by: Irving Mejia
A Need For Change
Since the turn of the century, powerful nations and industries have formed and fallen at the cusp of one single factor, education. The mere concept itself has led the way towards innovation in every field of human society imaginable. But as time has gone on, education across United States has had its fair share of changes, and lots of them have not been for the better.
Those problems would include, but are not limited to, a system that has yet to evolve with the times much in the past 20 years, a lack of a coherent and proper budget necessary for students in 2017, and an absence of respect for our educators.
However, among the hoards of problems that exist inside the system, one group in specific is far too often shunned from discussing them, teachers. This problem far exceeds just Clarkston and the state of Michigan itself.
Again and again, the educators of this country are told to work within the system as opposed to identifying the problems and then fixing them. Which, logistically speaking, makes absolutely no sense. Ultimately, if any voice in the United States can pinpoint the errors or faults of public schools today, it should be our teachers.
Education in the state of Michigan is failing by most measures, and that is not a hyperbole nor is it an exaggeration of the current situation. Currently, Michigan ranks 42nd in education across the United States. As a matter of fact, things have gotten so bad to the point where the state of Michigan, back in October, was considering eliminating the State Board of Education.
The current state of where the educational system currently sits can be blamed for a variety of reasons.
Whether it be a budget that has been described as "fundamentally broken" by education experts or a system that has taken power away from teachers. It is a widely accepted fact in the political world that Michigan, in particular, needs a change to its system.
However, one voice that is far too often shut down in this conversation is the one who takes center stage in the classroom. The voice of the teacher has continuously been silenced in this country despite how much good could be imparted from them if we, as a society, just listen.
Even though some may argue that teachers in Michigan are the ones who are failing considering where the state is at nationally speaking, no statistic provided by 'Michigan School Data,' which is Michigan's official site for education statistics, would agree with that notion.
As a matter of fact, teacher effectiveness in the state of Michigan is impressively shocking when taking into account the state's performance as a whole. In 2016, of the 94,011 teachers in the state, only 2% (1,651) were deemed "minimally effective". While, on the other hand, 39% (39,464) of the teachers were found to be "highly effective" and 59% (55,564) were regarded as "effective." Lastly to this point, only 342 teachers, which in total is a whopping .003% of teachers, were found to be "ineffective"
The thing is, teachers are not the problem, they are the answer to the problems of the system. Teachers, despite how much people paint them as having only "right or wrong answers," would not look at the solution to their problems with that same broad viewpoint of "correct or incorrect." As a matter of fact, the vast majority of teachers who were interviewed for this article viewed homework, technology, and testing as neither the answer nor the problem to the education crisis.
What was often the consensus and answer to questions that were asked was reasonable and sound logic with engaging points to back up their thoughts and ideas. Not merely one-dimensional answers, but thought-provoking responses were to be heard once you just sat down and listened.
Clarkston Junior High's, Mr. Gunther, when asked about what the problems were inside of the system stated: "There are students that we identify with talents and abilities that aren't reflecting in the grade. Kind of like the MIT philosophy where the grade isn't the most important thing, the curiousness, and inquisitiveness, the kinds of questions that they ask, how can we reward that?"
Gunther then went on to answer his own question when bringing up a possible solution.
"As a start, I would say, to go back to a citizenship grade across the board and posting absences would be another thing."
Mr. Paddock, a favorite amongst the students of the Junior High, had the following to say on citizenship grades.
"As a grade, it's tough. I think it's tricky because every kid starts at a different spot. Because, if I'm a kid who let's say has a really negative attitude towards school and it's improving, do you score the improvement or the fact that the kid still has a rather unpleasant attitude towards school? Conversely, you take a kid who is awesome and has these great attributes and they work really well, do you give them a high score because they're already there or a low score because they can't score improvement? I think it's very difficult to quantify."
Paddock did however then go on to clarify that he believes that schools do play a role, generally speaking, to make sure that schools teach citizenship even if they don't grade it. He claimed: "I think we need to teach citizenship, I think we need to do a better job of just teaching kids to be good people and good citizens of the world. I think if we start teaching more globally, that would help."
Although, when asked his thoughts on the education system today, Paddock began by saying: "I do believe that there are a plethora of problems in the education system. I think that if we were looking at constructive criticism or places where we could improve, I think class sizes are generally too big and I would like to remove a lot of the compulsory aspects of school. I like the idea of giving kids a bigger path towards creativity."
Paddock then continued by saying: "I wish that kids had more of an opportunity in school to run down their own curiosities and figure out where those things take them rather than simply always having teachers tell them specifically what they need to know for the next step basically."
Another Junior High teacher, Mrs. Cleland, had a different response to what she feels the problems are in our educational system. When asked, she responded: "I think there's a certain apathy among students, but I do take responsibility for that and feel like I should be one that turns those apathies into passion."
She then continued by saying: "I just feel like maybe our educational system is not meeting the needs of students today because we tend to do the same thing over and over again and times have really changed, kids have really changed, and what they've been exposed to is very different from what the generation that is teaching you was exposed to. Even though I feel technologically savvy, I don't know if I have that same perspective as you do and vice versa."
Clarkston High School's, Mr. Schwab, when asked about the faults of the system went on to discuss the problem of standardized testing and government right away.
"We need more local control of our schools in this state. Government in Lansing has taken a lot of local control away, and one of example of that, which is another problem, is the amount of standardized testing that we require the kids to take to show competency."
When Schwab was asked about the premise of teachers being marginalized, he responded by saying: "Especially state policy towards public education, you have politicians making and crafting educational laws that they know nothing about. Instead of having teachers help in that process, as far as figuring out what the best educational practice is and could be used. The same goes for it on national education law."
Another High School teacher, Mr. Eisele, when asked what he thought were the problems within the system responded in a similar fashion to Schwab. Both related the problems of the system by directly correlating it with who is making decisions on behalf of schools.
"There's a lack of connection between the people who make education decisions and policies on a political level and actual educators. Very few decisions are classroom practical and/or district-budget practical and are focused more on data and less on humanity."
With all that in mind, it's very clear to observe that teachers are far from the robotic images that students or society often paint them as. Just like a vast majority of people, they too have problems with their jobs and think that things within them could change for the better.
All of the above are reasonable criticisms of the problems that already exist within the system. However, one point that has been at the center point of debate in recent years is budgeting. As the Trump administration proposed a $9.8 billion dollar cut to education in their budget proposal for 2018, the topic has never been more heavily debated and criticized.
When the point about the financing of public schools was brought up, the response was resoundingly both defiant and definite from Clarkston's educators. Not a single one was happy with the current state of budgeting of public schools and all of them went on to share their plight both on and off the record.
Gunther went on record to state: "We're barely scraping by. Fortunately, our community supported us by passing the bond but the place is falling apart. People don't realize, they think we have all this money and we don't. My budget right now is less than a dollar per student. I can't afford a donut for each of my students, or an orange for example."
When asked about his budget for educational purposes, Gunther simply said: "Well, I don't have books so that helps you understand."
Cleland made similar remarks when asked if schools received enough funding by saying: "Of course not, there's never enough funding for education. Teachers spend a great deal of their own money on supplies. I've bought notebooks, I've bought sketchbooks, and I've bought my own books. Pretty much the library that I've built has been with my own money."
Paddock vocalized the problems he has with budgeting by saying: "I think we are doing a really great job with the funding that we have. But, I think that if we want to push learning into this 'next level' and especially push the idea of Makerspaces and personal curriculum, and the idea that kids need to build tangible things as they learn them, the only way to do them is to have an increase in funding."
On the High School side of the aisle, Schwab made his remarks regarding funding by just directly relating it to class size and saying, in essence, that anything that could help minimize class sizes would be helpful.
"Any number that is greater than that they [The government] give now that will allow for smaller class sizes, that will allow for school districts to hire more teachers, therefore cutting down on class size so we can give more individualized instruction."
When asked if schools received enough funding today, Eisele responded differently in comparison to his colleagues, though he still agreed with everyone, he related it to the idea of equity in Clarkston.
"Clarkston's population and population demographic has changed significantly since the 90s but our funding is still based on that tax base, giving us a lot less money yet we have a lot more kids. When your district grows, your funding grows, you just need more money."
He didn't stop there and then brought up Proposition A and said: "If we're gonna use the same rationale that when we created Prop A back in the 90s, then we need to relook at it. It's been nearly 25 years, and tax base has changed."
One teacher even went as far as to say, off the record, that they could only spend a whopping $1.35 cents per student. That in and of itself is a massive reflection of how terrible the budgeting can get at times in even this community.
Although, all this commotion and exchanging of ideas regard only the budget and the problems that that in it of itself creates. This is without going into teachers and their thoughts on the issue of time that students spend in school.
Of course, numerous solutions have been brought up over time, but a popular one among education reformists is the European style in which summer vacation is replaced with school year round. With the obvious breaks in that span of a year, of course.
Gunther responded to the idea by saying: "I wouldn't mind it at all! That whole four weeks off, two weeks off thing, I love it! I think it'd be great, but we need the air conditioning. That's a big deal."
Cleland responded in a similar fashion by saying: "I would, [Be in favor] I think it would be a healthy change. And I don't buy into that idea that kids lose knowledge over the Summer. I'm sure that there's always a loss of knowledge, even over a week or two." However, she then went on to elaborate on her point by claiming: "I think that stems from that whole mentality of 'Memorize, memorize, memorize, then test.' I don't feel like that's very productive"
Then there's the heated debate over the time that students spend in school, plain and simple, to which the teachers had differing responses.
Beginning with Gunther, he said: "I don't know if it's so much, how much time we spend, rather than the structure. Looking again at other models where they have four classes a day, spend 75 minutes in class, or less, and you rotate during the week."
Gunther then went on to repeat a point made by his colleague, Mr. Paddock, which says: "Would you take your own child away when they're in the middle of doing their own project, like legos, would you just go 'Oh, it's time to leave and just stop! We're going to go do another project, just leave it!' Would you do that with your own child?"
He then finished off by saying: "That's what we do, with kids and education, we take them from when they're actively learning, thinking, and being creative in one thing, and then we take them and we move them onto a totally different thing." He then returned to his original point with the following claim.
"I don't know if it's the time, so much at is is the structure. We take them away before the project is done. Before they're happy. Part of the problem is, I learned as a kid that you're not done until you're proud of what you've done, so you need to finish the job. Have some pride in your work. Part of the problem with the system, maybe, is that we don't allow kids to finish and feel fulfilled."
Cleland, on the other hand, bluntly stated: "I think [Time] is a disadvantage. I think we spend too much time in school in terms of a long day. Because if you think about it, we're out by 3:00 and then kids have sports, or an activity, that is two or three hours a day. What does that leave them? Time for dinner and bed."
She wasn't done yet as she continued by saying: "That leaves little time for them to pursue their own personal passions, other than the one they're currently involved in. It doesn't allow them time to explore new opportunities or new things that they might be interested in."
Even though there are, and always will be, differing ideas and opinions on the problems in the educational system and how to solve them, the majority of teachers remained optimistic about the future that lies ahead.
Cleland left off by saying: "The teacher doesn't have all the answers and that's the beauty of it. We figure out the answers, together. We use the teacher as a facilitator of your hopes, wishes, and dreams. Believe in yourself, and believe in what you know to be true about you. Choose things that will make you happy."
Gunther's final words were, quite simply: "I'm trying to help you. We don't have to make it so difficult."
Eisele stayed consistent on a message that he teaches to both his children and his students by saying: "Everything that you do should be about others and be purposeful. Your time in high school is short, your time as a kid is short, your time on this Earth is short, wasting that time is a slap to the face to the gifts that we have."
Mr. Porritt left with a message of hope by saying: "I believe everyone is capable of learning, and for the most part each person is responsible for how much he or she wants to learn."
With all this in mind, and so many thoughts and ideas being said out loud by your very own teachers, is it not time that we begin not just listening but taking action? Considering where the state is and all the problems that have been highlighted in recent years, now is a better time than ever to stand with the educators of not only Clarkston, but the United States.
Teachers, as accentuated by all the thoughts and quotes mentioned above, are not mere machines or cogs in a broken system. Teachers are the foundation of this country, teachers can lead the way forward with their insightful thoughts and opinions all centered on the education of the youth.
It's time that we as a society take a long introspective look at ourselves and allow teachers to have a voice once again. It's time that we allow teachers a chance to fix the broken system that has manifested itself into something horrible. Only then, will we as a society begin to move forward to a brighter future.
Let us begin listening to genuine solutions to the problems no longer in the one dimensional sense of dollar signs coming from politicians, but rather in the betterment of people from those who would know best, teachers.
Give teachers a chance.