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More Credits = More Pay = Better Teaching?

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Last October, when news first circulated that some public-school teachers in Los Angeles had claimed bogus college credits to inflate their salaries, local school officials announced plans to pursue harsh penalties for the offenders and to search the records of the district's 28,000 teachers to identify other transgressors. The president of one of the colleges that allegedly granted phony credits fingered a former part-time school administrator as the culprit.

Then last month, after the Los Angeles District Attorney filed criminal charges of grand theft against the 43 teachers who allegedly had enrolled in the nonexistent courses, school officials called for stricter accrediting and accountability requirements to prevent future abuses.

The scandal is, of course, disturbing, but such reactions on the part of school leaders are also of concern. The emphasis on teachers' wrongdoing reveals a frighteningly limited vision of education and succeeds only in focusing public attention more on the symptoms of the problem than on the problem itself.

I think that there are at least two other, important aspects of the Los Angeles incident that must be addressed. The first is teachers' low social standing and pay. It seems only logical that if teachers were valued more highly in the public mind they would be paid accordingly. Thus, they would find fewer reasons to falsify their records to create credits to boost their low salaries.

But a second, more pervasive aspect is the reward system, used by most school districts, that pegs teachers' salaries to the number of college credits they earn beyond the basic teacher-education requirements. Teachers are not alone in profiting from this system.

More pay for more credits has become a lifeline for much of American higher education. In today's shrinking student market especially, colleges and universities benefit from any policy that forces or entices students back into the classroom. Higher pay for more college credits is the cornerstone of a spoils system in which almost everyone wins. Large employers, like school districts, satisfy their bureaucratic need for standards to govern employees' promotions; employees add credits and degrees to their resumes and get higher salaries; and colleges and universities reap the bonanza created by a guaranteed student market. The system is built and sustained by the American belief that if "some education is good, then more must be better." After all, how can education do anything but redound to the public good?

Clearly some students learn something from these arrangements. But, having been in and around schools for most of my life, I question our faith in such a system. I think that reducing education to a means to a monetary end demeans its value and distorts its purpose.

I see the effects of this each quarter at the University of California, Los Angeles, when teachers and school administrators, in their quest for more credits, sign up for night classes. Fortunately, some students in each class are there because they want to learn. Usually there are others who are motivated, but who are struggling to increase their salaries and must put grades first. But too many students are already conditioned by years of schooling; they want the grades and the credits at the least possible cost to themselves. Although some can be led to learn for themselves, most simply want the formula for passing the minute their seats hit the chairs--the class outline, topics to be covered, standards for grading, and sample examination questions. After all, they're only products of our system. These teachers reflect an attitude that permeates most of the educational system, one that transforms the process of education into a means to an end.

Most of us would probably agree that, in theory, education should be a process by which a society passes along shared values and the dominant aspects of its culture--it is, or should be, the glue that holds the fabric of society together. As it is practiced in the classroom, education should spark students' desire to know. It should inspire students not only to want to learn to use the tools of the society--such as reading, writing, and arithmetic--but to learn how to learn and to love learning. Education should challenge students to think for themselves--to push themselves to their own limits--not because someone tells them to do it, but for the intrinsic value of doing so.

It is true, by and large, that this picture of education doesn't resemble education today--the education provided by the "real world." For most of us, education has amounted to too many dreary years of memorizing rules made up by somebody else along with disconnected bits of information so we could pass a test and move up to the next grade. But most of us have also had the good fortune to have had one or two teachers who really changed our lives by inspiring and challenging us to learn for ourselves. I remember distinctly a teacher who for more than 40 years taught the upper four grades of a two-room country school in Wisconsin. Because he had to deal single-handedly with 35 or 40 children in four different grades for seven hours each day, necessity led him to master peer tutoring, individualized instruction, and the open classroom long before they were heralded as "educational innovations."

This teacher put responsibility for learning on the student and then stepped back and acted as a challenger, a provocateur, and as an inspiration. Although such examples don't characterize what most of education is or was, they stand as testaments to what education can be. These testaments to the possible reveal the spirit of education, which has deeply affected most of us at one time or another.

In treating education as a means to an end (credits equal dollars), we destroy it. Education becomes credits. But, what do credits mean? Most often, credits mean the student has sat in a classroom for a fixed number of hours. And what does that mean? That the longer the student sits in classrooms the more he or she learns? I don't think so. I believe that classrooms can be an important part of learning. But, it is a leap of faith that equates more hours in the classroom with more learning with better teachers.

Unfortunately, the educational system and its symbiotic relationship with employers is premised on this belief. To challenge it is to question an entire system of educational rewards: hours in class equal credits, credits equal degrees, and degrees equal social status, careers, and incomes. But not to question it, to sweep it under the rug with official assurances that the search for more teachers who defrauded the district will be widened and that stricter standards of accountability will solve the problem, ensures that the system that equates credits and dollars will endure.

But what are the alternatives--how can we reform education to bring about a process that truly allows the unfolding of students' full range of potential abilities? Clearly, we must examine how we train and reward teachers. My colleague, John McNeil of UCLA's Teacher Education Laboratory, has noted weaknesses in competency-based teacher education, a once-touted method of producing able teachers. It is difficult, he says, to identify valid criteria that characterize "successful" teachers. Further, he has suggested that an externally defined competency-based system seems to chase away personal responsibility for good teaching, and to replace it with institutional demands for accountability.

The issue of reshaping education so that it becomes a vital experience for all students is particularly important now. Dwindling resources and sagging public confidence in the schools leave education particularly vulnerable to those who would solve its problems with simplistic solutions. While prosecuting a handful of teachers, who took a system that converts credits to cash to its extreme, may be justified, punishment should not be seen as the solution to the problem. Nor will stricter accrediting and accountability procedures solve the problem. Positive change can evolve only through broad public participation in and debate about education and its ends and means.

Vol. 01, Issue 31, Page 24

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