Advice for the Superintendent of Denver Public Schools

Anthony Ralston
Professor Emeritus of Computer Science and Mathematics, SUNY at Buffalo

(As printed, slightly edited, in the Rocky Mountain News, Denver, Colorado, 25 July 2005)

A couple of weeks ago Linda Seebach wrote a column giving advice to Michael Bennet, the incoming superintendent of Denver Public Schools. This advice consisted almost entirely of quotes from various people whose opinions she had solicited. Much of it was over the top such as calling a middle school mathematics curriculum used in Denver "degenerate" and suggesting that anything favored by the National Council of Teacher of Mathematics, most of whose members are among the best high school teachers in the US, should be treated with contempt.

I could but won't rebut point-by-point the criticism in Seebach's column. Instead I will focus on the major problem that besets schools in Denver and across the US. Denver is just beginning to address this problem but it will need to go much further than current proposals do if the problem is to be solved.

If you read only the pronouncements of those on the various sides of the education debate in the US, you might believe that if every school would just use the right mathematics curriculum, whatever that might be, and just use the correct approach to teaching reading, whatever that might be, then everything would be fine in American schools. But it wouldn't be. This is because by far the biggest problem in American schools has nothing to do with curriculum but is rather that the intellectual quality of the cadre of teachers in American schools has been declining for the past half century at least.

No, I'm not going to engage in teacher-bashing. Although I live thousands of miles from Denver, I'm sure that there are plenty of very good teachers in Denver's schools. Just not enough.

Women are still the vast majority of teachers in American schools. During the past half century we have progressed from a time when the only professional jobs readily open to women were in teaching and nursing to a time when all the professions are open to women, some completely so, some less so. Moreover, not only do all these professions pay better than teaching, generally much better, but also they provide more pleasant, often less stressful workplaces than many American schools have become. And particularly in subjects like mathematics and science, there are plenty of excellent job opportunities for anyone with a degree in those areas.

The certain result has been that a steadily declining fraction of the most able women have chosen teaching as a profession. But we need just as able people in teaching as we do in medicine, law and all the other professions. Until we get them, all the other arguments about what to teach and how to teach it will have negligible effect no matter who wins these arguments. A particular scandal in mathematics, at least, is the number of teachers with no mathematics credentials whatever who nevertheless teach mathematics in elementary and secondary school.

ProComp, approval of which will be on the ballot in Denver in November, is a step in the right direction. But it doesn't go nearly far enough to provide the compensation and working conditions that will attract the best high school graduates to university programs that will prepare them to be teachers in Denver's schools. Therefore, it must be only the first step toward giving Denver's teachers the true professional status they deserve.

So my advice to Michael Bennet is, yes indeed, hire the best chief academic officer you can find but also and much more important, not only work for the approval of ProComp by Denver's voters in November but make clear to the politicians and voters in Denver that ProComp is, at best, a first step toward what is needed to give Denver's children the schools they deserve.

Yes, my prescription would require tax increases beyond, perhaps far beyond what will be required to fund ProComp. But better schools is the most critical need in the US today. If education is as important as almost everyone agrees it is, then it is way past time that Americans try to buy it on the cheap.