My favorite teachers until college were the creative ones. I’m not talking about the boring, teach-for-the-test, stick-to-the-curriculum teachers that I dreaded listening to – or didn’t listen to – in high school. I’m talking about those teachers who, instead of worrying about how their classes looked on paper, tore away from the usual monotonous material and improvised ways to engage their students.
Those are the kind of teachers our school systems need. But here’s the catch: it’s really not the fault of those boring teachers that, well, they’re boring.
Teachers, or, more importantly, potential teachers, respond to incentives like everyone else in this world. The current administration’s policy, best exemplified in its infamous “No Child Left Behind” policy, has created incentives inviting all the worst kinds of teachers to join the school systems. Creative teachers – the ones you remember after you leave their classes – are forced to conform to the rigidity of the law.
Worse yet, the law targets teachers for the younger grades (3-8) where they are most influential in their students’ lives.
For those unfamiliar with the law, it calls for every student to reach his or her state’s standards in reading and math by 2014.
This may seem like old news to you; I wasn’t even in high school when the federal law was passed in 2001. But now the issue is resurfacing, as the harsher side of the law becomes apparent.
For instance, the New York Times printed an article on Oct. 16 that revealed that 1,000 of California’s 9,500 schools are considered “chronic failures.” These “failure” schools, spread throughout all the states, lack the help needed to meet the law’s standards and will soon undergo penalties like mandatory restructuring.
One of the greatest things about the American government has been its ability to adapt its policies to the wide variety of localities it encompasses. Past administrations have taken advantage of the federal system of government to pass laws that can be shaped to each state, county and town, for they knew that specific national administrative policies, like standardized education policy, could never work in this country.
This is one of the major failings of No Child. Certain schools, I am sure, will benefit from this policy of teaching to tests. Many schools already conformed to this attitude, even though the government did not mandate it before six years ago.
But now all the states are required to fund this program, for it is mandated, but not funded, by the federal government. They are allowed to set varying standards in the two main subjects, reading and math, but that’s the extent of their flexibility. In other words, states that receive absolutely no benefit from this program must pay cash, straight from the taxpayers’ pockets, to meet its requirements.
Besides being a poorly-designed law, something that any New York Times columnist could write about more knowledgeably than I, the underlying theme behind the policy has had even greater consequences than those stemming from its poor functionality. The national, local and state governments and our own modern American culture have strayed far from the creativity that once made this country so unique, and that change is reflected in our education system.
New York City, the nation’s largest public school system with over one million children, announced that it will soon start offering bonuses to teachers whose students perform well on standardized tests. This is exactly what they shouldn’t be doing.
Instead of offering rewards for higher test scores, which, by the way, is good incentive for teachers and school administrations to “play” with their scores, New York City should be offering rewards for creative ways of teaching. A teacher should be able to submit an agenda to the state government, and those with the most creative and effective agendas should get rewards. The government should be paying teachers more, but not because they know how to teach their students tricks on tests or are good at messing with their students’ scores.
So far, most, if not all, of the Democratic candidates for office have come out and said that they support higher pay for teachers. Well, that’s nice.
While Iraq, health care and the War on Terror dominate the presidential scene, the candidates have said little more on education than what is required to get applause.
The state of this nation’s education system is one of the most pressing problems the next president is going to have to deal with. It was the same situation after the 2000 election, and we’ve only gone backward since then. And since Congress can’t deal with anything of importance, as they’ve already proved to the public too many times this year, it will be up to the president to push through reforms.
With other nations rising to the economic forefront and ours sinking in credibility in foreign affairs, the next president’s main priority should be to retain the educational prestige our country has rightfully earned. The way to do that is by stimulating creativity among our teachers. If we can’t salvage our credibility through foreign relations or economic dominance, maybe we can do it through education.
Epstein is a member of the class of 2010.