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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