The statistics are alarming. More than one-third of teachers leave at the end of their first year and four out of 10 quit within five years. We are headed toward a genuine crisis. That’s the bad news. The good news is that there is a sleeping giant solution waiting to be activated, if our culture can understand a different vision and summon the will to do it.
The problem started in 1983 when the federal government was motivated by a “Nation at Risk Report” to reform public education. National summits were called for governors and business executives to decide what needed to be done. Educators were not invited to the meetings.
These people introduced us to No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and Common Core, three efforts that failed to result in deep, comprehensive improvements but instead alienated teachers, shut out parents and failed to engage students.
Teachers feel belittled when they are “required” to do an impossible thing: make students alike in a fixed, predetermined body of knowledge and skills at each grade level, irrespective of each child's unique characteristics and talents. Testing is imposed to enforce this requirement.
Can we blame teachers for not wanting to enter a profession that holds them responsible for doing impossible things? Should we be surprised when good teachers leave? Could high salaries attract and hold strong people in such a system?
Consider this. Suppose the medical profession were governed by a State Board of Medicine that required physicians to treat all patients alike no matter the ailment. A child with a broken arm, another one with a high fever and sore throat and a third with measles would all be subject to the same treatment. Would such a system attract people to be physicians? If you were a physician, how would you feel if someone who has never seen your patients tells you what they need?
Why should we not feel uncomfortable with a school system that dictates what all students need regardless of their many differences? Is it any wonder that the teaching profession does not attract competent people or hold them for very long?
One system of public education that attracts and holds good teachers is called “student-centered education.” It differs from the conventional, standards-oriented system in some significant ways:
1. The behavior of teachers is controlled by the needs of individual students, not by the needs of the state or curriculum specialists. Teachers are trusted to determine those needs and help the student find and develop curricula to meet those needs. The challenge to meet the needs of individual students will weed out poor teachers.
2. Parents are involved as partners to support and help students develop their unique talents, interests and purposes. Bullying, dropouts and school-induced suicides are eliminated.
3. Teachers, parents and students are all enthusiastic and intensely involved in a school that respects every person. Attendance is near 100 percent.
4. Graduation is determined by students keeping portfolios and other records of courses taken, accomplishments and making a commitment and showing plans of how s/he will be a contributor to society — anytime after 15 years of age.
If we really want to attract competent people to be long-term teachers, we will develop a system in which their knowledge and creativity can blossom and grow. The State Board of Education and legislators must resist the urge to micromanage what they want teachers to do. People will line up to become teachers when the profession is respected and elevated. Student-centered education is a concept that calls for this.
Lynn Stoddard, a longtime retired educator, is the author of ”Educating for Human Greatness” and numerous articles on the need to move toward a student-centered system. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.