Bureaucracy is crippling good teaching and learning

Published February 22, 2007

Three things have come together to prompt this commentary: The list of candidates to become the superintendent of schools in Hernando, the excellent guest column by Mary Partington in the Feb. 16 Times, and two articles in the Florida State University Research in Review.

First, I wish to compliment Ms. Partington on her letter, especially on her concluding sentence, "Ah, to read is to know."

I am a bit concerned about the candidates for the superintendent position. All the finalists have considerable experience in educational administration. Many, if not most, will see this as a positive. But I am not quite as sanguine that this is so. I am afraid this will result in more of the "same old-same old" approach to education, which is increasingly seen to be a failure. I speak from wide experience with the products of our public school systems.

Due to grade inflation, too many bureaucratic rules imposed on teachers by the system, parents' lack of involvement, and the simple inability to read by students, our schools are turning out many students with shiny grade point averages, but knowing little.

This opinion is buttressed by the two articles in the FSU Review, one by Kim MacQueen and one by Barbara Foorman The first is based on research by Jeffrey Brooks and deals with why so many teachers leave the profession, approximately 10 percent in their first year alone. In 2003, there were 15,952 teachers who left the Florida school system. Quoting one teacher: "We never get through the material and we end up assigning quite a bit of home work ... most times we have to go back and work through the assignment since some of them didn't really understand what they were supposed to be doing ..."

A different teacher said, "The pressure on the teachers is to do more and faster. Do better or else! Give us more time! Before school! After school! During school! And do it for free!"

From Foorman's item, here are a number of quotations: ... "But your students just can't read - the text material." And another: "Much of the stress teachers feel comes from having to work day after day in a climate of low standards."

Here is a quote from another teacher: "I ... have a hard time seeing the difference between the reform we have just finished and the new one coming in. ... it looks different on paper but it never changes anything on a day-to-day level, except for adding more work."

As the teachers explained things ... "schools are increasingly structured so as to take time away from instruction."

I had marked a number of other items to quote, but this is already too long. For more information e-mail the editor of the report at frankstp@mailer.fsu.edu and obtain more generalized information at www.fcrr.org.

I have one personal comment as a result of teaching physics and other science courses at Virginia Tech University for 34 years. If you are a good teacher, you know it when students do not comprehend the material. They get sort of a distant look in their eyes. You must back up right then and clear the confusion, even if this means not getting on with additional materials. Once you've lost them, you've lost them that day for any further information.

You simply cannot teach effectively by adhering to a rigid syllabus. The teacher must be able to tailor the course to get the most critical material to the students, even if it means sacrificing covering every last scrap of material in the syllabus.

We cannot solve all of our problems with our schools by eliminating as much of the bureaucratic garbage as possible, but it would be a good start. However, you must train teachers to use this freedom effectively and to do this you must go back and completely revamp the entrenched curriculums taught in teachers' colleges. It will not be easy.

A. Keith Furr lives in Brooksville. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, which do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.