Teachers and American Public Education

Jun 18th, 2011 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

In 2008, as he was beginning his run for the presidency, Barack Obama said that ?the single most important factor in determining [student] achievement is not the color of [students?] skin or where they come from.  It?s not who their parents are or how much money they have.  It?s who their teacher is.?  Few would disagree with that statement.  In fact, for most of us, we can remember that often it was a teacher that had the greatest impact in our personal/professional development or in major decisions we have made.  For me, that I got involved in higher education was due to two teachers who deeply influenced me.  For these reasons, I found Joel Klein?s recent essay in The Atlantic to be timely and much needed.  Klein was the chancellor of New York City?s school system for eight years.  He has much to say about recalcitrant teachers? unions and mediocre teachers.  His essay is of profound importance, and there are therefore several salient points that I want to summarize in this Perspective.

  1. Politicians, especially Democratic politicians, generally do what teachers? unions want, and,  Klein argues, the unions are very clear about what they want:  ?They want, first, happy members, so that those who run the unions get reelected, and, second, more members, so their power, money, and influence grow . . . [Teachers] want lifetime job security (tenure), better pay regardless of performance (seniority pay), less work (short days, long holidays, lots of sick days), and the opportunity to retire early (at, say, 55) with a good lifetime pension and full health benefits . . . whether you work hard or don?t, or in a hard-to-staff school in a poor community or not, you get paid the same, unless you?ve been around for another year, in which case you get more.?  Arguably, Klein is talking about New York City, but many public school teachers represented by the National Education Association would fit this paradigm.
  2. Klein comments on tenure:  For the teachers? union, tenure is ?merely due process.?  But, as Klein shows, firing a teacher for non-performance is virtually impossible.  He details how in a system that employs over 55,000 teachers, during his time as chancellor they only fired 6 teachers for incompetence or nonperformance?over eight years!!
  3. Klein also believes that the practice of calculating teacher?s salaries must be challenged.  For example, ?consider the consequences of the ubiquitous practice of paying the same for math and physical-education teachers.  Given the other job opportunities for talented mathematicians?but not for phys-ed teachers?the same salary will attract many more of the latter than the former.?  There is simply an acute shortage in some areas of qualified and competent math and science teachers.  What if superintendents could compete with higher salaries for good math and science teachers?  Teacher union contracts prohibit this.  Who suffers?  The children.
  4. Klein also believes that in the US we must challenge the practice of having contracts for teachers that provide a mandatory salary increase each year, regardless of performance.  Seniority drives salary, not performance.  Virtually no other industry assigns compensation just to length of service.  Accountability and performance should determine salary, not simply years of service or number of graduate credits earned.
  5. Klein also believes that US public education must challenge the lifetime benefits scheme that flows from so many union contracts.  He writes that ?each dollar set aside to cover [lifetime benefits of retired teachers] must be taken from what would otherwise be current operating dollars.?
  6. Klein argues persuasively that accountability is desperately needed in public education.  He writes that ?Accountability, in most industries or professions, usually takes two forms:  First and foremost, markets impose accountability:  If people don?t choose the goods or services you?re offering, you go out of business.  Second, high-performing companies develop internal accountability requirements keyed to market-based demands.  Public education lacks both kinds of accountability.  It is essentially a government-run monopoly.  Whether a school does well or poorly, it will get the students it needs to stay in business, because most kids have no other choice.  And that, in turn, creates no incentive for better performance, greater efficiency, or more innovation?all things as necessary as they are in any other field.?  Competition and choice are the two most-needed aspects of any meaningful reform of public education.  As Klein observes, ?time is running out.  Without political leadership willing to take risks and build support for ?radical reform,? and without a citizenry willing to insist on those reforms, our schools will continue to decline.?

Arguably, Joel Klein led one of the largest public school districts in the nation.  But much of what he writes applies in one degree or another to many, if not most, of America?s public schools.  The unions that serve public school teachers (the AFT and the NEA) are powerful and deeply entrenched in the political culture.  The contracts they have negotiated in many of the urban areas of our nation are not sustainable.  Further, typically they do not reward performance, only seniority.  Our nation needs determined leadership to change this system, for our nation is losing one of its most valuable resources?its children.  The system must change.

See Klein?s powerful essay in The Atlantic (June 2011). PRINT PDF

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