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Has Our Education System Become Complacent?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

A May 29, 2012 post in Education Week’s Transforming Learning blog, Urgency and Complacency in Public Schooling recapped a conversation between Learning First Alliance’s Executive Director Cheryl Williams and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in which Duncan stated that the biggest challenge facing public education today is complacency. Is public education complacent? If so, what are the causes, and if education has grown complacent, what can we do about it?

Refuting Duncan’s Assertions
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is of the belief that public school educators do not collectively feel a sense of urgency around the issues facing the nation, and thus do not see a need to change the status quo in education. The major problem, according to Duncan, is that our education system is not preparing young people to be successful in higher education and subsequently in the work world. This lack of success in the workforce is, according to Duncan, due to a failure on the part of schools to help students develop a useful set of hi-tech skills (Williams).

Williams, in her post, takes exception with Duncan’s assertion of educational complacency, citing several cases in support of her idea that educators are dedicated and motivated in their work, and that they are anything but complacent in their desire to make education the best it possibly can be. I disagree with both Duncan and Williams. I believe that something far worse than complacency is affecting our public education system. When you consider all of the factors surrounding education, it seems that teachers are suffering from a severe case of learned helplessness far more than complacency.

Causes of Learned Helplessness in Education
The psychological concept of learned helplessness refers to the phenomenon whereby animals will eventually stop trying to escape from an unpleasant stimulus if there is no hope of avoiding it. Psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier first observed this when dogs conditioned to respond to electric shocks eventually stopped trying to avoid the stimuli (Cherry, What is Learned Helplessness). It is my opinion that, because we live in a society that does not value education or educators and which constantly gives them the social equivalent of electric shocks, teachers and the educational institutions that they represent have developed a severe case of learned helplessness. If they had any real hope of affecting change in education, they would try, but they have been conditioned to believe that anything they do will not bring about change. In fact, more often than not, their voices regarding what would be good for education are not even heard. Here are some of the ways in which teachers have been conditioned to be "complacent."

Cracking down on collective bargaining: When teachers’ powers to collectively bargain and work for change in the system are undermined at every turn, as they have been so dramatically in Wisconsin and other states, there is a clear message that their well-being, working conditions, and opinions about what is happening in their profession are not respected. The June 5, 2012 recall election in Wisconsin and the victory of Governor Scott Walker are being seen as a mandate in support of the idea that collective bargaining by unions should be curtailed: "The recall fight, prompted by Walker’s decision to strip Wisconsin public workers of their collective bargaining rights, has doubled as a proxy fight over whether Republicans can push through spending cuts and confront organized labor – and live to tell about it" (CBS News, 5 June, 2012).

In regards to educational complacency, this victory is a slap in the face, and a clear statement that, regardless of what teachers think, know, or have experienced, their opinions will not be heard, either collectively or individually. While the public consensus is that teachers’ unions serve only the interests of educators, often at the expense of students, this is not true. For example, when teachers bargain for better working conditions or more resources, we are forgetting that children learn in the same conditions that teachers work in and suffer from the lack of resources even more than do the teachers themselves (Hirsch, Emerick, Church & Fuller, Teacher Working Conditions are Student Learning Conditions, 2007).

Lack of Communication How can teachers adequately prepare students for higher education and work when there is literally almost no communication between these groups? The main way in which parents, politicians, and business interact with education is to criticize it.

Parents are largely not involved in their children’s education or in preparing them to be successful in school (Biondo, 16 April, 2011). Politicians critique, strip funding, and implement absurd rules that handcuff teachers’ abilities to be successful. Business stays out of education for the most part, except as an avenue to increase its own revenue through partnerships and exploitation. Corporations seek tax breaks that make them exempt from supporting schools (Nintzel, 15 Feb, 2011), relocate to other countries so they don’t have to pay taxes at all, or find loopholes to avoid their societal responsibility. Without giving back to the system, they expect to be fed well-prepared workers.

Standardization of Teaching: Teachers cannot be solely responsible for failing to give students the skills necessary to compete in a global economy when they receive no societal support to do so, and are forced to operate in an institution that relies on standardized measures to evaluate success in preparing students to work in a non-standardized world. We want our students to be innovators and global leaders in an economy in which creativity is one of the last frontiers for American success. Yet we argue for a standardized core curriculum and seek to judge school and teacher success through standardized tests that take only a snapshot of student achievement. Further, these tests deprive teachers of the ability to support creativity in the classroom or to explore issues and concepts that are not part of the standardized curriculum. In short, teachers are stripped of their autonomy, then judged as if they are solely responsible for student success. Who wouldn’t feel helpless in that situation?

Funding Cuts: Finally, change requires money. Ask any businessperson, and they will tell you that retooling a factory to produce a new product or to dramatically change the quality of the products being created, takes funding. Yet, despite all the criticism and calls for change in education, our politicians continually cut educational funding. They then float businessmen before us as options for President who want to further scuttle the public education system using vouchers so schools can be run more efficiently, even though such a system would eventually destroy the very concept of public education rather than improve it (Marquis, 31 May, 2012).

Solution?
In the final assessment, if teachers are to be judged complacent, we must first look to understand the underlying causes of their indifference. When we do this with any degree of candor, we find that we, as a society, are responsible for the stagnant state of education. We are, in effect the ones administering the electric shocks that have conditioned teachers to believe that they cannot change the education system. What can we do to address Secretary Duncan’s concern over the "greatest challenge" we currently face?
For starters, we can make a concerted effort to hear what teachers say. Take a few minutes to read Primary Sources: 2012 America’s Teachers on the Teaching Profession, a recent survey of teachers conducted by Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This document reveals how much teachers know about their craft and how non-complacent they actually are.  

Second, we must alter our own values and place education at the center of what we think is important to our continued success and growth as a country (Keathley, 7 June, 2012). Not surprisingly, in countries that have a better education system than ours, teachers and education are treated with a great deal more respect  (Evans, 30 May, 2012) and education is a core societal value rather than a burden on taxpayers and a handy political target to snipe at. We must make our most important social institution important again. We cannot tolerate an anti-intellectual climate in which academics are viewed as naïve savants who don’t understand the real world and in which a quality education is a privilege rather than a right.

The real value of learning and thinking must be realized as the most important commodity that we have as a society. Starting to fund our education system at a level appropriate to the importance that it should hold in our society would be a good start. Increasing educational funding would in fact show that we as a people are not complacent about education.

 

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