News From Terre Haute, Indiana


April 21, 2011

FLASHPOINT: Teachers, don’t let negativity denigrate your efforts

As long as I can remember being a conscious, thinking human being our schools have been subjected to criticism. In the age of Sputnik it was the failure of American schools that put us in jeopardy of losing the space race. I am sure I do not need to remind you that we are the only nation to put men on the moon.

In the 1980s the Japanese were clearly clobbering us economically, in one year accumulating enough of our dollars to buy all the farmland in Iowa, if they chose so. Who was at fault? America’s schools. U.S. citizens even predicted our next war would be with Japan. However, in the 1990s our economy grew at a remarkable rate while Japan’s was stagnant. Perhaps producing robots who have memorized answers to tests is not the way to promote creative thinking.

Bill Denham, in his angry, rambling essay of March 24 continues this tradition of blaming our schools for many social ills, even using the blanket condemnation of “educational malpractice,” and citing the findings of various conservative think tanks to reinforce this criticism. But Mr. Denham and the think tanks he quotes fail to take into account some errors in their thinking.

Cross-cultural comparisons of academic achievement are difficult to make. In many countries some students have left the public schools by age 14 for an apprenticeship in a trade. In some nations these tests determine your future economic life, a situation that motivates students to focus intently on achieving the very best results. In the U.S. students are not so driven to succeed on one test.

Many of these countries have school systems that do not attempt to keep everyone in school. We often look weak in international comparisons since we have a goal of keeping our youngsters in school longer, of educating everyone, and sending a larger proportion to college.

It is true that Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT) scores have fallen since 1965, but most of that drop was from 1965 to 1975. Since then scores have been creeping back up. And there are many who think we should celebrate this drop as it is due to the fact that more are taking the test and going on to higher education.

American public schools do remarkably well when they are provided with the human and economic resources to succeed. Each year more students take and pass the Advanced Placement test and the increase has been particularly evident among minority students. Also, each year more American high school pupils are taking at least three years of math and four years of English.

The Program for International Assessment (PISA) that Mr. Denham refers to is given to 15 year olds in about 60 nations, and many experts consider it a poor measure of what schools are teaching.

It seems as if Mr. Denham saves his most venomous attacks for the teaching profession. Now why are we heaping abuse on a profession that is not known as being mercenary? He seems to think all of our social ills are due to teachers, tenure and teaching organizations.

I started teaching in the Vigo County schools in 1964 (and retired in 2010), but I remember small school systems around here where trustees ran their school districts as virtual fiefdoms. Teachers were told where they had to live, where they were supposed to go to church, and they were fired when they got a few years of experience and their pay was increasing. Low tax rates seemed much more important to the trustees than quality education.

If we judge teaching skill based on tests alone, those tests will become all important, and will be all that is taught. Some of the best teaching I received was from little stories, meandering asides, often not even related to the subject matter, that my teachers told. And don’t we want our students to also have an appreciation for art, music, literature, as well as becoming good citizens? Our public schools have also been charged with the job of assimilating immigrants, being on the forefront of racial integration, and providing the primary means of upward social mobility — Herculean tasks I think all would agree.

Mr. Denham’s criticism of Dr. Bakken, which then spread to America’s university system, was particularly malicious. America’s university is the envy of the world. The United States is ranked number one in the world by UNESCO, with seven of the world’s top 10 colleges being in the U.S. and with a higher percentage of Americans going to post-secondary education than any nation except Canada.

The “Golden Age” of education that people imagine once existed, when the biggest problem teachers had was students chewing gum and passing notes, never really existed. Instead most students then quit school after the eighth grade, special education students were excluded from the public schools, and malcontents were whipped with hickory sticks. I do not think we seriously want to return to those days.

Mr. Denham’s criticism of Superintendent Tanoos also struck me as excessive. I am thankful that we have a superintendent who backs up his teachers, rather than taking a negative, adversarial attitude toward his workforce. Incidentally, I was at that rally and I didn’t see any teachers “whining and crying.” I saw teachers encouraged by the fellowship and solidarity, glad to have it clarified who is for the public schools and who is against them.

Those of you who are critical of teachers — you try standing in front of 36 youngsters, many who don’t want to be there, and who are acutely aware of generational differences. Given that the number one fear of American adults is not tornadoes, not terrorists, not even cancer, but is instead speaking in public — you try it! Prepare a presentation, about an hour long, and see how it holds students’ attention. And then do this four or five times a day, five days a week. First, of course, you have to acquire some expertise in an area of knowledge.

Teachers, I know how easy it is to be overly sensitive to criticism. Don’t let these annoying nags of negativism denigrate your efforts. Continue doing a good job, and strive to be the teacher you wish you would have had when you were in school.

— James A. Eslinger

Terre Haute

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