Commentary: Things Hard to Fix!
Monday, August 7, 2006

Delia Stafford
President, Haberman Educational Foundation

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University

The authors believe that there is a sincere on-going effort to improve America 's schools. Many people write books, offer ideas, have theories, but there are some things that are simply difficult, if not impossible to fix. We will here discuss the TOP TEN things that are difficult to fix in American education. We are not saying these things are impossible to “fix”, but they may not be malleable, pliable, or there may not be very many quick easy answers. If we ever intend to get better, here are some ideas about where to start! We even have a few solutions entertained here in this document.

(1 & 2) Teacher turnover and teacher burnout in America 's public schools !

Teacher 1)turnover and 2) BURNOUT ! The following verbs(hard to fix) defined, as of old, as (action,being,or state of being) all being inter-related. All of these verbs are experienced by those serving daily in America 's schools. The verbs are stress , strain, anxiety, constant worry, tension, trauma, hassle , generally causes of teacher burnout and ultimately, teacher turnover. Burnout is usually caused by “ being responsible for things over which you have no control ”. So when one begins to determine the issues that one cannot control in our schools, the list becomes personal. Of those listed, which of these can you, as an educator, control?

  • Testing , state and local test: (constant worry)
  • Bureaucracy , including major paperwork;(hassle, trauma, constant worry),
  • Parents (tension, anxiety)
  • Students too ! (Anxiety,constant worry,tension, trauma, hassle)
  • Gangs,drugs,one parent families ,society as a whole(constant worry and concern)
  • Other issues including the conditions of work; no parking space, no paper for duplicating machine, bathrooms locked, unclean work place, front office indifference, constant change in C&I, new programs, “silver bullets” for teaching, and the list goes on.

So, as we search to find reasons for burnout and teacher turnover, need we say more?

Teacher turnover can cost as much as 2.6 billion a year(Martin Haberman,2005) ,Research Section. Perhaps we should devise a plan to alleviate burnout and stop the turnover of the teachers we need! Does anyone have that plan available for all to grasp.

There are teachers who know how to handle the “burnout/turnover list” without neglecting the children; while they are concerned about the above “list”, it is never their main focus. Their students come before all else. Their classrooms are their castles! “Enter,learn and enjoy” is their mantra. We need more of “those erudite teachers” so that schools are never faced teachers who have entered the world of burnouts.

Unfortunately many teachers do burnout , but stay on the job and experience continuous challenges in the classroom. Perhaps those teachers could be characterized as the “strong insensitives.” The students then pay the price.

AHA!!THERE IS A SOLUTION TO BURNOUT! Great teachers network with committed and successful educators who are experiencing the same kinds of issues. They seek ways to find out what they are doing that makes them successful. They work in teams with those who are making good decisions to solve problems that can/may cause burnout and teacher turnover in our schools. This idea could go a long way towards solving burnout, which causes teacher turnover. We can only hope!HTF

3 & 4) EVEN HARDER TO FIX , would be 3) politics and 4) money . Better known and defined as funding and control. Money, Money everywhere, and not a dime to spare! We will take it from anywhere we can get it! Grants, Foundations, Corporate America see us with our hand out for more. Fifty million here and there.

50% of the teachers quit/fail within 3 to 5 years.! Dropouts, failing and falling test scores and schools take the brunt of the problem. Schools are charged with educating the masses. Money and Politics remain a mystery. Why? It could be compared to controlling the oil industry! Does anyone know who or where to start? This “hard to fix” could also be compared to, “trying to save a sinking ship using grout”!

Here is one scenario: If you have money, people will listen. If you have money, schools will come asking. If you have money, politicians will inquire. If you are in politics, money will come. If you are in politics you could possibly control the money! Who gets it, who funds it ,etc. The unfortunate follow up is this, money and politics control schools.And to date and to our knowledge, we have very little to show for the money and politics, at least not in closing the ever expanding achievement gap!!

So here you have it…. Spending MONEY,let's see now……….. equals reform efforts, small schools, book vendors, food venders, cleaning companies, furniture companies, reading programs, computers and computer programs, teacher training, teacher recruitment, facilities, bus drivers, other,employees, to say nothing of the high cost of maintaining central office.Then we read about 30 million for TTT grants, 50 million here and there to reform schools, education critics and writers, waste at every level, school boards that micro-manage, terminating superintendents who become vested in several states, and there is much more!!!! Remember this. School districts,combined across states, remain as the largest corporation in America . We have more funds from everywhere and spend more on KIDS? Probably not.

MONEY AND POLITICS; go figure. If you have a solution that will really work, send it in. We work hard to get better so says the school masses.However, we would say, … “In a nutshell”, “Try to beat money and politics” and if you win, let the authors know right away! HOWEVER we would say in the best of all worlds to beat the P and M…. Better teachers, better schools,better principals, better schools!! Across the board. HTF

5) The Long Term Nature of Education

Whenever educated people discuss “education” they try to discuss things logically, systematically and reasonably. The real difficulty in talking about education is trying to determine exactly what “ an educated person” means. Street educated, college educated, doctor, lawyer ,teacher, cashier, mechanic, driver and the list goes on.

In some circles, a person with a college degree is “ educated”. They may not think very rationally or reasonably, be able to solve calculus problems, conduct scientific experiments or transpose music from Eb to F, but by dint of the fact that they have a college degree, some regard them as “ educated”, by hook or crook!

They may not be able to write a coherent paragraph, because they may have “ clepped “ out of all of their English courses, or taken only multiple choice tests for several years.

There are those individuals who insist that “an educated person” can be given some type of standardized test, and if they pass it at the 8 th grade level, that this documents that they are minimally educated. What are we thinking?! There are obviously individuals who hold a masters degree from, “quote” one of those diploma mills (and we won't mention any names here for the “fear of leaving some out”) who have a piece of paper posted or framed on their wall. It is legal because it costs them a certain amount of time and money, which generally includes a few mundane assignments. That single piece of paper does not mean that they are “educated”. Or does it?

An educated person during the time of Abraham Lincoln, is not the same “educated person” during the time of Roosevelt, be it Theodore or Franklin , and “an educated person during the time of George Herbert Walker Bush, is not the same as an educated person during the time of George W. Bush. “ Educated” is a relative term. Relative to what? And while DaVinci and Rembrandt live on to this day, their “education” during their time frame was different than Albert Einstein's education.

The “education“ of students in England , an English speaking country, is probably qualitatively and quantitatively different than the education that students in Princeton, Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth , or dare I say it, Columbia University .

A student who has completed the 8 th grade has a certain amount of education. They may be able to read, write, do some simple math, perhaps they know a little bit about art or music. An M.D. is highly “educated “ perhaps in terms of medicine or their subspecialty, but they may not be able to differentiate Verdi's music from Puccini's works. They may not be able to cogently discuss R.D. Laing or J.K. Rowling. But they may be a good heart surgeon. May we add here, “all things to all people”?HTF

6) The Complexity of the Human Species

Increasingly over the last forty years, schools have begun, “to attempt” providing an opportunities for all children to receive an education. The average Senator and Congressman probably does not know that in the schools there are children with learning disabilities, mental retardation, benign congenital hypotonia, attention deficit disorder, visually impairments, hearing impairments, children with expressive and receptive language disorders, and some children who have asthma, diabetes, juvenile arthritis, broken bones, and speech defects. There are children with cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis and spina bifida.

We are attempting to educate not just nice, normal, “well adjusted kids” from middle class America, but included in the millions, we have children who have been exposed to hurricanes, tornadoes and other disasters; family violence, drive by shootings, and don't forget the 15 million who live in poverty.

We have children with above average intelligence, and below average intelligence. WE have winners and losers in the game of life who enter schools with either a well developed vocabulary, insight and verbal skills and we have kids that enter schools hungry every morning.

We have kids that are highly motivated to learn, and we have kids who are more motivated by sports, perhaps music, perhaps dating, or auto mechanics. At least they are in school.

Motivation. We can not motivate another person. We can however, set the conditions in our classrooms, nationally, where children will want to learn. Then and only then will real motivation be apparent and students will learn. Teachers must “set the conditions” for learning. Not the parents or society! We have no control over parents or society, but we can and do have control in the classroom,if as professionals, we know what we are doing.

Not all students are motivated to learn. Not all students are eager to learn about the war of 1812 (which took place before I was born). Not all Native American Indians are eager to learn the “white man's knowledge” and not all students want to learn Geometric proofs, or read Upton Sinclair or Thornton Wilder's My Town or Tale of Two Cities. Students who attend school at 838 Brook Avenue in the Bronx may be more concerned about getting to school and returning home than learning about Austria , and Australia . Perhaps the “setting the conditions” was never put in place for that to happen. The challenge is enormous.HTF


There are those who believe discipline is the number one problem in American schools. Others say it's the lack of classroom management. Some point to “ mainstreaming” or inclusion as the culprit. Discipline, like education, is a very broad term. It could refer to children being violent, aggressive and even feel free to assault others. Then there are students who constantly drop their pencils, or simply inattentive during quadratic equation time. Quadratic equations?!!! Not sure what those are.Why are we not surprised if they drop their pencil? You get our drift? HTF

Discipline problems could also be attributed to teachers who inappropriately interact with students who are acting out or in general, misbehaving in class. “sit down back there, you haven't turned in your homework for the last 3 weeks” or “ sit up, we don't sleep in this class”,or “what's the problem,out all night with your friends”, “yeah right” “that's your problem,not mine”! Or even worse, “ college for you? forget about it”!!

Do you think these statements have ever been used to embarrass a student? Well, you can bet your bottom dollar on it!

We need teachers who understand the far reaching implications of embarrassing or breaking trust with students during any verbal interaction that would appear less than positive. After awhile, when students are tired of hearing it, they drop out of school. Unfortunately, teachers can escalate volatile situations with students if the “mature” response is not readily available to solve a problem. We define maturity as follows : “the ability to control our impulses , to think beyond the moment and consider how our words and our actions will affect ourselves and others before we act”. With this definition we could possibly change both the teacher and student behaviors. Children do not always have the thought process in tact to live and behave by this definition; adults should! Good management strategies often assuage disciplinary actions for students. Fifteen million children live in poverty and to leave that life behind,education is imperative. NO Child Left Behind! HTF


Like death and taxes, change will probably always be with us. The very real fact is that change is stressful, we live in a constantly changing world and there are four main areas of constant change that contribute to difficulties in education.

  • Curriculum - There seems to be an ever evolving, constantly changing curriculum in the schools. This may be due to the fact that unlike England , we do not have a national curriculum. Further, as science advances there are changes in curriculum that are necessary. However, constant change is problematic for teachers, administrators ( new books have to be purchased) and school boards. The constant pace of change is difficult for some teachers, probably less so than others. I am risking angering my P.E. colleagues, but I am not sure if the P.E. curriculum has changed that much over the years. However, the social studies, government and civics curriculum may have changes substantially and more and more information and knowledge is being required.
  • Technology - This is something that we cannot change, fix, modify, but something with which we must continually cope. We will provide one simple example. In the 1950's, mathematicians used slide rules. Then in the 1970's there were calculators, and now computers that can do statistical analysis and iPods and even cell phones have some statistical capabilities. The personal computer has revolutionized education. The Internet has revolutionized education. The personal computer has changed the way we live, work, and learn. The internet has changed the teaching process, as has technology. The blackboard is from another era. The one room school house is from another era. We must accept the fact that McGuffey's Reader is gone. Abraham Lincoln reportedly wrote the Gettsyburg Address on the back of an envelope. I do not know how Ronald Reagan wrote his” Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall” speech. I suspect that it went through several drafts.
  • Computers - Even the realm of computers has radically changed. The IMB PC Junior is now longer with us, but is gathering mothballs. I now have five USB port sticks, an external hard drive, and am learning SEAS and AIMSWEB. ( If you don't know about these systems, you had better start learning ).
  • Family - This is one of those domains that has probably been “ beat to death” by sociologists of education , rather sociologists period. The family unit has changed, is now morphing to use another more current term, and has undergone some radical processes. The nuclear family of the 1950's is still with us, but perhaps with different values and stresses. Today, we have extended families, blended families, single parent families and families where the child is bounced in joint custody arrangement from one parent to another. We cannot change the judicial decisions of judges ( although we can always write letters of utter disbelief ) but please understand,the teacher of 2006 is dealing with a different family unit, structure and composition than the teacher of 1956.HTF

9) Extraneous Variables

Many years ago, Charles Jackson and the second author ( MS ) wrote an article entitled “ Education's Plight: The Problem of Extraneous Variables”. I forget where it was published, but I can look it up. Basic premise is that education, teachers and the schools have no control over certain things. They certainly have no control over the weather and the hurricanes that have pummeled New Orleans . Educators have no control over the fact that Britney Spears and all of her contemporaries seem to flaunt a disregard for learning, and education. Educators have no control over the fact that the television is on in most homes in America more than 5 hours a day. Educators have no control over what children watch in the movies or on t.v. Millions of subliminal messages are sent to children, adolescents and our society about learning, reading, studying and problem solving via the television. Teachers cannot control the subliminal messages that are sent to children by television shows such as Sex and the City and Friends. There are many, many extraneous variables. Many teachers do a valiant job of coping with these factors, and variables. Their job is never complete. HTF

In spite of all the cultural changes, technological changes, social changes and seemingly endless reforms, there is still a basic element that is necessary as we enter the next decade. The basic issue is that of good teaching. Teachers are increasingly confronted with greater and greater challenges, but the basics of good pedagogy remain the same.

The following ten commandments of teaching may help focus on the most salient, relevant things that teachers could do in order to cope with the previously indicated concerns, that are HARD TO FIX! HTF

10) The 10 Commandments of Good Teaching:

  • Never teach students without having interesting things to do to meet the stated objectives, 185/190 days a year, K-12.
  • Be persistent/consistent utilizing “the best”of teaching behaviors and work hard to discover what works for every child
  • Build caring and professional relationships so that students know you want to be their teacher
  • Try new strategies learned during staff development days; always enhance what you learn to ensure students get your best thinking.
  • Never escalate violence in the classroom or embarrass a student by interacting with negative behaviors; find another way to resolve issues
  • Visit homes to learn more about each student
  • Visit the master teachers when they allow
  • Be organized for more time on task
  • Talk less and facilitate more, to ensure learning
  • Never Give Up! DS

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