Our educational systems are in a state of crisis, and it's an open question what lies on the other side of this period of re-examination...

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Our educational systems are in a state of crisis, and it’s an open question what lies on the other side of this period of re-examination.

Education needs to be reborn into something that fits the 21st century, and I hope that’s where all the pain of transformation will take us.

I jotted down a list of stories I’ve read about education recently. It’s the start of a new school year, when media come back to the topic after a summer off, but the news itself is real stuff.

The list was long and covered everything from kindergarten to graduate school, from kids wasting time on worthless homework to a new consensus that math teachers ought to go back to the basics.

There was the MIT admissions officer who said she’d had enough of the current state of affairs that has young people dedicating their lives to getting into “the right” college at the expense of everything else.

What’s the purpose of a college if all it wants are students who are already finished products, she asked? Well, it looks good on paper.

I couldn’t list all the criticisms of education I’ve seen in just the past couple of weeks, but the one I’ve thought about most is a report on teacher quality.

Teacher training is a mess. I don’t think many people needed a new study to tell them that, but to cook a goose as big as teacher quality requires a lot of wood. Maybe repetition will wake someone up.

This particular study was led by Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College at Columbia University. He knows the beast.

“Teacher education right now is the Dodge City of education: unruly and chaotic,” he said.

He said admission standards are low, course work is flawed, there’s not much oversight and faculties are often disengaged.

That’s why when you get a bunch of parents standing around a hallway they’re likely talking about which teachers to avoid and which classes you want to maneuver your child into.

Of course if your school is in a poor area or a rural area, or an area with lots of black folk, you might not have a lot of options. The best qualified teachers tend to go elsewhere.

Every institution has a mix of competent and incompetent people, but education seems especially plagued by poor teachers who rob children of the education they deserve.

Principals and parents know who they are. Other teachers know too, but rarely is anything done about them. It’s a shame for the kids, for society and for the teachers who excel at what they do.

As far as I can tell, schools don’t treat poor teachers any different than they treat top ones.

We are always losing people with the potential to be good teachers because their colleges didn’t prepare them for the real world. And when they arrive on the job they are enmeshed in a smothering bureaucracy too often bereft of real leadership.

Levine’s last study found the quality of principals and superintendents to be lacking, which explains part of the problem.

On top of institutional inadequacies, public schools are one of the places a society’s many other problems come to roost — poverty, the consequences of our racial hierarchy, gender inequalities, health concerns, and much more, enough stuff to scare some poor newbie teacher to death. It sends a lot of them running off to find new careers.

People are always poking, prodding, studying and criticizing the state of education. Times are always changing, and you can’t equip new generations for new times if education doesn’t keep up.

Keeping up doesn’t mean ditching fundamentals, it certainly doesn’t mean embracing every fad that comes along, and it isn’t often a matter of technological adaptation. It’s almost always a matter of people and systems.

Can the people in the system do what’s needed? Does the system give them clear direction and support? What is the system designed to do? How does it manage all the conflicting agendas pulling in different directions?

I admire the educators who can be effective the way things are, but a strong individual here or there is not enough for a society that desperately needs a well-educated citizenry.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

His column runs Thursdays and Sundays and is found at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.