Mrs. C. is quitting

As she heads home, American education is a little poorer

Issue: "Bush: Crunch time," March 4, 2000

There are mornings," the woman told me with rising frustration, "-and to tell you the truth they come more and more often-when I could just run out of the classroom at 9:30, head for home, and never look back."

She is a public-school teacher in a typical first-grade classroom. An earnest Christian, she's been at it for 20 years-long enough to fill three four-drawer filing cabinets with all the original materials and teaching aids a devoted elementary teacher accumulates. She is as qualified as anyone in her school district, holding credentials at the doctoral level. You don't have to talk with her very long to start thinking: Here's a woman you'd love to have as your child's teacher, or your grandchild's teacher, or as the teacher for any kid you know. She's serious, she's fun, she's knowledgeable, she's compassionate, she's got standards, and she's experienced.

And in just a few months, she'll also be unemployed.

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Mrs. C. hasn't been fired; she's just worn down, worn out, and quitting. Doing what she does with 25 little children for six or seven hours every day is taxing in the best of circumstances. It's not just learning the alphabet and phonics and basic math. It's wiping noses and figuring out who tripped whom first and explaining why not everyone got the same number of valentines. Even in the best years of American public education, it was grinding and demanding and exhausting. But these are no longer the best years.

So Mrs. C. symbolizes a growing crisis for public education these days. Thousands of teachers just like her, seasoned veterans in their 50s, are hanging it up and saying, "Enough!" In a tight labor market, where the number of young men and women entering the field of teaching gets smaller year by year, the departure of people like Mrs. C. would be serious enough. But the problem is in fact much worse than simply finding an appropriate number of newcomers each year to replace those who are leaving.

First, those who are leaving take with them those years of experience so essential to keeping order and providing direction in a classroom. If there really was a better time in America's schools, these are the folks who still have some linkage to it. Many of those who now step forward to take their places have no memory of anything other than behavioral chaos in their schoolrooms, in the dining areas, and on the playgrounds. That is the norm they've been taught, and that is the standard they will tend to accept in the classrooms they lead.

Second, those who are leaving also take with them some of the last vestiges of what some call traditional education. It's not that there is no value at all to open classrooms, to whole-language approaches, and to the new math. Those and other innovations came about in part because of deficiencies in traditional methods. But American education today has become a hodge-podge of theories; Mrs. C. and her colleagues find themselves totally at the mercy of some other teacher's failed experiment from last year. The radicalism with which such new ideas were introduced has far too often sacrificed the students' opportunities to learn basic skills-and our whole society has paid the price in functional illiteracy, embarrassing computational skills, and terrifying deficiencies in critical thinking. Such is the generation of people now stepping into the nation's classrooms to take the place of Mrs. C. and her colleagues.

Third, chances are slim to none that Mrs. C.'s replacement will have anything like a coherent worldview. Notice that I'm not referring here to something so specific as a Christian or a biblical worldview; all that's in question is a coherent worldview. Since the main value in society today is the assertion that all values are equal, there's not much room left for folks with distinctive and coherent perspectives. When the new teacher announces, in fine politically correct fashion, that this year we'll celebrate everybody's holidays, it should be no wonder that no holiday seems worth celebrating. If the graduates who get their degrees over the next generation seem to have no anchors worth sinking, it will be in large part because the teachers moving right now into their classrooms also have no anchors.

The late Roy Lowrie, dean of the Christian school movement through the 1970s and 1980s, told some of us in 1985 that the demise of public schools in America was still at least a decade away. Public schools, he said, were being held together by that large cadre of loyal, competent, and mature Christians-people who themselves were educated in another generation. But, he said, they were retiring, and-like Mrs. C.-they were wearing down. "What's happening," he told us, "is that their removal is like chiseling out all the mortar in a brick building. When the mortar's gone, the building will fall."

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