Being a teacher in America is like being between a rock and a hard place; and if Time Magazine's latest article is an indicator, it doesn't look like that position is going to improve any time soon.
The article How to Raise the Standard in America's Schools is depressing for me as a teacher. In it the author, Walter Issacson, continues to make the same bad assumptions, apples and oranges comparisons, while offering the same tired solutions that schools have been saddled with for the past few decades.
The main thrust of the article is that America's schools need a national set of standards and benchmarks. He asserts that since No Child Left Behind let states set their own standards, it has been common for states to set the bar low in order to pass. In this, he mistakes symptom for cause. Throughout the article, he makes the case that it is the lowering of standards that is making America's students perform lower. Therefore his logic follows that setting high national standards will not allow local schools to skew numbers and will ultimately produce better results.
But setting higher standards as a way to improve achievement is, I believe, one of the primary failures of No Child Left Behind. It simply moves an arbitrary bar into the air without addressing the needs and conditions of various local schools. It would be like the Federal government coming to the car companies and saying, "We want you to develop cars that will time travel when they hit 88 miles an hour. If you don't have it to us in the next five years, we our going to shut down your company." This sounds absurd, but it is not far off the mark from edicts that are being handed to many public schools.
The author raises the fear that we are not being competitive on an international level. I do not dispute this point, but his solutions are based on apples and oranges comparisons. He never addresses the primary difference between the US and most Asian/European schools - Tracking. As early as the fourth grade, most schools outside the US begin tracking students towards an academic or trade-based education. Children who have an aptitude for academics are put together, while students who lack the desire or aptitude for academics are placed on a different course of schooling.
The effect of this on academic students cannot be overstated. I wrote an article last year (The Homeschooling Public School Teacher) that addressed the impact that disruptive students have in an academic classroom. Put simply, I believe students who do not desire an academic education cause our classrooms to lose a great deal of their effectiveness. It must be understood that there is nothing a classroom teacher can do about this but endure. Nothing, in our public schools, will be done about a disruptive student. They may spend some time in the office, or perhaps occasionally be suspended, but the majority of their time will be spent in the classroom as an anchor for the academic progress of their fellow students (and most classes have MANY students who fit this category).
In the end, Mr. Issacson repeats the same false assumptions about where our problems lie and therefore offers solutions that will give us more of the same. Solutions like those put forth by Mr. Issacson will punish American public schools for not producing the educational equivalent of a flux capacitor. These remedies never address the differences in our educational programs with those of our international competition; nor do they identify that students and their families are an x factor in the education equation that must be considered.
Unfortunately, President Obama seems to buy in to the logic of the Issacsons of America. This means we will have another decade spent missing the point; while teachers and schools remain the whipping boy.