10/19/2010 08:49 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Education Reform: Are the Teachers Really to Blame?

As the debate over education heats up, everyone is talking about the new Davis Guggenheim film, "Waiting for Superman." Whether or not you agree with the position the personalities featured in the film take is one thing. Another thing -- the more important thing -- is the fact that this movie has inspired many people to join the debate over education reform.

Everyone agrees that the U.S. education system is in disarray. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, U.S. students in 10th grade rank 28th in math and 22nd in science, out of a total of 39 countries (PDF).

Some activists proclaim charters are the new path forward in education reform. One of the features they highlight as a benefit found in charters is the absence of tenure. Three years in a traditional public school earns any teacher tenure -- a status that makes it difficult (though not impossible) to dismiss teachers without a lengthy rehabilitative process. These activists say that students' test scores would improve if teachers' salaries were tied to them. The argument seems to suggest that teachers are the ones failing, not students.

Others dismiss the tenure issue saying that tying salary to test scores would discourage teachers from staying at bad schools, where they are needed the most.

It is true that there are bad teachers. But, teaching is a demanding field and, as such, it tends to attract persons with a vocation for it and devotion to its principles. Such a person was Brittaney Powell when she started teaching three years ago.

"I think all teachers go in with the attitude that they are trying to make a difference. Initially they want to work hard." Although Powell received a Masters of Arts in Teaching (MAT), she admits, " I don't know whether I have ever been able to bring students up to their achievement level."

So, what turns a good, devoted teacher into an ineffectual instructor? If some teachers are willing and capable, then why are reading and math scores so low? If tenure is not the anathema to good teaching, then what is? Maybe the answer lies elsewhere. Maybe President Bush hit the question right: "Is our children learnin'?"

"Most teachers know what a good lesson plan looks like, but lack of resources and student apathy, due to bad experiences at home and in other classes, get in the way," Pwell said. "The good ones [teachers] get worn out by the disrespect of students and that forces teachers to leave schools or even teaching altogether."

When Powell started working in the Maryland public schools, she was full of passion to fill young minds with empowering knowledge and send them out into the world, brave and resilient. Besides earning a teaching degree and certificates, personal reasons motivated her. Her grandmother was a middle school teacher, and then a counselor, for about 30 years. Her mother served as principal at a Dallas high school.

"From my mother, I learned that you have to capture their hearts before you can capture their minds," she said. Powell tried to engage students based on their individual interests, whether it was a sport or a hopeful career path. But, after three years in the traditional public school system, she wants out.

During her journey in the D.C. and Maryland public schools, she has endured many rough days. As a young 20-something woman working in an urban area school, she found herself out of her league. Although she came from a similar background, she found that all her pedagogical training had failed to brave her for the obstacles she now faced.

Most of her challenges are extra-curricular. For example, "students curse at me, curse each other and some disputes came to physical blows." The students, especially high school freshmen, like to practice what they call joning. " It's a game to see who can come up with the best personal attack, like a Yo' Mama competition on MTV," she said. Veteran colleagues recommend sarcasm.

"If you remove a student from class for indiscipline, sometimes there is no punishment procedure," she says. "A school looks bad if they have a too many referrals on their record, and they can only have a certain number of suspensions without being criticized. Principals discourage referrals because it is a lot of work for the administration -- contacting parents, putting information in the database, figuring out what the consequence would be for the referral." Administration expects teachers to handle disciplinary problems in-house, in the classroom, Powell said. If the problem is severe, the child will have a parent contact, and in the worst case, they may be suspended or expelled. But none of these procedures are rehabilitative -- they don't make the child more apt to learn.

"I've gotten my iPod and cell phone stolen while teaching," Powell recalls. "There are security cameras in the hallways and sometimes teachers have to turn to them to find out who stole their money."

While she is a dedicated instructor, Powell has found her classroom experience demoralizing. "When I first started, I spent 8-10 hours on lesson planning and then a fight would break out in the classroom over name-calling."

Other types of extra-curricular problems obstructed her teaching. "Some students are in the foster care system. One had AIDS and a daughter from a rape." The young woman with AIDS rarely attends class and her reading was significantly lower than what it should be at her grade level.

Powell credits absence as the number one reason for the gap in student's learning. "In one of the schools where I taught in the past, attendance averaged at 66 percent and students tended not to come on Friday."

"When half of them don't show up to class, how can we have the opportunity to teach them?"

And though some truant students could barely meet the requirements to pass the class, it was difficult to fail them and give them another opportunity to repeat the course.

"I feel that education is getting toward social promotion," Powell said. "In D.C., we have to meet with our principals to justify student data. We have to do a lot to show why we failed a child. We have show that we provided extra credit opportunities... It will look negatively on your evaluation if you have a lot of students failing."

Sometimes, administration would pressure teachers to give students a passing grade, Powell said. "Sometimes a teacher may award a student a passing grade on the expectation that he will eventually turn in all the work." This practice is especially true for athletes.

Attendance has a long-term effect on students' learning. Not only do they miss that day's lectures and activities, but, overtime, they earn a smaller skill set than their peers. "Some of my high school kids read at second grade level. When you are delivering instructions, it's hard to cater to all the needs."

The variety of needs teachers face is one reason why some education reformers support charters. Charters tend to be smaller and therefore more malleable in terms of implementing new methodologies and assessing results.

In a traditional school, the philosophy seems to be "the same method fits all." Kids in traditional schools tend to be taught in the same way, in accordance with state and federal guidelines. But, charters' independence allows them to try new experimental methods and therefore they can provide more tailored programs that are more of a match for a particular student. Many kids currently lost in the traditional school system can benefit from this specificity in methodology and style.

For example, a child whose parents are struggling with drug addiction and cannot oversee his educational progress may find that an institution like the SEED School of Washington D.C. is the best place for him. SEED Washington students live on campus, engaged in a positive environment, away from the distractions and troubles at home.

A child who is excelling at reading and writing and has published a book by the age 12 may find it challenging and rewarding to face the reading curriculum at Washington Latin Public Charter School in Washington D.C. The school requires its students to study the Roman language for three years. Understanding Latin is a boon to a student because it is the root of several modern languages and has had great influence on English vocabulary. Latin helps students become better readers and fosters literary creativity, not to mention helping them decode many a word on that eventual trial called the SAT.

"My first job was to help prepare students for the High School Assessment test," Powell recalls. "But, students did not have the skill set to prepare for that test so I tried to use visual aids. I did vocabulary building while teaching a government course and practiced writing skills with them. But still, students got left behind." Forty to fifty percent of her students failed the course.

Another major challenge is student apathy. Powell said that some students do not do any of the homework and she has to cut into class time to give them another opportunity to write a paper and earn a grade. Of course, this do-over comes at the expense of advancing the curriculum.

Culture also affects student apathy. "For some students, education is not important in their community, " Powell explained. They don't want to be seen as a nerd so they have low expectations and lack accountability for their work."

In an effort to help students address issues that get in the way of learning, some schools set up advisory programs. The class usually meets first thing in the morning and students can vent about whatever issues they have in other classes or in their personal lives. However, as the class is only worth 1/2 credit and is pass/fail, kids tend to skip it. In a class of 15-18, sometimes only two or three show up. "It's like an extra burden for the teacher, something additional they have to plan for."

Powell said that no university course prepared her to deal with the types of disciplinary and social problems that obstruct her students' learning.

For the most misbehaving students, Powell said she'd like to see more community service projects assigned, especially those that clearly spell out the future they will have if they do not get a proper education. "Difficult community service projects such as bathroom cleaning," she suggested. "Or, maybe make them visit a prison."

Doubtless there is room here for parents to take a part, to teach kids the value of personal responsibility. But what does a teacher do in the face of such daunting problems?

How do you discipline a misbehaving child and keep him from becoming apathetic? How do you inspire him if he does not come to school? How do you make him understand the importance of education?