One thing to consider on education reform

This has been education week on the cable news and talk shows and in true fashion, they have blasted out all sorts of opinions from tons of experts in the education field who purport to know better about how to reform education in America. Most of the advice is along the lines of; getting parents more involved, making teaching a more respected profession, giving schools more money. Blah, blah, blah we’ve heard this all before.

And I waited throughout the week to see if I could pick out some truly great ideas. I heard none. And next week, we’ll all go back to the same old stuff and next year about this time, trot out the same ideas on reform we had this week. This cycle of a week-long focus news programs do may be the most harmful thing we do, but I digress.

Instead of trying to propose a massive change to the entire education system, I think we should try just one thing; employ older people as teachers. Hear me out.

If you are 50-67 years old with a bachelor’s degree and you want to become a teacher, the Federal government would allow you to draw 70% of your Social Security benefits, enroll in Medicare and earn up to $25,000 in salary before it affects your retirement benefits. If you wished to continue teaching after the age of 67, you would be eligible to draw full Social Security and Medicare, but your salary allowance would cap at $20,000 (or something like that. Smarter people than me would have to run the numbers) You would be required to take a six month teaching course on managing a classroom.

Studies show first-year teacher turnover at a little more than twenty percent. If you visit any college campus and ask education students why they want to become a teacher, you will find some legitimately have realistic expectations of what the occupation is like, but for the most part, you will hear things like: I like working with kids or I want my summers and holidays off. You will also find a fair number of students who have delusions of becoming another Mr. Holland or reviving the Dead Poets Society.

And many recent graduates are woefully unprepared both intellectually and emotionally to handle kids who are formulating their own emotional identity. You do not have to spend much time in the classroom to see how this plays out every day in frustration and tantrums on both sides of the teacher desk. Young teachers with little confidence quickly grow into old teachers with obstinacy in an attempt to establish their expert credentials over parents. It becomes a tug-of-war which results in parents being effectively shut out of the classroom, relegated to sidecar tracks like the PTO or Boosters.

By employing older professionals who have more life experience outside the classroom — including raising kids of their own — school districts are able to tap into a richer experience and more emotionally stable teacher population than colleges are producing. And as older people have most likely built some wealth over their working years (this could be a qualification) and feel no pressure to repay huge student loans on a small salary, they would be a lower flight risk. Medicare would be available as a benefit so the cost to employ an older person as a teacher would be less. And we would be saving one more soul from the doors of Walmart or the counters and drive-thru windows of McDonald’s.

Young kids as teachers was a good thing several generations ago when learning to read, write and add were all the skills citizens needed to be productive. But this has changed and the world has gotten to be a far more competitive place. To entrust the educational future to young kids, fresh out of school also learning who they are is perhaps not the wisest long-term strategy.

I’m confident the teacher’s unions and colleges would discredit this idea on its face, but I’m hoping perhaps Education Secretary Arne Duncan will at least read this post and start thinking. We can’t start down the road of corporations owning the educational process like IBM is doing in New Jersey. Education is a matter of public trust and to allow corporations to craft the education of our citizens will eventually lead to them only producing workers that satisfy their need for profit. We tried that with health care and food production. When will we learn?

I’d sure hate to be back here next year during Education Week talking about the same old ideas. One can still hope.

Editor’s addition after publishing: I keep snippets in my head until I write and I sometimes forget them until days after I press the Publish button. But this is a bit too important to let go.

What young teacher truly understands the internal struggle of the characters in the Scarlet Letter or the quiet desperation of Edna in The Awakening or the social statements made in the turtle chapter in the Grapes of Wrath or the meaning of the other in The Secret Sharer? You can outline the plot, discuss themes, memorize lines in these works, but you don’t arrive at a full understanding until you are much, much older. And even then, you ache to understand. Each of these works holds a timeless lesson on navigating the human condition but without the benefit of a life lived with purpose, they are just another book the teacher checks off as the class having read. A teacher who has lived will beg students to read each in every decade of his or her life forward.

3 Replies to “One thing to consider on education reform”

  1. Your editor’s note hits the nail on the head. I am fond of saying that the best election reform the US can do is to require everybody running for political office to read The Grapes of Wrath.

  2. And everyone who goes to a rally that seeks to exclude one group of citizens from the whole should especially read the turtle chapter and realize how precarious their own existence really is and they should spend that time being more kind to those less fortunate, but no less valuable.

    There by the grace of a speeding car….

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