We need good teachers, not puppets, in our schools

By Ramnath Subramanian / Special to the El Paso Times

Posted: 11/21/2013 12:00:00 AM MST

A bat costs $1 more than a ball.

Together they cost $1.10.

What is the price of the ball?

This should be a simple math problem to most high-school students, and I would expect them, without use of paper and pencil, to render a correct response inside of 30 seconds using simple algebra.

Yet, more than 50 percent of students at Princeton, M.I.T. and Yale fell into the intuitive trap that might excusably ensnare a sixth grader.

At lesser-known universities, students missing the answer rocketed to as high as 80 percent.

Clearly, we have a serious problem in education.

Public education is supposed to prepare students for college, but the trouble is that it is suffocatingly structured to fit accountability standards, and too much inside the rails of get-them-to-pass-the-test thinking.

I remember a time when I was having a discussion with my students about simple harmonic motion when a visitor — a putative expert in the field of teaching science — walked into my classroom to observe my lesson.

When there was a pause, she sidled up to me, and said, “This is not in your lesson plan.”

“I am ashamed to say,” I admitted, with a touch of humor that might have been lost on her, “that many of the things I teach are not in my lesson plans.”

“It is also not in the sixth-grade curriculum,” she pressed forth, unfurling a sheet of objectives and student expectations.

“Somehow we got involved with the time period of pendulums. It is a fascinating topic, because it can be counter-intuitive. Last week, I was talking to my class about Bernoulli’s Principle. It, too, is not in the curriculum. It, too, can be counter-intuitive.”

The visitor’s countenance betrayed the fact that she did not like my answers.

On another occasion, I was reading aloud from an essay a student had written, when another so-called expert dropped in unannounced.

After she had taken a seat in the back of the room, I continued with my lesson.

“Sarah, you have a fondness for similes,” I said. “More to the truth, you have a great fondness for similes. Your style is euphuistic.”

“What’s that?” asked a boy, less from curiosity, and more from an appetite for conversation.

“It is a style of writing that was popular in the Elizabethan era, and it employed a lot of similes like Sarah does. I will bring some samples to share with you the next time.”

“Sarah uses too many similes,” the boy declared, in a peremptory tone of voice.

“You don’t know anything,” Sarah countered.

“Your writing would be better if you don’t use too many yoo-fyoo things,” the boy insisted, with a flash of invention.

The visitor, I noticed, was taking notes, and I had little doubt that her comments visited dark clouds rather than sunshine.

Today’s classrooms have become dull industries of mediocrity.

They run on predictable schedules.

The topic and pace of lessons are predetermined by bureaucrats masquerading as educators.

The smart teachers with a penchant and talent for teaching tend to succumb to the pressure to conform, or gravitate toward other career choices.

The situation is not helped by a new generation of teachers who themselves are the product of a fractured educational system.

If education is to regain its mettle and luster, if students are to become architects of our future, then good teachers must be restored to their rightful throne, and the kingdom of learning made sanguine again.

Ramnath Subramanian is a retired public-school teacher. E-mail address: marianramm@yahoo.com