Mike Tharp: Teaching -- the noble calling

March 17, 2012 

Once a month or so, Andrea Bressel, content editor of ValleyPBS in Fresno, asks your columnist to come down and do a 90-second "Editor's Commentary." For someone with a great face for radio, it's a neat chance to compress thoughts and reporting into a segment suited for a visual medium and audience.

This week's subject was "California: The Politics of K-12 Education." The top of the segment thanked Andrea "for such a simple subject. Easy to solve as world peace. Easy to understand as Sudoku."

Doane Yawger provides most of the Sun-Star's K-12 coverage two days a week and does a masterful job. But speaking in several high school classrooms has introduced me to some really cool teachers and administrators. So I looked them up.

To tighten the focus, they answered two questions: What are the three main problems facing K-12 education in our county? What are the three most practical solutions? They were all granted anonymity in return for candor.

Here's what they said.

Sounding like the old ABBA song, a district administrator said, "Money, money, money."

He elaborated: "A two-part issue exists with funding -- deficits and deferrals. School districts simply cannot continue to operate at this level of funding shortfall. In the near term, a good first step is for taxpayers to adopt one of the tax proposals."

As for student achievement: "Years of a dismal metric (No Child Left Behind) have made way for adoption of Common Core, or more simply, the expectation that students exhibit mastery of using knowledge, data and critical thinking to solve problems. Common Core will initiate more instructional change than any transition K-12 school districts have encountered to date."

A high school teacher weighed in on the three problems: "Not holding kids responsible in lower grades. In high school they can't read, write or think. We test our kids to death -- how to take tests, a curriculum based on tests. There's no old-fashioned education for the basics -- rhetoric, logic, literature -- pushing more and more electives out the door."

Solutions? "One and two would help remedy No. 3 so we'd get educated people instead of numbers. We don't care about the children. It's about numbers and money."

Another high school teacher: "Communication. When it's good it works smoothly. Parents, kids and teachers buy in. But when there's no clear message ... we need more face-to-face contact. Everybody celebrates API scores, but our kids are not ready to run the world.

"We celebrate filling in A, B or C on multiple choice tests, but we don't celebrate the kid who has all kinds of learning. When they apply to Apple or Google or Microsoft, they're not ready. Finally, parents. The bridge between the school and parents needs to be stronger. If the parents are involved, it positively affects the kids. It takes a village, but where's the rest of the village?"

And a third high school teacher: "As an educator I can't help but wonder why schools have English-learner classes under 20 while the 'average' student languishes in 40-plus classes. Second, how much of our curriculum is tainted by the likes of textbook lobbyists? Third, what will the net results be with a high percentage of electives no longer being offered?"

In Japan, where I lived for 11 years, education is one of the most important values. Son Nao, who went K-12 in Japanese schools, told me the word sensei (or teacher) is made up of two ideographs: sen means "prior or advance"; sei means "to live or a life." Together they mean "one who teaches life advancement, or a predecessor of life."

When we Californians again start respecting education as a virtue and view sensei as a noble calling, the politics of K-12 education will take care of themselves.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsunstar.com

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