Rationalizing the Education Crisis, Part One

Because I am a teacher and because these issues affect me directly, I think a lot about the current education crisis. I have long been a believer in reductionist logic, breaking things down to the barest essentials, in order to view what they really are. It seems to me that some important aspects of our dilemma about education can be pointed out that way.

First, even though teachers are not the sole problem in the system, the expected direction for fingers to point is them (us, since I’m a teacher), for two reasons. One, teachers are the employees of the system who can be held accountable and forced to face the situation, and two, it is natural for any person to find fault with other people before finding fault with himself. Public schools are, after all, government entities that provide a public service, and while a government can impose new policies and consequences on its employees, it has more trouble doing the same to its citizens, i.e. parents, without criminalizing certain behaviors. No politician who ever wants to get re-elected will propose the criminal prosecution of the parents of students who are failing in school. No one will introduce a bill that would put consequences on the parents who are not overseeing their children’s homework or who are allowing their children to play video games instead of studying. The easier scapegoat for doling out the consequences is the teacher, whose job can be threatened, who can be harried with paperwork and oversight measures, who can be “held accountable” for the failing student without criminalizing the issue. (This is not to say that the teacher has no responsibility for the failing student, but that rarely should teachers bear the full responsibility for failing students.)

That second reason lies deep in human nature. Admitting guilt and accepting the need for action is difficult for human beings to do. Scapegoating is much easier and more convenient: “It’s his fault!” As a group, teachers are easy targets for legislators who underfund their schools and for many parents who do too little to monitor their own children at home. (Notice that I wrote “many parents,” not “all parents.”) When the children are failing in underfunded schools, a lack of resources can be to blame. Or another reasonable place for blame is the parents do not oversee their academic work at home. The easy solution is to claim that the teachers must not be teaching and that more should be done to assure that the teachers do a better job. The harder solution is to admit the need for involving everyone: improved teaching and improved parental involvement, improved funding, and improved policies. Saying “They have a problem!” is so much easier and more convenient than saying “We have a problem.” Finally, there is the example of administrators in failing school systems, who will never be heard saying to the public, “Actually, our teachers are doing a great job. I’m the one whose policies aren’t working. I’m the one stifling progress. I load them down with so much bureaucratic paperwork and standardized testing that they don’t have time to teach.” It isn’t true in all school systems, but it is true in some.

[Continued in next entry, “Rationalizing the Education Crisis, Part Two”]

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