Striking Teachers!

Another ingredient has been pitched into the toxic pre-election political cauldron as teachers find themselves in a stand-off with the mayor of Chicago, a situation that is being watched with interest around the country as the inevitable questions surrounding education and money take center stage.  As with most things these days the case has been reduced to simplistic battle-lines—unions versus government, laborers versus authority, accountability versus oversight.  Lost in the shuffle are the larger issues underlying most of our ills today—the economic context underpinning this problem, class differences in American society, capitalism versus socialism; who should pay for and who should be in charge of education (which of course immediately negates the idea of collaboration and partnership).

Let me suggest at the outset that I think the practice of property taxes funding local schools has bifurcated the education system, erecting barriers to divide populations further along socio-economic lines.  Funding isn’t the only solution but it does place inner-city schools behind the 8-ball and is related to the elephant in the room trumpeting the problem which everybody appears to know but nobody really heeds—students from disadvantaged populations tend to perform much below their richer counterparts.  There’s research and anecdotal evidence to support this claim, yet we find ourselves discussing the validity of linking 35 percent of teacher evaluations to student performance on standardized tests under the false premise that a teacher is largely to blame for poor scores, which is just as specious as suggesting that high scores are the result of superior teaching.  This rejects the other factors at the heart of student performance—familial participation in the education process, nutrition and the atmosphere at home (haven’t we seen domestic discord affect performance even in students from affluent homes?), parental expectations and pride in scholastic achievement, communal harmony or dissonance, friendly peer rivalry, etc.

A word about standardized tests.  They are the fast food of our education system—a convenient way to address an immediate need without much value to it.  There’s a reason hundreds of colleges and universities are paying little or no attention to test scores—they have failed to perform the task for which they were designed, which is to evaluate a student’s readiness for college.  The problem lies at both ends—colleges have become degree mills, apostates of their stated missions to educate global citizens (whatever that means today) and high schools are desperately trying to prepare students for the next stage without knowing what that next stage really is.  Teachers are obviously in the middle of this turbulence, particularly the ones in poorer districts scrambling to help their schools and students meet basic needs (textbooks, rudimentary classroom technology, deteriorating infrastructure), although affluent suburban teachers also find themselves under pressure as education has yielded to college preparation and both ends are so far apart as to be unrecognizable from either side.

There’s a ridiculous number being bandied about that the average Chicago teacher’s salary is between $71k and $74k per year.  THAT’S SIMPLY NOT TRUE:  What is true is that the average annual salary of a US Congressperson is $174,000 in addition to the best health benefit package taxpayers’ money can buy (that’s what gridlock and inertia cost these days), but there’s no move to tie raises to performance, nor are there any objective assessments built into the system except the vagaries of an electorate as dysfunctional as Congress itself.

The false idol of American capitalism is the notion that individual responsibility and personal enterprise and creativity are the only engines running a successful society and that Government is a hindrance, which either ignores government bailouts, corporate tax-cuts, and subsidies or suggests that they are the price taxpayers pay for corporations to benefit societies, when much of what they do is hoard profits or indulge in speculation designed only to drive their stock prices higher.  This is the theory behind property taxes for local schools, where we invest only in ourselves and not in society at large (and petulantly criticize regional and national governments for using tax dollars to fund less advantaged communities), resulting in segregated populations and uneven playing fields!

As much as I understand what teachers in this dispute are saying I have to admit that there’s a real problem on their side as well and I’d like to state it baldly: many teachers are just not good!  That’s what’s driving the call for evaluation, even if the solutions are misguided.  It isn’t enough to care, although that certainly helps; heaven knows I’ve had my share of teachers who didn’t give a damn!   It isn’t enough to like children.  You have to be competent as well.  But isn’t competency a platypus when it comes to education, comprising many seemingly disparate parts?  It isn’t enough to have a clear lesson plan or to be aware of the latest pedagogical methods—teaching is about helping students become knowledgeable, but how does one do that when Knowledge itself is almost impossible to define and in the common parlance of our digital age has become synonymous with information?  It involves such difficult concepts as belief and truth and justification and is obviously a lifelong pursuit as we learn to think critically and sift through experiences for kernels of truth.  A teacher needs to be so passionate about the world (not just about a subject) as to always be a student!  How do you incorporate that in teacher education and then assess it in a culture that appears to be only superficially interested in anything beyond parochial borders?

If this seems like a daunting task, it is and it should be.  This is the noblest profession in the world!!  Now I’m not suggesting that high school teachers be epistemologists, but we should expect them to help students understand their relationship with the world.  Mathematics and writing, to use but two examples, should be windows to their world, not just ends in themselves; unfortunately, even the basic elements of these twin subjects are beyond the scope of so many high school students.  I know.  I read stacks of applications every year.  And I just discovered that thousands of students with good test scores abort their college applications at the essay section, forcing universities to abrogate that requirement.  We are all enablers, complicit in pandering to the lowest expectations of our students!   So what if they can’t write?  They can pay their college fees and make it through courses that gradually lower standards to meet the diminishing levels of competence among students.  Soaring costs of education have turned students into consumers and in a capitalist society the customer is always right!

One final question, because I fear I’m getting depressed as I type this.  If we expect students to learn to write, how well do we expect the average elementary, middle, and high school teacher to write?  I don’t mean just English teachers; I mean any teacher.  If you can’t write well you can’t communicate well.  I’m not talking about stringing grammatically correct sentences together, but encapsulating ideas within paragraphs.  Is that an insulting question?   Really?  If it is, then we don’t have a problem!







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