Education Opinion

Restructuring American Education

By Lloyd H. Elliott — February 13, 2002 9 min read
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What will it take to reshape our care-worn system? Money, talent, and time.

More teachers, more vouchers, more computers, more charter schools, more tests, more federal money, more local control, more, more, more. The calls constitute a cacophony of pleas and threats, warnings and promises from public figures, parents, teachers, and other citizens—all asking for more learning.

As each call is debated, pushed, shot down, revived, and discarded again, we move around the same endless circle, once again looking for a place to stick another Band-Aid on an institution suffering from malnutrition and structural inadequacy.

Now, President Bush and Congress have agreed on a major resuscitation effort, which promises to breathe new life into a gasping, exhausted national school system. Instead of another Band-Aid, it might be compared to the replacement of an arthritic knee or hip. Nothing more; the systemic problems will continue untreated. America’s schools will remain in crisis.

What then is the life-threatening problem in our educational system, and where can we begin with an effective treatment?

First and foremost among the factors that make up this crisis is the shortage of teachers—teachers who are broadly educated and professionally trained. Until and unless we are willing to face up to this fundamental problem, little else matters.

First and foremost among the factors that make up the current crisis is the shortage of teachers. Until we face up to this fundamental problem, little else matters.

Let us recognize that America has some good schools; not nearly enough, however. These good schools are generally found in our most affluent communities. But the best teachers who make the best schools are retiring, retiring in numbers far greater than their replacements are being trained. Simply put, there aren’t enough future teachers in the pipeline to replace the good ones who are retiring, let alone the poor ones who shouldn’t be there in the first place. The shortages are so serious that bidding wars among school districts are bringing forth signing bonuses and other amenities in order to staff the classrooms, not necessarily with the best teachers, but with any kind of teacher. We can expect such cannibalizing to get worse before it gets better, with the poorest districts suffering the greatest losses.

Sadly too, we have poor schools, far too many of them. Teachers in these schools are often temporary, untrained, unqualified, and, much of the time, very unhappy. Those who are capable and dedicated, working against overwhelming odds, can be expected to move to more attractive surroundings at the first opportunity.

For our youngest children, the 3- and 4-year-olds for whom a head start has proven to be so vital, we provide, with few exceptions, baby sitters—untrained and paid accordingly.

Is it a losing cause? Yes, unless we are willing to change the game and move the playing field.

First, it will be necessary to elevate teaching—teaching at all levels below college and university—to the status of our recognized professions. If qualified teachers in sufficient numbers are to be found, public recognition of teaching must be raised to equal accounting, architecture, banking, financial planning, insurance, law, nursing (a group not fully recognized and still underpaid), and a host of other endeavors.

And what will be required to make teaching a full partner in the world of the professions? There is no mystery, and there is no shortcut. Economy class won’t do. It will take a lot of money.

And the timetable is not encouraging. A minimum of 10 years will be required to send the message to youngsters in the middle grades and high school that teaching is a career worthy of their serious consideration. To be convinced, they must see in the schools evidence that teaching is being elevated, that parents, neighbors, and classmates are viewing teaching with greater respect. In fact, should a son or daughter view teaching as a possible career, parents would be the first to approve.

None of this can happen, however, unless we are willing to pay our teachers. To catch the attention of youngsters and to mark such a monumental change, the entity (school district, county, or state) must put in place a dramatic new pay scale for teachers. An increase of at least 50 percent, applied to the beginning salary and all the way to the highest point on the scale, to be fully implemented over a period of not more than five years, would be a good start. Increases of such magnitude would help ameliorate another present problem: keeping a bit longer those experienced teachers now headed for the door.

First, it will be necessary to elevate teaching to the status of our recognized professions. It will take a lot of money.

I’m not talking about the income of a corporate CEO, a professional athlete, or an orthopedic surgeon; I’m asking that teachers be paid enough to live in middle-class neighborhoods, enjoy the social and cultural attractions of their communities, and continue their personal educational enrichment through further study and travel. It is the respect they must have, if parents and neighbors are to point their own children in the direction of teaching.

We also must strengthen the preparation of teachers. A liberal arts education, four years at a minimum, is necessary basic preparation for all teachers. First grade teachers need such a foundation just as much as a high school teacher of history or any other subject. Professional studies should come in the fifth or even sixth years, providing both actual teaching experience and formal courses in child psychology, classroom management, and subject-matter mastery. Practice in the classroom, an all-important component of professional training, should always be under the guidance of a master teacher.

And quickly—the sooner the better—admission to teacher preparation in colleges and universities must be selective, open only to those who meet clearly established standards. To suggest a beginning: Why not shut out—yes, such a cutting line would be quite arbitrary—all applicants who rank in the bottom half of their classes? Is it too much to hope that we can attract teachers for our children from the top 50 percent of our college students?

But I want something more from our newly upgraded and recognized profession of teaching. I want 12 months of school.

The days of an agrarian-based calendar—three months or more for children to help with the farm work—became outdated more than a century ago. On the other hand, teachers have suffered from the public criticism that they have three months every year to do nothing, to see the world or earn other income. Unfair, of course, but frequently uttered, nonetheless.

For learners, year-round school would bring more and better education to those in greatest need—the poorest among us.

For learners, year-round school would bring the best chance for more and better education to those in greatest need—the poorest among us. It is they who must scramble the hardest to gain the necessities of life: food, clothing, and shelter. It is they who, because of broken families and uncertain livelihoods, cannot put together a plan for their children’s schooling. It is they, even in two-parent households, who are most likely to work outside the home. And of course, it is they who have the least time and attention to give to their own children. The wealthy and upper-class are able to provide the extras of learning—summer camp for numerous educational and cultural activities, tutorials for the routine and exotic, travel for both learning and leisure, and, above all, within a calendar of their own choosing.

A longer school year should, in most school districts, also bring a broadened curriculum that will require a longer school day. In many schools, it is athletics that keep those who participate some eight or nine hours each day on the school grounds. Shouldn’t we do as much for those who can benefit from similar programs in music, art, dance, theater, or other studies?

Instead of rushing through, sending both students and teachers home lugging computers, textbooks, and fat briefcases and backpacks, let’s dismiss them with homework already completed, papers graded, and lesson plans in place. Rushing from opening bell to closing guarantees short tempers and constant frustration. Year-round school with the enriched curriculum from nursery and kindergarten through grade 12 can be expected to hold the attention of more of our young people than is now the case. Without three months to disconnect from school, spend energies in less constructive activities, or break from all academic matters, fewer kids, we can hope, will join the gangs to peddle drugs and flout the laws.

Twelve months of school, a profession of teachers, all the time and money: Is the need really with us? Yes, there is the necessity for such a radical step. It is the explosion of knowledge.

We have glibly pointed out that learning is now, or should be, a lifelong process. While such an observation may be only a cliché to some, workers and employers, teachers and parents know it is all too true. Deep down, we know in our sometime-unspoken psyche, that education is the way, the only way, for advancement, whether of a Third World country, an unemployed neighbor across the street, workers aspiring to join the new economy, or those on welfare rolls. And if we fail to use the new knowledge, others in the world will.

Can the most powerful nation in the world—and the richest—allocate a fraction of that wealth in order to have schools good enough to service and preserve its own leadership?

Am I recommending a new kind of social institution, simply calling it a year- round school? I’m not sure, and I certainly don’t care how it may be branded. To do the job, though, will require year-round learning, which requires year- round teaching, which means, in turn, year-round schools.

Our continued world leadership is directly dependent upon the strength of our schools. Academically strong teachers, bringing to their classrooms a broad background in the arts and sciences, skillful in directing the learning of their youngsters, and given time to teach, are necessary if we are to cure the life-threatening illness now present in America’s educational system.

Who will lead the parade? It must first, of course, be organized. I suggest that America’s several thousand school boards might step to the front in this endeavor. Fortunately, they have a national association, an organization in each state, and a local unit that reaches every school. And unless members were elected for other purposes (to hold down the tax rate, look for family advantage, use the post as a steppingstone to political office, or advance personal gain), their responsibility is to improve the schools.

Will we see adequate schools in the first quarter of this new century? Can the most powerful nation in the world— and the richest—allocate a fraction of that wealth in order to have schools good enough to service and preserve its own leadership? Or do we sacrifice that leadership because we are too shortsighted to prepare our children to continue what we have so fortunately been given?

It remains to be seen.

Lloyd H. Elliott is the president emeritus of George Washington University in Washington and a former president of the National Geographic Society Educational Foundation. During a long career in education, he also taught K-12 students and their teachers, served as a school principal and a district administrator, and headed many national and professional boards and associations .

A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as Restructuring American Education


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