Thrawn Rickle 58

Training and Education

© 1994 Williscroft

It is a fact that American young people compare very poorly with youths from other developed nations in their reading and writing skills, in their mathematical ability, in their knowledge of geography. Nobody really denies the problem, although it is frequently stated in ways that lend support to specific points of view. Depending on whom you ask, the blame for this unfortunate situation is attributed to almost every element of our society. The teachers, the parents, the unions, the government, the religious right, the secular humanists, the gays, the Communists . . . it goes on and on.

Consider this. From the turn of the century and before, right up to the Kennedy administration, a talented, educated, motivated woman really had only two satisfying career options. She could become a Registered Nurse or she could become a school marm. Of course, there were exceptions. Nevertheless, each member of our society who attended school before 1960 can recall several of these wonderful, dedicated human beings. These ladies indelibly imprinted thousands of young lives during their careers.

Our society has changed dramatically during the last forty years. A career-oriented woman who might have become an influential teacher in the forties and fifties probably is a well-paid doctor, attorney, or high-powered corporate executive today. Thirty years ago some of the best female minds in our society were school teachers. Today, very few women of this calibre choose to teach—and rightly so. The hours are long, the pay is poor, and job satisfaction almost nonexistent. Free individuals in a free society must be able to choose what is best for them.

Remove the top twenty percent of any group, as has happened with America’s teacher corps, and you significantly lower its average ability. Combine this with ineffective parental supervision, single-parent environments, rampant drug use, and an apparent mindset that emphasizes mediocrity over excellence, and you get young adults who can’t compete on the world stage. Is it any wonder that around this planet America is falling behind competitively, in quality production, in research, in engineering?

Several years ago one of my colleagues was attending advanced schooling in Miami, Florida. His assigned roommate, Jimmy, was a young man working on his Master’s degree in order to teach junior high school mathematics. My colleague was relatively unimpressed with Jimmy’s abilities, but towards the end of his stay he found Jimmy deep into studying for his final examinations. Jimmy explained that he would have to demonstrate expertise in every phase of mathematics before he would be allowed to teach the subject, and he was straining to meet the requirements. Impressed by this, my colleague was prepared to reassess his entire take on the matter. He examined the volume that was giving his roommate such difficulty.

“Jimmy,” he said, “this is just ordinary compound fractions.”

“Yes,” Jimmy answered, “and they are so terribly difficult, aren’t they?”

When we start with mediocrity, how can we expect better than mediocre results?

As a college student in the sixties, I attended an upper-level meteorology course. My classmates and I had successfully completed the requisite math courses; nevertheless, we quickly discovered that our marginal tensor analysis skills would prevent us from passing the course. Our instructor interrupted the course to teach us the necessary mathematics.

Did we join this class with insufficient education, or with insufficient training? In this class, were we being educated or trained?

Consider my final examination for an upper-level marine physics course. The professor dropped several hundred-page examinations on his desk, and left the room. We had two hours to complete the exam, which was really not even sufficient time to absorb fully each of the professor’s questions. After a brief discussion among ourselves, we apportioned the questions, which we discovered were quite interrelated, attacking the final exam as a group problem to which we each would contribute part of the solution. As it turned out, this is exactly what the professor hoped we would do. It gave him a very good measure of how we had learned to think through a problem, work together as the real world demands, and make individual contributions to a common solution. In short, he had taught us to think, within the confines of the marine physics subject material.

Beyond the training, this professor taught us to think—he educated us. In the first instance we were being trained to accomplish a specific group of meteorology-related tasks (and at least part of the training had failed), whereas in the second instance we were being educated to think in a focused way about the marine environment. Both concepts are necessary. Being able to think without possessing the knowledge and skill to do any specific thing would be entirely frustrating, even useless. On the other hand, being able to accomplish a specific thing—repair a car, build a house, conduct an experiment—will allow a person to survive in life and even make a meaningful contribution to society. However, without the ability to think, to analyze cause-and-effect relationships, to understand consequences, to conceive new relationships, people cannot long maintain a free society. History is filled with images of trained automatons marching to a dictator’s drum.

Ideally, every citizen should receive an education and be trained in one or more areas of accomplishment. At the very least, leaders in all walks of life—government, science, business, sports, entertainment—and teachers must be educated.

One obvious way to produce excellence in education is to start with excellence. We need to capture for the teaching profession those competent minds that now turn to science and industry for employment. If we create a teaching corps of brilliant achievers, we will be on our way to producing more of the same.

Excellence associates with excellence, so one order of business is to weed out mediocre teachers, the Jimmies. Ideally, we should do this with the enthusiastic cooperation of national teachers’ organizations. Unfortunately, these organizations are proposing that tenure instead of performance be the main consideration for increased pay. This makes them part of the problem. It is difficult to understand the need for a national organization that monitors the interests of teachers who are responsible to local school boards. It seems far better to forge a local partnership between parents, teachers, and the governing boards.

Regular testing of the teacher’s knowledge is often touted as the solution to the problem of poor education. While I don’t quarrel with the intent of this approach, I don’t think it addresses the complete problem. Before hiring a contractor to build a house, you find out what he knows. But you also check out his performance. Have his houses stood the test of time?

If we were to judge teacher competence not only by periodic testing, but also by how well students performed, we would force teachers to teach more and agitate less. When your pay and possibly even your job depend upon how much your students have learned and on how well they can think, you are much less likely to spend any time on a picket line. Obviously, such an evaluation program would have to consider the kind of students each teacher instructs. It would be unfair, for example, to compare the absolute performance of an accelerated class with that of a class of slow learners. Nevertheless, student performance—what they know and how they apply what they know—is the only true measure of teacher ability.

In our communities live large numbers of retired people from all walks of life with many accumulated years of experience. It should be far easier to teach an experienced accountant how to transfer some of his or her knowledge to high school kids than to teach a freshly certified high school teacher enough accounting to have the same impact. Ditto for the retired chemist, corporate CEO, writer, mechanic, farmer . . . just about any profession or trade. Tens of thousands of retired professional and trade people would leap at the chance to participate in such a program, probably at relatively modest salary levels. This can solve the training side of the equation.

The education side, however, can only be addressed by persons who are educated, who can think—society’s leaders. If we are to entice thinking excellence into our basic school system, we must be willing to compensate good teachers accordingly. Would you turn down a $150,000 corporate job to teach second grade for $20,000?

Offer sufficiently large salaries to the right people, ensure that all the people you hire earn what you pay them, make use of all available human resources, neglecting neither training nor education, and the children who graduate from our schools will be the finest, brightest, most able young people on this planet.