Ok, I’ve tried to kind of hold my blogging tongue on this for awhile, but I can do it no longer. The war on teachers that is happening in this country right now is unconscionable, and people need to speak out. In Wisconsin, teachers were stripped of their collecting bargaining rights in a complete subversion of the democratic process. In New York (more on the war on NY teachers here), Florida and elsewhere, merit-based systems are in place or are being proposed which use convoluted formulas that have a tenuous connection to teacher effectiveness to determine which teachers are “good” or “bad.” Right wing media are proudly announcing at every opportunity how teachers are overpaid and have a part time job. In a tradition going back to right wing icon Ronald Reagan, when the country needs money, the first place they take it from is education. It has to stop.
Let's look at some of the prongs of the attacks on teachers and why they are happening:
Union BustingWhy do conservatives love union busting? Because unions favor Democrats. That’s the only reason, and don’t kid yourself that Governor Walker or any other front line union busters are concerned about corrupt union bosses or anything else. Democrats fight for workers and Republicans fight for their corporate masters, so naturally, unions support Democrats, and it’s public record that this attack on workers and their rights is an attempt by the Republican party to cut Democratic election funding. There may be some corruption among union organizers, but the days of Jimmy Hoffa are over, and collective bargaining is certainly not the villain here regardless.
Merit based systems don’t work because they are created and administered by people who are not really teachers. What inevitably happens in these systems is that teachers “teach to the test,” providing only the information the kids need to get a qualifying score. Schools whose funding is merit based cut art and enrichment programs because they don’t show up on these tests. As a result, you get poorly-rounded students who forget all the information they’ve memorized as soon as they get to the next level. Here is a concept that those looking to revamp the education system should endeavor to understand. If kids LIKE their teacher and that teacher is motivated by a system that SUPPORTS him or her, THOSE KIDS WILL LEARN. That is all there is to it. If there is anything axiomatic about education, it’s this. If a teacher is clearly invested in helping a kid learn, it shows, and if that teacher is likable and compassionate, most students will want to learn from them, and they will. The current systems drain all the joy out of teaching, even from good, determined, likable teachers, and the kids can tell. With all the methods proposed to reform education, this idea, the one that’s the most obviously and clearly true, is always completely ignored.
Teacher Pay and Benefits
This argument is the most ludicrous, this idea that teachers get lavish pay and benefits for a part time job. Understand this. Anyone who gets into teaching for the benefits gets out of it very fast. The struggles of trying to be both a babysitter, a parent and an educator for over 30 kids for six hours a day with the bare minimum of tools at your disposal far outweighs the bonuses of an extra month of vacation, a three o clock dismissal time and a decent dental plan. In addition, the amount of “free time” a teacher gets is overblown. Teachers usually show up at around 7:30 and leave around 3:30 at best. That seems like a full day to me. The reality is many show up early and/or leave late to either help kids or prepare lesson plans. Then of course, there’s homework grading and any other responsibilities that they may need to take home with them.
It seems to me that conservatives who think that teachers are in it for the good pay/low hours think that way because they are incapable of attributing noble motives for anything to anyone. They only do things for the money, so they assume everyone else is the same. Furthermore, some of these politicians and pundits bashing teachers for their perks make five to ten times as much money as many teachers and work fewer hours! I’ve spent many hours in the New York City public school system, as a counselor and as a teacher of the chess program (paid for not by the city, but by donations), and I’ve had the opportunity to see my father teach in the system for over 30 years. Trust me when I tell you that most of these politicians and pundits would not last two weeks in the public school system.
A little education for you: In politics, reform is a synonym for “cut.” Whenever a politician talks about reforming something, they mean taking money away. Why is education always the first victim? Again, a few reasons. First, an undereducated populace favors Republicans. Less educated populations vote in fewer numbers, and low turnout historically favors the Republican party (watch how excited Republicans get when they forecast rain on election day). It makes sense. Republicans are clearly the party of the rich, and most of us are not rich, so voting Republican is against most people’s interests (unless you are so firmly dedicated to the maintenance of certain moral values you share with conservatives that nothing else matters).
Also, politicians are disconnected from the value of a good education. They went to private schools, or they went to public schools in nice areas where everyone chipped in, or they went to school at a time when schools were better funded and teachers better treated than they are now. The consequences of a bad education system are often not felt for decades, and long term consequences are not the kind of sexy results that voters respond to.
So what can be done? Well, you can vote for more Democrats, of course, but that’s probably not going to happen. You can support teachers when they do protest or petition for better treatment. From the government side, probably the best thing to do is put real teachers, the ones on the front lines, in charge of overhauling the educational system. How many years did the current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, spend teaching in American public schools before his appointment? 20? 10? 5? How about none? He was a PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL PLAYER in AUSTRALIA. His predecessor, Margaret Spellings, was a CAREER REPUBLICAN POLITICAL OPERATIVE.
No one’s saying you have to insist on higher taxes for the rich to fix what’s wrong with this country, but let’s stop picking on the teachers, okay? We need them.