or, Why Teachers Should Not Be Praised Because They Chose Teaching
The problems facing public schools today are vast and myriad, but one thing is for certain: public schools are failing to deliver on their promise of a free quality education for all. Once upon a time we didn’t have a way to know this without speculating based on our own beliefs and assumptions, as well as what we personally witnessed either as students, parents of students, or adults interested in the well-being of children. Now we do. We have at least two tools at our disposal that can offer us insight into what, exactly, is the matter with public education: student test scores and teacher’s ratings.
It is an oft-repeated belief that teachers suffer from aspects of life that make their jobs improbably difficult, if not downright impossible, and that we poorly compensate them, so we should forgive them whatever failings they may have. If you don’t want to teach, so they say, you’ve no right to complain, in what is an adaptation of the old political phrase if you don’t vote, don’t gripe. Teachers as saints is the prevailing conventional wisdom. But what if it’s not true? What if teaching is not that hard, and what if teachers are not poorly compensated? Can we look at this from a different point of view in order to see a larger picture subject to more rhetorical clarity?
At the end of the day, teachers are people. Because of their chosen profession, we can tell a lot about them based on the demographic profile. Teachers are overwhelmingly female, white, and middle class. Those descriptors tell us something about them as a group. For example, are you dissatisfied with the quality of math teaching in this country? Then why in the world would you think it’s a good idea to leave the instruction of such in the hands of the one group of people who have demonstrably less knowledge in the subject matter?
That women in general struggle with math is no secret in our culture. Volumes of data have been recorded, and theories have been developed to explain the phenomenon. Surely it’s a result of the inherent sexism of our culture, beliefs that are still neatly espoused by the likes of Larry Summers, former President of Harvard and the economic weapon of choice for the last two Democratic presidents. And while that’s not fair, it’s also not fair to promulgate that ignorance down the supply chain of knowledge to innocent children of both genders, thus complicating matters. We must either bring females up to speed on math, or we must forcibly open the field of teaching to more men. Preferably a mixture of the two is ideal.
If we can accept that teachers are people and not saints, then we can begin to come to some areas where solutions become readily apparent. Let’s take a look at teacher’s ratings, which we get our first exposure to as New York City became the first school district to release these data points publicly on their math and English teachers in the fourth through eighth grades (NYC students take standardized tests in grades 4 & 8, for the record). This release has been fought vociferously by teachers who, few can really deny, have a vested interest in promoting the teachers as saints model. This model keeps teachers protected from judgment about their work, and keeps the public believing that teaching is a very hard job that is not properly compensated, and thus some level of failure is to be expected.
Except it’s not. It can be tedious at times, and frustrating, too, but so can other jobs. I’d like to see a teacher entertain the idea of taking over the school janitor’s job some time. It just wouldn’t happen, because whatever barriers there are to success, success is not impossible or even improbable, and the poor compensation is still lots more than cleaning up after people. The teacher’s ratings prove this out. The top 5% and the bottom 5% generally consist of the same names with similar numbers year after year. This suggests some people aren’t cut out for teaching, and should thus be cut out of teaching. And cutting is what is required with a strong protectionist union that has resisted just about every proposed change–with the exception of pay increases and pension benefits–since Ronald Reagan created the Department of Education.
With a union unwilling to accept that teaching is not an exceptional job, but just a job that people can perform with excellence in, change will be difficult. Teacher’s ratings like this should and will help with weeding out people who do not perform with competence, let alone excellence, but it is not enough. We need to attract better quality candidates for the job. We do this by addressing issues at the college level. For example, what can universities do to attract more males to their education programs? Gender diversity is not a one-way street; women don’t just need more opportunity, they also need to allow more opportunity for their male counterparts. That means opening up traditionally female-oriented professional jobs such as teaching and nursing.
Another question is: How can we increase rigor in these education programs? Is it enough to teach elementary school teachers how to create flowery lesson plans (based on prescribed curriculum that they don’t have to develop themselves, it should be noted) and how to compliment instruction with crafty activities? Can we expect more from our elementary school kids and their teachers? (And if so, why don’t we?) What about subject competency? That’s largely what’s been lost with the advent of education programs at the university level. No longer can a math major or an English major expect to go into teaching armed with the formidable knowledge of these relatively rigorous programs. That cuts out a huge group of people who may be good teachers, but don’t know it and will never get the chance to know it because they chose against insufferably long education degree programs (usually five instead of four years) that often require six months to a year of free work to complete.
These education programs have often worked hand-in-hand with teacher’s unions to lobby state and federal officials to further lock out gifted teachers by codifying into law the requirement that this is the degree–and no other will do–that is required of teachers. This has in turn strengthened the hand, to use an idiom, of both education programs and the view of teaching that teachers’ would prefer you had: that the job is hard, poorly paid, and thus they are saints. The effect is a trifecta (to continue with gambling metaphors) lock out at the hands of universities, public schools, and state and federal officials who have accepted that education programs should lead to certificates that are required to be hired in public education.
That excludes people like me, who could consistently perform in that top 5% of teachers if we could get into the club, but who are left scrambling for even worse-paid adjunct faculty jobs, or at private schools, or faced with the prospect of making the unethical decision of teaching for a for-profit higher ed institution like Daymar College or University if Phoenix. We don’t want to hear how poorly paid public teaching jobs are when they make three times what we do, and get the benefits of a lifetime to boot. And don’t tell us how hard the job is; we’d love to do it and would do it for less money and fewer benefits.
I hear what a great teacher I am all the time from my students:
“I love coming to your class because it’s obvious you love your job. You make it fun.”
“I’ve learned more about writing from you this semester than I did in four years of high school.”
My student surveys consistently rank my performance as not only high, but enjoyable. If you can’t help your students enjoy the learning process, you’ve no business in the classroom. But of course, that’s exactly what our public education classrooms are filled with: apathetic teachers who accept that they can’t perform with excellence because the system makes it too hard. This in turn promotes that same apathy among students, who often couldn’t care less about this mandatory activity called school, which they have learned to despise after years and years of poor instruction. And thus a vicious cycle is born: nobody cares and all the same negative messages are reinforced daily, helping maintain the status quo. We’re teaching our teachers how to teach in these education programs, that’s for sure, but we aren’t concerning ourselves with what they’re trained to teach.
These are just some of the problems in public education, problems that deserve a fair hearing that will never happen as long as unions maintain control. Unions have no business in the public education field in particular, or in fields like healthcare, both areas of which serve communities that are so easily victimized that no one deserves the level of protection these unions offer. The students and patients they serve alone deserve this level of protection, and that can’t happen as long as it is impossible to fire teachers because of unions.
But the unions can’t be argued away from the precipice of irrelevance, even as new tools to circumvent their authority are developed and accepted every day, those teachers’ ratings being a prime example. Even as the Times article warned we are not to use these ratings to draw conclusions about a teacher’s performance, thousands of New York parents are doing just that, and that will eventually lead to adoption of these ratings as indicators of future success, and perhaps eventually to a revision of public education laws and regulations wherein some of the solutions I have outlined here can be considered. Let’s hope I’m not old enough for retirement before those changes happen.
Note: I’ll address the issue of poor pay in the next installment of this series, coming soon!