Problems in School – Education (Part 1)

I have a bit of experience with public education. I’ve been through nine years of public education (starting in fourth grade, and graduating from high school). After college I spent about a year working as a substitute teacher. I taught at every grade level and nearly every subject,though I tried to concentrate on teaching high school Math and Science courses. From these experiences I have come to the conclusion that there are two major problems with public education. The first is the quality of teachers; the fact that the emphasis these days is on knowing how to teach, not knowing what to teach. (And the fact that Unions make it nearly impossible to fire incompetent teachers.  But that’s another story entirely.)  The other is that teachers have no authority; school boards, parents and others have slowly removed all the authority teachers used to have to punish students, and so now the students have no reason to learn, work, or even show the smallest amount of respect to a teacher.

I have several friends who have degrees and a few years experience in education. I remember talking to a friend once and telling her that I felt like I had enough education to teach a high school physics, chemistry or biology class. She disagreed with me; she said having a teaching certificate was necessary because it was so important to know how to teach. Right now that is what most of the laws require. Someone who has obtained a teaching certificate but never taken more than a basic science course can teach elementary school students science. They don’t know the subject they are teaching, but they do know how to teach it. This seems backward to me. Certainly the ideal would be both; the best teachers would have training in teaching and training in the field they are teaching. However, since that isn’t always an option, I think the focus should be on hiring teachers who know their subject.

I remember being very curious in 5th grade. I was always interested in science, and so my science teacher got a lot of questions from me. One day he taught us about sublimation, which is a solid changing directly into a gas without ever going through a liquid phase. I couldn’t picture anything doing this, so I asked my teacher for an example. He told me to imagine looking out my window when there is a thin layer of snow on the ground, and then look a minute later and it has all evaporated. I asked if it would spend just a second as liquid. He said yes, probably. Water actually doesn’t sublimate (under normal temperature and pressure conditions), so his example was ridiculous. As a result I spent the next few years not believing in sublimation. Fast forward to Jr. High; my new science teacher brought up sublimation one day and I raised my hand and said I didn’t believe in sublimation. She was fairly shocked, and told me that dry ice and moth balls both sublimate. Dry ice was something I was able to picture, and so fortunately I was saved from spending the rest of my life believing something ridiculous (like evolution) because my 5th grade teacher didn’t know what he was talking about. He probably read about sublimation in his book and taught what it said without actually knowing what it was. So when a student asked about it he didn’t know how to answer.

When I was in 6th grade I heard about how quickly light traveled, and I wondered if there was anything faster than light. My little mind thought that maybe time traveled faster than light, and so I went around to every teacher I could find, asking them which traveled faster; time or light. Most of the teachers said they weren’t sure, they all told me it was a good question. None of them gave me the right answer, which didn’t occur to me until years later; time is a measurement, it doesn’t have a speed. It’s like asking, ’what is longer, a mile or length’, ’what is bigger, the universe or volume’. Time is used to measure speed. No one in my entire grade school was able to come up with that answer. Why not? They (hopefully) all had college educations. The cumulative intelligence of my entire grade school couldn’t come up with an answer to a question any high school student should be able to figure out. Maybe some of them did know the answer. If they did, they couldn’t figure out a way to explain it to me so I could understand. Which is why, I’m told, it’s so vitally important for teachers to have a teaching degree. Which leads me to conclude that they simply didn’t know.

Another example happened to my younger sister. She came to visit me one summer while I was living near my college. I had access to liquid nitrogen (which is about 72 K, or -330 F, or very, very cold), so I got some for us to play with. You may have seen liquid nitrogen in museum demonstrations or on TV. You can put a balloon in it and the balloon shrinks (because the air inside gets so cold), or you can freeze a fresh flower in it and shatter the flower. We also used it to make ice cream, because it would freeze the liquid mix in less than a minute, and we played with the rest by freezing and shattering things or pouring some over our hands. It’s safe to do as long as you don’t cup your hand. It’s also safe to quickly put your hand in and pull back out. The liquid nitrogen immediately evaporates where your hand is instead of freezing the skin because your hand is so much warmer than the liquid nitrogen. (*Don’t do this without someone trained in safety techniques.)

The next year my sister was in 6th grade, and her teacher brought up liquid nitrogen. She raised her hand and told him she had played with some once, and that she had touched it. He told her that was impossible, liquid nitrogen was too cold to touch. She insisted she had, and he told her she was lying. This is wrong on many levels. First, he obviously didn’t know what he was talking about. Being a 6th grade teacher, the only education he probably had was a degree in Elementary Education. Most Elementary Education students don’t interact with liquid nitrogen during their education. He told her she was wrong. Then, instead of admitting he could be wrong, he called her a liar in front of all her classmates. Even if he hadn’t gone so far to tell her she was lying, he was still teaching students something that wasn’t true. These experiences tell me that too much focus is put on the ability to teach, rather than a knowledge of the subjects. I know there are many very good teachers; there are probably many teachers who do additional research on subjects they are about to teach. However, there are way too many who simply teach from the lesson plan, and then don’t know how to answer any further questions on the subject. This wouldn’t be so bad if they would say they don’t know, then try to find the right answer. However, most of them simply say what they think is probably right, then move on.

This problem of having under-qualified teachers should be addressed by putting a stronger emphasis on teachers studying the subject they will be teaching. This wouldn’t be hard to do; at the college I attended a degree in Elementary Education requires 68.5 major credit hours, then 51.5 electives to graduate. Biochemistry requires 74.5 major credit hours. So there is no reason why Elementary Education students can’t take an additional six major credit hours. After all, teaching is the most important job in the world. It would be quite a simple matter to require an Elementary Education major to take six specialized credits in the topic they’re going to teach. If they’re going to teach Science, take one additional 3 credit Biology class and 3 credit Chemistry class (or Physics, or Earth Science). They should not be teaching science if the only exposure to science they have ever had was the two credit, ”Teaching Science in the Elementary School” and the most basic freshman science class. If they’re going to teach Math, they should take six extra credits of Math classes. Not just “Concepts of Mathematics” and “Teaching Mathematics in the Elementary School.” Knowing how to teach is great, but knowing what to teach is much more important. The point of majoring in education is to learn how to help the students learn what is being taught, to help them remember and internalize the lessons. To this day I remember my science teacher teaching me about sublimation. He was a great teacher; I understood and internalized something completely false.

The next biggest problem is a culmination of problems. A lot of problems come from the fact that most children aren’t taught respect. Students don’t value their education; they have no appreciation for the fact that they are being given an education with which they can do anything. They don’t appreciate it, so they waste it, and often do their best to be disruptive and not allow others to learn. They disrespect teachers; there is violence in classrooms. The teachers have no recourse. So, in the schools at least, the problem comes down to the restrictions put on teachers. They aren’t allowed any deterring punishments. They can’t say certain things because it might damage a student’s self esteem. This leaves their hands tied, it leaves them powerless to run a classroom.

When I was teaching I had an incredibly telling experience with a Jr. High history class. The teacher left a project for them to work on, so all I was supposed to do was give them their instructions and then make sure they didn’t destroy anything for the rest of the period. (Substitute teachers are just glorified babysitters. The only difference is that they are paid less and don’t get free food from the kitchen.) The students at this particular school were always disrespectful and noisy, but this class was especially bad. The students simply would not stop talking long enough to listen to their instructions, and a couple of students in particular were being incessantly noisy. So I sent one to sit in the hall, and another I sent into a small office/storage room connected to the classroom. I had them stay there long enough for me to give the instructions to the rest of the class, then they came back in and worked on their projects. During the last class of the day the vice principal came to my class and took me to the hall. He said several students had complained that I had put one of the students in the closet, and they said I had left him in there for 45 minutes. Classes were only 50 minutes long; I assured him I had only put the student in there long enough to explain the assignment, certainly less than five minutes. He told me if I had problems with a student I could send him to the office, and he said that ’isolation is not an appropriate punishment.’ I promised I wouldn’t use the same punishment again, but there were many things I wanted to say.

First, one of the main purposes of punishment is to deter future misbehavior. If being temporarily isolated is such an undesirable punishment, then the next time I taught him he would listen to me when I told him not to talk, because being obedient would be better than the horrid prospect of being alone in an adjacent room for a few minutes. The purpose of punishment is to be undesirable. If a punishment isn’t something they don’t like, what exactly is the point? The second thing I wanted to say was that I didn’t want to send students to the office. Any time students are sent to the office they are usually kept there for the rest of the class period, so they don’t have to listen to a lesson or complete an assignment. If I’m punishing a student for being disrespectful, the last thing I want to do is reward them with the opportunity to not listen to my lesson/instructions and not have to do the in-class work.

From being in high school I know there are a couple of kinds of students. There are students who care about being respectful; their education is important to them, they work hard, and they typically don’t get into trouble. The students who don’t care about being respectful usually also don’t care about their education. If they are deliberately disrespectful, it naturally follows that they don’t care what teachers and administrators think of them, nor would it bother them to miss class time, so being sent to the office isn’t a deterring punishment. Unfortunately, in the name of progress and fairness, all effective forms of punishment are either illegal or against school policy. To illustrate my point; I sent a student to spend five minutes in a small office because he wouldn’t stop talking after being told repeatedly that he needed to be quiet while I was giving instructions. For this I received a reprimand from the vice principal, I promised I wouldn’t do it again. On the way home from the school I got a call from the Substitute Staffing Office. They told me the vice principal had called and requested I not be sent to their school anymore. Is it any wonder that their school had the most disrespectful students I ever taught?

At another school, this one a high school, I had two difficult students in one day. One came to my desk after class and told me I was stupid for telling her and her friends to stop talking. Another one refused to work. She just kept drawing in a notebook and told me she didn’t know the answers. So I opened her science book for her and told her where she could read to find the answers. She slammed the book shut and walked out of the classroom. When I told her to come back she ignored me. The next day I was at the same school so I sent lunch detention slips to both girls. Neither of them showed up. I called the office and told them; they paged the girls twice, neither of them showed up the whole lunch hour. When I left I went to the office and asked what I could do to ensure the girls received some recourse for their treatment. No one in the office had any idea who I should go to, who I could talk to about making sure they showed up for a detention. I wasn’t going back to the school the next day, so I called their teacher and told her I wanted to make sure they received some kind of punishment. She told me she understood my frustration, but that both of the girls I mentioned were having trouble at home, and so she didn’t feel comfortable punishing them. So, one girl told me I was stupid. Another walked out of my class. Neither received any kind of punishment, recourse, not even a reprimand for treating their teacher so disrespectfully. What do you think happened the next time I had a class with one of those girls? I later taught a choir class with the first girl. She waited until I took roll, then stood up and walked out. She knew that there was absolutely nothing I could do. If she wanted to leave there would be no punishment. I could not physically force her to stay. I couldn’t assign a punishment and expect someone else to carry it out. The teachers only have as much control as the students give them. And that is a major problem with schools these days. The teachers have no power over the students, and even worse, the students know it.

Along similar lines, though it is a bit of a tangent, I also wish teachers could be more honest with students. Students have no idea what a blessing it is for them to have a free education, so they completely waste it. One of my favorite people in the world taught at a high school in New York for a short time. While he was there he had a student who didn’t work hard and didn’t care. One day when he was talking to her she said, I’ll be fine. He said, “If you keep this up you will be a single mom working the night shift at a gas station to support your three kids. If you consider that ’fine’, then yes, you will be just fine.” She was shocked into tears, and told him he couldn’t talk to her like that. She was probably right. If the administration knew, he would probably have gotten into trouble. He shouldn’t be able to tell a high school student that if she fails all her classes and sleeps around she’s going to end up living in poverty, because that’s a mean thing to say.

It’s true, though. People who succeed in America are the ones who work hard. They sacrifice. They don’t do stupid or illegal things in high school. They get good grades, then go to college, then graduate and get a steady job. Teachers aren’t allowed to tell students they are making stupid choices. It might hurt their self esteem. Students should be aware that their choices have consequences, and that some choices are stupid and will lead to undesirable consequences. This is naturally hard for students to comprehend, when their teachers are forbidden from giving them any undesirable punishments. When they live 18 years without consequences, they are naturally unprepared for the world, and the public school systems have failed.

Is there a solution? Well, corporal punishment used to be legal, and I’ve never heard anyone complain about students in the 1940’s being the most disrespectful generation of children. Allowing corporal punishment would be extreme, but it is a fact that children behave better when there is a certain, undesirable punishment for misbehaving. Most of the problems with disrespect stem from students attitudes, and it is difficult (if not impossible) to change someone else’s attitude. So, if teachers in public schools are not allowed to punish students, what is the solution?

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About whyimconservative

I'm a stay-at-home, homeschooling mom with a Biochemistry degree living in Austin. I love my kids, my husband and my country. I want to explain why I'm conservative.

Posted on June 12, 2011, in Education and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. What about ignoring the problem students and focusing on those who care? I had the priviledge of being placed in an “honors” program and it was far easier than the regular classes. The few classes where I was forced to interact with “regular” students were a nightmare because of the students you describe. What is wrong with simply leaving them behind?

    I remember how bored I was in high school, and later how unprepared I was in college. Students at elite private schools and top public magnate schools (think IMSA) had experiences that I was overwhelmingly jealous of. They had a childish admiration of the time I had to work (I had a car, cool clothing, and saved a pile for college), access to pretty girls, and time to party (if only someone had warned me how difficult it would be to STOP partying). This seemed somewhat fair at the time but now I realize how worthless and frankly destructive free time was for me in my teenage years.

    Overall, it sickens me to see how this country wastes its most dedicated students. My parents did not go to college, but I aced all of my classes unitl i went to university. I had no one to provide any advice or structure of any kind. I saw how much effort was wasted on students who did not care, and honestly, did not matter. Why do we need to graduate every student? Why not focus resources on those who want to use them? I recently advised my nephew to take AP physics over the regular course because it would be easier. He did not understand, but later he thanked me for the advice. it is far easier to succeed when one is surrounded by peers who also want to succeed. Why allow oxygen-stealing losers to hurt the majority?

    Discipline is rather useless in my mind. I believe that segregation based upon students’ desired outcomes would be far more effective. Perhaps we could even build some incentive into the names, such as the “winners” and “losers” classes. That way resources can easily be focused on winners who will actually utilyze them.

    • I completely agree with you Skip, but here is the answer. We can’t leave those students behind because we aren’t allowed to. It’s “discrimination”. Although this isn’t the same problem, I feel it’s similar. When I was in elementary school in Florida (William-Lehman Elementary School to be exact), I had a teacher that would spend well over half the entire school day, for a good portion of the week teaching the class in Spanish. My mother sat in several of her classes for several hours at a time, and each time she did, the teacher was teaching in Spanish. She went to the principal and asked why the Spanish-only speaking students weren’t in a class of their own, and he said because that would be discriminatory against the Spanish students. Leaving behind students that don’t care would be “disciminatory” because assigning specific students to specific classes shows “favoritism”. And we all know that showing favoritism hurts the precious widdle babies feewings…

      This seems off topic, but I would be for state-run testing if 1) so much emphasis wasn’t placed upon it, and 2) if the schools would actually use the results for something intelligent, like class placement. In high school, I was in the Honors programs for just about every class you can be in honors for, except electives. In most of the classes, only 2-5 of the students could actually be considered honors level. The fact of the matter is, the schools don’t really care if the students are on level with the courses, they just want money. And to make it look like students who can’t do the work are actually passing, they make it impossible for the students to fail, and make it impossible for teachers to fail the students. The schools would rather have the money from the higher enrollment in the higher level classes than actually have students who can complete the work. In my American History class, most of the students couldn’t do the work well. In the first week of class, the teacher, to my absolute surprise, assigned something that took even me a bit over 4 hours to complete. (I don’t mean to sound like an arrogant jerk, but I got straight A’s in all my honors classes. I even recieved a B in my AP Psychology course with a level 4 on the AP exam, without studying AT ALL, only opening the book to finish assignments.) The teacher got such an uproar from the students (and I’d imagine the parents as well), that she never assigned such an assignment again. All we had to do for the assignment was outline the chapter.

      High school was so mind numbingly boring for me as well. I went into dual enrollment and the next year I went into early admission to a community college. The guidance counselor was astounded by my progress, because most of the students who tried those programs saw a lower GPA, yet mine went up significantly, even though those courses gave less points to the overall GPA. I agree, I was unprepared for community college or University because so much time and effort was wasted on the students who really couldn’t care less. I learned how to write a research paper from my mother. When I was old enough, I had to earn my desktop computer by writing well written book reports. And now, with hardly any effort, I have never recieved lower than an A on research papers or reports. I must add the exception to anything I wrote in my AP Art History class, because you have to write goody-feely, this-makes-me-feel-like-X garbage, instead of factual, the-nature-of-this-is-X, I see X, I heard nothing from the reaction of X and Y, etc. It seriously pisses me off when students complain about homework and having to actually learn something when they can’t even write a well constucted sentence or spell anything correctly. I remember all the classtime that was wasted when one person had to read a section of a story for the whole class.

      I’m so sick of society preaching that it is bad to be an overachiever. We need to switch it around so that it is bad to be an underachiever.

    • You can’t leave them behind forever. Those same people will one day vote for YOUR next president.

  2. love the post. cant wait to read part 2 & 3. i got 4 kids, so im gonna talk all that in mind. my school days was cool. i was smart, but when i got to high school, it was a different story. i was still smart, but i slacked off, i tried marijuana, chilled with friends all the time, talked to girls a lot more, and skipped classes sometimes for different reasons. i wasn’t a bad student, maybe slightly disruptive in two classes my whole 4 years. I certainly shouldn’t have been considered being left behind like Skip decided. I mean, besides, i was just a kid, I knew right from wrong, but was caught up n highschool life. maybe yuou talk about it in part 2 or 3, but i didnt read anything so far about parents. i know that seems like the obvious, so you wouldn’t forget about it. In my case, I didn’t really really get everything together except when my mom and my pastor got in my business when I failed a social studies class. I can appreciate what the parents can bring to ensuring the student participates, and after reading your post, I can also understand how some teachers might not be as informative as she probably should be. Im not conservative because conservatives don’t seem no better than liberals, and I understand being conservative doesn’t nessesarily mean you support what they’re doing, but, it some of these media outlets use it anyway, and intimidate and persuade others who can’t really think for themselves, that America supports the conservatives in office. And, I just don’t think that those in office are doing anything better than liberals.

  3. Stumbled across part three but decided to read one and two first. Some interesting observations here that I thought I would comment on. I feel a few are accurate but the analysis would benefit from a little different perspective. My perspective is that of an 11 year veteran in a public high school who has earned a master’s degree and also generally votes with a conservative tilt.

    As far as teacher education goes, pedagogical skill is as important as content knowledge if not more so. If I were teaching social studies to adults who knew from experience how important learning and education was, who already knew how to learn, and who were willing to tolerate bad pedagogy to acquire knowledge–then I could teach without any classroom skills. But let’s be honest, if that were the case I wouldn’t be needed in the first place because the kids could just learn what they needed on their own.

    Teaching an elementary student to read or understand basic arithmetic is a challenge. Each of your students will have a different amount of background knowledge and a different amount and quality of support at home but every one of them is expected to achieve at the same level. This is why the bulk of an elementary education major’s coursework is in reading and basic math while they take very few courses in social studies and science. I sense where your frustration comes from. I teach social studies to kids who view Native Americans as noble and simple-minded when they were far from noble and had social and government structures that were every bit as complex and evolved as anything coming out of the Old World (or, as I once told a snotty Frenchman, just because your culture is different doesn’t mean everyone else is less cultured). My high schoolers think that Columbus was the first guy to think the world was round. They think that our president is like a king but that the people elected him (in reality neither is true…. but then again, explaining the Electoral College to high school students is hard enough so I don’t fault their 4th grade teachers for oversimplifying things).

    Even at the high school level, pedagogy and classroom management are more important that you realize and you have identified the reasons why. As you discuss the lack of respect students have for schools, teachers, and education you hit on the problem. I work for the school district which is owned and operated by the parents. Parents used to consider teachers experts and they followed our recommendations for discipline and told their children that the school was right (sometime even when they weren’t….. but the parents wanted their children to respect authority). Today that message is not sent by parents. They defend their children even when their children are in the wrong because that’s the only way they think they can tell their kids that they love them. Thus a parent calls the ACLU when we tell little Jennie that her shorts have to extend past her panties and that a sports bra is not the same thing as a shirt rather than making her put on more appropriate clothing. Ironic, in a sad way.

    Teachers entering the field through alternative means were common for a few years when we were dealing with a shortage. Almost to a person, they struggle with classroom management, implementation of federal requirements concerning special education, and teaching strategies. Many wash out but others take coursework or get assistance from other teachers and begin to succeed. Often the few that make it become the very best teachers I have ever known–which grants you the argument that some teachers (especially at the secondary level) would benefit from a stronger background in their subject matter. Of course no principal or school board looked at my stellar transcript or quizzed me on my understanding of federalism and the US Constitution at a job interview. They asked the question most relevant to the parents who employ us all: What do you coach?

    There are so many reason why public education costs more than a private one and so many complex issues with our schools today. Glad you didn’t try to squeeze them all into one post. Most data on which schools do a better job of educating children is incomplete. Tough to compare test results between public and private schools because our public school accepts and educates anyone who walks through the door. Private schools do not deal with as many learning disabled students and few students in private schools have parents who are uninterested in supporting the school or their children’s education. Costs are misleading as well. Public schools don’t receive as much in the form of donations and have to provide services (often federally mandated and locally financed) that private schools do not.

    Still, with so much research already done into how we can make our schools better, improve the quality of our teachers, and help students learn; this issue is of paramount importance. We will never succeed by the same measure that the rest of the world uses because we will always be a country where each child’s destiny is placed in his own hands, where your future is not sealed by the track you were placed in when evaluated in your elementary and middle grades (as is often the case in “more efficient” education systems). We will continue to provide an environment where every student gets as many opportunities to succeed and fail as possible knowing that not every student walking in the door is destined for higher education or even a high school diploma but also knowing that as much of their fate as possible will, in the end, be placed in their own, free hands.

  4. you touched on the right subject: lack of authority is killing public education.
    Kids can do whatever they want and teachers are nearly powerless to stop them.
    Teachers can do whatever they want and principals are nearly powerless to stop them. All in the name of people’s “rights”, you can’t put a kid in the hall that violates his rights!!! people scream, but what about the rights of the 19 kids who showed up to learn?
    Principals can’t fire teachers because that would violate the teachers rights.
    We don’t solve the problem of education in this country without addressing those two issues.

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