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Solving Education Woes Difficult, But Necessary

seWHEN administrators in the Connetquot school district on New York’s Long Island decided earlier this year to hire more teachers for their schools, they began their selection process by requiring that the would-be teachers — all of them graduates of better education schools — demonstrate the ability to answer the reading-comprehension questions on the State High School English Regents Test, which the school’s own students had been given over the years.

Here is the beginning of one reading passage and the questions based on it.

The freeze-up on Black Bear Lake is a prelude to winter. The freeze-up is a prelude to hardship. The freeze-up is a prelude to loneliness. . . .

1. The effect of lines 1 and 2 is achieved by the narrator’s use of what literary device?

a) Contrast.

b) Symbolism.

c) Definition.

d) Repetition.

2. The narrator associates the freeze-up with . . .

a) Difficulty and isolation.

b) Observation and judgment.

c) Conflict and resolution.

d) Challenge and accomplishment.

These were typical questions from the test. Of 758 licensed teachers who took this multiple-choice exam, only 202 could answer the required 80 per cent of the questions correctly. Teacher pay in the district ranges up to $84,625 annually.

A great deal of noise is now being made by the liberal press and by President Clinton about the possibility of “reforming” public education. And, indeed, not all the present problems in public education should be attributed to the fact that public primary and secondary schools in this country are organized as a state monopoly — one with the efficiency of the Post Office and the integrity of the current presidential Administration. In theory, after all, school administrators could reduce the power of teachers unions, and tenure could be eliminated. (Whether this is politically feasible, of course, is an open question.) Similarly, teachers could be given more authority to discipline and dismiss violent students.

However, a major problem, with no obvious solution, is the education-school graduates who are currently teaching in and running the schools. Not only has the average SAT verbal score of all students declined in the last thirty years, but so have those of successive cohorts of teachers. By the early 1980s, college students majoring in education averaged an SAT verbal score below 400. A study done some years ago in Houston showed that applicants for teaching positions scored lower on basic skills tests in math than the average for high-school seniors. In a Florida county, one-third of the teachers could not pass skills tests for eighth-graders. W. Timothy Weaver of Boston University has shown that education majors do more poorly on the SAT than majors in any other subject. Moreover, studies have shown that the education students who score highest are most likely to leave the field. Nor is the problem confined to the United States. Japan is the only nation among the economic leaders in the world which has elementary-school teachers who were among the top half of their college classes in academic ability — undoubtedly one of the principal causes of its outstanding schools.

Not long ago I sat in on a public-school class in Brooklyn taught by a pleasant young woman just finishing her education requirements at a local college. Teaching a specially prepared class on the legacy of British imperialism in India, she asked students whether they thought that this legacy had been mostly a help or a hindrance for India. When a student observed that although India had been given a legacy of democratic institutions it remained a Third World country, the teacher corrected him, explaining that the world’s largest democracy was not one and that neither was India a Third World nation. This followed her decision to pass out to students a speech by an unnamed Brahmin decrying British rule, a man whom she did not and (I later discovered) could not herself identify. Nevertheless, the comments on the new teacher’s performance by her education-school instructor, who was sitting beside me, were almost uniformly positive.

ascIF ONE wishes to know why American children are rarely exposed to anything worth reading in their classrooms, one has only to ask what education-school students read themselves. Reginald Damerell, formerly an education professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has reported that many graduate education departments — as a matter of policy — refuse even to look at test scores, claiming they are discriminatory. He further notes that some education doctoral candidates he has encountered unabashedly refused to do even a modicum of reading on the grounds that they were dyslexic. And while his school did look at grades, as a matter of policy it deliberately took less-qualified applicants for its graduate programs — students with grade-point averages and test scores which were considered unacceptable for undergraduate admission. In fact, a pamphlet put out by the school boasted about this.

Not only do requirements that prospective teachers attend education schools keep able people out of the teaching field, but they also infect the airheads who are willing to attend these schools with ridiculous methods of teaching. In the last few years education schools have been promoting the idea that children should not be made to do individual work or show individual effort, but rather that they should be graded for work done in a group (or a village). Called collaborative or cooperative learning, this is being practiced now to some degree in virtually every school in America. Needless to say, the fact that this in no way helps children learn has not discouraged our education-school-trained teachers from relying on the idea. But, then again, why would education-school graduates be enthusiastic about individual thought and effort when they themselves were so challenged by it?

Ironically, one of the main arguments that teachers unions are now making on behalf of public education is that all their teachers are licensed — that is, that they are education-school graduates. I have worked as a public-school teacher for several years and have never once seen someone with limited formal intelligence who proved to be a successful teacher; such people are the majority in public education today. However, when attempts have been made to eliminate education-school requirements in favor of more basic tests of intelligence and academic proficiency, these attempts have almost always been thwarted by political pressure from teachers unions anxious to maintain an artificial teacher shortage. On the few occasions such requirements have been reduced, education-school graduates in administrative positions have generally refused to hire people without education-school backgrounds anyway.

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