August 12, 2010
Three teachers helped spark something in me that made my education worth something.
I wasn’t a very studious student in grade school or high school. I didn’t have much in the way of study habits. But I got lucky because I had three teachers — one in grade school, one in middle school and one in high school — who helped me become very interested in the one subject that would help me get a decent-paying job once I left college.
Mr. Sweeney was the first one to make history interesting to me. It was in his class that I found out that I could compete with the smartest students in the class. Mr. Freidli was my eighth-grade social studies teacher. It was in his class that I found out that I could actually do better than my classmates in the field. Mr. Keller was my teacher junior year, and Killer Keller taught me that I didn’t really know much about history at all, which at the time was useful knowledge, because it inspired me to learn more. I eventually got a master’s degree in history, which has served me well in my career.
I mention these teachers because they all had a gift that they shared with their students. And that was the gift of knowledge. I would also note that the three teachers who most inspired me to learn were men, and as a boy who sometimes lacked focus, having male teachers seemed to get me better focused.
Education policy hinges on keeping good qualified teachers in the classroom, teachers who can inspire students to find that one thing that motivate them for the rest of their lives.
The federal government contributes less than 10 percent of the total spending when it comes to education. State and local governments pay most of the education tab, and funding is wildly uneven within the states. Most states use local property taxes to fund the schools, which means that people who live in rich parts of the state have more resources to give to their local schools.
But education isn’t just about resources. Bad schools can have plenty of money. For example, the District of Columbia school system spends more per child than just about any other school system in the country, but it is hardly the best school system in the country (in fact, it is one of the worst).
No Child Left Behind was an effort by President Bush to put pressure on the teachers union to change its ways, to stop protecting bad teachers and to give greater incentives for good teachers to stay teaching. Because the federal government has such a limited role in education spending, NCLB could only promise to either give money to good schools or take away money from failing schools. How they differentiated the good from the bad was through standardized testing, a controversial and somewhat unsatisfying way to measure progress.
I have two thoughts about how to improve education. First, there should be a farm system that helps develop good teachers and, most importantly, differentiate those who have a real talent in connecting with students from those who are hopeless. Not everybody has what it takes to be an effective connector to kids. It is not about the number of degrees or the amount of knowledge a person has. It is about how the teacher can communicate with and inspire kids to learn for themselves.
Second, it is not just about the teachers. It is also about the parents. On one hand, having parents that threaten to sue every time Johnny doesn’t get an A is counterproductive. On the other, having Johnny terrorize his fellow students and disrupt the classroom is terribly unfair to the whole community. Teachers can’t teach if they spend all their time babysitting.
When John Boehner becomes Speaker of the House, I expect that he will find ways to work with Arne Duncan, the president’s Education secretary, and improve No Child Left Behind. Boehner knows this stuff cold, and has a long track record of working with the Democrats on common-sense education policy.
It is a cliché to say that improving education is the best way to improve our long-term economic prospects, but it happens to be true. I do think that when Republicans take over the House, federal education policy will improve in this country, and that would be a good thing for students everywhere.
This article originally appeared in The Hill on August 12, 2010