Education Reform and the Tea Party, Part One

I’m confused. Now, very rarely will I just editorialize for the sake of getting things off my chest, but I am going to today. I have been observing two of the latest cultural/political phenomena in America with keen interest: the current focus on education reform and the rise of the Tea Party movement. I have plenty of opinions about each one, but I want to focus on them (in two adjoining entries) in the light of each other, since the national media is telling me that both are grassroots movements. First, in this entry: education.

The other night, during the week of NBC News’s Education Nation program, I watched a TiVoed episode of “Oprah” with my wife, who wanted me to see this one since it was about the “Waiting for ‘Superman’” film. I didn’t really want to watch it, and I will admit that I probably went into it with a bad attitude, but it pissed me off from the moment it began. The filmmaker, some guy named Guggenheim, and Bill Gates – two men who have never worked a single day in the field of education – sat up on the stage with apparent self-satisfaction as they proclaimed how they think schools ought to be fixed. Later, the hard-line DC Public Schools superintendent came out, and added to the already-pervasive idea being stated over and over during the program: that the teachers are the problem with public schools today. They bashed the teachers unions, blamed “bad” teachers for kids’ failures, and proposed such innovative solutions as ending tenure and making teachers work longer days. Ridiculous!

First, anyone who has ever taught school will agree that “bad” teachers exist and cause many problems, but punishing all teachers by eliminating tenure or adding more accountability measures is not the answer. I have tenure in my school system, and I continue to work hard. Don’t punish all teachers by taking away our job security that is commensurate with the budgetary whims of politicians. Here is an alternative idea: Make it harder to get tenure, or set up a system by which tenure isn’t so cumbersome to subvert. Maybe we could reduce the rights granted by tenure where it isn’t a “job for life.” I agree that “bad” teachers should be fired, but threatening us all is not the means to that end. Beyond that, with regard to accountability, I don’t want my performance evaluation to be based on my students’ actions; base my evaluation on my actions! And in light of a no-tenure situation . . . having my evaluation based on my students’ actions . . . is frightening beyond measure.

Second, about lengthening the school day, anyone who has ever taught school knows that it isn’t teachers that run out of gas by the end of the day; it’s the students. Anyone who has stood up and given a speech before knows that after a certain period of time, people get tired of it and want to go and do something else. Most kids won’t sit there for an hour or two more. Resistant teachers aren’t scared of more work. That’s a ridiculous allegation! Beyond that, I want to go home and be a parent to my kids. We shouldn’t have to choose between being teachers and being parents.

Third, what about parent accountability? I will tell you what poll numbers and statistics I would like to see:

  1. How many hours a night do you spend helping with or overseeing your child’s academic work?
  2. How many times a week do you ask your child to see evidence of completed assignments?
  3. How many times per month do you initiate contact with your child’s teachers?
  4. Can you list the classes your child is currently taking at school and the teachers’ names for each subject?
  5. How many hours each evening does your child watch TV? Play video games? Text message? Play on the computer?

Get the answers to those questions – all involving issues that are beyond the control of any teacher – and you will find another significant factor as to why education is not what it should be in America: the failure of too many parents to do more than say that they care. Too many parents are pointing fingers and not doing enough.

There are three parties involved in the education of any child: the child, the parents, and the teachers. All three are stakeholders – as is society as a whole – and placing blame on one party (teachers) for the situation caused by all three is not right, not fair, not smart and not realistic. In a later “Oprah” episode that responded to these issues, Jeffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone, who actually does work in education and has been very successful, compared education to a private business, proclaiming that no one would run a business the way school systems are run, with “jobs for life,” no evaluation of employees, poor results year after year . . . While I concede Canada’s point about the need for reform, comparing government-run public education and private enterprises is apples-and-oranges, as they say. He got big cheers from the audience, and he truly does produce results with his ideas, but his logic was skewed in that situation and I doubt if many people realized it.

I’m not done yet. I’m about to go off about funding and taxes next, i.e. the Tea Party movement.

[continued in the next entry, “Education Reform and the Tea Party, Part Two”]

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