Good advice: Let teachers teach

Perhaps the best advice for West Virginia legislators preparing for a special session on public school improvement is this: Just let the teachers teach.

After the fiasco over Senate Bill 451, the “omnibus education bill” this winter, Gov. Jim Justice called for a special legislative session to reconsider improvements to how we handle public schools. One lawmaker to whom I talked off-the-record refers to the session as an opportunity for “SB 451 Enhanced.”

Meaning no disrespect to anyone involved, I doubt that. Here’s the thing: SB 451 included quite a few very specific provisions ­– some of them very desirable. But they were all nibbling around the edges of the real problem.

For example, SB 451 included important financial aid for relatively small counties. It has a provision for more counselors. But nowhere did lawmakers tackle the mountain of rules and regulations by which teachers, principals, superintendents and boards of education must do their jobs.

Mathematics education is an excellent example. I’ve heard from more than one source that some math teachers are frustrated about how they are required to teach. Some of the concepts and ways of solving problems they are mandated to teach make no sense, they say. They just don’t add up.

Yet somewhere, there’s a roomful of “experts” who are less interested in children learning math than in promoting their pet concept of math education. And somehow, those folks got their ideas written into the rule book.

Here’s a novel idea: Decide what we want kids to know by the time they graduate from high school. How to multiply double-digit numbers in their heads or determine the area of a rectangle, for example. Or understanding that someone has to pay for all those goodies government provides. Or that the only time an apostrophe is used in “it’s” is when the meaning is “it is.”

Surely we can agree on such a list of requirements.

Then, get out of the teachers’ way. By that I mean, stop telling them there’s only one acceptable way to teach a certain subject. Stop allowing ideology, not actual need for knowledge, to dictate what we teach. Stop requiring that principals spend more time filling out paperwork than really observing teachers.

You get the idea. Just let ’em teach.

Then, come up with standardized examinations to determine whether students have learned what they need to know. If Teacher A’s kids pass, fine. Leave her or him alone. If Teacher B’s kids don’t do well, help him or her get better — perhaps by emulating Teacher A rather than being criticized for not following the “experts'” formula.

At one time, that system seemed to work reasonably well. Then, we — all over the country, not just here in West Virginia — refused to leave well enough alone. We decided to listen to the “experts” who are good at cocktail parties, have the right political connections, and are really proficient at marketing their ideas.

And we hired tons of state- and federal-level education overseers who managed to convince us no classroom is complete without a bureaucrat looking over the teacher’s shoulder.

How’s that been working out for us?

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.