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
updated 5:43 AM EDT, Mon May 6, 2013
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
updated 2:52 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT