You’re probably familiar with the question “do the means justify the ends?” Is it acceptable for me to do X and Y in order to achieve Z. The answer, of course, depends on what X, Y and Z are, so let’s assign them meaning.
We’ll start with Z: Z is educating Americans which gives us this: can I do X and Y to educate Americans. Unless X and Y are outrageous and gross atrocities, the answer should probably be yes, but to assuage your fears that X and Y aren’t slaughtering bunny rabbits and pushing grandmothers into the street I’ll give them meaning as well. X is hiring the best and most qualified people I can find. Y is creating a safe and comfortable work environment that pays well and encourages innovation. X and Y are intrinsically linked.
You’re now thinking that I’ve put together an overly simplistic yet obvious formula for education. The means are hardly draconian and they most certainly justify the end result, a well-educated and productive populace. So all that’s left is one simple question: why aren’t we doing these things? Why can’t the world’s most powerful and prosperous country find and retain enough high quality teachers to educate its youth? Why has a system that for so many years provided (literally) a world-class education fallen behind the abilities of so many other industrialized nations? Forgive my over patriotism, but why is the world’s greatest country struggling to educate? X+Y=Z!
What are the barriers preventing X and Y from becoming ubiquitous realities? Let’s start by examining teacher quality. I’d like to begin by saying that I don’t think America’s schools are filled with bad teachers. There are a lot of great people laboring to educate the youth. Unfortunately a lot of great people are still too few. Someway, somehow teaching has become a second or third class profession. There exists this idea that America’s best and brightest are pursuing other careers, and perhaps that’s partially true. Being bright means a lot of different things, but what does it mean to be the best? Without attempting to offer an all-encompassing definition, I’d proffer that being the best may mean striving to better the welfare of others whether through teaching or some other method.
Problematically, this mindset becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many of the best and brightest do go on to pursue other careers, not because they’re unconcerned, but because the future is brighter in other professions. They’ve grown up valuing careers in law, medicine, government, and engineering – all admirable professions – while they consider teaching to be a job for the less capable.
The ways in which our society traditionally defines success reiterates the idea that teaching is a second-tier job. Teachers work long hours and get paid relatively small amounts. The work environments range from moderately stressful to chaotic. Even in schools that are beacons of learning and stability, teachers realize that if they fail to do their jobs, another human being will ultimately pay the price. Conversely, successful people have usually paid their dues but now work shorter hours due to their success and simultaneously make large sums of money. Success looks like a Corona commercial, not a classroom.
What will it take to fill America’s classrooms with talented teachers? The answer is really quite simple. Our society needs to treat teachers as they would treat doctors. After all, there would be no doctors if there were no teachers. Teachers deserve more compensation and more respect. For better or for worse, compensation and respect are often directly linked. Pay teachers better and you will find that more people will be interested in becoming teachers. But there’s more to it than that. Pay is not everything. Teachers need to see the value in their jobs, and they need to feel interested and stimulated.
This part is easy. The profession allows for experimentation, creativity and all sorts of interesting methods for conveying information. While teachers can certainly feel confined by a curriculum or standardized testing, they can and do find creative ways of making learning come to life. This needs to be encouraged because it attracts creative and talented people.
Still, pay and the ability to flex one’s creative muscles are not the only important aspects. Few people thrive on chaos; however, at some schools chaos thrives. The high school I attended, and the high school I taught at as a Teach For America Corps Member may as well have been on different planets. Only by making a concerted effort to improve the environments of schools (ie. aesthetics, safety and student behavior) can we hope to create the type of workspace in which our best and brightest will thrive.
These things are all easier said than done. There is opposition to change from within the educational establishment, and there still exists the notion that teaching is a second tier profession for people with second tier abilities. But it has never been more imperative that America takes the steps to fix its faltering educational system. Just Tuesday, international test scores showed that students from China score higher than any other country in both literacy and math. The United States was a distant 11th in reading comprehension and placed (gulp) 26th in math skills. Those are hardly the kind of skills that American students are going to need to find jobs in a competitive global economy with an ever-growing abundance of educated laborers.
America must make tough choices now to reinvest in its human capital, both for the future of our country’s economy and, more importantly, for the well-being of Americans. Some believe education is a means to a well-paying job. Some think it’s a way to help you find your place in the world. Some feel it should be valued for its own sake, and others believe all or none of the above. Regardless, education, and a good one at that, is a fundamental right that our great nation can and should afford all its citizens.
X+Y=Z is a simplistic formula, but it can and will be an effective one as long as we continue to focus on the problems in our educational system. We should commend our teachers and they should be proud of themselves. We must labor even harder to make teaching an attractive profession, one to which bright people will flock towards. We must give teachers the tools they need to educate children and we need to celebrate those successes as a society. America’s greatness comes from the hard work of well-educated and motivated people. If we want to remain great we must learn to revalue what got us there in the first place, education.