The Missed Opportunity of Education Reform

By Donovan Wheeler

When I was in high school, I hated almost every minute of it. I hated the droning sound of the bells—back then it was a warbling, high-pitched, electronic squeal…an awful tone that sounded like the long, slow death of a robotic chipmunk—and I hated the day-long factory line marathon. It was a daily odyssey which consisted of seven different classes, one after another, sitting for an hour at a time in those tiny little desks with the broken plastic back-rests which would get crossed and pinch your skin through your shirt. Hour after hour—copying notes from the overhead, reading chapter 12 silently, answering those seven questions at chapter’s end, sitting with a group of peers (gossiping and piddling until the teacher walked near us), staring out the window, counting the hours, counting the minutes, counting the seconds…

—–When I went to college a funny thing happened: I got excited about school. Several factors contributed to this, least among them the time. Instead of seven classes in a row wearing me out and testing my ability to focus (a challenge I failed every…single…day) I only had three. I also had an hour or two of “down time” between classes. But for anyone pulling a Dean’s List GPA, that “break” between classes was anything but “down.” Sure it was time to decompress and time to take care of meals, but it was also time to prepare for my next class, time to be ready, time to work.

—–My professors were another factor. Unlike my high school teachers (who were mostly very knowledgeable and competent) my profs were bona fide experts in their fields. At the time I understood that they had more advanced degrees, but I didn’t really grasp the impact those PhD’s carried. I didn’t realize that an additional three to four years of study in meteorology, or medieval literature, or oral rhetoric led to a classroom environment built around the pursuit of curiosity. This stands in stark contrast to the way I was trained. During my four years as an undergrad, I split my time between my English courses and a horde of education classes—including two educational psychology courses. Unlike most high school teachers I was lucky enough to have the means and time to pursue a Masters in English only, and I’m immensely thankful I did. Given the massive breadth of a subject like English, I don’t know how I ever thought I was actually ready to walk into a classroom with what amounted to two years of actual subject training.

—–And one other factor happened in college: I was held accountable for my own success. It started that summer day in Vincennes when Dr. P. Phillip Pierpont threw the disaster that was my high school transcripts across his desk at me and effectively told me that, if I wanted to survive in college, I was going to have to be more responsible. Once I fully knew…fully understood…that whatever happened to me was indeed on me, I changed. I got the message: if I wanted to avoid life as an assistant ditch-digger I had to take college seriously.

—–I did. As a result I transformed from a high school failure with a 1.6 GPA, graduating in the bottom 17% of my class into a cum laude, multi-dean’s list honors graduate.

—–So what happened? Did I experience an “Edmond Dantes-level” change of demeanor between May and August of 1987?

—–I won’t patronize anyone with the answer, because it’s obvious. Yes, I had moved away from home, and yes, I was now sitting in class with strangers rather than some of those life-long goofballs and knuckleheads who’d inspired me to be a much bigger goofball and knucklehead myself. No doubt that played a small role, but my experience on both sides of the desk has proven that changing location and peers only stifles the miscreant for short honeymoon period. After that, barring significant changes, the old habits return.

—–One more thing before I call out the state of Indiana’s governors, state superintendents, house representatives, and senators for their colossally terrible decisions: I get why everyone has been so easily duped into the “teacher-bashing” craze which has washed over us the for the last five years. As my own story above relates, there have been real problems. Most of them were (and still are) systemic and organizational, but others were those individual, tactical decisions some teachers made which too often cemented the stereotypes: the cinema freak, showing a couple movies a week; the worksheet collector, handing out three or four sheets of paper a day; the study-hall maestro, telling everyone to “read the book and answer the questions.” We all remember sitting in their classes, and we all thought of them right away when Mitch Daniels started, and Mike Pence continued, the rampage. All he had to do was appeal to the public’s long-harbored resentments from their own school days—a sort of latent disgust which many people carried well into adulthood—and give them the chance to vent their frustration with their votes.

—–It was all waaaayyyy too easy.

—–So Daniels, Pence, and company have sold the “We have a problem” mantra.

—–What did they do with their opportunity?

—–Instead of re-organizing the day from the seven-hour grind which made me despise school, they embraced a business-founded factory mentality. This “do-more-with-less” approach, which has included the transfer of funding power from local control to the State House has forced schools to double-down on the “longer days” and more “time in class” approach. Worse yet, as a result of the Daniels-Doctrine, many schools were forced to scrap their tri-mesters and block schedules (not perfect by any stretch, but vastly better than seven classes in a row) and return to the “traditional” daily schedule.

—–Instead of demanding more education for teachers (including Master’s degrees in subject disciplines, and maybe even PhD’s as well), the reformers opted instead to go the other way. Now, teachers like me are being replaced by youngsters with a Bachelor’s degree in underwater-basket-weaving and a five-week insta-course in “you-name-the-subject.”

—–For whatever it’s worth, my perspective comes from the vista of my own classroom. I work in a college town and teach AP upper-classmen most of the day. Consequently, I have an entirely different set of demands, problems, and ideas for improvement than my friends teaching at the primary school, my fiancée teaching special education on the other side of my building, or someone teaching in an inner-city school in Indianapolis. But, the reformers have all decided that the solution for everyone is the same. The charter schools, the tests, the standards, the teacher evaluation rubrics, the Glenda Ritz power struggle…it’s all part of this big Roman carnival, and those who started all of this haven’t really explained how any of it is actually making a difference.

—–So (while everyone keeps engaging in the same round of exhausting arguments and debates) I’m going to walk into my classroom this week, duck my head, try to stay out the line of fire, and make sure to enjoy my job. We’re going to be discussing Thoreau’s “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” next week.

—–I’m not sure if that’s a coincidence or irony.


Donovan Wheeler
Author: Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches English to a horde of bright and lovably obnoxious high school seniors in a small college town. He has written in the past for Indiana on Tap and STATE Magazine, and is an occasional contributor to NUVO, Indy's alternate news website. Since picking up the guitar three years, he can now play a dozens songs while singing them quite badly.

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