Did anybody see 20/20 on Friday night? It was about the state of American public education, and what a sad state we are in. The basic premises: money isn't the solution for public education, unions are not serving the students, and the education system ought to be capitalistic rather than socialistic.
That John Stossel...he is one smart guy.
If you're interested in my unedited take on the whole thing, then click the link below. If you'd rather skip past the rant, then wait until Monday when all things parenting surface again.
First off, I am not against public education. Some schools are doing a good job, have wonderful adminstration, know how to graduate intelligent kids. I am not railing against the entire public school system, just railing in general terms. Every community has a school that could do better, and mine is no exception. What can be done to fix them? I don't have answers, but I have opinions.
You would think that because Jason teaches in a public school that we would be hard-core union fans around here. Maybe put up some NEA posters in the window. Get "Go Union!" tattooed on my...shoulder.
Mmm. Not so much.
Certainly the union does some good things for teachers. In fact, Jason had to turn to the union early this school year when the district office arbitrarily decided not to give him and 150 other employees the proper salary. Jason was the first teacher to get the union involved in the issue after several phone calls to the district office yielded no results. If it weren't for the union we would be $3000 poorer. So, score a point for them. It should cover the union dues for the rest of Jason's teaching career.
And while I understand the mentality of wanting to fire incompetent teachers, the ability to rate incompetence in teachers is a tricky deal. Most teachers don't get to choose the best students to have in their class. They get what they get, and they do what they can. Firing them because their class's tests results were lower than somebody else's isn't really fair. And the union makes sure that teachers are protected from that. Teachers are also protected from bad administrators who are unable to make good choices. All that aside, however, the truth is the union is largely responsible for keeping public education in dire straights. They oppose vouchers and think the system can be fixed with money.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
I get why people are against vouchers. The whole public money for private education doesn't sit well with some folks. Of course, nobody seems to mind that everybody has to pay taxes for education: senior citizens, folks without children, folks who send their kids to private schools. But if vouchers benefit kids -- the students -- then what difference does it make if that money is public or not? Ten years down the road the public will have to pay for the school's mistakes: students who graduate (or don't) and end up unemployed, uneducated, on welfare, in prison. Vouchers would force schools to compete for students. They would let parents decide what is the best educational choice for their child. The real trouble with public education is that they aren't competitive. They get a failing grade, maybe even get shut down, but those kids are just bussed to another school to crowd some other classroom. Capitalism improves things. It's not a big perfect star, but it's what makes things get done. Without capitalism in the education system then they are allowed to continue on their merry way to poor performance.
However, I hardly see vouchers in the future for education. The NEA is too big and too invested in the needs of teachers rather than the needs of students. Plus, the ACLU would have serious problems as well.
The one light at the end of the tunnel is the possibility of financial reform. States and schools are so convinced that money can fix all the problems. The first thing they'd like to do is pay teachers more. The union thinks that if teachers were paid more then more people would enter or stay in the teaching profession. The answer isn't to pay teachers more. The answer is to use the money to just get more teachers. We won't recruit more teachers with attractive pay. (And in fact, we don't even need to think about recruiting teachers at all. People know if they are called to be a teacher. And 80% of the time they teach within 50 miles of the town they grew up in.) We'll get more teachers with an attractive teaching environment, specifically smaller class sizes. High school class sizes absolutely should not be larger than 25. Ideally, they should be closer to 20. That size should be even lower for elementary classrooms. I taught in a private school which had its fair share of incompetent teachers, but in a class size of 14 kids learn. A teacher has to be grossly incompetent in order for kids to not learn anything. Kids learn because they become accountable. They don't slip through the cracks. They don't get lost in the back of the classroom. You'd think smaller schools -- the ones in medium-sized communities -- might get it right, but usually they just hire fewer teachers so the class size doesn't decrease as much as one might hope. Teachers don't need monetary incentives to stay in the profession; they need a work environment that doesn't burn them out.
The one thing that can't be controlled, that 20/20 didn't even address, is that compounded with the fact that schools can't manage their money, they sometimes also have to siphon a huge part of their budge to special education. Special ed is a sensitive topic, especially if you have a student who is in a special ed program. The Equal Education Act mandates that all students receive a good education. Unfortunately, it costs a lot of money to give a good education to a special needs child. On 20/20 they talk about how schools are getting $10,000-$14,000 per student, and that this should be enough to educate a kid. It should be. It could be. Except that money sometimes isn't spent on that kid. Sometimes a special needs kids requires individual instruction, bumping their cost of education up to $20,000-$25,000-$30,000. One teacher for one student. Where do you suppose the money comes from to pay for that student? From a mainstream student. As an educator, my response is: money should be put towards those who can ultimately contribute back to society in an economic fashion. As a parent, my response is: kids should be taken care no matter what their disabilities. Certainly we cannot go back to the way special needs children used to be treated. Absolutely not. But there has to be a better way than what's going on now.
Ultimately schools could make it work whether they have special needs kids or not. If forced to compete with other schools, if unions weren't so fiercely protective even of awful-terrible-horrible teachers, if funds were managed better then students would benefit. Competition is the answer, even if your blessed little socialist heart believes that schools should be protected from the ugliness that comes from it. In every other area of life, Americans demand choice. We hate monopolies. Despise them. Except in schools.
It makes no sense, and we're the ones who end up paying the consequences for it.