By Jay Mathews
Friday, January 30, 2009 6:13 AM
New Jersey high school teacher Peter Hibbard flunked 55 percent of the students in his regular biology class the year before he retired. There were no failures in his honors classes, he said, but many of his regular students refused to do the work. They did not show up for tests and did not take makeups. They did not turn in lab reports. Homework was often ignored.
"Still, the principal told me that the failure rate was unacceptable, and I needed to fix it," Hibbard said. "The pressure to give grades instead of actually teaching increased. A colleague told me that he had no problem. If students showed up, they got a C. If they did some work, they got a B. If they did fair or better on tests, they got an A. No one ever complained, and his paycheck was the same. He was teacher of the year, and a finalist for a principal's job."
I often get helpful letters from teachers. They are fine people who assume I am educable, despite evidence to the contrary. Sometimes, as in Hibbard's case, teachers are so candid and wise I am compelled to quote them, and see if readers share their view of reality.
Here is what Hibbard told me:
"The pop phrase is that 'those who can't do, teach.' I would like any serious critic to spend a month in the classroom. It is easy when you are a guest speaker and don't have to worry about discipline. But do the planning, maintain interest, do practice and review, write and grade a test or three, and then deal with the parents. In your spare time, maintain records, deal with teen angst and crisis, monitor the bathroom (I went to college for this?) and be available for extra help. Break up fights and shouting matches over who loves whom more, and shepherd students to assemblies and fire drills.
"The message comes from the top. When the leadership sets the example, and backs the good teacher, it is so much easier. When I have to justify failing a student who refuses to try, you can only tilt at windmills for so long."
Hibbard taught biology for 27 years. Before that he was a field biologist for the U.S. Agriculture Department and a lobbyist on environmental issues for the housing industry. He thinks his experience in the field was invaluable. When he started teaching he was able to give students practical answers to the frequent question, "Why do we have to learn that?"
He said when his students asked why he left a job in industry for teaching, which paid less, he replied that his reasons were selfish. His students were the citizens who would pay for his Social Security. "The more they learned, the more they earned, and the more they made, the better off I would be when I retired," he said.
To Hibbard, one of the most irksome parts of teaching was leadership that failed to take responsibility for its mistakes. "I was part of a committee to choose a new text series," Hibbard said. "We were given three choices, all terrible, and all from the same publisher. The public was told that the poor choice was because the teacher picked it. We had no options other than the three presented."
In retirement, he is working part time on a program to give prospective teachers some of the real world experience that helped him. I decided to exploit his experience also, by asking his solutions for the apathy and buck-passing he observed. He sent me seven ideas. I am going to play teacher and grade each suggestion, based on wisdom and practicality. Let me know if you agree. These are direct quotes from his e-mail:
1. Get parents involved, not in the grades, but in the learning. If Johnny cuts school or misbehaves, on the third detention, one of the parents must also be present. The time should not be "quiet time" but a session with a professional on behavior modification. Parents have actually asked me what to do because their child wouldn't listen to them. One dad asked his son why he didn't turn in homework. The kid's response was, "Shut the [expletive] up, Dad" And daddy shut up. Dad had previously yelled at me over the phone about failing grades. I had guidance arrange a conference. Guidance and I knew where the problem lay.
Jay's grade: A (Many of us parents hunger for support of our desperate attempts to deal with teenagers. Those of us who are totally clueless can still use a taste of reality.)
2. Since we cannot require teachers to gain more experience in their field, the school system should arrange for industry to pick up teachers on a paid internship during summers. Either colleges or school systems can do this, and to meet some districts' five-year continuing education requirements, at least 20 weeks should be required during the five years.
Jay's grade: B (This strikes me as expensive, thus unlikely, but worthwhile.)
3. Do away with social promotion. The federal government should set specific standards for knowledge and application. States may add to it but not teach less. The committee that sets the standards should have equal numbers of teachers, administrators, college officials and business executives. Parents should have representation. Recommendations should start on the local level and be sent for review to the next level up. A national committee sets standards. Students who do not pass the test at the end of the year are retained. They may get supplemental help during the summer, and retake the test before the fall session starts. How this is paid for should be a local decision.
Jay's grade: A (This is expensive, too, but essential. It is possible under our current system to miss half of the questions on some state achievement tests and still be judged proficient in that subject.)
4. Protect tenure. I almost lost my job because I failed an administrator's child who did no work and got in my face, assuming his parent's position would protect him. Good teachers must not be subject to political pressure for grades. It happens far too often. On the other hand, unions must sit with the administration and decide on a procedure that does not protect the bad teacher. In one district, a teacher with political connections was reassigned to three schools, getting a student pregnant in each one. He eventually became an administrator with no student contact. Others relied on being popular with the students and did little real teaching. Reading the sports page out loud is not teaching history. Nepotism must be banned, not just discouraged.
Jay's grade: C-plus (The problem is real, but enforcing tenure rules is not a solution. As Hibbard's own clash with his principal shows, an administrator can wear down even a tenured teacher.)
5. Funding must be reliable and consistent. In New Jersey, the entire budget is sent to the voters. While they provide the students, they don't approve enough money to educate them. We refer to it as expecting a Cadillac education for the price of a Chevy. As a result of new construction, my district saw an influx of 1,200 new students with no increase in funding. Developers should be required to place money in escrow against the need for new construction. Towns should increase the funding for new development based on the taxes received from the new residents or industry. Instead, the town keeps that money because they have financial trouble too. The result of budgets being voted down was science books that were 15 years old in my classroom, and lab tables that were crumbling.
Jay's grade: C-minus (Reliable and consistent funding is a fine thing but impossible to arrange in a free-enterprise, non-recession-proof democracy. So this is a pipe dream.)
6. Give teachers ownership of their program. With the requirements set by the state and district for what is learned, the teachers should have sufficient collaborative time to decide how to best achieve the goals, what books to use and what equipment is needed, within the limits of the budget. Most people with any skills want to be told what the job is, but not how to do it. That is why I went to college, and go back for continuing education programs.
Jay's grade: A-plus (Harnessing the creative energies of teachers is the key to making schools work.)
7. Districts must set up programs for parents during the evening or weekend for those who want to learn how to help their children with school. So many parents tell me that they didn't do well when they were students. They understand their children's frustration, but they don't know how to help. They must be part of the new programs, such as new math or whole language. Once part of the process, they can speak from experience, not frustration, if a program does not work. First grade teachers often teach study skills, but after that some teachers assume students know what to do. Teach these skills to both students and their parents throughout their school careers. What is learned in partnership will be retained better. Besides, who is the greater role model for the child: a teacher they see for only a few hours on weekdays, or their parents?
Jay's grade: A (My mother taught parent effectiveness classes after she retired as a classroom teacher. They were very popular, and I wish more parents had the same opportunity to learn proven techniques.)