A retired teacher and principal with thirty-eight years of experience in public education, Renato C. Nicolai, Ed.D., taught 6th through 12th grade and was both an elementary and middle school principal. In education circles, he was known as Dr. Nicolai, which eventually was shortened to Dr. Nick, and has stuck ever since.
Tyler: Thank you for joining me today, Dr. Nick. Obviously, the state of public education in the United States is of great concern to many people. To begin, will you tell us what you think is wrong with the public education system?
Dr. Nick: Wow! What an opportunity! Yes, I would be pleased to tell you what I think is wrong with the public education system. My thoughts aren't in any order of priority; I'm telling you about them as they come to mind.
What I think of first is what I wrote about as the main emphasis in my book. Teachers desperately need to improve the quality of their teaching, so, specifically, what's wrong is that too many teachers are either incompetent or mediocre instructors at best. Yes, if you had the opportunity to stand by my side in the hundreds of classrooms I've visited in my career, you would be both amazed and horrified at how much poor quality teaching there is in our public schools. If parents only knew how much more their children could be learning with instruction from superb teachers compared to what they are most likely learning now from incompetent teachers, they would be flabbergasted. That's how bad it really is. This indictment of teachers, however, is not a major problem at the elementary school, but is a serious and rampant problem for sure at the middle school, junior high school, and especially the high school level of education. Parents, you'll want to read about the eight essential qualities most teachers don't possess. I've listed and described them in the first chapter of my book.
Tenure is another critical problem. Once tenure is granted by a school district, an incompetent teacher is a teacher for life. It's extremely difficult to dismiss a teacher who has tenure. What's wrong with tenure is that it's achievable so soon in a teacher's career (after only three years in most cases), so final (once it's granted it's irrevocable), and so long lasting (the teacher keeps it for as long as he/she teaches). What happens is that some teachers work very hard during their first few years on the job, receive tenure, and then slack off in their performance because they know they can almost never lose their job. Instead of tenure, public education should promote a system of performance reviews that teachers are required to pass periodically in order to keep their teaching position for the next two or three years.
The way a teacher is evaluated is all wrong within the education system. It's basically a sham and a joke. Collective bargaining contracts and union involvement in teacher evaluations has watered down the process of teacher evaluations to the degree that practically nothing worthwhile results from the process. In my book, I have a chapter titled "What You Don't Know Won't Hurt You," and the concept of teacher evaluation is discussed in that chapter. If parents and the public at large knew how ineffective and unproductive teacher evaluations are, they would demand a more efficient system. The system as it exists in most school districts today is a tactful process of saying the right words, doing what's anticipatdd, and not ruffling anyone's feelings. What it should do is help teachers improve the quality of their teaching to the degree that they help students learn better, but it doesn't do that at all.
The public education system is rooted in the false notion that all teachers are qualified educators who can be trusted to make good decisions, follow school district rules and regulations, work together in a spirit of collegiality, promote the welfare of students as a priority, and, generally, do what is just, moral, and professional. What's wrong is that this description is simply not true; yet, school districts throughout the United States allow teachers the freedom to work unsupervised because they are assumed to be well-intentioned, professional persons who have the best interests of students at heart. Don't misunderstand me, please. Of course, there are many conscientious teachers who do work well with each other and do have the best interests of students at heart, but I believe that there are many more who take advantage of academic freedom, collegiality, and lack of supervision to do whatever they want within the four walls of their classrooms. This is actually a very serious problem that is covered up by the educational hierarchy.
Another very serious wrong is the way in which school districts manage the use of substitute teachers. Substitute teachers are rarely observed to determine their competence, frequently assigned to subject areas they have no qualifications to teach, and regularly subjected to unbelievable disrespect and insolence from students. When a substitute teacher is present in a middle school, junior high school, or high school classroom, little or no learning takes place. That class is a waste of instructional time, the students' time, and the substitute's time as well. The three most common activities that take place when a substitute takes over a regular teacher's class are the showing of videos or DVDs, the administration of tests, and the supervision of long, boring written or reading assignments left by the regular teacher. The lesson plans left by most regular teachers for substitute teachers to follow are generally a set of instructions on how to occupy the time students have in class. The entire substitute teacher system needs to be completely overhauled. Students must be taught to respect substitute teachers, to assist them with the lesson, and to be responsible for their own learning. Expectations that students will cooperate with substitute teachers, that regular teachers will conscientiously prepare quality lesson plans, that substitutes will teach, and that administrators will monitor substitutes are so miserably low, currently, that the education system simply accepts the status quo of chaos, lack of learning, and disgraceful substitute teacher academic and professional performance.