Everyone realizes our schools are in trouble. No one seems to know why, and thinking about solutions is invariably kept in a separate compartment from our other social problems. The wealthy put their children in private schools, some religious folk put theirs in special schools run by religious leaders. Retired teachers are thankful they are no longer teaching and spend hours telling each other how things have changed.
The recent ruckus involving firing of the state superintendent of schools sends a clear message to future candidates: Performance is not the primary quality West Virginia leadership demands from a superintendent. We want loyalty to not just the correct party, but to the correct branch of the correct party!
At the other end of the pay scale, counties are desperate to get anyone to fill certain kinds of teaching positions. Many parents are firmly and aggressively against strict discipline. The low social status of teachers in our society contributes to this. People are reluctant to have their offspring disciplined by low status teachers, the rules be hanged. That is as likely to be as true of low status parents as higher status parents, though. Means of discipline are very limited and effective primarily for very young children and those from homes where discipline is the norm, a decreasing portion of the population.
Motivation is at the center of public school problems. In other nations that have better performance than ours, such as Finland and Singapore, teachers' pay is substantially higher relative to other occupations. Finland has no private schools and all recognize the importance of having well-educated graduates.
Generally, there is little recognition of a good job done in our schools except comments from parents. Mostly, the principal, who has to keep a book a foot thick with all the rules schools are subject to, has a full-time job keeping the behemoth together, working from 6 a.m. (or whenever someone decides to call) to midnight. In present-day schools, discipline is left to assistant principals. It is paperwork and smoothing social tangles all day long for the principal.
Academics have little respect, particularly from those who teach teachers. The professional education establishment has become enmeshed in a philosophy expressed by the phrase "I don't teach subject matter, I teach pupils." I once had an education teacher who told his class "If you have culture, you can teach any subject matter," implying that included subjects one had no formal training in. Another graded his test papers by how long they were.
However, there are many good teachers, both in the sense they are loved and appreciated by their students, and in that they are quite competent to teach their subjects. But in others academic competence is sadly lacking. The sad fact is that the education degree exists to provide a degree for people who are unwilling or unable to get a degree in subject matter. The legal information required to hold a teaching position and a survey of methods could easily be taught in two three-hour courses.
This would weed out people who really and truthfully don't care for the subject they have to teach, and so invent the boondoggle that passes for much of middle and high school education today. Early school actually does well in the United States.
Put the people of Education Departments and Schools of Education on early retirement and let the academic part of the university work out the six hours necessary to certify teachers. That's the best we can do.