Reader Comments on School Testing Issue


One of most important aspects of teaching, and redesigning our educational programs, is recognizing that students have very different abilities. They don’t learn at the same pace or in the same manner. This is common knowledge, but it’s common knowledge that is seldom seriously addressed.

As a piano teacher for over twenty years, I learned that the same books and approach would not work with every student. Most of my job was observing how they learn. Some children, while bright enough, need more time to absorb information. In some cases, they want to see the whole picture. Why do I have to do it this way? Others just want surface information to get from point A to B as quickly as possible. Some have voracious appetites for knowledge while others lack curiosity. Most fall in between. One student I had appeared to have little music ability and didn’t practice much. That student scored a 36 on the ACT, their first try, and got full scholarship to a top twenty school. This scratches the surface; I could write a book. The point is that tests should be given only for the basics, to make certain each level of study is being mastered. In my opinion, the important subjects are math, reading and writing, major events in American and world history, and art and music appreciation. (better to learn to listen to music than to learn to read notes. The notes mean nothing, the music does.) 

When I was teaching, I had one mantra... "what you learn, learn well." I made certain my students learned well each aspect of music appropriate for their level before moving them forward. It sounds simple, but it isn’t. A certain proficiency at that level had to be in place before taking them to the next level. Otherwise, the student would become terribly frustrated at the next level. It's cripples their education. It stops them in their tracks. “What you learn, learn well," will never fail the teacher or student. 

Special resource classes are needed for those students that need additional help and time in the areas that are innately difficult for them. (Those areas can change to some extent.) Also, students may appear less capable simply because they go at a slower pace. It’s usually a misleading analysis. Someone learn at a slower pace because they simply think in different manner, or, as I mentioned, it may merely be a single area of study. It gets back to realizing that not all minds operate alike. 

After the 9th grade, having learned the basics well, they should be ready for a whole new area of study. In the 10th grade, students should be taught about mortgages, the different kinds of insurance available, banking loans, credit cards and general financial planning. It’s the one thing that they’ll need most in life and it is left out of the curriculum. They’ll get ripped off for fifteen years if left to learn this on their own. It should be taught. Then, in the 11th grade, allow them begin to take subjects more toward career goals and interests. The algebra and geometry can come at thist time. Teach the real life math first. It’s easier and matters more. 

Your site mentions that the best teachers are those that inspire students and use a variety of techniques to make learning interesting and fun. I agree, but only a little. What is left out is that the best teachers are able to discern how the student learns - their pace, study habits, interest, attitude, attention span, etc., and mold their teaching to that student’s needs. This is much more important than trying to inspire or make it fun. Inspiration and fun will fade away. The student who accomplishes something, makes a good grade, will enjoy leaning because of their success and rise in self esteem. Now, you’ve inspired them. The feeling of pride that comes with accomplishment will last through the years and get them through when the inspiration and fun is not there. 

So how do we achieve this?

First step - smaller class sizes. Eighteen is the best number, but a twenty-two or three won’t break the system. Twenty-five or more students are too many. 

Second step would be teacher training. I think student teaching should be for two years. There is no better way to learn than to be with an experienced teacher. It would also weed out those who don’t have a passion for it. Another benefit is that classrooms would often have two teachers present. This would be enormously helpful in those classes were discipline is a problem. 

As far a payment goes for the student teacher, it might look something like this:

Employ a student teacher at a salary (I’ll pick a ransom number for example) of about 26,000 per year for the first year. After the each semester, fall and spring, give them a 3,000 bonus. 

The second year of student teaching start them at 33,000 and, again, give them a 3,000 bonus at the end of each semester. Now they have earned 39,000, had two years of on-site training and experience and are ready to have their own classroom. They begin at about 42,000 per year.

My wife, by the way, was a middle school teacher for twenty-five years. So I've been engaged in a twenty-five year discussion of education. She left education, her passion, for a corporate position that pays more than double her teaching salary. Corporation positions will always pay more, but the incentive to leave teaching would, of course, be less if a sound living wage were paid.

My last comment is regarding the attitude of those drawing up reports and studies that point to the need for better teachers. This is not the overall problem. Teachers have the hardest job on the planet. It is a stressful, demanding profession beyond what the politicians can imagine. You cannot blame the teachers until you lower the class sizes, have better teacher training at the beginning, and offer decent salaries. Imagine going in to a rowdy class of children every morning after having looked at an electric bill or car payment that morning that you can’t pay. Imagine having to get a second job after teaching all day. Imgine getting blamed for a student's low grade when theirs a notice from a collection agency in your pocket. The ignorance about teaching is astounding. The problem can be solved, but the public officials have to be educated by teachers, otherwise the programs will be useless. You have to make the budget fit what is needed for a good educational system, not make the educational system fit the budget. 

Once you have the teacher training in place, the proper salaries in place, the proper class sizes in place, then, after a few years you can look at the picture and see what you’ve got. The picture, in my opinion, will look much brighter.

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