The Real Answer to America's Education Problems

After working in the corporate sector for a few years out of college, I decided to set my sights on public service. A year later, armed with a Masters degree and fresh idealism, I began teaching high school English at a small, rural public school. My expectations for my students were high, as were my expectations for myself. I soon realized that the expectations I had for myself and for my students were not consistent throughout the school.

Within the first few days of school, I was shocked at the overall performance levels of my students.  Not only did they seem to be behind in skill level, but they also lacked a fundamental sense of responsibility and motivation that I never before had encountered. I have become increasingly frustrated with these low motivation levels. Despite the countless opportunities I give my students to recover their grades, paired with required tutoring sessions and contact with parents, the averages seem to fall steadily. In most cases, their failures resulted from simply neglecting to turn in the simplest of required assignments. More students slipped by with a grade only a fifth of a point away from failure.

Such a drastic failure rate is alarming and begs a closer look at the system. A culture that thrives on mediocrity seems to be the culprit. It is easy to say that students “just don’t care” and that “there’s nothing we can do about these kids.” What is harder to swallow is that teachers hold neither themselves nor the students accountable for their respective failures. Additionally, a system that gives teachers tenure after only a few years of experience and minimal direct observations perpetuates lowered expectations. In the state where I teach, tenure is granted to teachers after a minimum of four years of teaching. Throughout these four “probationary” years, teachers are observed both formally and informally by school administrators and other “tenured” teachers. At most, I have had three formal observations throughout this entire year. Thus, a teacher could obtain tenure through approximately 12-15 45-minute observations over a four-year period. Additionally, these observations are announced beforehand, allowing teachers to prepare their “best” lesson plans, which may not be reflective of their daily work. Barring any major problems, the teacher would be granted tenure and therefore could not be fired unless there is “just cause” for the firing.  Even with “just cause,” the firing of a tenured teacher is extremely expensive and time consuming.  Unless a teacher is grossly abusing the system (or a student), the chances of a teacher leaving the school against his/her will are highly unlikely.

Consequently, the system affords tenured teachers the luxury of mediocre performance. Tenured teachers do not have to perform at their highest levels because there is little one can do if they do not. Mediocrity is allowed because there is nothing in place to prevent it; a job as a teacher is the only job I know of where one’s daily performance does not impact one’s continued employment.   If there is nothing but a very slim possibility of failure, then why would anyone exert effort to reach their highest levels of performance if there are no adverse consequences? Plain and simple, not many would.

While my experience is somewhat limited, I understand more fully why my students are underperforming. How can they learn to reach for their full potential when their role models are not accountable for their actions either? How can a teacher who feels no pressure to attain real results fully push his/her students to reach their full potentials as well? Additionally, how can we hire better teachers, ones who are fresh, enthusiastic, and globally-focused, if we can’t get rid of the teachers who do not possess those qualities? The answer is that we cannot do anything about it, not until tenure reforms occur.

Teachers should be held accountable for their own performances every year they are in the classroom through more frequent and extensive observations. Additionally, high performing teachers should be rewarded, and underperforming teachers should be placed on performance plans. Financial incentives should attract high-performing teachers, especially to underperforming schools. Until then, the education system seems to be stuck in a stalemate in its battle with mediocrity, and the people who really suffer in the end are the students.

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Jean Rose Cross

Jean Rose is originally from Houston, Texas and attended Washington & Lee University, where she received a B.A. in English. She lived and worked in Washington, DC for three years before pursuing a Master of Arts in Teaching degree, concentrating in Secondary English Education, from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She currently teaches high school English to ninth and eleventh grade students in North Carolina.

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