Another Sunday, another education reform moment


Last week I wrote a long piece about student failure, teacher tenure, education reform, and where the fingers of blame should be pointed. I described being uplifted by Exxon Mobile ads during The Masters final round on Easter Sunday. Their ads urged public support for our teachers and a united front in the reform effort. Then came the next Sunday . . . 

I’m with my wife at a Saint Paul bookstore. I notice a couple of featured volumes on the checkout counter. They speak to the nature of teaching and learning—you know, the Eats Shoots and Leaves-type stuff. There is a lady of a certain age there, and another of a fresher age. I comment on one of the books, then the other, and soon I am relating their contents to the current state of affairs of public education. (All right, I’m lecturing.) I improvise a lament on the misuse of prepositions and pronouns, poor spelling, bad grammar, improper punctuation, blah . . . blah . . . blah. “Nobody teaches this stuff anymore!” I exclaim.

  By this time my wife has exited this all-too-familiar scene. The young clerk is smiling and nodding like a good student, but—oh, oh—the elder one is simmering. Paraphrasing now, “Yes, they do!” she blows back. “I am very familiar with what is going on in the schools, and I can tell you that our teachers are doing a wonderful job. They are teaching these skills!”


Oh, my God, she has me pegged as a teacher basher!


“No,” I protest, “I know teachers are doing a good job; it’s not that! Textbooks are disappearing, teachers are having to devise their own curricula, and then there’s the standardized test pressure, and the fact that they’re responsible for too much and they can’t handle the stress of it all! And the teacher training institutions need to do a better job preparing young teachers to be fluent in the content areas. We are devaluing knowledge, and—”

She turns, and is off to shelve a book, still mad.

“I’m on your side,” I call after her, but her silence has secured her the last word.

I turn to the youthful one for affirmation, but her smile is waning. I track down my wife in the mystery section and we’re out of there. 


That evening . . .

Checking my email, I find a message inquiring about my tutoring services. It seems that there is a college student out there who has been trained to teach at the elementary level, but has also failed to pass the state teacher exam—twice. The candidate needs help with reading comprehension and writing. I am shocked. I don’t know what to make of it. I’m not angry, really, just dumbfounded. How did this student arrive at this juncture? The teacher in me wants to help, but my newly acquired “basher” moniker gives me pause. Maybe this youngster shouldn’t become a teacher. My curiosity overcomes my confusion. I respond to the sender, express my willingness to meet at no charge to assess needs, and announce my rates. I hear nothing so far, but I’ve learned that education reform is even more complicated than I thought.