I’m Probably at Least as Smart as George W. Bush, so Here are Some Modest Proposals for “Fixing” Our Education System

Every couple of years, we have some sort of crisis of education in this country. Our schools are failing. Our children isn’t learning. China and India are going to give us swirlies and take our lunch money. And then these sky-is-falling proclamations are inevitably used as excuses for top-down reforms that make everyone miserable and rarely result in education improving appreciably.

I, of course, have been teaching for two or three years now, so I’m pretty much an expert at everything. I don’t agree with the Chicken Littles of the education world, but I certainly agree that there is always room for improvement in our schools, and will share my infinite wisdom with you now. You won’t find the sort of scorched-earth approach you usually get from the right here; nor will you see the sort of tone-deaf teacher-hugging that the left is known for. These are just a handful of small changes we could implement now. And because they’re easy and common-sense, you’ll never see them implemented.

1. Pay teachers more.

Wait, where are you going? Come back. This post won’t all be the sort of self-serving drum-beating that teachers’ unions are (used to be) so good at, I promise. I have some real thoughts too. But hear me out on this one first, please.

Let me start by saying that when I say “Pay teachers more,” I am absolutely not looking to line my own pockets, as hard as that may be to believe. I’m actually fairly satisfied with what I’m currently making as a teacher. I’m not the sort of person that needs to have really nice things. A hole in the wall to live, a couple of cats, a stack of books and maybe (if we’re looking to get fancy) an Internet connection is all I really need to be happy, and my current salary covers that. (However, as a side note, I should point out that this is me in a hypothetical universe; in real life I have a wife to keep happy and a baby on the way. We can’t all be monks.)

That said, teacher pay is astonishingly and abominably low. For the amount of education the job expects you to have and the amount of time and effort it expects you to put in, the pay is absolute nonsense. There’s not a single job in the private sector that expects so much and rewards employees so little. Ask any employer who’s not a former Hostess executive, and they’ll tell you the way to attract talent is to reward it with decent pay and benfits. Teacher pay, at the moment, is simply not competitive.

Again, this is not a post about oh-poor-me-I-can’t-cover-my-bills. I can cover my bills, but I also have a spouse who makes a lot more than I do, and I’m also content to live in a two-bedroom apartment and walk most places. The pay issue is not about me; it’s about attracting talent. With the current amount that teachers are paid, there are only two reasons to become a teacher: either you absolutely love the job, or you’re no good at anything else. (If you’re wondering, I’m probably somewhere in between the two.) American culture looks at teachers with big doe eyes and expects them to be the former, but in reality, “saints” like that are incredibly rare. If Google sat around and waited for people who felt truly “called” to be software engineers to come to them and agree to work day and night for $30,000 a year, they’d be out of business in a week. You have to pay more to attract better talent. It’s economics, yo.

Let me say what else this is not about. This is not about me being against merit-based pay, and it is absolutely not an endorsement of teachers’ unions’ insistence that absolutely every teacher get paid the exact same amount depending on seniority. I would actually be happy with merit-based pay, whether it ends up working in my favor or not. While I think there’s still room for debate regarding how to measure “merit,” I think those who are doing the best job should be rewarded the most. The union-negotiated pay schedule is really only a good deal for teachers who are looking to do a lousy job and maintain their (relatively low) standard of living; merit-based pay, if well implemented, has the potential to both raise wages and encourage teachers to work. How could that be bad?

Let me point out one more really obvious elephant in the room. Education as a field of work currently has the exact same problem that the business field has: namely, the only way to make decent money at it is to go into management. Microsoft (for instance) is foundering right now because of that problem: tons of great engineers there have become mediocre managers because they saw that was where the money was, and the resulting brain drain has brought about some truly uninspired (and, to one extent or another, unsuccessful) products. The school system is the exact same way, only worse. Great teachers either get nothing (save for maybe a plaque or two), or they get rewarded with posts as principals and superindents. Some of them turn out to be good at these new jobs, and some don’t, but either way, there’s no getting around the fact that when they were promoted, the school lost a great teacher. That’s a problem, and again, being able to reward the really great teachers with better salaries would go a long way toward fixing it.

2. Reduce teaching hours.

“Oh my gourd,” you’re saying. “This guy. This guy goes on and on about how he’s going to fix our schools, and how he cares so much about our children [ed. note: I never actually said that], and it turns out all he has to say is ‘Pay me more and let me work less.’ He must be some sort of communist-socialist-fascist-Marxist-atheist-Muslim terrorist who hates America.”

Well, maybe. But here we are. You’ve come this far, so you might as well read the rest.

When I say, “Reduce teaching hours,” I’m really not saying, “Give me an excuse to be lazy.” All I’m saying, really, is, “Acknowledge human limitations.” Teaching isn’t a job the same way that engineering, or even working at McDonald’s, is a job. A well taught lesson is a performance. It requires preparation. It has to hold the attention of a whole room. It has to engage students’ minds and make them think new thoughts. The actions and thought processes of every single person in your classroom are your problem, all day.

In other words, it’s like performing stand-up comedy, for eight hours straight, every single day of your life. With a routine that’s not very funny. In front of a large number of people who absolutely loathe stand-up comedy.

Try telling Larry the Cable Guy (or whatever terrible comedian the kids are into these days) that he has to do eight hours of stand-up in front of a crowd full of hecklers, and that afterwards he has to force them all to write an essay about the best way to Git-R-Done, and he has to read every single one of those essays and offer meaningful feedback that will improve all of the hecklers as human beings. And that the next day, he has to do the whole thing again, with a whole new routine. And he has to do it for five days straight every week, forever.

The point is, it’s exhausting.

I am absolutely not saying that teaching is the worst job in the world (I imagine the good people over at Foxconn could name a few dozen worse ones); what I am saying is that it is an incredibly difficult job to truly do well — at least as it’s practiced in this country. Every day when the final bell rings at 3:10, I’m faced with a trilemma of terrible options. I can go home and get enough rest so that I’ll actually have the energy to teach well the next day; I can grade papers so that my gradebook is up-to-date and I know how my kids are doing; or I can sit down and plan an interesting and engaging lesson for the next day. I can pick only one; there is simply not time in the day for two of them, let alone all three. If I’m awake and alert the next day, you can bet that no papers got graded and no lessons got planned. If my lesson plan is good enough to hold your attention, you can bet I don’t have the energy to do it justice.

And so on. You get the picture.

Again, the point of this is not oh-poor-me-I-have-the-worst-job-in-the-world; the point is that time and human energy have their limits. I see 150 students a day; there is simply not the time to give every single one of them the personal attention that true learning requires. If I’m lucky, I get through to about 30 of them. If class sizes were reduced, and/or if each teacher’s teaching time was halved, we’d see much better results in student learning. It’s just a matter of what a single human being can accomplish in 24 hours’ time.

The professional idiots who work for the government, of course, are quite fond of the line “Class size doesn’t matter,” and I have no idea what they’re smoking (though I imagine my wannabe-thug students would love to get their hands on it). My best guess is that most of the people wealthy enough to run for public office were also wealthy enough to go to private school, which is a whole different ballgame. Every student at a private school actually wants to be there and actually studies, at least to a degree. If you don’t want to be there, they simply kick you out — a luxury that public schools just don’t have.

That, of course, brings me to my next point…

3. Get serious about student tracking.

This thought is admittedly the least fully formed in my head, but it’s also the one that’s not about how you should pay me more and work me less, so go figure, I guess. It is, however, something that really needs to be said.

Not all children can learn.

Teachers like to say that they believe that “all children can learn,” and that’s a nice flowery sentiment if you’re out of touch with reality enough to believe it, but it simply isn’t the case. It’s true in a hypothetical sense, of course — all children have the intellectual capability to learn, and theoretically could learn (yes, even those with diminished mental capacities) — but the reality is that there are plenty of children who cannot learn, because they have no desire to do so. If they don’t want to learn, then learning is an impossibility for them.

In other words: where there is not a will, there is not a way.

You hear stories, of course, about kids who were on the proverbial highway to hell until one caring teacher stepped in and showed them the joy of [whatever] and they grew up to be doctors or lawyers or really good pastry chefs. There’s a reason those stories are so significant, though: they’re the exception to the rule. Every teacher with a success story like that has a hundred kids that slipped through his grasp and ended up in jail. It’s just the way it is. Our huge prison population should be proof enough that neither teachers nor parents are superheroes. These realities may be unpleasant, but they’re the real world, and it’s the real world that we’re supposed to be preparing kids for (isn’t it?).

And of course, that brings me back to why China’s and India’s math and science test scores are giving us all wedgies. They only test the kids who are really good at math and science. They start “tracking” kids — nudging them toward careers — from middle school on. If they’re good at math, they put them in advanced math classes; if they’re not, they show them how to shine shoes.

Of course there are problems with that system, and I don’t want to sound callous or mean, but the reality is, in this country, we (teachers) waste countless hours of class time on kids who don’t want to be there and are determined to make trouble. We can only move as fast as our slowest student, and more often than not, that slowest student is digging his heels in. If we have him removed from class, we’re expected to give him a second chance in a week or two. Then the cycle starts all over, and we’re wasting our time again.

I know I’m going to get quoted out of context on this, so let me be clear about what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that the second a kid acts out we hand him a mop for the rest of his life. After all, acting out is part and parcel of adolescence. What I am saying is that there needs to be a limit to our patience. We need to stop coddling kids and rewarding them for being idiots. A three-strikes rule, maybe? Get caught rolling your third joint, and you’re off to Hamburger University. Have fun with your lifetime of building Big Macs.

“But kids have a right to an education!” you’re saying. Yeah, maybe. And you have the right to free speech, but I’m not going to chain you to a typewriter and force you to write letters to the editor.

I’m being a little facetious here, but I have a real point, I promise. Kids that are making trouble are making trouble because they don’t want to be there. We need to stop kidding ourselves about how the kid who’s never passed a math class in her life will suddenly decide she loves calculus and become a Nobel-winning physicist. It happens in Oscar-bait movies, not reality.

What I’m really talking about, though, isn’t punitive. What we need to do is allow kids to choose more of their classes, based on their interests and career goals. After all, the main reason so many kids don’t care about certain subjects is that they see no connection between them and their lives and aspirations. Sometimes they’re wrong about this, but often they’re right. Our “one-size-fits-all” approach to academia is what’s really dragging us down.

The state of Oklahoma is, against all odds, actually pointed in the right direction on this one. There’s a law on the books here that gives every student the right to at least try his hand at AP or honors classes, regardless of his test scores or previous grades. If he can’t hack it, they bump him back down — as they should — but he has the right to at least try. Maybe we should give kids an easier option as well — a you’re-throwing-away-your-future-so-have-fun-with-that option. But with a catchier name. Something that makes it clear that half-assing life is an option, as long as you’re happy with having a life that totally sucks.

After all, Foxconn is always hiring.

10 thoughts on “I’m Probably at Least as Smart as George W. Bush, so Here are Some Modest Proposals for “Fixing” Our Education System

  1. Amen and amen.

    Two comments on the teacher pay front. First of all, check out these graphs, especially the first one: http://iowatransformed.com/2012/09/11/peter-hlebowitsh-school-has-two-roles/
    (Sorry, I’m not competent enough to figure out how to post that as an actual link).

    Second, a bit of personal/anecdotal evidence. It is incredibly hard to get around the fact that the system works to punish people who choose teaching as a profession. For myself, I fall pretty much where you do: I chose teaching circumstantially (engaged to someone finishing college, needed a job) and, while I genuinely enjoy teaching, it’s also a matter of not finding my other potential career paths particularly viable at the moment.

    That being said, it is hard to be in a family that has chosen to be single income (so that my wife can stay home with our kid(s)) and exist on a teacher’s salary. We live an extremely modest existence. We own our (small but nice) house but have a flexible/low payment system since my in laws provided the money to buy in cash and we are paying them back. We don’t have many luxuries nor do we take lavish vacations, etc. And we are alright with that; indeed, we like the simple existence we have carved out. BUT, I still have to work three jobs to make ends meet, and we are living month to month with little opportunity to set aside savings. I find that ridiculous. It also may help to explain the vast male/female imbalance in teaching (nothing against women teachers, of course, but I find it very helpful to have males on staff).

  2. Okay, now for a non-whiny comment. I think one of the biggest problems with modern education is one that has permeated from the top down (trickle down economics at its finest!). It is this: essentially employers have managed to foist the burden of job training onto the individual and away from the corporation. In ye olden days of college, the only people who went were well off, and they went not to prepare for jobs but to further their self exploration and knowledge of culture. Other people launched directly into the workforce and would receive on the job training to perform the tasks required of them.

    Flash forward to now, where in order to secure a job that pays well enough to meet rising standard of living costs, you pretty much have to have a college degree, where the degree has transformed from liberal arts education to specific job related training (e.g. engineering or business management). Now I understand that it makes sense to have a training forum for highly technical/mathematical fields (maybe), but business? Really, you can’t learn the secrets of advertising, or human resources, through a year or two long apprenticeship? But that would demand something of our corporations, God forbid. So the worker gets punished once again with high tuition, the looming prospect of debt, and diminishing job prospects upon graduation. It is a broken, broken system.

    That in turn affects our chosen battleground, the secondary schools. Students who will never ever use chemistry, or biology, or British Literature, and WHO HAVE NO INTEREST IN THESE THINGS, are forced to sit through classes for four years, biding their time till they escape to the greener pastures of the food preparation/military/industrial complex. Meanwhile this punishes the other students. I quite like your idea of some sort of tracking system. Every youth in America should have the opportunity to pursue education, but does it make sense to keep cramming it down their throats?

    • There are a lot of excellent points there, Asher. To be honest, I’m not even sure where to start. 🙂

      Let me make a comment on the dearth of male teachers, because that actually crossed my mind as I was writing. I often hear rhetoric about how we “need more male teachers,” but no one in power is ever willing to make the changes necessary to make that happen. Pay remains too low for someone expected to be a “provider” (it’s unfortunate that only men are societally privileged enough to expect wages at a certain level, but that’s where we are, whether we like it or not), and culturally, education remains a “girls’ club” where men rarely feel welcome.

      Your thoughts on the trickle-down nonsense are interesting as well, but I’m wondering what the fix is. The expectation that everyone entering the workforce has a college education strikes me as, whatever else you may say about it, a natural consequence of higher ed’s democratization. When it’s a societal expectation that everyone goes to college, it becomes the expectation of employers as well.

      I’m really a humanist at heart, and would like to see most people enter adulthood with a “broad” education that has more to it than how to do one job until they die, but that always leads to two inevitable questions: (1) Who decides what we teach kids, anyway? and (2) At what point do we give up on such a lofty goal?

  3. I have a few random thoughts. I will write them down, try to arrange them in an order that makes sense, likely give up, get drunk, and accidentally post this.

    Reading your first point reminded me of a teaching conference I went to in September. One of the things the keynote speaker said was “If you go into teaching, you’re either called, or you’re crazy.” The only way someone would willing enter into one of the most overworked, unappreciated, and (materially) unrewarding professions is if they feel a strong and specific calling from (he said God, I would say God, but I guess the only universal term can be) something, or they just have no idea what they’re getting into. This creates two problems. First, the “crazy” teachers tend to not be very good teachers. These are the ones who got into education not out of some desire to “make a difference” or a love of learning, but because it was something to do and/or they had a hard time giving up their summer break. Bad teachers look for shortcuts and produce a bad product. In any other industry, they would get weeded out, but in this industry they can’t because that would only leave the called teachers. Which brings me to problem two; there are way to few qualified teachers. Sitting back and waiting for highly skilled employees to feel a special calling is not a business model anyone would support and something nearly no other profession is expected to do. The ministry probably works that way, and maybe some of the “Dirty Jobs,” but nothing that’s nearly as scrutinized as teachers. If professional football owners waited for athletes to agree to dedicate themselves so completely to their profession, not for wealth or fame or material gain but just because they felt someone or something pulling them to it, we’d have about 32 fewer NFL teams.

    Which is my way of saying, I agree. As long as pay rates are so uncompetitive with other jobs there simply won’t be enough talent in teaching, and if you have no talent to work with all the regime change in the world won’t save you (though to be completely fair, I live quite well on my meager salary and am very much like you, except without the wife or baby coming [that I know of]).

    As for your second point, I agree. Oh, believe me, I agree. I rarely get more than 4 or 5 hours of sleep on a week night. But I think part of that is also being a novice teacher. Over time I think you learn to adjust to the rigors of the job, in a couple of ways. For example, I know that when you grade you give your kids a lot of feedback, and I try to do the same. Over time I think that changes; either because you become more cynical and realize the students won’t listen, anyway, or maybe you just learn to work it into your lesson and spend less time on it at home, I don’t know. But also you don’t have to spend as much time planning lessons. Obviously, your second year you hopefully have a better idea of how to teach a specific subject than you did your first year, and it takes much less time to adjust a lesson plan than to make one from scratch. It may never be an ideal or realistic work load, but I think the work a teacher’s expected to do does become manageable with practice. I hope, at least.

    Your third point is interesting and I really have nothing to add to it.

  4. Now, for my own random thoughts on this subject. I think the bigger deal is this: No fixes are going to work, no regime change has a chance, because that would not get to the heart of the problem. We simply don’t have a culture that values intellectual achievement and we don’t have a culture that values putting a mental effort in to get rewards out. Granted, my view on this may be slightly skewed. Working at an internet school probably puts me on the cutting edge of slacking, because “Hey, I’m going to an internet school. That means the computer will do all the work for me, right?” But I see it all the time. Kids come to be for help finishing or passing their classes, expecting… Well, I guess I don’t really know what they’re expecting, but none of them like what they hear. “If you want to do well in this course, you’re simply going to have to spend more time with the material.” “Why are you doing poorly in this course? Well, mostly because you completed two weeks worth of coursework in 20 minutes and barely read the lesson. How do I know you barely read the lesson? Well, see here at the end of lesson one where it says ‘Read the first two chapters of In His Steps?’ Then see here, four lessons later where you answered a question, ‘What’s In His Steps? When was I supposed to read that?'” “Yes, I know you’ve been in our program for five years. But you’ve dropped three years’ worth of coursework and are planning to drop more, so, no, you can’t graduate by May. I’m sorry, I really am, but you simply can’t do two years of schooling in five months.” At its root, these conversations aren’t the result of a problem in our system (and believe me, there are plenty of those).

    So what’s the solution? I wish I knew. Some days I think the best thing to do would be to mimic the end of Fahrenheit 451, just bomb everything to dust and start over again with the few survivors who can read. On days when I’m feeling more charitable, I realize that the only way to change the culture is to start with families. The parents have to foster an environment that rewards hard work. Not hard physical work, although that’s a start, but hard intellectual work. The idea that you have to put effort in to get rewarded, and that intellectual improvement is a reward. But that’s obviously harder than it sounds. Because the government can’t tell people how to raise their children. And because no one likes being told what to do. And because nobody likes a complicated situation with no clear solution. And that’s why nothing effective ever gets done in education; because our society is too busy treating the symptoms to solve the real problems.

  5. Say what you will about the Harringtons, but one can not deny their penchant for pontification 🙂 I agree wholeheartedly with you on the issue of teacher pay (and will reserve my public opinions with regard to your other comments for another time, since this is the internet and one never knows who might be reading) and I remember the days when I was a bleary-eyed college kid looking longingly into my crustal ball of Christmas Future when I would one day be a teacher. “Pay doesn’t matter,” I used to say, “because I will get to do what I like doing.” At one time I even went so far as to say that it was a good thing teachers got paid, because that meant only the people who really wanted to be in the profession actually became teachers.


    I spent four years teaching, and if there was one thing that would have helped the crazy long hours, insane piles of grading, and constant issues with underperforming students it would have been better pay. It would have helped me feel like the work I was doing was valued, and I should keep at it. In one sense I knew my work was valued–by administrators, students, parents, and other teachers. But after working 60+ hours a week and not being able to go out to dinner with my wife after paying the bills, it became difficult to feel truly motivated to go in and give it my all each day.

    The problem is that schools don’t produce widgets or products whose values are measured by the market and purchased by consumers. Businesses sell goods and services, and the money from those is used to pay employees (unless they worked at Hostess). It’s a direct relationship, and unfortunately the dividends from quality schools take much longer to pay off in the long run. A well-educated population is the rising tide that lifts the ship of society, but it happens over a period of years and decades–results that cannot be measured on a quarterly earnings report. So as a result, the policymakers and other individuals that decide teacher pay too often decide that it’s just not worth the investment to try to attract better talent. It’s a crying shame.

    • That’s a really good point, Simon. Also, don’t say what you will about Harringtons. You will get slapped.

      I think another factor at work is how difficult and, more importantly, expensive it is to accurately evaluate teachers. You really can’t look at any stat, like standardized test scores, grades, class attendance, and be fair to them. To truly evaluate a teacher, you have to have someone with experience (and success) in education to sit in on their class. And, if you really want to be fair, you’d have to do that over a period of days. And then you’d have to do it for every teacher in America. So because of this issue, it’s really difficult to both get rid of the bad teachers who are dragging the system down and reward the good teachers. Schools can sometimes do this on a local basis, but for any sort of widespread reform in the education world, it would have to be on a much broader basis. Again, though, I really don’t know what the solution would be.

  6. Good point, Thadd. In most corporations, employee productivity can be directly measured by some type of output or return. Not so with teachers, whose productivity or effectiveness is much more difficult to accurately measure. My solution, which isn’t really much of a solution but it’s the best I’ve got, is to give much more power to the principal when it comes to assessing and firing bad teachers. A good principal will build relationships with his teachers, and in an ideal world would be able to play a much greater role in providing an honest assessment of whether they really should remain in their positions or not.

  7. Pingback: Educated White Guy Problems, to the Tune of a Pounding Keyboard | The Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism

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