Changes in system are needed

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By Ralph Damiani

I received a letter a couple of weeks ago in response to a column I had written. A part of the column – I think a sentence – referred to our failing schools.

The letter was in response to that. I tried to verify the letter but could not, so could not run it. But I know that the comments made in it are pretty universal, as I have heard them before.

Before I go into the letter, I would like to give some of my credentials in having such an opinion of the state of our educational system.

I was married to a teacher for 22 years, so I saw firsthand what goes on and what she did.

I taught for several years as an adjunct professor at junior colleges and I taught high school classes in Africa.

I have read many reports about our test scores and keep up with such data. My wife has two children in school, one in high school here and one in college in Santa Fe.

I saw three children through school and was an involved parent. All three went on to college.

Does all this make me an expert on education? Certainly not. But it does give a basis to have a somewhat reasoned opinion.

Now, to the letter.

It starts off by saying, “This letter is in response to your comment about failing schools in the editorial on Sunday, August 24, which was another one of your predictable insults to all the hard working teachers in our community. (Just out of curiosity, when is the last time you visited a Los Alamos school or had a conversation with a teacher?)”

Well, I have visited the schools here on several occasions and have written quite glowingly of what they do. This is a superb school system.

The issue I have is not with this school district, but with the educational system in general. It is hard, I would think, to argue that it is not in trouble.

Test scores continue to decline, the U.S. continues to drop in world rankings as to the quality of those we graduate and our overall literacy is falling.

The fault for this is widespread. Parents must take the brunt of the blame, but teachers are also at fault.

The letter continued.

“Imagine that you are the owner of a manufacturing facility. You have materials ready for assembly, tools and a workspace, supervisors onsite to facilitate the process, yet your employees do not show up to work. Does that mean that you have failed as a factory owner? According to you, the answer would be yes. If the schools provide a teacher, a desk, free books and transportation, then why is it their fault if a student does not show up or drops out? Please explain.”

When my ex-wife was teaching I saw the answer to this – and it is not the fault of the good teachers. That is certain.

I saw many teachers come early to meet students, and stay late to work with them. I can attest to the money good teachers spend from their own pockets for supplies, material and treats.

There is nothing better than a good teacher.

But I will also tell you that I saw many teachers arrive at school five minutes before the bell rang, leave school before the buses were even loaded and never spend a dime of their money.

A poor teacher hurts everyone.

Yet, there is no mechanism to separate the two. The good teacher gets the same pay, raises and benefits as the poor ones. In private industry that is not so.

To me, this is a problem. What is the incentive – other than personal – for the good teacher to stay good?

We here in Los Alamos are blessed with great teachers – who are supported by both parents and administration. But this fact is not so everywhere. We are lucky here with our schools, only they are not the rule but the exception.

We need to take this model and spread it out. We need to reward good teachers, we need to encourage them.

The system in New Mexico and nationally is really not working – just look at the output – to use the manufacturing analogy above. If a factory put out a poor product, the process would be changed.

We need to change the process.