Today's Topic



Rebuilding the American
Educational Process,
Part I

Part II
Part III

Natalia J. Garland

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Senator Barack Obama recently introduced his "Plan for Lifetime Success Through Education." The plan appears to be a more detailed version of a speech which he gave in New Hampshire in November, 2007: "Our Kids, Our Future." The plan attempts to establish guidelines for teacher qualifications, student learning programs, and parental involvement. The question remains, however, if more teacher training and more student programs, as well as more expenditure of taxpayer monies, will improve America's public schools.

Why, after years of advancement in educational theories and approaches, and after billions of dollars spent on public schools, are students failing in large numbers? Why do students fail to graduate, or fail to graduate on time, or graduate but are not prepared to do college-level work? Most of us would probably agree with Obama's reaction to America's problems in education: "This kind of America is morally unacceptable for our children. It's economically untenable for our future." But how will Obama's plan improve the quality of education and produce more and better high school graduates?

Obama's plan centers around the expenditure of money (18 billion dollars), student programs, teacher quality and teaching methods, emphasis on science and math, standardized tests that will "diagnose" student weaknesses, quality education from birth to college, childcare and education from zero to five years of age, and parental involvement.

Specifically, Obama wants to improve teacher quality through recruitment, scholarships for prospective teachers willing to accept jobs in poverty-stricken or minority neighborhoods, teacher residency programs, professional development schools, teacher mentoring programs, and rewards for accomplished teachers. In what appears to be Obama's attempt not to blame the children for failure, he seems inadvertently to have blamed the teachers.

There are fundamental flaws in some of Obama's ideas. (1) There seems to be an assumption that most teachers are not already qualified or dedicated. (2) There is no emphasis on the student's individual responsibility to learn and to conduct himself with self-respect. (3) No attention is given to the structure or daily processes of the school environment: the learning and socializing that takes place among students, and the interaction between students and their teacher.

If there are currently unqualified or under-performing teachers, then why are such teachers still employed? Which schools allow incompetent teachers to remain in the classroom? Which universities graduated them? Can America's public school problems be directly linked to incompetent teachers? If so, then it should only be a matter of terminating those teachers' employment and replacing them with competent teachers. If the incompetent teachers are employed in sub-standard school districts, then those schools must be investigated and either closed down or reformed.

Certainly, there must be some high-performing teachers in the public schools. Who and where are they? How did they become effective educators? What kinds of lesson plans and textbooks do they use? What are their teaching methods and styles? How do they prevent or manage student behavioral problems? And, why should the competent teachers be required to undergo more training? How did these teachers become successful without having ever participated in Obama's proposed programs? The fact that there are indeed some excellent teachers proves that excellence is possible without additional bureaucratic programs and certifications imposed by the government.

Some of Obama's ideas involve common sense and are already in use or should be in use: high academic standards, money for resources, effective teaching methods, special attention to impoverished neighborhoods, and accountability. If large numbers of students are failing in certain schools or sections of the country, then it could be because these common-sense practices are not being utilized sufficiently. The solution might be to tighten the slack in those particular schools (including the re-training or dismissal of incompetent teachers--a point which Obama also makes), rather than to establish nationwide reform programs (Obama seems to call for even higher standards and increased accountability for competent teachers).

However, some of Obama's ideas address the current needs of teachers: teacher mentoring, service scholarships, and rewards for accomplishments. For example, despite being surrounded by students all day, teaching can be a lonely job. There is little contact with other teachers or school personnel. Having regular discussions with a mentor could be invaluable for the beginning teacher. Although some schools incorporate teacher workshops into the school year, mentoring would provide a trusting relationship in which teachers could share their real struggles and receive individualized assistance.

Let's move on to some of Obama's ideas for students and parents. Although children in impoverished areas, or children from working and/or single-parent households, seem to benefit from early education, Obama's proposal for zero-to-five education has a frightening aspect to it. Do parents realize that they are turning their child over to government control, from birth?! There is the potential for public school systems--which are generally an arm of the government--to lean toward politically-correct indoctrination of the child. Such indoctrination would have a negative impact on the child's ability to mature and think critically as well as to appreciate the cultural and religious values of his parents.

Parents who send their children to early education programs must gain an understanding of the local systems, and must evaluate the instructional content of the program. Early education teachers must focus on the basics of education and child development. Working parents and single parents must accept the responsibility to guide their children along their preferred cultural or religious path, and not allow any system to undermine or sabotage common sense and family moral standards. This is not to blame the teachers (although in some instances teachers are guilty of political bias in the classroom), but to emphasize that we live in a political climate of distorted multiculturalism which has spawned anti-American and anti-Western Civilization sentiments and tendencies. Younger teachers themselves are often products of multiculturalist public school and university systems.

Multiculturalism has replaced the mostly defunct civics approach to character formation. Alongside academics, public schools also have to deal with student behavioral issues. In the past, the approach was to teach civics: the behavior of a good citizen of America. Teaching children good citizenship was not the same as brainwashing them. Civics was based in the reality of their rights and duties, and included limitations on behavior. Distorted multiculturalism, however, does not distinguish between life-affirming behavior and the social injustices embedded in some cultures: all is to be understood in context and accepted without intelligent evaluation or moral discernment.

Obama's plan states, "A lack of discipline is a leading challenge facing many public schools." Obama's solution is to use P.B.S. (Positive Behavior Support), which involves stopping unacceptable behavior before it starts. In other words, yet another program is needed to instruct teachers how to direct students toward the kind of social behaviors that promote learning, and then to reinforce such behavior whenever it is exhibited. However, teachers are already trained in positive reinforcement--it is taught in the undergraduate Classroom Management course which prospective teachers are required to take. Many of the P.B.S principles and techniques are currently in daily use but are not labeled as P.B.S. Nevertheless, Obama has advocated for the "Positive Behavior for Effective Schools Act" and for funds to implement this.

Even if P.B.S., as a total program, can be proven effective, there is a variable that must be taken into consideration: the majority of administrators and teachers in each school agree to implement the program together. In the 'olden days,' the majority of teachers were committed to the instillation of good citizenship as an effective way to develop positive character and behavior. The difference between the therapeutic model and the civics model is that the former does not promote a sense of duty or allegiance to America. An important foundation of human dignity--the historical roots of American democracy--is no longer given practical or normative credence. P.B.S. proponents seem to believe that one reason for student misconduct is the lack of a sense of belonging. Would that not be a valid reason to emphasize civic pride?

Most teachers would probably agree that some behaviors demand negative consequences in order to extinguish the behavior, maximize actual teaching time, and establish safety. Some behaviors require limit-setting as the primary form of management. For example, a 'tardy sweep' is an efficient way to extinguish tardiness to class. Most students will not get caught in a tardy sweep a second time. Yes, some might get upset about the consequences. But, students have the capacity to manage feelings, adjust to school norms, and grow in maturity.

Although probably nobody would argue against the proper application of positive reinforcement, the prescriptive use of a particular program could present certain risks, including the following. (1) A resulting conformity and regimentation that could obstruct or inhibit teacher individuality and creativity. (2) A government-controlled philosophy of human behavior management that could become entrenched. (3) A message to students that there are no negative consequences in life and no legitimate authority figures. (4) A confusion of the boundaries between academic instruction and psychotherapeutic intervention (i.e., some disruptive students should be referred to a school social worker who would be more professionally qualified to assess behavior).

In Part I of today's topic I have tried to briefly summarize some major points in Obama's plan and to question any assertion that more money, programs, and certifications would help to alleviate America's public school problems. This would seem to be especially true of teacher training, inasmuch as excellent teachers already exist. I have also questioned if new programs would resolve student motivation or discipline problems, especially in a society that promotes multiculturalism and political correctness over the teaching of civics. In Part II, I will discuss the structure and daily processes of the educational environment. (Written 08/04/08: bibliography available.)

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2008 Natalia J. Garland