Problems and solutions for public education in the U.S….

In many states controlled by Republican governors and legislatures—even here in NJ with a Republican governor and Democratic legislature—teachers’ unions and public school teachers have come under fire.  The issue here isn’t black and white—issues rarely are.  I can’t pretend to be comprehensive in a simple blog post, but let me throw in some loose change to up the ante and gray up the issue even more (forty shades, remember?).

Most of us have heard the adage that goes something like “People who know, create; people who don’t know, teach.”  Like many stereotypes and adages, there is some truth to that statement.  Back in prehistoric times when I attended college (I’m a product of state-run universities–when I started, I paid about $300/quarter + room and board and everyone with a B+ HS average could enter some state university), this adage was somewhat formalized, at least in the math department—there was a track for math majors and another track for students who wanted to teach primary and/or secondary mathematics.  This bifurcation engendered a bit of what nowadays we call bullying.  Moreover, for whatever reason, students in the first track seemed to do better than students in the second.

This also was a bit associated with gender discrimination, reflecting the application of another adage: “Girls can’t do math.”  The unspoken and implied corollary was that they couldn’t do real math, but they needed to learn enough so they could teach the easy stuff to kids.  On the face of it, these segregations are negatives, if not bullying, but I always thought the joke was on the math majors.  Math teachers often earned more by the end of their careers and had better benefits than many PhDs working in industry, stuck with a miserable pension, if any, a 401(k), and slipshod medical coverage via HMO offerings.

I think some of the attack on teachers’ unions stems from jealousies among the general population about these high salaries and good benefits.  Instead of focusing on the real issue—why don’t all professionals deserve such salaries and benefits?—focus is on cutting the teachers down to size, making them as exploited as everyone else.  Public education is every citizen’s responsibility, so I tend to look past these petty jealousies and ask myself: is it true that every teacher out there, independent of their competence, is deserving of these rewards?

We tend to laud democratic ideals where “all men are created equal,” so treating teachers all equally seems to match the ideal of a non-discriminatory public education in our democracy.  I prefer to interpret equality as one of chance and opportunity—different people will react to equal chances and opportunity differently.  Applying this to teachers, some ARE more equal than others—Orwell be damned—in the sense that one might just do the minimum to get by, have no real work ethic, and never care about keeping up to date, while another feels satisfaction imparting knowledge to young minds in an interesting manner, as well as teaching them to be creative in their endeavors.  We can say that about most professions that deal with the public—doctors, nurses, lawyers, judges, civil servants, priests, and so forth.

There are two aspects to watch out for here: being on top of your game and making a positive difference in the lives of the people you serve.  The first implies the professional recognizes that to be of service he needs to keep up to date.  I’ll have to admit that teaching the same thing for forty years tends to work against that, but that same observation implies a solution too.  Down in South America, we had five semesters of basic physics.  A professor would teach Physics 1, then 2, and so on, going back to 1 after 5, and have one or two advanced courses every semester.  There was no tenure, by the way.  Translating that to our educational system, if you’re certified to teach K through 6, then you should do it: K, then 1, 2, and so forth.  By the time you return to teaching K, I’d bet those Education PhDs, who determine curriculum changes while sitting in their fancy offices, far from the education trenches, will have changed said curriculum.  That in itself is debatable policy (not that changes should be made, but which ones and who should determine the changes), but at least it makes you write a new teaching plan every year.

Keeping on top of your game also implies refreshing your skill sets.  We all hate standardized tests, but I’d have teachers take one every five years to renew their certifications (failures would receive a provisional certification for a year, after which they’d retake the test).  Everyone has to renew his driver’s license; why not something similar in the service professions?  (I’d also require this for doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, etc.—if you serve the public, you must be periodically recertified.)  And I wouldn’t have a tenure system for teachers.  By the way, I’d put this in place at all levels—from undergraduate level at state colleges and universities down to pre-kinder.  I never enjoyed a tenure system in my life.  If I wanted to maintain my job, I had to perform adequately.  This goes a long way toward motivating someone with a terrible work ethic, by the way!

What about unions?  In general, they’re irrelevant.  In teaching and elsewhere, their original purpose has largely disappeared, except for being an attack target like here in NJ and elsewhere.  All too often, like the tenure system, they are used to protect incompetence or allow just doing the minimum to get by.  On the other hand, I can see a different role for them in supporting workers’ training, helping service workers adapt to the changing requirements of an increasingly international and competitive marketplace.  You can’t prepare a competitive work force if you have no idea what it means to be competitive!  Union dues could be better spent in everything from teaching language (nowadays every service professional should know a second language) to particular skills—sharpening old ones and learning new ones.  And strikes of essential public employees—I consider teachers to be in that class—shouldn’t be permitted.

Again, my readers will say I’m not sounding too much like a progressive liberal here.  Sorry about that, for those I’ve disappointed.  I’ve said many times here that I consider the issue(s), always trying to see the big picture, not some myopic one-size-fits-all political agenda.  I have a hard time being a progressive liberal when I see too much indifference and incompetence.  I see this same apathy and indifference at the voting booths among our citizenry.  I might be progressive, but I understand human nature: when people are offered the easy road, they all too often take it, in detriment to their fellow citizens and society in general.  This has terrible consequences in all the essential service sectors of our economy.

During the health debate, for example, the Wizard of Oz was often used as a metaphor by the right because Secretary Sebelius is from Kansas.  What is important about the Wizard is not Dorothy and her methaphoric companions—the cowardly lion, heartless scarecrow, etc—but the fact that the Wizard was a charlatan who made a big production out of giving the people what they already had.  In the case of education, our wizards aren’t even doing that.  We are educating the next generation all right, but we’re only educating them to slip-slide into their future by just getting by–in other words, things are getting worse.

The problem is that other countries are doing it better, and at all levels.  In most cases, they’re doing it better because private education doesn’t receive either popular or government support.  You never know where the next Nobel prize winner comes from.  He or she might be an undocumented immigrant, a student from a Philadelphia ghetto, the son of a West Virginia coal miner, or no one from our country.  Same for the discoverer of the cure for some type of cancer.  We cannot afford to squander our human resources, giving a superior education only to the elites.  Let’s face it: if the elites are 1% or 0.1% of the American population, why would anyone expect that such people so important to our national health and economy would come from that small segment?  It’s not statistically reasonable.  In particular, the children of those elites are often the ones who don’t have any kind of work ethic because they have everything given to them with a golden spoon and platter.

If anything should be socialized, it’s education.  Even our so-called state colleges and universities cost too much.  Our college students should be paying room and board and not much more.  It’s high time that the costs of education be reduced to a level commensurate with a national investment in our society’s future.  It’s also high time that the education students receive prepares them to survive in an ever-changing and competitive world.  We have lost the will to educate future generations.  Our teachers have lost that will and society has too.  It’s time for major reform.  I’m not seeing it happen.

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7 Responses to “Problems and solutions for public education in the U.S….”

  1. Scott Says:

    Guess it ate my relatively long comment. I’ll try again later. Darn.

    Just the last bit here: The tin man was the heartless one. The scarecrow was brainless – apropros in terms of this discussion? ;-)

  2. steve Says:

    Ha! Thanks Scott. I haven’t watched the Wizard of Oz in years. There’s only so much of Judy Garland I can take. The prequel movie was OK and my wife says Wicked (the play) was great. Sebelius is falling on her sword, by the way, when the buck stops with her boss. Maybe too aloof–a man of great ideas but not a real doer? Or, maybe he just doesn’t know how to manage? Anyway, his signature legislation is the butt of jokes at best and a prime target for the far right who don’t care whether 40 million people are without QUALITY healthcare (these pissy little policies that are being canceled have nothing to do with quality).

  3. Scott Says:

    Well, not all of the policies being discontinued are lacking in quality. The one I had was discontinued. In its place is either an HSA compatible policy with a very large jump (3500 to 12700) in family deductible or a non-HSA policy with a very large jump in deductible (3500 to 9750, I think). I liked what I had. The latter has 3 deductibles, but will cost something over 6K a year more than what I had, with the added loss of the HSA deductibility. The first is roughly the same cost as what I’m paying now. I’ve heard more than a few stories like that from guys who own businesses, that the companies are terminating the insurance they have and will roll them into one of a handful of options.

    That’s okay with me, but it certainly isn’t better than what I had.

  4. Scott Says:

    I had written, yesterday, that the only thing I don’t like about socializing education completely is that it is subject to the whims of that society, and also there seems to be a tendency in public education to be “inclusive” of the bottom levels, often at the expense of the top. I know from first hand experience that it happens in lower grades, but I don’t know how it would translate to college level learning.

    Recently I saw an article listing the top 10 universities (I know these things are very subjective but…) and none of the US universities listed were public (unless Cal Tech and MIT are – I didn’t think they were). It had Stanford, a couple of Ivy League schools, University of Chicago…that level of school. Is that a function of “dumbing down” the public schools or is it just about standards for admission and cost of education? I don’t really know. What do you think?

  5. steve Says:

    Scott,
    Hmm, I think you’re pointing to another problem: insurance companies, following their greedy traditions, will “work the system” so that they maximize their profit…always! I’m coming around to the idea that Obama et al really messed this up, but I knew it would be messed up anyway without single-payer–look how insurance companies and hospitals rip off Medicare. My conclusion: either you get rid of insurance companies’ participation and go single-payer (obviously not happening in our lifetimes, unless we move to Europe) or you whack every greedy SOB with so many controls that his hands are tied–same goes for Wall Street. Otherwise, we have chaos begetting chaos….
    All schools you mentioned, by the way, are overpriced, too narrowly focused, and/or smaller private schools designed to prepare “the leaders of tomorrow” aka new members for the old boys’ clubs of power and influence. They have very little to offer the middle and poor classes who don’t know how to behave correctly when they rise to join our national meritocracy.
    I never went to any of these schools, although I’ve taught and done R&D for three (counting a similar school in Colombia). I was never impressed by their graduates in my field of expertise and always questioned the narcissism of the majority of these people I knew that went to these schools, including Obama’s and Cruz’ smugness (to consider two political extremes). When push comes to shove, a state school offers a more diverse and better bargain for one’s higher education. Their only negative for some people is that they’re big–they have to be, because the privates are exclusive clubs.
    BTW, I’m surprised that some of the UC campuses aren’t on the list (UCSB has the theoretical physics center, for example, and UC Berkeley has been in the forefront of physics and mathematics for a century and a half). These lists of top universities are always suspect in my mind. Here in NJ you see lists of “top doctors,” but if you sleuth a bit you find that each doctor paid to be on the list.
    You asked for my take, so here it is in a nutshell: there are so many good universities that it doesn’t matter where you go as an undergraduate unless you want a job in an NYC corporate law firm (they prefer Ivy League graduates) or Wall Street (they prefer MBAs from Harvard, MIT, and Wharton). Even with that elitist tradition, you can still make up for it in graduate school.
    When I used to interview potential employees as part of my last day job, I looked at courses, grades, and the applicant’s personality, knowing that a CV or resume only tells me what the person did, not what he’s going to do for me. Many applicants not from top schools were more intelligent, energetic, and creative–and they worked hard because they weren’t handed an education on a silver plate.
    That said, my thesis is that the cost of going to a university–any university in the U.S., public or private–is way out of control and represents another reason Europe beats our pants off. They don’t turn away the Einsteins from a poor family.
    I apologize for the rant, but you touched a nerve. :-)
    r/Steve

  6. Scott Says:

    I certainly agree that the cost is out of control and has put college out of the reach of a lot of people. I wrote something about it on my Rambler blog a couple years ago, asking whether it was cause or effect that people no longer valued education for their own children. (In other words was it the high cost and inaccessibility of higher education that made people say that it wasn’t worth it for their kids, or was it that they just didn’t see the need for mental training past what their own “indoctrination” programs (church, home schooling, etc etc) was giving their children?)

    My wife’s family got good educations from Northwestern in Chicago, and my hygienist’s son went to Vanderbilt and daughter to Univ. Of Chicago, and they seemed to do pretty well with their educations…(My wife went to the same Loyola that I went to…a few years apart…) I grew up with the idea that a school with a good rep would open doors for you. Maybe that’s not exactly correct.

  7. steve Says:

    Don’t feel bad…it just ate my long comment too. I just changed versions of WP and it’s quite sick. I hate to beta test software, but that’s what’s happening. Sorry, but not my fault.