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Published in Print: September 18, 2002, as The Queen of Education


The Queen of Education

Our schools may be badly broken, but help is just a royal edict away.

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Our schools may be badly broken, but help is just a royal edict away.

I want to be Queen of Education. Our schools are badly broken, and they must be fixed now. Somebody must take responsibility and make decisions that can be put into action immediately—no questions asked. What qualifies me to be Queen? Not scientific studies, not a Ph.D. thesis replete with statistical significances. I do have some impressive pieces of university parchment and several years of experience teaching disenchanted teens. My most important queenly attribute, however, is my passionate desire to provide a decent education for all American children.

Our First Royal Edict:No classroom in this country shall have more than 20 students. Period. The Queen has spoken. (Stop whining about the expense—compare the figures for reducing class sizes to the figures for retaining juveniles in prisons or detention facilities. Then look at the number of illiterate incarcerated American children. It is far, far cheaper to teach them to read in school than in prison.)

Teaching people to read is an important and difficult job. Alas, that is the root of the problem. Teaching is a job in the United States, when it should be a profession. Many Americans view teaching as glorified babysitting. We beg to differ. Even if you aren't a trained teacher, you may stand in a teacher's shoes (we suggest comfortable rubber soles). Take any subject. Now, sit down and create a plan for teaching said subject to people who know nothing about this topic—and who vehemently don't care to know. Figure out how to make these people listen to you, make them desire this knowledge. Next, implement your plan in a location that is extremely cold or unbearably hot, without ventilation and with flickering fluorescents overhead, in a room furnished with bun-numbing unpadded plastic chairs. Ensure that at least one each of the following personalities is included among the recalcitrant recipients of your wisdom: bully, gangster, drug dealer, drug addict, drunkard, sexually abused person, starving person, and at least one person who simply cannot sit still. And ensure that you have more students than you have seats or lesson books.

Even if you have performed this teaching experiment only in your ever-expanding mind, you will surely support Our Second Royal Edict:Every elected representative in this country, from the tiniest town to the U.S. Congress, must spend two weeks in the public school classroom, teaching from the curriculum and materials available, and living on a teacher's salary for those two weeks. No limos, no catered meals, no two-hour, three-martini lunches.

Most American children are not apathetic, amoral, sex-crazed gangster-wannabes. They are good little people, desperately in need of good big leaders.

Marvelous things shall happen. First, our lawmakers will fall in love with our children, just as we teachers do, and they will see that most American children are not apathetic, amoral, sex-crazed gangster-wannabes. They are good little people, desperately in need of good big leaders. Second, politicians will realize that teaching well is darned difficult, time-consuming, emotionally-draining work and, thus, it is insulting and unethical to pay teachers such paltry sums. Legislation will be introduced to double teachers' salaries, and triple education budgets. Never again will teachers have to beg for books and paper. Not bad for our first day's work.

Our Third Royal Edict:Stop the testing frenzy. Stop accountability of licensed teachers. Accountability is a good idea—but testing teachers after they have been licensed is illogical, if not insane. Would anybody suggest hiring surgeons, dentists, or air traffic controllers, and then creating elaborate exams to test their skills? Of course not. We know that if these professionals fail to do their jobs, people will be badly injured or killed, so we test them before they start their training and again before they are licensed to begin work. Students may not die if teachers don't do their jobs, but illiteracy can cause extreme pain and suffering to our country as well as our students. Let us do the same with teachers: Test them before they start training, test them after they finish training, then license them, trust them—and let them teach.

Most American teachers do good work, but there are some who don't. Teachers do not teach poorly because they lack intelligence or desire—they lack the proper training. If we must hold someone accountable for the effectiveness of our teachers, we must look to our teacher-training institutions. They must be held accountable for the preparedness of the teachers they train and license. Educating our children is as important as performing brain surgery, seeking justice in the courts, or running a profitable business. Therefore, it should be as difficult to enter a college of education as it is to get into a good medical school, law school, or prestigious M.B.A. program—and equally difficult to complete. We must ensure that when a teacher is licensed, he or she is adequately prepared to perform as a professional educator.

The Queen shall establish rigorous entrance requirements: comprehensive academic exams to ensure that teachers know their subjects, psychological exams so we know our teachers are not potential child molesters, and practical demonstrations to ensure that our intelligent, educated, psychologically well-adjusted teachers can actually teach (intelligence, education, and desire do not automatically enable someone to teach). The Queen shall also insist that once accepted, teacher-candidates receive an excellent education in theoretical and practical courses, including child and adolescent psychology, leadership, motivation, classroom management, conflict resolution—taught by people who have hands-on experience in public school classrooms. We shall require a B average for coursework and an intensive, yearlong internship, closely supervised by experienced professionals, followed by a rigorous exit exam evaluated by a committee of objective, knowledgeable experts. (If a teacher-candidate cannot pass the exit exam, no license, even if there is a shortage of teachers. We don't grant medical licenses simply because we need doctors and dentists.)

We should like to suggest, at this point, a fitting new title for our qualified, rigorously tested, dedicated, effective teachers: Public School Professor. And may we also suggest an appropriate new starting salary equal to the salaries of other licensed professionals with five years of challenging academic training: a minimum entry-level salary of $35,000 to $40,000 nationwide.

Well-trained teachers know how to motivate. They know how to lead. They know how to teach. And when teachers teach, students learn. Attitudes and behavior improve. Achievement soars—and the demand for standardized tests, tests, tests, tests disappears. The Queen finds constant testing quite tiresome.

Accountability is a good idea—but testing teachers after they have been licensed is illogical, if not insane.

We do agree that some tests are necessary, however. Every time we meet a dean of an education college, we ask: "Are your teacher-candidates tested for psychological fitness? Do you know why your education students want to be teachers? Do you ask whether your candidates even like children?" The answer, sadly, invariably, is no.

Americans have a ludicrously democratic approach to training teachers—anybody who wants to be a teacher can enter a teacher- training program. We assume that being educated automatically enables a person to teach effectively. And we assume that teachers want to teach. However, we conducted our own unofficial survey when we began teaching, and the responses shocked us: I want my summers off. I want to work the same hours as my spouse. I want the same vacation days as my children. I earned the degree, now I have to teach until I can find another job.

Some people find these reasons acceptable. Her Majesty wonders. Would these reasonable people let a surgeon apply a scalpel to their skulls if she said, "I became a brain surgeon so I could have Fridays off to golf?" We think not. Thus, the need for psychological screening of potential teachers.

We are pleased. We have elevated teaching to a well-paid profession, adequately trained our teachers, reduced class sizes to facilitate learning, ensured that our teacher-candidates do want to teach and that they are not child molesters. How very excellent. These steps will eliminate some huge problems, such as forcing teachers to spend inordinate amounts of time "teaching to the tests" instead of teaching students to think. (Mr. President—if you want to know if a child can read, you must take time to listen to the child read.) We won't have a teacher shortage because young people will want to become professional educators; they will want to enjoy the job satisfaction, prestige, and compensation that teachers receive.

Oh, the realists, the perennially practical among us are raising their hands. Yes, it will be difficult to find a university willing to turn away potential teachers who don't meet the new, improved entrance requirements. Turning away students means turning away money, and universities need money. But certainly, in this great nation of big business, we could find one corporation whose intelligent and ethical CEO believes in education and appreciates good PR. Our intelligent corporation can fund the academic program and salaries for our initial group of crackerjack teachers. When that first class of bright, passionate, capable, supremely qualified Public School Professors hits the streets, the students will respond, and the rest will be history.

The Queen is ready. We stand beside our throne, tiara freshly polished.

God save our schools.

LouAnne Johnson, whose best-selling book My Posse Don't Do Homework was the basis for the 1995 film "Dangerous Minds," is a teacher and writer living in San Angelo, Texas. Her latest book is Two Parts Textbook, One Part Love: A Recipe for Successful Teaching.

Vol. 22, Issue 3, Pages 35,38

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