A Commentary

Concerning public schools, we know all we need to know about educational reform.

So what do teachers, principals and administrators know about reforming the public schools? Where do we begin?

Four points. We need order in our schools. We need teachers to be empowered. We know that instruction should be individualized. We know that we should have smaller, intimate classes.

First things first. Discipline. One of the most radical acts the public schools could perform would be to enforce their disciplinary policies as they are written. This is not about being punitive: it is about bringing order. Numerous educational reformers present their program by saying, “When I was a principal, I got a grip on discipline first, then I implemented this program.” The problem is that reforms are imposed, but discipline is not. Any orderly school can implement almost any program it wants. Without discipline, all reforms are doomed.

Teachers and administrators tell tales of students who walk the halls all day, students who assault staff and go unpunished, students who constantly disrupt classes. Much of the problem has to do with funding. In most states, public schools are funded according to the number of kids in the seats. Administrators are pressured to keep down the number of suspensions and expulsions. That pressure is passed along from the central office to the school office to the classroom. I witnessed an incident wherein a boy assaulted a teacher, then put his fist through a window. This boy was in that teacher’s class the next day.

It is worth emphasizing that fault lies not with administrators, principals or teachers. The solution lies in reforming state funding.

Likewise it should be emphasized that true discipline is not about submission: discipline is about a form of order that furthers educational dialogue.

Secondly, teacher empowerment. We always talk about teacher empowerment. The very fact that we always talk about it is proof that we never do it. The reason is simple. Elected and appointed politicians, meaning boards and administrators, are going to have to give-up some power.
by John Samuel Tieman

Teachers are a bit like the Queen of England. We have the right to be advised, and we have the right to consent. Like the queen, often we don’t even have the right to choose our own words. For example, I once taught a program that was entirely scripted. “Teacher-proof education.” I have a Ph. D. and thirty-five years as a certified teacher, yet I was not empowered to choose my very words. It was a bad program, and every teacher in that school knew it was, in fact, counterproductive. But we could do nothing. There is no power unless the individual owns at least one word, “No.”

I remember this workshop. A teacher asked a question of an administrator. The teacher began in a self-deprecating manner, but the administrator interrupted, saying, “There are no stupid questions, only stupid teachers.” Not one teacher said a word. Why? We have so little power.

My third point is the need for individualized instruction. There is a trend in society in general, in education in particular, toward one-size-fits-all reforms. In foreign policy, spreading freedom means converting countries to the Madisonian formula for governance. That and that alone. In the our school districts, schools are forced to adopt one-size-fits-all programs like Step-Up To Writing and Open Court and Direct Instruction, despite the near universal objection of teachers to one-size-fits-all programs. In truth, these are perfectly fine programs when implemented on a basis that limits them to students who need them. In a district where there is great diversity, there are limits to any one program. Instruction needs to be varied and various. The problem with such a singular vision is that its limitations are likewise singular, which is to say that such an implementation inherently contains the formula for its ossification.

Lastly, we need smaller classes. Twelve should be the maximum. Ten is better than that. Wherever possible, these classes should be in a neighborhood setting. The object is intimacy. Unfortunately, we have gone in the opposite direction. We have closed neighborhood schools. Teachers often manage huge classes I know a sixth grade teacher, a truly inspired woman, who had a class of forty-six. I will forever remember her crying outside her classroom. She left teaching shortly thereafter. She is not unusual.

Nothing I have said here is new. But, in simply doing what we know we need to do, these four points would be radical reforms. Fortunately, teachers, principals and administrators know all we need to know in order to implement these reforms. We know where to begin.

Filed under: John Samuel Tieman, Prose