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Topic: Response to NYTimes Critique of US Education
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Response to NYTimes Critique of US Education
Posted: Nov 1, 2013 6:08 PM
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From The New York Times, Sunday, October 27, 2013. See
"Mediocrity" V. "Cozy, Lucrative Monopoly": Rsp to NYTimes Critique
of US Education

By Cathy Davidson

This morning, in an op ed in the New York Times entitled "An Industry
of Mediocrity," [see
] former NYT Editor Bill Keller makes many smart points about the
"mediocrity" of our American system of training teachers for our K-12
schools. As an educational reformer, I could not agree more that we
have archaic systems in drastic need of reforming. However, like far
too many people who don't know the education sector well, Keller also
makes a false connection between the "mediocrity" of the teachers we
train in the U.S. and the "low standards" of our Schools of
Education. He gets it all backwards and twisted when he looks at the
root causes.

Keller writes off the business of training teachers in the U.S., at
our various Education Schools, as a "cozy, lucrative monopoly." The
clear inference and implication he is making here is that
non-monopolies--such as for-profits--would of course do a far better
job of it. Keller points to Finland and Singapore as examples of the
kind of teacher education we should be striving for. Both of those
are not only government run, not only "monopolies," but they are far
more "lucrative" and "cozy" than the U.S. system.

Several things are key here, and I'm just going to enumerate them
quickly but the point is that all need to be rethought together if we
are going to have true challenges to an educational system that I,
too, consider to often be "mediocre" and, equally bad, outdated. It
was designed for the Model T and the Assembly Line and we need a
full-scale redesign now. But the problem isn't the monopoly of
schools of education but far larger conditions. Including:

(1) Schools of Education are not monopolies in the U.S. any more
than, say, "the newspaper business" is a monopoly. Would Mr. Keller
say the NY Times is a "cozy monopoly"? I think not. Nor is it true
of teacher training. Anyone can choose one school over another.
Not all are even public. "Monopoly" is an inaccurate description, a
bad language of corporatism which simply is not the root cause of
educational mediocrity in the U.S.

(2) No one would call any aspect of higher education "cozy" these
days: nearly 70% of faculty in American universities are now
contingent or adjunct labor, meaning they teach but typically receive
no benefits, no job security, no contract. They are paid by the
course, hired as needed (or not) by the institution, and rarely paid
well. College teaching in just about all fields is a profession in
crisis; it is not cozy at all. Social scientists tell us that a
time of dire existential crisis is not the best time to be creative.
70%+ continginent workforce constitutes existential crisis.

(3) The regulation of what teachers do and how they do it has never
been tighter or more intrusive or more hierarchical. In many states
now, if your students perform badly on the end-of-grade multiple
choice tests, your school can be closed or privatized and/or you as a
teacher can have your salary docked or you can even be fired. We
now have a bigger crisis in teachers--especially the good
ones--leaving the profession than is the crisis of students leaving
school. The morale problem of not only having to "teach to the
test" (an impoverished form of learning and teaching if ever there
was one) plus the regulation of those demeaning standards is high on
the list of the reasons the best teachers give for leaving.

(4) Teaching is not "lucrative" in the U.S. It is much more so in
both Finland and Singapore. And teaching teachers is also not
lucrative. Education teachers are among the lowest paid. One
reason why there are not more top students going into the teaching
profession is it simply doesn't pay enough to attract teachers away
from other occupations--and it is very, very hard and demanding work.
Even without our regulatory systems, forcing teachers to teach in a
way that, all the research shows, is inimical to good learning.

(5) And about those tests: Finland abolished them a generation ago.
Their teachers are professionals (you have to have advanced post-BA
training to teach any grade level beyond Kindergarten), teacher
education is subsidized, and their teachers spend far less time in
the classroom than ours do. One day a week is spent with other
teachers setting the bar for what constitutes "excellence" for the
subject matter, the week's lessons, the learning. And the goal is
for every student to make it over the bar. No multiple choice exams,
no class rankings, no bell curves. Just defining and attaining
excellence. Singapore is far more test-based than Finland, and is
looking closely, right now, at what Finland is doing because everyone
in Finland (students, teachers, parents, policy maters, industry
leaders) loves the education system there. In Singapore, the rigors
of the system is worrisome to all. Why not a system that is not
only working brilliantly but that inspires learning rather than
enforces it? The U.S., incidentally, uses compulsory standardized
testing more often and at an earlier age than any other country on
the planet.

(6) As long as our metric for success is the outdated standardized
testing, we don't give our schools of education much leeway for
change. You have to value what you count. If you count right
answers in little boxes in limited subjects, you are testing--we have
the data--economics, not learning. In the U.S. our test scores in
public schools map exactly onto income levels since our school
systems are highly segregated by income and resources are based on
tax revenue in most cases. Recent studies have shown that, in fact,
public schools do better at educating students than private schools
if income differentials are removed.

(7) It's by no means clear that charter schools, once you remove
income differentials, outperform public schools. In fact, it appears
that they do not.

(8) Etc. There are many easy assumptions made too often and
flippantly about the American education system, with the implicit
idea that the problem is that it is run by "government" and business
could do it better. That is by no means proven. Singapore and
Finland both have more, not less, government, federal control over
schools than the U.S. and, in Finland, equality of resources is
considered every student's right.
Okay, now let's talk about medicrity. I too believe our schools need
to be better, but I'm not sure my idea of "better" is the same as Mr.
Keller's. I believe education needs drastic updating, reshaping for
the world we live in now. Higher test scores are not the objective.
Schools need to reward brilliance and creativity--and not mediocrity.
But until we get rid of the baggage of the causes--the untrue
assumption that mediocrity is a product of a "cozy, lucrative
monopoly"--we won't be able to address the very real challenges our
teachers, our students, and all of us face as we address the problems
of learning how to thrive in a rapidly changing world.
Here's the link to the NY Times article for which the above is a

Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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