Blame the Teachers

Full disclosure: I think teachers are heroes.  I think they are undervalued, underpaid and under-appreciated contributors to society.  So many of them do so much good, in fact, that even with hundreds of anecdotal horror tales being hauled out about lazy, offensive, comfortable, affluent, Union coddled teachers, the fact remains that our teachers do far more good than harm.  They're now being vilified by certain groups because blaming them helps to prop up the otherwise unconscionable suggestion that we take even more away from them.  The teaching profession has already sunk to ignoble depths, in large part due to the numerous faults in the public education system, including but not limited to mismanaged funding and underfunding in our public schools and a plethora of other issues it would take more time than we have here to cart away and sort through.

That said, I think teachers are heroes.  I was raised by teachers.  They don't make much money.  Those 'cushy Summers off' are often periods of intense preparation and study.  They deserve to make more money than they do.  They deserve funding and support and more institutional solidity than they have now.

It's impossible to discuss education reform without bringing up the lauded documentary "Waiting for Superman," a film whose tone has undoubtedly influenced some of the anti-Union sentiment sweeping over certain swaths of the country. While admirable in its attempts to propose solutions to the myriad problems facing our public schools today, Davis Guggenheim's documentary got almost everything dead wrong.  The following two articles contain the best, most cogent point-by-point refutations of the film's breathless theorizing I've yet been able to find online:

Both of my parents spent much of their lives teaching in Public Schools.  My father won the California Golden Bell Award for excellence in teaching in 1988 and continues to receive accolades for his post-retirement career as an Art Educator.  When I was five or six, he lost his job after the school where he taught shut down.  I was too young to realize it, but those were some some scary, uncertain times for our family. I don't remember a time when he wasn't working, or working on curriculum or out buying art supplies because the school didn't have money for them, or reading up on History and English because he was expected to teach those subjects  along with his subject due to budget cuts.  Our family was never 'well-off,' and if we ever had a vacation, it was after long periods of scrimping and saving.

Education funding is almost always the first to go.  Maybe the importance of this sort of funding is lost on the Legislators because some of their children attend private school.  'Waiting for Superman' certainly didn't help, because it went ahead and said the money doesn't matter.  It has since been hard not to notice an increased push to yank any public institution at the mercy of Federal funding off the public teat, dropping it into private sector and putting it at the mercy of private buy-ins and the magic of the marketplace.

At the center of any crackpot alternative to a well funded public institution is the beating heart of an anarcho-capitalist heart fueled by fervent faith that competition - the same competition that drives nation economies and builds up corporations - can save our schools, and can ultimately save the earth.  It's attractive premise for a self-sustaining machine fueled by that one great motivator (competition) that fails to address how such programs can often yield great success with already-succeeding school districts but do nothing but crack a barbed whip onto the back of school district saddled with pre-existing ailments, including but not limited to deep crime and poverty in the area.

The result of decreased funding on the scale we've seen, particularly with no Child Left Behind (more on that below), is less of everything schools, teachers and students need to facilitate the learning process.  Less textbooks, less supplies.  Larger class sizes.  More tests.  Less process learning.  Less collaborative learning.  Many teachers are forced to go 'out of pocket,' buying their own books and supplies from their salaries without any expectation of reimbursement.  I recently heard a talking point that stated the average salary for a Wisconsin public school teacher was close to 90k a year.  I know that my parents, both of whom taught in a state with salaries considerably larger than Wisconsin's, never made close to this amount, not even put together.  If this number is accurate, it's certainly not accounting for all the hidden costs associated with being a teacher.  I'm not contesting the number, but at best, it's a misleading figure that fails to capture the unassailable fact: most public school teachers in this country do not lead cushy lives and not all are lazy and spoiled.

One shouldn't point out institutional flaws in Teacher Unions as irrefutable evidence that Unions must go, any more than you point out flaws in the election process as evidence that elections must go, or flaws in the political process as evidence that all our political systems need to be scrapped and begun anew.  No, you implement reform.  But by all means, you continue to give public - and private workers - representation and the right to bargain collectively. You don't throw that out.  You acknowledge that the teaching profession has always suffered because things like institutional sexism still pervade certain corners of the working world.  And yet, here we are now in this country, having a serious discussion about stripping public workers of their right to collectively bargain because it has been determined that that - and only that - will save a State from looming bankruptcy.  

If the difficulty of the profession and its lack of funding isn't bad enough, No Child Left Behind hammered the last nail in the coffin.  A misguided, cart-before-the-horse law, NCLB shoved standardized school goals into once process-oriented curriculum.  For schools particularly behind the curve, marching toward the test became the de facto way to 'improve' those schools' Grade.  NCLB hog-tied educators in those poorest districts and - at best - ennobled the richest, most educated districts with further validation.  What's even more terrible is that since the end of the Bush Administration, official responses to the failure of No Child Left Behind has been largely comprised of ineffectual patching.  In the years since NCLB began, the state of the public education has fallen into alarming disarray.  While it is naive to suggestion one to one causality there, an undeniable truth is that NCLB has not had the effect it was intended to have, and for those on the front lines, dealing with its effects every day, it has been nothing less than a total failure.

If anything, the Bush era law is proof that when it comes to education, you can't apply a single Federal standard, as 'fair' and 'honest' and 'tough' as it might seem.  Education, more than any other public institution I can think of, is an experience that hinges on the given socio-economic factors in any school's area.  While nothing will ever prevent the business of School District bureaucracy from being a messy one - any more than the business of corporate finance or the business of War is messy - the truth is, if you want to undervalue something, you underfund it.  There is no way to give something first priority and then underfund it.  

Listen, I've had absolutely terrible teachers.  There were times I wish there were greater measures taken to ensure the right sort of behavior and a fair approach rather than the 'anything goes' culture that some schools fostered among the teaching staff.  I've been taught by people who clearly had no business being in the classroom.  I've had my own father almost leap over a table and strangle one of my ninth grade teachers at a parent teacher conference.  But my point is, I've seen the best and the worst of what teachers are capable of, I can assure you in no uncertain terms that the public discussion about teachers going on in this country isn't pro-teacher enough.  


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