The Myth of the Evil Teacher Union, Part IV

4. Teachers stand in the way of school reform.

Bunk. You tell me there’s a book I can read that will make me a better teacher; I’ll read it. You tell me there’s a conference (during my summer “vacation”) and you’ll send me there, without paying me, because it will make me a better teacher? I’ll go. I want school reform. I’m desperate for it. Just one caveat: You have to be as serious about improving the education of my students as I am, because your kids are precious, their time is precious, and my time is… well, you buy my time cheap, but the point stands.

So far, most efforts labeled “school reform” simply aren’t serious.

If we really wanted to improve student performance, we wouldn’t give kids three months to forget what they’ve learned followed by a month to review what they’d forgotten in each calendar year.

We wouldn’t delude ourselves that measuring one tenth grader’s test score against another tenth grader’s test score tells us anything of value about an individual tenth grader. Testing would measure improvement of an individual student over time, and the students would have access not just to a numeric score, but to the answers they got right and wrong, so they could actually learn from the testing experience. If we’re more concerned about protecting the property rights of the multi-million dollar test making corporations than we are about kids’ learning, we aren’t serious about school reform.

We would stop using A,B,C,D, and F as measures of student performance. They are ridiculous. They’re arbitrary, inconsistent, and subject to inflation. Worse, a D means a student has not mastered the content to a satisfactory level, but we’re sending him on to the next grade anyway. Today’s D is tomorrow’s F. Why do we use this terrible, cruel system? Because when a school tries to switch, two things happen: Parents want any description of their child’s performance translated back into a letter grade they can understand, and colleges want a GPA for admissions purposes. If we’re more interested in satisfying parents with meaningless letters and with providing colleges with fuzzy data than we are in accurately describing what an individual kid can accomplish, we aren’t really serious.

We would stop funding school by localities. It’s absolutely backwards. The kids who live in the largest houses, with the best educated parents, get to go to schools with the largest budgets. The kids who don’t have enough food to eat and may not have a single book in their home go to schools with the least means to support them. School reform initiatives that don’t address this aren’t serious.

We would give up on the stupid idea of local control. I have yet to hear a single good argument for the benefit of local control of schools. Sure, there’s the hysterical paranoid notion that the evil federal government is going to make all our kids into communist robots. Um, that falls squarely in the “not serious” column. Let’s look at the reality: Local control means a school board of elected officials who may not know a thing about education are chosen from a given community to determine what kids should learn. Despite all their good intentions, they have to spend a massive amount of their time and energy trying to keep their schools in good standing with state and federal law, and with the requirements of universities, who don’t care about what small town their students come from. In exchange for all this work, school boards can’t possibly identify a single bit of knowledge that students from our small town need in order to be successful in the working work which isn’t also essential for kids from the next small town, or the nearest metropolis. Can you imagine a major chain retailer designing itself with a CEO, a CFO, a complete board of directors, a human resources department, and an independent product line in every town where it intended to compete? I want my small town restaurants to have a unique flavor, and my small town bookstore to have a proprietor who really loves books rather than a Walmart stock-boy working on his GED, but my school does not need to provide students with different facts than any other school in this country. Can somebody please explain the merits of “local control” to me, beyond paranoid dystopic fantasy? Please?

I could go on and on about the ways our reform efforts have been piecemeal, cosmetic, political posturing, or blatant union busting maneuvers, but the one thing they haven’t been is serious, comprehensive efforts to make our schools truly competitive with our international competitors. I remind my kids every year that India has a billion people, and that their kids work harder in school, study more at night, have a longer school year, and read and write better in English than we do. Oh, and they’re multilingual. Then I ask my students, if they owned a company and could choose between an employee from India who would work for half as much, or the kid sitting next to them in my class, who would they hire? Without fail, they say they would hire the Indian student. But we continue to complain about jobs going overseas. We aren’t serious.

Education is investment. Teachers, underpaid and underutilized, have already proven themselves willing to make sacrifices for our children’s, and our nation’s, future. Complaining about unions is a means to avoid talking about the realities of the challenges we face. It’s a pathetic blame-game, and that’s a posture for people and nations who lose.

Tomorrow, Myth #5: Teachers unions prevent effective merit pay systems from being put in place.