Advocacy for Children

Siegfried Engelmann

The problem with the current educational system is that it has no advocacy for the children. In fact, it is a very strong non-advocacy system, which is supported by all major components of the system—the law, colleges of education, local school districts, educational publishers, federal and state grant supports, and teacher unions.

Although it is not possible to detail all the ways in which these various components contribute to the overwhelming incompetence of the system, I'll try to provide a brief summary of the major problems with each component.

The law: Basically, the laws associated with teaching and student performance are two-faced. In one sense, the laws were instituted to protect the students and thereby protect the state's interest in a valuable resource. The other face of the law denies that teachers have any sort of professional skills that are not possessed by the person on the street, asserts that teachers have only "responsibilities," protects schools or teachers from liability, and refuses to recognize rights of students to receive a quality education. Although special education children are modestly protected by laws, the appropriateness of programs is not determined by anything approaching tight standards.

Through laws, states have established a variety of bureaucracies, such as state textbook commissions. These agencies function in a uniformly incompetent manner. Although designed to improve instruction the students receive, the commissions are highly conservative and act as impediments to change.

In summary, there is not help from the law, no hope of malpractice suits (because these suits imply that teachers have professional skills, which the law denies), and no hope of support from state boards of education or state agencies because these agencies are not accountable for achieving their stated mission.

Colleges of education: The product of nearly all colleges of education is a hopelessly ill-trained person with very few technical skills. Although the basic requirement of teachers in most districts is to "appropriately adapt instruction to the individual needs of the children," the graduates know little about corrections, firming, cumulative reviews, and procedures for teaching new discriminations and operations. Colleges are typically based on the "lecture model," with instructors who know very little about the technical side of instruction.

Anyone who has worked much in colleges knows that there is very little hope of achieving a "cooperative" effort from the faculty—the kind of effort necessary to introduce a good training program—because faculty members do pretty much what they want to do. They are not supervised, coordinated, or ordered to teach a certain way. The college, in other words, is the quintessence of laissez faire, operating on the assumption that if the faculty is permitted to be diverse and do their own thing, a reasonable product will emerge. Empirical data suggests that no such evolution has occurred, and the colleges remain as tributes to incompetence.

Perhaps the greatest single cause of incompetence on the college level is the tenure system, which was originally instituted to protect academic freedom of faculty members, but which effectively reinforces faculty for being lazy. The business of training teachers is extremely demanding, in time and in skill. The colleges are not prepared to wrestle with the practical problems of training and therefore serve teachers only by giving them slogans instead of skill.

Local school districts: Districts are the most obvious exception to the Peter Principle. In districts people are not elevated to higher positions because they have demonstrated excellence in lesser positions. They are elevated for political reasons. The districts, particularly the larger ones, are complete paradoxes. They have all the trappings of a technologically advanced system, and yet they have never addressed the most basic problems of teaching. Studies performed in the ’60s by Westinghouse and others demonstrated that districts are not like other "businesses" in the sense that their goal is not to increase their "output," the performance of the students. Instead, they address the visible aspects of schooling—busing, increasing the length of the school day, new formats for course selection, and so forth. Virtually any activity they address is one that requires no expertise (suggesting that the law is correct in assuming that teachers have no more skill than the man on the street).

The greatest shortcoming of the districts is their failure to recognize that they must be responsible for the training and monitoring of teachers. Nearly every school district suggests that any new teacher must be able to "adjust instruction so that it is appropriate for individual students." Yet, this ability is never tested, and the district has virtually no capacity to induce it in the teachers who can't do it (which would include the vast majority of teachers). We have analyzed the skill level of teachers in typical school districts, and the results are appalling. The teachers typically know very little about the instructional programs that they use, have a very vague understanding of students' skill level or ability to perform on the topics that are "taught," and teach in a way that is not well designed to transmit information to the average student. Despite their skill deficiencies, however, the teachers are not monitored or trained. Furthermore, the diagnostic procedures used by the schools are designed to protect the teachers. A district may have file cabinets full of records of students who failed because these students are assumed to have problems, such as "dyslexia." In contrast, there is usually not one folder on a child who failed, not because of a child problem, but because the teachers failed. The probability of such a distribution is very suspect.

In connection with this diagnostic philosophy, the district has a laissez faire attitude toward the teacher, who remains behind closed doors—an independent agent whose efforts are not carefully monitored or coordinated with the efforts of others. The result is exactly what we would expect in any business that has no quality control in its production methods—lots of needlessly damaged merchandise in the form of children who are crippled by the system but who ultimately bear the responsibility for being "immature," "perceptually handicapped," "unmotivated," "dyslexic," or being the cause in some other way for their failure.

Educational publishers: Nearly all instructional material published by major publishers is not written by people who are experienced and effective teachers, is not actually "field tested," and is not designed in a way that will make instruction manageable. Most of the material that appears in "reading" texts, for instance, is either written by in-house writers (who have often not taught or demonstrated teaching excellence) or by professional writers. The "try out" consists of putting the pre-publication material in school districts, and at the end of the year giving the students a battery of tests. The tests typically show that the program is no worse than other programs on the market. Note, however, that the goal of the tryout is not to find problems with the material and redo the program until it really works. Occasionally "gross" changes will be made, but in the end, the program is like a magic show. It does not contain specific correction procedures. It is not divided into daily lessons (to provide the teacher with objectives about what is to be taught). It doesn't exhibit great coordination between the material the teacher covers and the independent exercises the students do. And it "introduces" topics without teaching them to mastery (which is why the programs cover the same material year after year). On the average, a given topic in elementary-grade reading programs such as main idea/cause and effect, will not appear until over 60 school days have elapsed since the last appearance of the topic. The writers of these programs apparently know nothing about information retention and work from a model of the human mind that is more than incredible.

Publishers of methods textbooks promulgate the party line of an armchair approach to instruction, rather than a scientific one. The teacher is presented as an omniscient assimilator of information and mediator of appropriate solutions; however, the texts avoid discussing the gritty detail that a teacher must deal with in teaching any topic.

In summary, the publishers provide no relief from the incompetence created by the law, the colleges of education, and the local school districts. Instead, the publishers provide a compatible interface that tends to cement these components together.

Federal and state support: Grant support from either the federal government or the sate is based on some variation of "review by peers," which means that the traditionalists are the ultimate judges of what is funded. The funding hinges largely on political considerations, and the funds are usually a very poor expenditure of tax dollars in terms of knowledge or effective change. If we ask the question, "What important findings have resulted from funding?" we find that the return on the dollar is appallingly low. Projects funded by state funds are overwhelmingly poor with respect to results, and research funded by federal agencies overwhelmingly trivial. A survey of projects funded reveals an ambitious array of objectives and a pandemic lack of skill by the investigators—particularly on issues of instruction.

Teacher unions: With hard economic times, the power of unions diminishes; however, teacher unions still remain as a strong impediment to effective change, not so much because of their stated goals but more because of their focus. They are designed as the watchdogs of teachers. But where are the watchdogs for the children? The unions are not balanced by student unions or some sort of advocacy system that considers what is happening to students.

Like school districts and colleges of education, the unions exploit the simple fact that the students are not able to express their problems. Teachers, on the other hand, are capable of eloquent rhetoric. Certainly, it would be possible for a district to make a solid agreement with a union that permitted the district to fire teachers and to maintain quality control. The effort, however, is beyond the level of involvement that a typical district would consider, simply because it involves a substantive issue that would require technical understanding and create avoidable waves.

The future?

Changes come about when there is a crisis—a real crisis. Until crises occur, we rape our natural resources, blindly consume plastics, and pursue creature comforts. We also continue to support an educational system that is next to worthless. Optimists suggest that changes will occur within the system and that the strategy for affecting change is through an evolutionary process, an infiltration and educational process. I have seen too many good projects disappear to believe that such a benign approach will work. The system is too self-supporting, too intertwined, too powerful to roll over because of mild internal irritations. It will respond only to loud voices and demands from a strong power base outside the system. The crisis is already at a critical level. What is needed to create a productive response is a mobilized effort that points the finger at the law, the colleges, the districts, the educational publishers, the state and federal funding agencies, and the unions—in other words, at the entire system.

I think that the most hopeful candidate for this role is the business community. Businesses will be the recipients of our public educational system, and they are in the unenviable position of trying to be competitive with countries that have a far less negotiable view of what education should be. Many businesses have already observed how a poor educational system can change a city into a slum. I really don't know whether the business community is prepared to accept the role of child advocates, but without them I don't see any immediate hope for technologically sound instruction. Certainly computers and video discs will have salutary effect on instruction, but radical changes in the structure of the system must occur if we are to save the children. Perhaps the most frustrating thought is that today—now—we could create incredibly smart children if we were permitted to deal with teachers and children directly, without the mediation of many agencies. The available funds are more than adequate to do the job. But the plan would see the school district as the training agency until the colleges changed and became trainers of technicians. It would see coordinated schedules, objectives, and heavy training of supervisors (with only expert teachers being elevated to higher positions).

Without support, however, we will have to accept the rape of the schools as a horrible crime that has no punishment.


© 2012 Siegfried Engelmann. All rights reserved.

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