Just how good are they, really?

I spend a lot of time talking to people whose children attend public schools in my fairly affluent area.  What always surprises me is the disconnect between the facts they recite and their ultimate conclusion about our school district.  Their ultimate conclusion is that the school district is just wonderful.  As for their facts?  Well….

One Mom told me how wonderful her daughter’s second grade teacher was.  The example she gave centered on the day her daughter came home with an F on a math exam.  The mother, who was very concerned about this, instantly approached the teacher.  The teacher beneficently promised the Mom that the grade wouldn’t be held against the child because, in fact, all of the children failed the math exam.  The mother was grateful for the teacher’s generosity.  I was shocked.  Shouldn’t the teacher apologize for her abysmal job teaching those students?

Another Mom told me that something great had happened at her school.  The psychotic fourth grade teacher — the one who regularly broke down and cried in the class, and who often hurled insults at the students — was not teaching any longer.  “Oh,” I said.  “Did they fire her?”  Nope.  She was now the PE teacher, where the students would only be exposed to her a couple of times a week.  Tenure kept her firmly tied to the school despite her manifest incompetence.

Yet another Mom told me that, at her son’s school, the school collected all of the text books ten days before final exams.  ‘Nuff said about that one.

Most of the Moms boast about the hours they spend in the classroom assisting their “wonderful” teachers.  Apparently, despite a low student-teacher ratio (about 20-1, plus a part time assistant), these teachers simply can’t get around to spelling basics for all the children.  The mothers always seem taken aback when I suggest that teachers who earn almost $50,000 a year for 8 months of work should be expected to teach the basics without needing the mothers to assist them.

I’ll admit I’m being somewhat nasty here.  Ours is one of the State’s better school districts.  The schools are beautiful; the teachers are, for the most part, kind, committed and normal; the children are nice and test well; and the parents are obviously happy.  I just find bewildering the chasm that sometimes opens up between their experiences and the conclusions they draw.

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  • http://arosebyname.wordpress.com/ anna27

    Overall, our school district is great. But then, I’m in NE Ohio in a middle to upper class area. Yes, we’ve had teachers that have had no business teaching, but they have been dealt with…and not by moving them! I am not naive enough to believe that there aren’t any problems, but in comparison to where we used to live (very close to Cleveland), this is heaven and the girls are getting a well-rounded education!

  • http://beckyworks.wordpress.com Becky

    Non-educators are often clueless about whether what goes on in the classroom is good or bad. They just want their children to score well, and that, it appears to me, is the way they judge their school system and their teachers.

    I was in a “practical” English class of juniors this year and heard many of the students say that their school system was terrible and that they were going to home-school their own children. This from kids who had yet to pass the I-STEP, Indiana’s 10th grade proficiency.

    I don’t think you are being nasty. I think some parents need to wake up.

  • Heather

    Eight months of work? It’s really more like ten. Don’t even get me started on the hours. It’s no 8 to 3 gig (unless maybe you’re a PE teacher).

    I challenge any non-educator who wants to know what’s going on in the schools to sign up to be a substitute teacher.

  • http://ruminationsroom.wordpress.com/ Don Quixote

    Hi Heather,

    You are certainly right about the hours, and the months, but the biggest problem out here (California) is that good teachers are not rewarded and bad teachers are not either improved or removed. All teachers receive tenure within a year or two, after which it is nearly impossible to remove them. Teachers are paid strictly on seniority, utterly without regard to how well they teach.

    The truth is that there are many good teachers in our schools, but also many bad teachers, and nothing can be done about the bad ones. On balance, our public schools are abysmal. The hours in the classroom are far too short. The number of days of instruction is far too low. The textbooks are politically correct but factually incorrect. The teaching methodology is flawed. Failing students are not given adequate support and gifted students are not challenged. Schools do not involve parents in the education process and society does not assign responsibility to parents for support their schools’ efforts to educate their children.

    It is hardly surprising that, as a result, so many of our children cannot pass exit exams that require only 9-10 grade ability. It is hardly surprising that American students routinely finish at or near the bottom of every test of competency against students from other countries.

    We should demand that good teachers be rewarded and bad teachers retrained or eliminated. We should demand that no child is promoted from grade to grade unless that child masters the subject matter of each grade. And we should demand that no child graduate from grade 12 and receive a degree without passing an exit exam that shows mastery of grade 12 work.

    Heather, I guarantee you that your union will oppose all of these changes (and will probably defeat them). I don’t know how the average teacher would view them (but I suspect good teachers would favor them and bad teachers woulod oppose them, simply out of self interest). But they are needed, nonetheless.

  • http://bookwormroom.wordpress.com/ Bookworm

    Heather and DQ are both correct. Good teachers work incredibly hard and confer invaluable benefits on their students. My Dad was a good teacher, so I know. (Which is why I also know about the short year he worked. Because salaries in his day were abysmal — just above poverty line — he scrounged around the other three to four months for whatever work he could get.) The problem with tenure is that, once teachers earn it, the bad ones sit back and coast, and the good ones watch that. Some of them have the energy to continue being good. Others get justifiably demoralized and sink, if not into badness, at least into mediocrity. Humans need carrots and sticks, if for no other reason than to keep them fresh and on their toes. Take those away, and people become lax and stale.

    By the way, I also think unions have gone far beyond their useful purpose. Their useful purpose is to ensure that teachers get a living wage and decent working conditions. However, as with all organizations that need to justify their continued existence, teachers’ unions have spread their tentacles far beyond these reasonable purposes. They dictate curriculum and, worst, they aggressively advocate for a system that, as DQ says, treats good and bad teachers as if they’re identical. I also have a problem with tenure because I don’t think anyone deserves a job for life. The better thing would be to put systems in place to ensure that people can’t be wrongfully discharged. That would address situations in which teachers are fired right before pensions vest, etc. In the real world, if you forced businesses to keep people on no matter what, you’d end with with . . . well, France and Germany. Those are countries with complete stagnant economies and terrible employment because employers cannot take on the risk of hiring people they will never be able to fire later.

  • http://hashmonean.com saus

    I was going to post just one word, and then I saw that Bookworm beat me to it..
    I’m feeling totally dejected.

  • Heather

    Tsk, tsk. Don’t assume I’m a union member! I never was, for philosophical reasons, as well as financial.

    By the way, I agree whole-heartedly with most of your points stated above. I just cringe to hear the 8 or 9 months thing, and couldn’t resist replying to that. I think that we, as a society, have some serious problems to address in the realm of education. Heck, I am even seriously considering home-schooling my own kids during their middle school years.

    I am also glad that you brought up the perception people have that upper-middle class neighborhood schools are fine. That is hardly the case. Just because they are not as bad as inner-city schools, does not mean that there are not some serious deficits.

  • Marguerite

    An underlying and perverse socialist worldview underlies all of public education, attested to by the fact that it is almost impossible to fire an incompetent teacher. The fact that parents are expected to supply not just their own child with crayons – but shell out $$ to send multiple boxes that are then passed around to everyone – is right out of “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs.” Can’t indoctrinate ’em too young in the public schools.

  • kevin

    All teachers should be required to take a yearly proficiency exam to test their general knowledge (make it at a high school level so they can’t complain that it wasn’t fair.) If they fail, they should be fired. I’m curious as to what the attrition rate would be…

  • http://bookwormroom.wordpress.com/ Bookworm

    Kevin’s point reminded me of something interesting. I happen to be a fan of Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” segments. These are the “man/woman in the street” interviews, where he stops people and asks them questions. The ones with the most clueless responses end up on Jaywalking, to be laughed at by Leno’s audience. Interestingly, in his segments on history and world knowledge (“Who wrote the Star Spangled Banner”) he always has a teacher or someone in the process of getting a teaching degree, who is absolutely ignorant about basic principles of history, governance, and world events. Now, one could say that the point is that the person is dumb and ill-informed; not that he or she is a teacher. There are, after all, dumb people teaching. But come on, folks — should there be any, any fourth grade teachers out there who don’t know in which year the Founders signed the Declaration of Independence? Can we really explain away the fact that, at least twice a month, Leno, in LA alone, standing on a corner on the Universal Studios shopping mall, is able to find a teacher who knows absolutely nothing?

  • http://ymarsakar.blogspot.com/ Ymarsakar

    My fourth grade teacher, Ms. Moore, gave me Peter Pan as a Christmas gift. It hooked me on reading books, and reading books is how you get children to self-educate themselves and do better on tests. People don’t do well on tests because they don’t understand the questions. If they don’t understand the questions, then they can’t even make an educated guess by eliminating the 2 obviously wrong answers.

  • bigear38

    Bookworm wrote:


    Just a short comment that the difference between my 17 year old daughter’s excellent spelling, and my 14 year old son’s terrible spelling, is due to more than the better performance by girls and the hours spent by boys in front of the computer. After my daughter left the local elementary school, the school adopted an “invented spelling” program. Five years later I went to a workshop at my son’s middle school where the parents were furious over how badly their children spelled and wrote. The school principal had no answer. The damage had already been done and the middle school wasn’t equipped to repair it.

  • http://ruminationsroom.wordpress.com/ Don Quixote

    Hi Heather,

    My apologies. I’m a captive of my environment; in California you would be a member of your union or you would suffer severe consequences among your peers. There are very, very few teachers here who are not members of the union and the union vies with the Indian tribes lobby for the most powerful lobby in Sacramento.

    All the best, DQ

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  • Joe

    Becky comments above:
    “Non-educators are often clueless about whether what goes on in the classroom is good or bad. They just want their children to score well, and that, it appears to me, is the way they judge their school system and their teachers.”

    Yes. We do. And I will. :)
    My son will be starting school in another year. One of the major criteria I will use when judging his school are test scores. This just seems sensible to me.
    I am much more concerned with outcome than I am with process. I don’t particularly care if the teachers are nurturing or kind. I care that they are good teachers. Good teachers at a MINIMUM teach children skills. Great teachers teach children to think. I expect the former. I hope for the latter.

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