The Bored of Education: Lessons From a Lifetime in the Classroom
Editor's Note: In advance of Election Day when changes to Boards of Education might be on the ballot, we felt Julia Sneden's article well timed.
Washington County, St. George, Utah; Wikimedia Commons, 2013
There is a peculiar phenomenon in this country. We profess to have a great respect for learning. When someone pursues particular knowledge and emerges as a doctor or a lawyer or a scientist, we assume that he or she is capable of performing appropriate duties. This does not, of course, always happen, but to ensure correct performance, we trust their professional boards to oversee them. Those boards are made up of active members of their professions.
When it comes to the professionals who teach our young, however, we don't give them parity. We elect or appoint School Boards that are largely made up of people whose only understanding of education comes from their own, individual experiences. Once in awhile, a retired principal is elected to the School Board, but he or she is a rarity.
School Boards are supposed to hire and then interact with the local Superintendent of Schools (at least in most states). As nearly as I can understand, it's the business of the Superintendent and his administrators to hire teachers. It is the business of the School Board to "set policy," whatever that means, and to evaluate that policy's effectiveness. Most School Boards work under the mandates of their state's Division/Department (or whatever-it's called) of Education. They also deal with budgets, and make recommendations regarding the need for new or renovated school buildings.
While it is often left to the populace to vote on bond issues creating new schools, the need for school maintenance and repair seems to me to be every bit as vital. Too often it is shoved aside for other matters, buried somewhere between the School Board's purview and the Central Administration offices. From the outside, it is hard for the general public to determine the intricacies of the pecking order.
Local school superintendents are usually people who have been principals, so it's more than likely that they are a long way from the classroom. School Superintendents may well be people who tried teaching for a year or two, hated it, and went back to school to pick up Masters' or Doctorate degree in Education, which would enable them to become principals or administrators, thus escaping the classroom forever.
School Board members are usually people who are even farther removed from the classroom. They are not always the people best qualified to set educational policy. It is an odd thing, but the world is full of people who are certain they know all about education, because after all, didn't they themselves go to school? That, as the Bard said, " ... must give us pause." The real problem of citizen control of the schools is that it often surrenders our children’s educational progress to people who are themselves uneducated, or badly educated.
I am reminded of the time I met with a parent who demanded that I introduce his kindergarten child to letters using the same outdated approach that his own teachers had used. As his wife soon revealed, he was functionally illiterate. Apparently, he felt that the method used to teach him to read was the only correct one, even though it didn't work.
Anyone who has read this writer’s Still Learning series on education knows that I am no fan of the Departments of Education in our universities. It would not, however, be fair to lump them all together. They churn out untold numbers of would-be teachers. Some of those graduates emerge with a brilliant grasp of the process of teaching. Some haven't a clue.
As a result, there are vast differences in the competencies of teachers within any school district. There are also differences in each state's requirements for the licensing of teachers. We may have a national Department of Education headed by a Secretary of Education at the cabinet level, but our local schools are still usually administered by appointed Superintendents who are hired by local School Boards.
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