What I Hear About Education

What I Hear About Education

"As an old country judge, I know very little about education," writes Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham. "But I have friends—lots of them—who do. And no one is listening to them. Except me." 

Listen to the wise words of one educated country judge whose views about public education might just be . . . educational.

I’m no expert on the topic of education. I did sit through 19 years of classes. I have a pretty good idea of a good teacher when I see one. I have close friends who are school superintendents, principals and teachers. I have close friends who are former school superintendents, principals and teachers. There are more teachers sprinkled throughout my family than there are stars in a Christmas picture. For good measure, you can throw in a Kentucky Elementary School Principal of the Year into the batch.


But I am a sponge. So I ask questions. Lots and lots of questions. And I listen. What I’m about to say is not from Bill Cunningham’s table of knowledge. It is bare. This is what I’ve learned from them.


Our educational system in America is in shambles. According to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United States is now 18th in secondary education among the 36 tested. Twenty years ago, we were near the top. That was about the time that control of our schools started shifting more heavily from states to the bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.


We are using the wrong paradigm in assessing our educational system. Evaluating teachers and schools by evaluating students is like evaluating fishermen by evaluating the fish in the stream. My good friend Harold Knight—outdoor superstar—could fish for a thousand years in a Kentucky pond, but he’ll never catch swordfish or tuna.


We ignore a critical reality. Our schools reflect the community in which they are located. We have placed upon the back of teachers and school administrators the burden of transforming communities instead of teaching children what those particular children are capable of learning.


The best way to evaluate teachers is to evaluate teachers—not students. Some schools are composed of a student body of children from predominantly dysfunctional families. Poverty, ignorance, apathy, violence, and even hostility exist within many communities. Kids from those communities come from homes that do not nurture the child, teach the child, inspire the child. That child may sleep in school because he or she has been up all night playing video games, or agitated by drug-infested homes, even drive-by shootings.


A teacher in an inner city school recently told me, “A child in my room was not sleepless because of drive-by shooters keeping him awake. He was out on a drive by shooting!” And we expect teachers in those schools to make brain surgeons out of them. We expect those teachers to wave a magic wand and imbue that youngster with good test scores. We expect somehow that the test grades from those students are going to sparkle with proper teaching.


Speaking of inner cities. Here is what Patrick Welsh, an English teacher at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, VA—an inner city school across the river from Washington, D.C— said just the other day in an article in USA Today: “Unfortunately, a form of liberalism often works against the best interest of schools; an idealism that puts a target on the back of teachers by holding them accountable for making up for all the academic and social deficiencies that children of the urban underclass bring with them into school.”


In other words, we are placing upon our teachers the unbelievable burden of changing the society in which they teach, instead of the society around them changing the school in which they teach.


How many millions of tax payers’ dollars are being used to test children—not to see what they should know, but to meet evaluation standards set by a dazzling myriad of bureaucrats? We hear the so-called educational expert recommend 12-month school years. But how many hours are wasted, brilliance smothered, learning opportunities squandered by our teachers spending days and weeks teaching “the test.” The test which will mean whether principals and teachers retain their jobs on the abilities of the students rather than on their own merits.


If you were to put my educator friends and relatives to the task of drawing up a game plan to improve our educational system, here is what it would be.


1. Get the federal government out of the educational business with the exception of unconditional block grants to the states. Bureaucrats hidden away in small cubicles in Washington, D.C. have no business dictating to the people of rural Montana how to educate their young. The reason, quite frankly, is because they do not know how. One size does not fit all.


2. Give block grants to states. Approximately 27% of Kentucky’s educational money is from the federal government. Therefore, it would be catastrophic at this late hour for the feds to pull out all together. Our schools would fall apart without the money. But the money could be given in block grants without strings or conditions and trust the states to use it wisely. They will. The local voters will see to it.


3. Eliminate testing of students to evaluate teachers. Teachers would be evaluated by other teachers. If you want the process sophisticated by a blue ribbon review, then establish examining boards of former teachers from different school districts. This panel of educators—who are veterans of many years of working in the trenches of the classroom—would view videotapes of classes taken surreptitiously. If we are skittish about the eavesdropping, we can notify the subject teacher on the morning of the taping. At least three samplings a year would be needed. This would avoid unfairly catching a teacher on a bad day. Teachers would be graded just like students—A through F. They would be paid accordingly. Failing teachers would be fired. Evaluating a good teacher is not rocket science. Any person of average intelligence who has spent 12 years in a classroom as a student knows a good teacher from a bad one.


Interesting enough, lawyers are rated by their peers in the distinguished publication of Martindale and Hubbard. If your brother is looking for a good lawyer in Milwaukee, you can look one up in the book. Why not teachers? How would you like to be able to look up the rating of teachers at Smithville Elementary before you take a job there and enroll your children? And if we had a school full of “grade A and grade B” teachers where the students did not perform very well, then common sense would dictate that we need to look outside the school for a solution to the problem.


The ancient Greek mathematician, Archimedes, in describing the power of the lever said: “Give me a place to stand and I will move the world.” Give the “grade A” teacher a place to teach—and not be hounded by constant testing and evaluations and federal guidelines—and they will teach. And teach darn well. And yes, move the world.


As an old country judge, I know very little about education.


But I have friends—lots of them—who do. And no one is listening to them.


Except me.





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