Monday, July 2, 2012

Nostalgia For A Time That Never Was: We've Always Sucked

A little over a week ago, I responded to an HB 1234 supporter with the following paragraph:
I come in contact with talented kids every day. As a debate coach, I get the privilege of spending a lot of time with some of the brightest kids South Dakota has. When asked, I tell all of them to do something other than teach. HB 1234 and the debate surrounding it will mean that fewer will ask me about teaching. They will know they should look for other careers.
 The response:  "if you hold in such low esteem your vocation, you need to change vocations."

It turns out I'm not alone in my disinclination to recommend teaching as a profession.  Marion Brady who began teaching in 1952 writes:
A few days ago, I went to a reunion of the surviving members of a class that picked up their diplomas 50 years ago, in 1961. They were a smart bunch of kids. The work of a couple of them would be familiar to millions of Americans.
Not surprisingly, a few became teachers. Without exception, those who talked to me at the reunion had no regrets. But also without exception, none of them would now encourage anyone to enter the field.
Damn, I hate it when I start becoming part of a group. I've spent most of my life avoiding groups that would have me as a member.

On a more serious note, the main problem may be nostalgia.  Individuals frequently believe that their situations were better 10 years ago, even though they probably weren't.  When it comes to education, all of us may be suffering from nostalgia for things that never were.  Writing a guest post for The Answer Sheet, David E. Drew points out:

To be sure, effective educational reforms can significantly improve the academic performance of American students. But the idea that the United States once was a world leader in elementary and secondary education, while a compelling part of our belief system, is false. We never ranked #1. We can’t get back to the head of the class because we never were the head of the class.
In fact, we always have scored at, or near, the bottom of the rankings.
Drew is a STEM guy, so his analysis concentrates on math and science.  He sums up his findings about science and concludes:
Here are the results of science assessments of high school students: In 1973, the U.S. rank was 14 out of 14 countries. In the mid-1980s, the U.S. rank in biology was 13 out of 13 countries; the U.S. rank in chemistry was 11 out of 13 countries; the U.S. rank in physics was 9 out of 13 countries. In 1991, the U.S. rank in science was 13 out of 15.
At no time was the performance of U.S. students excellent or outstanding on these exams.
In contrast with the conventional wisdom that the U.S performance has declined in recent decades, our performance has actually improved slightly. The hard work of teachers, students, and parents has started to pay off.
"We've always sucked!" is neither an effective nor a worthwhile rallying cry.  If the US has never been near the top, everyone needs to reassess.  Teachers need to understand that improvements must happen.  Policy makers need to craft policies that have realistic goals instead of relying on temporary fixes and political machinations like HB 1234 that have been designed to get a seat at the big governors' table.  Those policies arise from nostalgia for a time that never happened and will not get positive results, and they will drive talented people away from the profession.

No one can "return" to a place one has never visited, especially if one follows a map that shows a different destination.


David Newquist said...

The problem with those ranking systems over the years is that they do not compare like groups of students. Many countries have educational systems which separate the ambitious and talented students into elite programs at various educational stages. In the U.S., we do not distinguish between those that come from advanced programs from those in general programs. Students in other countries who are diverted into vocational programs, for example, are not tested in math and science, etc. So, often the entire U.S. student body is being compared to students in advanced and specialized programs.

AS for America as a leader in elementary and secondary education, that status has had more to do with how many we educate. After World War II, it is true that the American education system was a model that the rest of the world took note of. This is because of our universal system which did not stream students into tracks that defined them according to vocational potentials. Our general approach was to offer education that would qualify all students to advance into college if they chose to go there at some point in their lives. The effects of American education registered on the rest of the world through its encounter with our military draftees during and after World War II.

I live just two blocks from the local campus where I worked, and I am impressed by the number of Asian students it has accommodated in recent years--as well as the ones I had in class. A major reason they are studying on this remote campus in South Dakota is that they did not qualify for the prestigious universities in their own countries.

For them, American education is an opportunity they do not have in their homelands. This fact about American education is submerged by the current political cant.

I, too, have suggested to very talented students that they are wise to consider more options than teaching as a vocation. It is not, as your snarky commenter suggested, the level of esteem in which I hold my profession. It is the low level of status and development that an ill-informed public has forced upon the profession.

A very talented physicist I once worked with left teaching to join a research organization. He was scolded by a woman who suggested that it was a bit selfish of him deprive students of his talents and knowledge. He told her if she thought it was so important for students to have access to knowledge, she should do it or make it possible for talent to do its work as it knew how.

LK said...

I agree that the US effort to teach every student skews the data.

I also should have made the point that test scores are not an accurate measure of learning. The desire to move us to the top of the test score ladder is not necessarily a worthwhile goal.

D.E. Bishop said...

I taught in small town SD schools in the 70s and 80s. I would not recommend it now. It's not because of the students or my colleagues. It is mainly due to the cultural attitude toward teachers, impelled by the systematic, decades long attack on public education by the righties.

When I taught, I was respected. I had to do something really heinous to lose the trust of the parents, colleagues, and community. The teachers I know now say that they are distrusted by the community the day they sign their contract. It makes it all so much more difficult, and no fun at all.