I don’t know who said it first, but there’s an oft-repeated saying that goes like this: The only true schooling would be Plato seated on one end of a log and the pupil of the other. We should be so fortunate.

Small sized classes have garnered a lot of attention these days. Some colleges trumpet their low student/teacher ratio. I’ve taken university classes with as few as five other students and as many as several hundred. From my perspective, it really didn’t make much impact on what I came away with, because in the final analysis I was the one who needed to learn — the professor already knew the material.

I understand Einstein barely squeaked through school. He was what one might call a “late bloomer.” For the most part, he was self-educated. When Dwight Eisenhower graduated from West Point, he ranked 161st in a class of 164 — not exactly at the top of his class. His low ranking didn’t seem to have much impact on his future achievements, however. We are what we make of ourselves.  

All this is not to suggest the role of the teacher is minor. I don’t believe that. I can still name teachers who had a tremendous influence on my learning. One was Professor Julius Sumner Miller. I was in his physics class at UCLA. Another was Dorothy Hopple, my ninth grade social studies teacher at John Burroughs Junior High who admonished me to become more patient with others. That’s been a harder lesson to learn than “Faraday’s Notes on Electrical Excitation.”

The education profession is filled with challenging teachers who have the gift of bringing forth knowledge. But unfortunately, there are some teachers who go-along-to-get-along. They are often the ones who put themselves on auto pilot and wing it through the academic year. They’re neither creative nor convincing.

Current thinking has bought us to the conclusion that what are really needed are smaller classes. Of course this begs the question about whether or not the teacher teaches anything, or whether students pay attention in class. When self-impressed parents rave at school board meetings and finally convince the politicians that classes should not have more than twenty students, for example, they feel they’ve done their part to support education and revel in the sense of civic mindedness.

Chester E. Flynn, Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, points out that “During the past half-century, the number of pupils in US schools grew by about 50 percent, whereas the number of teachers nearly tripled.” Spending per student rose threefold too.

Flynn makes an interesting observation. He says if the teaching force had simply kept pace with enrollments, school budgets had risen as they did, and nothing else had changed, today’s average teacher would earn nearly $100,000 a year, plus generous benefits. As a result, we’d have a radically different view of teaching, and the profession would attract different sorts of people.

Of course this would require classes to be larger than our target of 20 students; there’d be about 36 kids per class. There would also be fewer supervisors, specialists and administrators. But classroom teachers would be earning twice what they’re paid today and more of the really talented college graduates would opt for public education rather than business and industry.

Over the past 50 years we have invested tax dollars on more teachers rather than better teachers. Pay systems have ignored incentive programs that would reward excellence in teaching and favored the great equalizer, the general rate adjustment, or across-the-board increase as it’s sometimes called. In fact, one rarely hears educators speak favorably about merit pay programs that result in greater increases for teachers who demonstrate the best qualities in teaching over those who just slide by.

My older son had a history teacher in high school who never got out of his chair during the semester he taught (?) his class. One wonders what kind of excitement he instilled in his students. If you were responsible for judging his performance how would you feel about a system that required that man to receive the same salary increase as the teacher who loves to convey new knowledge and does so in creative and interesting ways?

Just as we have added numbers to the ranks of teachers, the educational bureaucrats have set up stupid barriers to keep the profession free of those who may not be “certified” to teach. That is, “certified” in the standards set by the controllers of the system. Never mind that the candidate has an advanced degree in mathematics, or biology, or chemistry. If the candidate does not possess the requisite hours in the fundamentals of education, he or she is assumed not know how to teach. So, all too often we end up with teachers who stumble through a particular curriculum because they never learned the subject, but boy oh boy, do they know how to decorate their classrooms and make stunning posters.

Teachers’ unions will argue against what I propose here. Some teachers will be offended because they will assume I’m accusing them of not doing their jobs. In regard to the latter, if the shoes fit let them wear them.

Let’s not overlook the fact that large-scale public education is by nature and necessity a giant, unwieldy bureaucracy. As Patrick Brophy, writing for the Nevada Daily Mail points out, “In America, it’s the largest industry of all.” It can be viewed as a huge ocean liner, without thrusters, that tends to resist any pressure to turn it around in mid-stream. But regardless of its size, we all need to play a role in changing its course and speed.

Much of the emerging world is competing with us now. The products of education in India, China, Japan and elsewhere are competing for opportunities to challenge American brainpower. We will soon be losing our place as the home of ingenuity and creativity, because we are failing to educate our own children.

(Send your comments to rtunison@cox.net)

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