Saturday, September 29, 2012

How Politicians and Unions Are Ruining Schools

A hard habit to break.

In the most recent standoff between teacher unions and the politicians who no longer love them, the American public got another story that featured the cost of education.  Major media outlets, along with Facebook, Twitter, and the blogosphere were riddled with voices from what boils down to two sides:
Sure, in Chicago, in the battle itself, the argument has been about teacher evaluation, class size, and instructional time.  But for most people outside the immediate fray, it’s all about the benjamins.

The war has damaged teaching and education-- and left a lot of school kids holding the bag.  This problem is not going away, either.  But how did we get here?  Who is really at war?  As a teacher, I have a pretty good view of the battle. Here’s the way I see the players.

“Smaller Government” Politicians
BACKSTORY: Since the “Industrialization” model of Public Education became the way of doing business, the government has been incentivized to provide as little money and resources for teachers as possible. It’s simply never been popular to pay for great public teaching in America.
MUSCLE TO FLEX: Politicians interested in election often promise to tighten up public budgets.  This is true on both sides of the political spectrum, although Republicans have built their house on it. Because teacher pay represents the single greatest piece of the education money pie, promising to pay teachers less for more has been a Conservative institution—and has won more than a few elections for the GOP.
WHY THEY’RE GREAT:  These guys won’t let you forget that public schools can be depressingly inefficient—and they’re right a lot of the time.  Those of us who work in public schools have no shortage of anecdotes of financial waste or professional mediocrity. Show me a lousy school and I’ll show you a community that isn’t holding its public school accountable.
KRYPTONITE:  Paying less for teachers has proven to do little to attract or maintain talented professionals.  Sure, bargain hunting is attractive, but saving on teacher pay has basically devalued the worth of great teachers and, ultimately, quality instruction itself.

Teacher Unions
BACKSTORY:  The battles of the 60’s-70’s yielded some big wins for teacher unions.  Teacher pay went from staggeringly low to pretty good in many places around the country.  Unions fought for better working conditions, smaller class sizes, and  professional respect.
MUSCLE TO FLEX:  A steam engine during elections, teacher unions have been the bedrock to the greatest wins of the Democratic party of the last 50 years.  If you are a liberal or progressive running for a big office, you probably won’t win without the teacher unions at your back.
WHY THEY’RE GREAT:  Strong unions are the only players to have consistently fought for the biggest incentive for great teaching:  better wages and working conditions.  When you hear about people fighting for better learning environments in public schools, its probably from the mouth of a union leader. No other entity has done more to help teachers do the work of teaching.
KRYPTONITE:  To rally the teachers into a force to be reckoned with, Unions made a sacred pact to leave no tenured colleague unprotected.  This has meant that great instructors get no more or less protection than absolutely horrible teachers.  Mr. Franey, my high school science teacher who used to swig “cough medicine” in between periods.  He was a mess—and you had at least one as bad.  Teacher quality control is in a Twilight Zone of mediocrity—and teacher unions deserve a lot of blame.

The Bottom Line?
Unlike the beatdown they got in Wisconsin a couple of years ago, teacher unions earned a bit of a win in Chicago.  But it’s a small glimmer in darkness ahead for school unions, however, and the window for union survival will not stay open forever.

But this ain’t about Chicago or Wisconsin.  The real cost of this argument has roots that go much further down into our culture.  The greater problem is that Americans have little faith in the greatness of American public education.  We don’t value quality education.  We don’t value great teachers.  This lack of confidence drags on almost every aspect of our culture.

It is unlikely that politicians will fix public education.  With economy as it is, running a campaign on MORE money for schools will lose many more races than it wins—even for staunch Democrats.

Unions must retool in order to stay involved in the conversation.  If they can figure out how to cut the weight of protecting lousy teachers, they might be able to unravel this knot.  It’s proven to be a hard habit to break.

Until then, unions will continue to lose the war, even if they win a battle like Chicago.  

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