Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

How to get teachers to teach and students to learn

By Rita F. Pierson, Special to CNN
May 6, 2013 -- Updated 0943 GMT (1743 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rita Pierson: Education is beset by fads, but there are some basic truths
  • It takes guts to hold students and teachers accountable, she says
  • If a child isn't present, he or she can't learn; fire teachers who always fail, she says
  • Pierson: Don't push every child to go to college or make them feel worthless if they don't

Editor's note: Rita F. Pierson, has been an educator for more than 40 years, serving as a teacher in elementary school, junior high and special education and has been a counselor and administrator. She has led development workshops for thousands of teachers. She spoke in May in New York at a TED Talks Education event that will be the basis for a show premiering Tuesday, May 7, on PBS stations. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading" which it makes available through talks published on its website.

(CNN) -- I have been a professional educator for 40 years. I have worked at every level of the public school spectrum—elementary through high school. Having been in education for such a long time, I have witnessed many changes, all aimed at school improvement. Needless to say, not all the suggestions have been sensible.

What may appear to be a good idea on paper, or when sitting around a table in discussion of it, does not always make for good reality, especially at the schoolhouse.

It is important to note that most of the dictates for schools are proposed by people who have never taught. Regardless of the studies and research aimed at school improvement, I believe good educators have always known what makes schools work more efficiently. However, we get bogged down in rhetoric and what is "hot" at the moment. I believe that sustained school improvement will take guts (good old fashioned courage), focus and stamina. Here are a few tenets that make sense to me:

If a child is not present at school, he or she cannot possibly learn. Schools that consistently report high student achievement consistently have students with great attendance. Yet one of our greatest school problems is student attendance. Why do we have to beg parents to get their children to school, to convince them that we need their children present and as stress free as possible? A parent asked me once why her child needed to come to school every day. She was actually upset that the school district had a policy that addressed absent and tardy children. She said it was not the school's business to tell her how to raise her children.

Of course, that did not make sense. Students are often caught in the middle of home/school discord. We should be on the same page! In an ideal world, all parents would recognize the need for excellence and consistency. Until the world reaches that ideal state, we must continue to strive for improved communication between home and school.

CNN Explains: TED

TED.com: How schools kill creativity

All children must have a champion, one who makes solid and sensible decisions that will help them grow into mature, happy and reliable adults. It does not have to be a parent, but it has to be someone.

And while it makes sense to hold home to a standard, where are our standards for educators? Why do we allow incompetence to remain? Doing so does not make sense. Many poor teachers stay on the job for decades and it is often the poorest schools that are saddled with the poorest teachers. I am not aware of any corporate entity (other than schools) that passes incompetence around in a circle.

If it is proven that a teacher can't teach (as indicated by low student performance, low enthusiasm, non-existent relationships with students and co-workers) why aren't they fired?

Sports franchises look for the best players and coaches to create a winning team. They hire scouts to find the best personnel and pay them accordingly. I believe that if we paid for excellence and then insisted on it, the academic complexion of our schools would change dramatically.

Signs that a student will potentially drop out are evident long before high school, but that is often when we begin to take notice.
Rita Pierson

At the public schoolhouse, the players are on the team by default. Public school educators do not get to choose who makes the team and who doesn't. Everyone who walks on the field must be coached They may not all be first string, all of them may not make the college or pro team, but they must all know how the game is played and the rules for doing so.

It is impossible to create an excellent team with inferior coaching, with players who are allowed to make up their own rules. Championship schools and classrooms are deliberate, not accidental.

TED.com: Your elusive creative genius

It makes sense to pay attention -- our students give us clues about their lives every day. Signs that a student will potentially drop out are evident long before high school, but that is often when we begin to take notice. Negative and belligerent attitudes, poor academic performance, low attendance rates and a failure to develop positive relationships are evident early on in many children. However, our school counselors and social workers have been cut from the school budget, or have been assigned other duties.

A large percentage of children who drop out of high school read far below grade level. The problem presents itself at the elementary level, yet children are continuously passed on. Wouldn't it make more sense to intensely focus on teaching students to read? Instead, we opt for placing them in special education. Not wanting to be considered "mentally retarded," children are embarrassed and angry and therefore drop out socially long before their physical departure.

TED.com: Where does creativity hide?

It makes sense to create a winning spirit in children. All may not want to attend college, but that is what we push for all. Why do we make the students who want to learn a skill or trade feel inferior to their college bound counterparts? That doesn't seem fair, nor does it make sense. We have basically told children that they will be useless citizens without a college degree.

The last time I needed a plumber, I didn't ask for his college diploma, I checked for this level of expertise and proof of customer satisfaction. Teachers should encourage skill excellence and passion for whatever students choose to do or become. It just makes sense.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rita Pierson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1424 GMT (2224 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT