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
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
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.