The other night I was watching an episode of the show 20/20, in which John Stossell was exposing the dreadful situation of education in the American schools. In this episode, the host made a comparison between our schools and those in Belgium. For this comparison a test was administered to both American and Belgian students of the same age. To wit, the Belgian students clocked the Americans on this test. What stung even more for the American cause was that the American kids were from a rather decent school. Wow! How dreadful. Yet this state within American schools is something I witnessed firsthand.
You see, I was a substitute teacher for several years in several different American schools and I was also a full-time high school teacher of mathematics for two years. This experience gave me a real hard inside look at the American school system. In fact, I was an award winning teacher, former teacher of college mathematics, published author, and yet I didn't make the high school cut for the third year. In short, I didn't make tenure. Why? Gee, I still don't know the answer to that. The only thing I can think of was that I tried to do things a little differently: I tried to teach in novel ways so that students might have a chance to understand mathematics; I tried to keep the endless administrative tasks of discipline, meetings, paperwork, etc. from interfering with my basic approach to teaching; and I tried to give love and understanding to all my students regardless of such issues as race, behavior, or intelligence. In essence, I tried to bring an approach toward learning that might effect student progress rivaled by the situation in the Belgian school system. I wanted my students to be as competent as those in other European countries.
As a result of this approach, I was extremely popular with practically the entire student body. Students from other classes would come to me for extra help and often I would get greeted in the hall by students who were not in my class, but who knew me because of positive things said to them by others. I was acknowledged as an expert in my field and was even lauded for my diverse knowledge in other areas as well. I showed eclectic interests and tried to make such contagious to my students. As much as I tried to keep a low profile, I could not stem the flow of love and praise that I got from the students. Knowing how politics within an organization can work, I was a bit concerned about all the positive press I was getting in such a short time. During the end of the second year, my concerns proved well founded. Even though I did everything I could to be a dedicated teacher, in the end I still came up short, and only have the dozens of letters, cards, and well wishes to ease the pain of having been cut.
So is this the basis of the American tenure system? I was never in favor of such a system and I was willing to work on my merits from year to year. So where did I go wrong, or should I say, where did the school system go wrong? Furthermore, is mediocrity--or worse--sub par performance the standard of excellence in the American school system? Well the episode of 20/20 sort of gave me an answer to that question. From the episode it appears that this is the best case scenario. From my experience, I know this to be true. In Belgium, excellence is expected both from teachers and from students. Here we settle on mediocrity all the time. Heaven forfend should an outstanding teacher come along! All of a sudden, many tenured pros or administrators feel threatened. This is much like the situation in corporate America.
As business writer and speaker Harvey MacKay put it in his book, Beware of the Naked Man Who Offers You His Shirt, "It pays to be good but sometimes it pays a lot more to be bad." In other countries, excellence is sought after. In Belgium students learn to speak four of five languages. I always tried to be competent in at least four or five as well. As humans, we rise to the level of our expectations; therefore, in Belgium, the kids are brought up expected to speak several languages. If you go there and tell a local that you speak five languages, you receive no special acknowledgment. Do that here, and an American will look at you like you have two heads or something.
During another part of the show, the host takes us through several areas of the country where the educational standards are let us say, less than good. One emphasis of the show is to stress that where there is no competition in the school system, there is no excellence--just mediocrity. Charter schools don't have this problem because they sink or swim according to how well the students do and how well the students achieve. Why should public schools not be held to the same standards and be more accountable for the results they put forth? Why should great teachers be axed because they dared to be exceptional?
There are great teachers out there--both tenured and non-tenured. We need to give more praise to the great ones and see that competition weeds out the bad ones. We need to see that the non-tenured great ones are protected so that they can stay within the system...otherwise mediocrity will be the standard and excellence that rare gem you find only once in awhile. After all, when excellence becomes the standard then neither teachers nor students have anything to feel insecure about, for both are assured their proper place.