Asking a Question
By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 9, 2004; 7:26 AM
I am introducing a guest columnist today. Perhaps I will have more in the future. I can't say. But this short essay sent by Richard Chapleau, chemistry teacher at Lancaster (Calif.) High School and lecturer in education at California State University, Bakersfield, was too interesting and provocative, and too well-written, to pass up.
Not everyone is going to agree with him. But Chapleau has the credentials to back up his views. He started his working life as an electrician but hated it and switched to teaching. He has an Ed.D. from UCLA. He was a California Teacher of the Year and a Milken Foundation National Educator in 1995.
He teaches regular and AP chemistry at Lancaster High. He has Sunday afternoon "Cookies 'n Chem" sessions at his home for AP students. They sit around his kitchen table and he helps them work out problems on his own personal whiteboard. One student told a newspaper reporter "he really cares about his students. He will try different things to make them learn. He's funny. I'll always remember the faith he had in me."
He said he is happy to field comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you could copy me at email@example.com on those messages, I would be grateful, since I want to see what other people, particularly other teachers, think about what he is saying. ----Jay Mathews
If I Were Emperor of Education
By Richard Chapleau
It's been an average day in a regular week in the middle of a typical year. I got off the phone about an hour ago with another parent in denial. At snack, the usual six or eight of us complained about today's crisis. After school, I read the latest administration e-mail on something I can't control that is still my fault.
It's hard not to become a curmudgeon in this environment of distrust and blame, and I often lose sight of the dreams I had of watching young minds see new worlds in my classroom. If they'd just let me be Emperor of Education, I could straighten out the whole mess.
Why can't I change things? Why does it seem like "Up the Down Staircase" was written yesterday? I've heard the same reasons every time I've sat down with a group of my colleagues. The teacher unions are too strong. The administration won't listen to new ideas. The parents think we're supposed to call them daily with updates on their little darlings.
The reason I hear most often, though, whether from teacher, administrator, or someone I meet socially who learns I'm a teacher, is that the kids are too lazy, and just don't care. If I were emperor, I'd show them that all these ideas are wrong.
My first two imperial acts would be to fire one-third of American teachers and then to give every parent a one-question quiz.
I'd fire the teachers who have stopped trying in their rooms, who use their training and intellect to belittle the kids. There's no place in our schools for teachers who pass out endless worksheets or show non-stop videos. I'm a proud member of two unions, mind you: the California Teachers Association and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (from a former career). Unions were not designed to protect the incompetent workers, but instead were designed to protect workers from incompetent bosses. We built the strongest middle class in the world in the last century because of unions, but now are in danger of losing the middle class, also because of unions.
Next, every parent of a two-year old would have a one-question quiz, and they'd all have to take it at the same instant. I know too much about cheating, of course. The question would be "One Fish, Two Fish." Any parent who didn't write "Red Fish, Blue Fish" would be required to sign a Universal Release of Liability and Parental Promise Not to Whine Statement. A parent who can't spout Dr. Seuss or Mother Goose, but who can name 10 movie stars, pro sports players or rock idols is ruining their child's future.
They can't give their children the first four years of life in an impoverished educational environment, then expect the schools to fix all of their mistakes. A parent is the first and most important teacher their children will ever know, but most parents never spend that magical time with their child on the sofa. The TV is off, the book is open, and their child is captured for life by the rhythm of a nursery rhyme. Four years watching reruns or ball games hardwires the future student to expect entertainment, not education, from 12 years of school.
My last act as emperor is the only one I know could really be achieved in the "real world" I hear so much about. I would take teacher evaluation away from administrators. Who is in charge of the American Bar Association? Attorneys. Who runs the AMA? Physicians. Who watches the teachers? People who haven't been in a classroom in many years. Administrators, criminally overworked administrators. They must watch hundreds of students, tens of secretaries and custodians, and also a few dozen teachers. Guess who takes up most of their time? The children who spent four years watching videos. Yet, these same harried administrators are also asked to give clinical input into the skills of classroom teachers.
Every teacher in the country could give you a list of who's pulling their weight and who should go to the emperor for a final paycheck. Teacher evaluations should be done by working teachers, in a manner similar to professors at most American universities. Professors take turns on some sort of "faculty review committee," where they check each other for professionalism, for commitment to learning new ideas, and for doing their jobs well. I hear many people complain about our public schools, but I still notice that people flock from all over the world to attend our universities. Perhaps it's at least partly because no university dean or provost sits in a professor's classroom for one hour every two years and calls that evaluation.
Bodie is a ghost town in northern California. You must drive up into the Sierra Nevada, then turn off the major freeway and go down a dirt road for several miles. You come to an old collection of buildings in a town at an elevation over 8,000 feet. There's an abandoned schoolhouse there that bills itself as the highest in the country. You can tell that no one's taught there for the better part of a hundred years.
Still, I'll bet I could walk in that room and teach a class tomorrow. Neat rows of chairs, a teacher's desk up front, a chalkboard, and some maps. The flag in a corner. If I were Emperor of Education, classrooms would change, just like the rest of the world has done while we were all so busy blaming each other for what went wrong in education.
The alarm went off, so I can wake up now, and go back to another average day in a regular week in a typical year. Sadly, dreams are for those of us who can also tell you who Sam I Am is, and I must face a group of teenagers who only know about Kobe.
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