Opinion: No accountability for Georgia students, no autonomy for teachers

In a guest column, longtime Georgia educator Jim Arnold talks about his growing concerns over the lack of accountability for everyone in schools except teachers.

The former superintendent of Pelham City Schools, Arnold has his own education blog. In his 48 years in public education, Arnold also served as a classroom teacher, assistant principal and principal, and he is now an adjunct professor at Columbus State University. He lives in Midland, Georgia.

By Jim Arnold

You remember real education, don’t you? Not so long ago, the purpose of education was still to give students the skills required to develop in an orderly, sequential, age-appropriate process into contributing, functioning members of society; to teach students critical thinking and to provide basic reasoning skills.

An overabundance of educational initiatives in the past 25 years have replaced critical thinking as the primary goal with social constructs and standardized test prep that have no business in classrooms or school buildings. The collective and individual intent of each of these initiatives was, one small piece at a time, to drive away teachers, parents and students, divert public education dollars for private education and personal enrichment and ensure an undereducated populace that would vote how they were told.

Combined ShapeCaption
Jim Arnold

Credit: Courtesy photo

Jim Arnold

Credit: Courtesy photo

Combined ShapeCaption
Jim Arnold

Credit: Courtesy photo

Credit: Courtesy photo

Let’s start with standardized testing. Real educators know that every child learns in different ways at different rates and responds to some instructional methods and not as well to others. That’s why teachers are required to use differentiated instructional methods. Simultaneously. Hourly. Daily. Weekly. Monthly.

Because children are different.

Standardized tests and the use of the resultant test scores are educational malpractices designed and implemented to drive parents, students and teachers away from public education. Why? Because enormous sums of money in educational funds are at stake, and the thought is that money might be put to better use than educating commoners. Like you. Like me. Like our children and grandchildren.

Over time, the beliefs that “all children can learn” and “all children can succeed” translated into “all children will succeed at high levels.” It doesn’t matter how badly we’d like every child to succeed or every child to be “college material.” It just isn’t true.

“Every child will succeed at high levels” ignores variances in ability level and in motivation, a now overlooked essential in student learning. Students must be primed to learn from exposure in their homes as babies and preschoolers to books, reading, numbers and the alphabet. It’s practically impossible for teachers to overcome parental neglect in these areas before students begin school. Legislating equity, like legislating excellence, is a dangerous exercise in ego and futility.

We are in an era where teachers cannot hold students accountable for their failure to do classwork and homework or for their bad behavior. Parents began a wave of pushback that it wasn’t their child’s fault they didn’t do their classwork or were disruptive in class, but the fault of the teacher. Homework was irrelevant. Class induction was boring. We shifted from assessing student performance to blaming teacher performance.

Teachers, left to defend themselves against a rising tide of blame for parental irresponsibility, found life was much easier, at least in the short term, to just go along to get along and not argue against what they saw as an impossible situation. It was difficult to insist on personal responsibility for students when parents supported their child’s irresponsible behaviors with confrontational behaviors themselves. Teachers saw they couldn’t possibly fight against parents without administrative support, and first began by removing zeros for work not done and allowing a grade of 50% at the lowest.

Teachers knew removing the option of failure would be more detrimental to students than failure, but administrative decrees are not often effectively fought by teachers. Not allowing students the opportunity to learn from their mistakes has created an overwhelming sense of entitlement. Real teachers know this is not how life works and not how students learn. Giving students grades they didn’t earn and not allowing zeros, failures or setbacks are counterproductive and counterintuitive and produce an undeserved series of promotions that life will always make sure ends badly. What do graduation rates for schools mean when students are not allowed to fail? Not much is my guess.

So, what did teachers do at the earliest opportunity — removed themselves from what had become an untenable situation. Since the 1980s, teachers have retired, changed jobs, learned to do something — anything — else and left classes without teachers and systems begging for replacements that just weren’t there because college students saw up close and personal what their teachers had endured.

Even those who went into education because they were sure they could change the world were prevented from teaching with the implementation of standardized lesson plans, bus duty, lunch duty, professional development opportunities (so administrators can check the box for providing professional development), documentation of instructional interventions, hundreds and hundreds of clerical duties and, as if that weren’t enough, administrative micromanagement from people who don’t believe you can actually do your job unless they’re constantly checking to make sure you do.

“Teach the standards and not the books” became the mantra, and standardized lesson plans — required by many districts — removed all possibility that teachers might be creative in class and use their own skills to reach students. Here again we have a case of “we will require differentiation in teaching by making sure everyone is teaching the same way for all students.” Horsefeathers.

Today’s conditions are at a tipping point. Far too many students, teachers and parents are giving up rather than continue in untenable situations. Perhaps, it’s time to consider the students who are trying and want to be in class to an equal or greater extent than the ones only there because they have to be.

If we don’t do something about it — and quickly — the public education system that has served so many for so long will cease to exist, and that gap can’t be completely filled by private, religious or charter schools. Public education has been a key to the growth and success of the American dream and the continuation of our republic. Without it, I am convinced many of us will be surrounded by ignorance and stupidity, the growth of crime and lawlessness and the abject hopelessness of an uneducated populace.

Or maybe we are already there.

Dr. Jim Arnold, the author of this guest column, worked 48 years in public education.