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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Think of the Children

Common sense tells us that the more qualified a teacher is, and the more competent they are in their subject, the more their students will learn. Yet most elementary school teachers possess math skills that are only a few years ahead of their students. Looking back, the most qualified teachers I had as a kid, in terms of knowledge of their subject, were in classes many would consider peripheral. Music, art, phys ed, etc. The core teachers were knowledgeable about child psychology and the standards required for their particular class, but probably not more. Now of course, I am being unfair. There is no way I can actually be privy to their individual resumes, and many of them may have been extremely educated.

But I doubt it.

One need look no further than the state licensing requirements for the elementary level to see the truth. Now I have quite a few friends that are elementary school teachers, so let me clarify my point, lest I be burned at the stake. I certainly realize that what I am asking is more than a little unreasonable. No one can be an expert is as many subjects as they are expected to teach, especially while dealing with rambunctious children. I do not believe it is the teachers' fault. But I do have a problem with specific elements of the system.

Why do we treat primary and secondary schools so differently? Most secondary certificates mandate 24 credit hours of specified subject taken at the college level. Why do we expect less from primary? Why do we expect them to competently teach history, English, math, science, and anything else the school district might desire? Maybe the evidence shows that children that age learn better when they have one person they can trust. But then why do we give them to someone else for music or P.E? What if we had pairs of teachers? One to handle math and science and the other to tackle English and social studies? Or maybe they both teach everything, each yielding to the expertise of the other.

I certainly don't have the answers, but I sure as heck know there's a problem. Think of how many students claim to hate math or hate history. Isn't this patently absurd? I challenge you to find any human who doesn't use some form of mathematical reasoning on a daily basis, and history is everything that has ever happened! How on earth can that be boring? I'll tell you. Force someone to teach a subject that they are not passionate about and require them to be only a few steps ahead of their students, and you have all the ingredients for boredom. It is a feeling that will stick with those kids for life.

I am starting to see slow changes lately. In Massachusetts, the state Board of Education has passed stronger licensing requirements for elementary teachers, particularly in the area of math. I can't believe they will have anything but positive results and I hope more states follow suit. We will never stem the tide of math phobia in this country if we keep turning a blind eye to the obviously low-expectations placed on elementary school instruction. There's not much point in hiring a highly skilled roofer after you've settled for the low-bidding stone mason. Sure, the roof doesn't leak, but will that be much consolation when the foundation crumbles and your house falls down?

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