School reform? First we need parenting reform.
We are presently witnessing an historical moment of truth as one state government after another begins a budget massacre. Getting the axe first will be the softest target of them all – public education. Aside from the obvious, immediate damage this does to public education, it shows how deep the belief in education goes in contemporary American society. The “real” social value of education to the public and to politicians these days is revealed – when budget cutting is the current issue, education gets it in the neck first. The only reasonably intelligent question that can be asked is, “Why?”
One possibility is that education is no longer as valued a part of the national belief system as it once was. Education seems to no longer be held as an investment in the future, but more of a fungible line item in a strained budget. Why should it be this way? Here are some of the arguments being expressed:
- Has education made getting a job easier or even possible?
- Teachers are merely putting in their time to retirement.
- Teachers have too much prep time.
- Schools have too much vacation time.
- Teachers are paid too much and there are too many of them.
- Kids aren’t learning how to read as well or as quickly as the new “experts” tell us they should, and that is, no doubt, the fault of teachers.
Schools, we are told, need the guidance of “experts” like Jeb Bush of Florida and Hanna Skandera in New Mexico, neither of whom has a background in education. Apparently they don’t need experience or background. I suppose we could all be grateful they aren’t interested in doing brain surgery.
Easier to pick on teachers
Why have public schools and teachers become the soft target of the moment? One reason, I believe, is because schools are simply vulnerable to this sort of attack; they are easy to criticize and difficult to defend. Not all kids learn at the same rate nor do they all have the same motivations to learn – they are not production-line widgets; hence, their achievement progress is not uniform. Children too often come from homes where parents are more interested in big screen TVs, sports, recreational activities – anything but learning. Research has shown that many children come from homes where there are scant if any reading materials at hand. Oh, and let me suggest one more reason – parents’ lack of interest in assuming responsibility for their kids’ performance in school.
If politicians and the new educational experts were to pick on parents the way they pick on teachers, it would be a parlous situation for their political ambitions. If the new self-anointed experts spoke up about curriculum and instruction, it would be too obvious that they don’t know what they are talking about. So, the response is to require more testing and pick on teachers – much easier. Imagine, if you can, one of these politicians standing up before an audience of parents and saying, “These are your children, dammit, and you are responsible for them.” Not in this lifetime, I assure you.
Where can we go from here? We cannot even begin to discuss school reform until we deal with parenting reform. How can we convince parents that they are the front lines of education? I would suggest one first step would be to stop the politically motivated rhetoric. Next, stop the eye-wash and propaganda about testing. Seriously, folks there is no better indication that you don’t know what you are talking about when you promote more testing as educational reform. An experienced classroom teacher is never not testing. Never!
Next we need political leadership that instructs – yes, instructs – the public about their role in the process of educating their young. (See above.) We need public dialog that elevates teachers and teaching to the same level as firemen and cops. Have you ever heard a politician mouth-off about firemen and policemen on a par with what we hear about public schools and teachers? I doubt it. Teachers, for their part need to get their backs up and start educating the public – not just parents, but the body politic.
Teachers, weed out the deadwood
Teachers also need to clean up their profession and weed out the deadwood. Stop hunkering down and denying the obvious – there are ineffective, lazy people in the teaching profession, and teachers and their unions are the only ones who can properly get rid of them. Be proactive, get over the notion that protecting the deadwood protects you – it does not. In fact, you will all look better when you give those guys the boot.
When I was a member of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, I never saw a bad carpenter protected by anyone. The best were separated from the good, the good from the bad, and the bad eliminated. It wasn’t the employers who enforced the standards either, it was the union.
The carpenters and joiners are a strong and respected union because they insist on excellence. If they can do it, so can the American Federation of Teachers. Come on Randi*, get with it!
* Randi Weingarten, AFT president.
This essay first appeared on nmPolitics.net