After 28 years as a high school teacher followed by 17 years in Congress, Rep. Rob Bishop was asked Wednesday what the proper federal role should be in Utah’s public schools.
“None,” the Republican said. “Don’t trust us, don’t deal with us, tell us to go to hell.”
He called for scrapping rigid federal rules — and even local top-down-control by school boards and state lawmakers — to allow teachers and parents freedom to be creative and tailor teaching to meet the needs of individual children.
“Pay the teacher decently and give that teacher control over the curriculum and how they are actually structuring their classes and let them be creative,” he said. “That way you're going to get people that actually want to be in the system” — and remain there.
“I don’t want to be offensive, but I will be,” he said in a speech to the conservative Sutherland Institute think tank in Salt Lake City. Showing he still loves the classroom, the 69-year-old Republican said he would love to return to teaching high school when he retires in a year.
He said after watching federal reforms from No Child Left Behind to Common Core, he “came to the conclusion that most of it was basically hype” — and did little to improve actual teaching. In fact, he said those programs tie the hands of teachers.
So he said a first step toward true local control of schools should be to refuse federal funds.
“Avoid them like the plague,” he said. “If you want to get out of the trap of constant federal control, let go of the cheese.”
He said the next time the state has a large surplus it will cut taxes. But it should instead “buy out the federal government. Get them out of the system altogether so you don’t have the controls that actually have to come along with that.”
Bishop complained that Common Core, for example, requires teaching the same curriculum in basically the same way nationwide.
“It is based on the philosophy that math is the same in Massachusetts and Mississippi,” he said. “The kids are not, and it’s supposed to be about the kids.”
Bishop added that Common Core rules makes teachers akin to robots. “We don’t empower them to actually create curriculum for themselves. We don’t empower them to do anything unique or innovative.”
Next, he suggests basing teacher pay and promotion based on feedback from parents and students.
He said he once was denied a merit pay increase because rules required that he use bulletin boards — which his classroom lacked. It also required attendance at faculty meetings, where he was usually late. He said such rules had little to do with classroom success.
He said students and parents know a successful teacher when they see one, even though it may be hard to define such performance on a checklist for merit pay.
“You can reward teachers for excellent work if you make it based on parental acceptance,” he said. “They are the parents’ kids. They are not the schools’ kids…. If the parents are satisfied, the system should be, too.”
Bishop said schools need to realize that each student and area is different.
“Kids are not automatons. They’re not widgets on the conveyor belt. They’ve got to give the teachers flexibility without getting in trouble for doing something unique that’s different,” he said.
Bishop also called for paying teachers as much as administrators “so you don’t have to get the big bucks by leaving the classroom.”
Another local reform he proposes is to perhaps allow retired people to become part-time instructors to teach some classes and topics they know well. Dixie State University does that with the many retirees in St. George, he said, and K-12 schools could benefit by doing the same.
“I actually want to teach again,” Bishop said. “Part of me would like to go back to the high school and see if I can handle it … and survive. Then I’ll know better about what I can say has happened in the last 20 years.”