The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine


Stop Bleeding and Start Leading:
Dispelling Teaching’s Greatest Myth is the First Step Towards Educational Reform

2023 was a budget-writing year for the Indiana General Assembly, which consists of 100 House Members and 50 Senators, and on the first day of the session I found myself sitting outside of the Senate chambers waiting for a meeting with the budget chairperson for the senate, Senator Ryan Mishler. A few minutes before the meeting, Sanjay Sarma, the former vice-president of MIT’s Open Learning Department (and currently the president of the Asia School of Business in Malaysia) told me something to the effect of, “I’m going to let you lead the meeting, we are all behind you.”

This meeting, plus a few others with senate leaders, led to a significant increase in funding for a new and innovative type of teacher-education program. I am confident it will enhance the experience of thousands of students and begin a process of turning classroom teaching into a sustainable and respected profession.

The program itself, and a succinct and workable plan for education reform are outlined in the “Education Matters” edition of Skeptic. That issue also includes articles on the Uses and Abuses of Testing, Resistance to Evidence Use in Education Reform, and why Schools of Education themselves need to be reformed.

However, none of the concrete reforms in that plan can begin until the greatest myth in teaching is dispelled: educational reform will not be created out of sympathy for teachers. Instead, reform must be built upon new ideas presented by teachers. Teachers themselves need to stop bleeding and start leading. And the place to start is by dispelling existing myths.

The Myth

If the administration, public and/or the government really understood what it was like to be a teacher, then things would change.

There is no way to express to people who are not K–12 teachers what it is like to be a K–12 teacher. No less an intellect than Bertrand Russell, in his essay on Education, wrote:

Those who have no experience of teaching are incapable of imagining the expense of spirit entailed by any really living instruction. They think that teachers can reasonably be expected to work as many hours as bank clerks. Intense fatigue and irritable nerves are the result….1

More recently, Alexandra Robbins’s book The Teachers: A Year Inside America’s Most Vulnerable, Important Profession (2023) begins with “You may think you know what’s inside, but you don’t.”2

All of that is to say that I will not waste much space trying to convey the experience of being a teacher, other than to say that after 21 years I have become like a deep-sea blobfish (the pressure being the only thing holding me together). My point is to address the pervasive and poisonous notion held by teachers that if we just express enough suffering then someone will change the system. At its worst, this attitude results in the teacher resignations (usually to higher-paying jobs in the private sector, especially for STEM). Many explain they don’t really want to resign, but hope that resignations will sound a cry for help or a plea for change. Evidence for this can be seen in a number of places.

The New York Times recently posted a short film titled Empty Classrooms, Abandoned Kids: Inside America’s Great Teacher-Resignation.3 It showcases all of the reactions of teachers in the school systems: crying in cars, resigning then shouting at the school board, expressing the trauma of overwork, emotional strain and lack of support. The film argues that politicians are to blame.

This is pervasive; just search YouTube for “teacher resignations” and watch whatever comes up; then read the comments below the videos. While the image of teachers expressing their suffering is a clichéd optic pulled out in the hope of reform, it has never worked and it never will work.

The reason is simple: expressing suffering and hoping to initiate change is worthless, especially when one is dealing with a bureaucracy. Bureaucratic systems evolve, over time, to benefit bureaucrats. If they don’t start out that way, they quickly become so. The current American educational system de facto exists primarily for administrators, and educates students only to the degree necessary to maintain the administrative structure. Whether the structure is public, private, or charter makes little difference; the system is decentralized into 14,000 districts with weak or nonexistent oversight. In the case of public schools, an elected board is hired to approve budgets. But how can the public reasonably expect part-time board members to understand the byzantine nature of educational law, and parse unnecessary expenditures out of the budget? And guess who writes the budgets?

There is no conspiracy of administrators making the system the way it is. Game Theory4 would predict that a system which empowers local bureaucracies will, in time, evolve to be an expression of bureaucratic priorities. Consider these points:

  • There is no administrator shortage. Click on the Human Resources page of your local school district or of your state and you will see openings for aides, teachers, substitutes, bus drivers, etc. and those openings will sometimes be posted for months or years. There are almost never administrative openings, and when they do occur, they fill almost immediately.
  • Taxpayer money funds school bureaucracies for the purpose of sustaining and supporting teachers. But then, hundreds of thousands of teachers will pay, out of pocket, to join a teacher’s association or union for the sole purpose getting protection from the bureaucracy. And even if teacher unions are all of the things their detractors say they are, the pernicious question remains, “Why do so many teachers feel the need to be protected from their own school administration?”
  • Parents of special needs children might wonder why school districts, who receive federal money for the purpose, never seem to be able to hire enough aides for special needs students. And yet, there is always money for the district to keep lawyers on retainer, so that the district can protect itself from lawsuits that result from failing to provide the appropriate services in the first place.
  • Many school districts lack adequate teaching materials. Instead of putting money in a fund for teachers to choose materials, the district will hire a bureaucrat (Curriculum Director, or Assistant Superintendent of Something-or-Other) with full benefits and a six-figure salary, whose only job is to tell teachers that there is no money for new books.
  • Bureaucrats spend public money buying books and professional development that express how important the bureaucracy is, and this leads to an educational industry of books and professional development designed to uphold the bureaucracy. Ibram X. Kendi, et. al, Critical Race Theory, and all of the “Undoing Racism” workshops in schools that have caused so much controversy,5 for example, are no more or less vapid than Ruby K. Payne’s self-published books about “Understanding Poverty”6 that were so much the rage at the turn of the century. Payne’s idea that schools exist to teach the “hidden rules” of the middle class to poor kids, is about as effective in improving student performance as Kendi’s idea that racism is structural.

    Critical Race Theory is not radical, it’s conservative in the sense that it empowers the administrative class. There’s nothing radical about saying that the educational structure is racist and that it fails students who are in poverty. A radical solution to this would be to create a mastery-learning model of education where all students would have access to educational structures at all times, including a simple online credentialing system. This would unburden teachers and counselors with unnecessary grading and record keeping so they could focus on student interests and well-being. That’s radical; but it requires no bureaucrats, so the bureaucracy isn’t interested.

This brings us to the problem with the teacher mythology. For too long, teachers have believed that we are so essential that if enough of us suffer and leave the profession, then change will have to occur. To understand why this will never happen, watch The Big Short (2017) about the 2008 housing crisis, and in particular the scene where Steve Carell’s character, based on the real-life Mark Baum, “bets” on a massive default on sub-prime housing loans. In the scene Carell-as-Baum can’t figure out why all of those bad loads still have good ratings. A high-ranking executive explains that if they don’t, the lenders will simply go to competitors and pay for a better rating.7

The lesson is simple: a corrupt bureaucratic system will mask its bureaucratic corruption right up to the point where it collapses and takes everything else with it.

The fact is, as teachers leave, the bureaucracy masks the problem by lowering teacher licensure standards and outsourcing instruction to credit-recovery programs. The bureaucrats respond by lobbying the government to loosen licensure requirements for teachers. For example, in my home state of Indiana, it is now possible for school districts to license “adjuncts” who possess the barest of credentials.

The Indiana Principals Association supported the adjunct teaching bill.8 The IPA’s support for the bill is not just a betrayal of the teaching profession, but a very public expression of bureaucratic mediocrity. Principals have no ideas for making teaching more sustainable, so they just want to make it easier to put warm bodies in the classrooms. The public might ask, “Won’t this eventually cause graduation rates to collapse?” Well, if graduation rates meant anything it might. However, virtually every school district in the country buys expensive “credit recovery” programs from private vendors. If students fail classes, or if there are no teachers, it’s no problem. Those students can just sit in a room for a little while and click their way to graduation.

It’s hard to catch districts doing this, because the bureaucracy only gets caught when the scam works too well. In 2017, National Public Radio busted Ballou public high school in Washington, D.C. for what amounts to fraud only because in 2016 the school graduated every single senior, and that senior class had a 100% college acceptance rate. After NPR aired a positive story about Ballou, whistleblowers inside detailed what really happened.9

If you are wondering why complaints from upper class parents aren’t creating change in the system, it’s because the bureaucracy placates these parents by creating enclaves for “advanced” or “gifted” students at the elementary and middle school levels, and those students then filter into Advanced Placement classes, or International Baccalaureate programs where there is a perception a higher standard of education can be expected. The College Board oversees the AP programs, as well as the SAT and ACT, and in the process has created a money-making scam rivalled only by televangelism; its real purpose was revealed when exams were watered down and poorly administered during the 2020 pandemic,10 lest revenue fail to come in, and when their leadership protected themselves during recent controversies.11

Dispelling the Myth and Changing Focus

Dispelling the teacher mythology about reform means that teachers should act as if we are respected professionals. Rather than recording ourselves crying in cars; we need to be publishing papers in our content areas. Instead of rallying at the statehouse at the behest of a teacher’s union, we need to be presenting new ideas to foundations and lawmakers, looking for reform opportunities that exist outside of the bureaucratic educational structure. Students need us, and we cannot allow a corrupt bureaucratic structure to destroy the good work that can still occur in classrooms daily.

I came to these conclusions years ago, and decided to avoid the gray mediocrities in the educational bureaucracy. They aren’t there to help teachers. Instead, I worked on publishing content-area articles and academic books. This work attracted the attention of a science foundation in Indianapolis, and they funded a new teacher education program where secondary teachers collaborated with professors. The foundation and I worked together to get state funding; we partnered with a public university and added a workforce education component with private money.

I wrote textbooks in my content area that are vastly more effective than what the big textbook producers create and got them published by Rowman & Littlefield Education.12 Then I got grant funding through the Indiana Dept. of Education to buy classroom sets. I then applied to present underlying methodology with the National Council for Social Studies, and was accepted to do so in 2016.

Because of my papers in Skeptic, in the summer of 2022, I had the opportunity to meet personally with the faculty of MIT’s Open Learning Department, where, in a school that is mercifully free of an actual education department, I saw an opportunity to develop new programs outside of the current structure. Instead of rallying at the statehouse with the union, I set up meetings with lawmakers and presented plans. In 2023, the Indiana State Teachers Association lost its right to even have discussions over working conditions,13 but the effort I was involved in gained a million dollars in annual funding for a new and innovative form of education for in-service teachers.

Because I stopped believing in the great teacher mythology, I was also able to shed the great teacher inferiority complex. No one in the scientific community ever looked down on me. The politicians in my conservative state, including Senator Jeff Raatz (R) who is the Education Chairperson, all listened intently, expressed support for new programs that help students, and then they actually appropriated funding.14

I am a public-school teacher with over two decades of experience, and the only thing against me is the educational bureaucracy, including the unions who perpetuate the “teachers-will-suffer-until-reform-happens” myth that is supposed to support me.

But all that is okay. Because of MIT’s Open Learning Department, I have seen the future of education. Schools will only need to focus on teaching students two things: how to become interested in a subject, and then how to develop an academic skill set necessary to satiate that interest. Teachers will earn respect as knowledge producers because they will be generating curricula that is directly connected to the community needs. You can read about all the practical details of how this will work in the “Education Matters” issue of Skeptic.

This future is not a fantasy; it’s already here, and economic forces are molding its creation faster than anyone could have imagined. Everything just needs to be connected and expressed in a vision that the public understands. Because I was able to dispel the great teacher mythology and shed my inferiority complex, I have seen a future of respected teachers, engaged students, supportive parents, and a workforce whose needs are being met.

I have seen the future, I plan to actively help shape it, and the educational bureaucracy is not in it. END

About the Author

Dr. Chris Edwards teaches History and English at a public high school in Indiana. He is a frequent contributor to Skeptic and the author of numerous books with Rowman & Littlefield Education. He can be reached at [email protected].

References
  1. Russell, B., Egner, R. E., & Denonn, L. E. (2010). The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell. Routledge.
  2. Robbins, A. (2023). The Teachers: A Year Inside America’s Most Vulnerable, Important Profession. Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
  3. The Learning Network. (2022, November19) https://bit.ly/468FC4M
  4. Yoeli, Erez; Hoffman, Moshe. (2022) Hidden Games: The Surprising Power of Game Theory to Explain Irrational Behavior. Basic Books.
  5. Kendi, I. X., & Schmidt, A. (2022). How to Be an Antiracist. btb.
  6. Payne, R. K. (2013). Framework for Understanding Poverty. Aha! Process.
  7. https://youtu.be/mwdo17GT6sg
  8. Eskrow, K. (2022, May 10) https://bit.ly/3QTJ4fg
  9. McGee, K. (2017, November 28) https://bit.ly/3MB2ov6
  10. https://bit.ly/3QTVN1t
  11. Hartocollis, A. & Fawcett, E. (2023, February 1). https://bit.ly/3Szzi34
  12. https://bit.ly/3MCneKK
  13. Bill limiting discussions between teachers, administrators heads to Gov. desk (wrtv.com)
  14. https://bit.ly/468Tv31

This article was published on November 10, 2023.

 
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