September 7, 2010

Plenty of Blame to Go Around for Quality of American Education

educationI'd like to expand a bit on some of the discussion provoked by my post, Inside a Tennessee Science Classroom. It is very easy to blame the teacher featured in the video clip, and I have little doubt that this is appropriate. But what many fail to realize is that teachers like this are under tremendous pressure these days (1) not to offend anyone, and (2) avoid lawsuits. None of this absolves the teacher from responsibility, but it will have to be considered if we want to improve the quality of public education in the U.S.

Imagine for a second that you are given the task of teaching science, social studies, or a range of other subjects without offending anybody. You cannot offend the overly sheltered kids who have been brainwashed by fundamentalist homeschoolers. You cannot offend any parents, no matter how unhinged they might be. It is difficult to imagine how any teacher can accomplish this.

The fear of lawsuits seems to get a little worse every year and is largely driven by administrators. They know full well that lawsuits do not have to have merit to be filed. They also know full well that even those without merit can be serious pains in the ass. It is easier just to ask their teachers not to rock the boat.

When a science teacher discusses evolution, he or she can expect direct confrontation in class from fundamentalist students, phone calls and office visits from irate parents, and complaints to his or her superiors. I have witnessed and been on the receiving end of all of these at a state university. Let me say that again: this happens not just in junior high but can occur even at publicly-funded universities.

Of course, the junior high and high school teachers are probably going to be more vulnerable because of the system of localized control of education by school boards we have chosen. But you'd be surprised by the effect a phone call from a member of the state legislature can have on even university administrators.

If we want to improve the quality of our education system, one of the many necessary steps will involve providing adequate protection for teachers. When an irate parent complains, the entire system, from the principal on up must support quality, reality-based instruction. This is by no means sufficient for the sort of improvement we need, but it is necessary and right now, it is not happening nearly enough.

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