have no faith in the strategies of our leaders, nor in their commitment to the real-life process of teaching.

The latest strategy concocted by our state Board of Education -- requiring high-school students to "volunteer" for community service -- is typical of the confused and often contradictory guidelines which teachers constantly face.

This absurd idea presents tremendous logistical problems and liability hazards, in addition to which it more-than-likely violates the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery and community service except as criminal punishment.

Many students do not read well, and a telling number find making change from a dollar a Herculean task. Yet, instead of requiring additional English and math as part of a plan for "educational reform," the state of Maryland requires that the kids pick up trash along the roadside.

Another popular, though less publicized, proposal circulating in Maryland is "mastery learning," an idea that will supposedly fix what ails our system by requiring all students to "master" given material before they proceed to more advanced material. This plan is gaining credence in Washington County, for example, where it will exist side-by-side with a policy that requires students to be held back not more than once during middle school.

Teachers do not fret over such absurd contradictions because we are confident that the mastery-learning approach is just another passing fad.

Perhaps it is more appropriately termed another recycled fad. My father, a former teacher, vice-principal and principal in Baltimore County, informed me that mastery learning came and went three times during his 38-year tenure.

Furthermore, it is difficult to have faith in educational reform when our leaders never stick around to see it through. This fall begins my eighth year in the same building, and in that time I have seen three state superintendents, two local superintendents, four curriculum supervisors and three principals come and go.

A constant flux in leadership makes proposed reform easy to ignore. From the teacher's point of view, there is no sense revamping lesson plans to fit the new idea because there is always a new idea being thrown at us.

Indeed, educational ideas always come at teachers; none are invited from them. We are being ordered to execute ideas in which we have no say and, therefore, no stake.

Every teacher in Maryland has a bachelor's degree and will earn a master's degree or equivalent before retirement. Yet not a single education bureaucrat suspects that we just might have some clue as to how to solve some of education's problems.

The teachers of Maryland might be the most highly educated work force of any business or government agency in the state, yet no one ever asks us anything.

In fact, the opposite attitude is prevalent. That is, that we cannot be trusted to do anything correctly.

No bureaucrat will acknowledge that the single greatest dynamic in the classroom is the individual who stands at its head. Teaching is a craft. And occasionally (those moments that teachers live for), a teacher, class and idea come together in a way that is art.

Of course craftsmanship, much less art, befuddles the bureaucrat who cannot cut it into a neat slice of pie chart.

Instead, the supervisor or superintendent or principal rushes out and hires someone to show his faculty how it's done. Once we all master the technique of our guest educational consultant, we will all be better teachers, the bar graphs will go up and everyone will be happy.

So the latest guru is brought in, his tapes are purchased, administrators base their evaluations on how closely we follow the steps that were given and in two or three years it is all forgotten because someone else has introduced a new and improved educational snake oil.

P. T. Barnum missed his calling by joining the circus instead of becoming an educational consultant.

It is both incredible and frustrating that while educators view as gospel the idea that different students learn in different ways, they hold as heresy the concept that there may be different teaching styles as well.

Rather than taking advantage of these differences, the educational system instead urges, and occasionally even requires, conformity among its teachers to the latest new and improved notion.

The tactics of Maryland's educational leaders look great when on parade for the public, but fail miserably when applied to the trenches.

General Lee recognized that his job was to give his army every advantage he could before he turned them loose to fight. He earned his army's respect because he was smart enough to know that soldiers, not generals, win battles.

Educational reform will not begin until professional educators recognize the value of the teacher in the ranks, do what they can to make that individual in his or her classroom successful, and then turn him or her loose.

We are willing fighters. Trust us to do and help us to do what you hired us to do: Teach our children.

Austin Gisriel is Washington County teacher.

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