They’ll tell you it’s complicated, but it’s not.
Here’s the simple truth: It’s the teacher.
The Payson High School students in my Gila Community College public speaking class drove that point home to me recently. I asked them each to give a speech on “How to fix High School.”
One bright student told the tale of two teachers, both in challenging subjects.
He struggled in one class, trying to mesh the complicated explanations and examples in the textbook with the in-class lectures and projects. He floundered. He went to the teacher, seeking help. But the teacher couldn’t seem to explain things clearly. The in-class lessons seemed tangential to the book. The instructor could generally show how to solve the problem, but not why that solution worked. The instructor seemed to fumble for explanations and didn’t readily grasp his question or the missing links of knowledge that lay behind those questions.
He got a C. Just barely.
Now, a lot of students would have said, “whew, close call. Sure hate science. Not going to take any more of those tough courses.”
But instead, he signed up for another science class — with an instructor who has a reputation as a tough grader.
Boy, what a difference. This time, the class material and projects dovetailed beautifully with the text and other outside materials, because the instructor had meticulously hand crafted every element of the curriculum.
The instructor knew the subject cold. The teacher understood the questions, lavished after-class time on one-on-one work, followed up, kept track, continued offering new ways to understand the material. The teacher worked patiently with the student so long as he continued to work to understand.
This time, the student got an A. Now, he’s thinking about a science career — the first in his family. He’s enrolled at the community college, determined to succeed and confident of his ability to understand difficult material.
Makes me want to cry writing that last paragraph.
Because we’re far too often failing students like him.
And mostly that’s because we’re failing our best and most committed teachers.
I don’t want to get into names here.
But I’ll tell you one thing, that gifted teacher’s more likely to quit in frustration than the teacher who students struggle to understand. Moreover, that gifted teacher’s sometimes a pain for administrators. Great teachers are passionate and creative. They’re not necessarily good at following the rules, checking all the boxes and sitting quietly through faculty meetings. But that’s what seems to matter these days in a school system that’s better at bureaucracy than inspiration.
The “merit pay” system for teachers sets up a handful of goals each year. That sounds rigorous. But something almost all of the teachers come close enough to meeting their goals that they get the most or all of the $3,800 merit pay bonus funded by voters. So that means the extraordinary teachers, the ordinary teachers and the weak teachers all get the same bonus. The salary system’s based almost entirely on seniority, although pure time on the job doesn’t correlate very well with student outcomes. Teachers can also get higher pay for graduate degrees and in-service training, although that also doesn’t correlate consistently with student outcomes.
Here’s the unvarnished truth.
Many teachers are gifted and inspire and know their subject cold.
Many teachers are floundering, with many forced to teach outside their subject.
You can tell the difference without too much trouble if you spend an hour watching them teach. You can tell for sure if you also talk to their students.
If we want to really educate our kids, we’d identify the large share of teachers who can inspire and mentor and motivate students. We’d do anything we had to do to keep those teachers in the profession. Then we’d turn those teachers into mentors for the younger teachers or the struggling teachers. Finally, we’d phase out the teachers who can’t connect to students and can’t change.
But we’re not doing that.
We’re penalizing gifted teachers for not checking the boxes and handing out “merit pay” to teachers who can’t teach.
You want to know how to fix high school?
Ask the kids. They know.