Education in America

I watched an interesting program on ABC Friday night on education in America. John Stossel hosted it. Now, he leans very much to the right, and "balanced" the report was not. He's obviously in favor of school vouchers and was beating up anyone that was against the idea. However, he did have some interesting points during the broadcast and made me think about the subject of education more deeply.

Having 2 young children, education is important. The one thing the show validated, and which I already knew, is that those with money (ie, live in the suberbs) pretty much don't have to worry. They have the luxury of moving to a neighborhood where there are good schools. And in general, suberbs have enough money to afford good schools and good teachers. The problem is in the cities. Many of those people don't have a choice and there's no guarrentee the school is good.

Much was said on the program about schools being a monopoly and that the only way to create excellent schools was to open them up to competition. The Belgian school system was given as an example of a system where education dollars follow the student (meaning "vouchers"). Parents could send their children to any school they liked, public, private, secular, or religious. The religion itself didn't matter as all faiths have a opportunity to send their children to a religious school of their choice. Schools work hard to make sure they are challenging and rewarding for students, since if no kid wants to go there, the school will close. While this sounds very good on the surface, the report didn't go into any detail of any drawbacks of this system, or how it would work in the US. For example, it didn't mention who actually pays for it: local, state, federal, etc. Implementing that system here would totally screw up the method by which you pay your taxes. And I'm sure it would end up that rich people pay less in school taxes (since they're usually based on property value) and poor people would pay more. Imagine that.

The report also stated that spending more money doesn't guarentee better schools. Several charter schools in inner cities were held up as examples. They spent less per student, had better average grades and percentage of students going to college, and paid their teachers better. Some even required the teacher to be on call for their students 24/7. Being a charter school, they didn't have to follow all of the rules that regular public schools must. And the reason they spent less per student is that they didn't employ janitors (students set up and clear tables), kitchen staff (volunteers and teachers pitch in). Gym class was doing laps around the block. But the curriculum was very interesting and fun.

The reason that charters schools could do all of this is that the teachers were not a member of the unions. Now, I've long believed that unions are a double edged sword. Growing up, both my parents belonged to unions and they provide a valuable service for thier members in safeguarding employees from abuse by employers. However, there are many unions out there that have created such good contract for their workers, that businesses can't compete any longer. Look at GM as a great example. Labor and benefits is such a huge cost in making a car that the company is in financial trouble. Lot of good a union does for you if you place of employment closes down.

Stossel tried to paint the unions as this rigid system that rewards bad teacher and prevents schools from getting rid of poorly performing teachers. They did site some interesting "abuses" from the NYC teachers union. The process by which a principle needs to go through to fire a bad teacher (even one accused of sexual abuse) was a flow chart that was about 10 pages long. The school district pays something like $2 million a year to have teachers that shouldn't be around students sit in an empty room (called a rubber room) getting paid because they can't be fired. The best line I heard was by a teacher that said there are no bad teachers. I'm sorry, but in every profession there are people that are bad at their jobs. We all can site an example. And some of them shouldn't have their job.

Now, I don't want to give the impression that I think there are all these bad teachers out there. Because the majority of the ones my kids have had are wonderful. I have no complaints about any of them. But this belief that teachers are somehow more special than any other worker is nonsense. If a teacher is coming to work drunk, abusing students, is insubordinate, then principles and school districts should be able to take the same kind of disciplinary actions that apply in any other industry.

To kind of wrap this up, what I really came away with was that for those school districts that are having trouble reaching students and being able to teach them, just throwing money at the problem won't work. Parents/teachers/educators should be able to be creative to foster the proper atmosphere to allow kids to learn. I think if kids feel safe in the school and the teacher makes the subjects fun, then kids will learn. I also think that tying performance to financial penalties if students don't perform well enough is the wrong approach. Schools will then teach kids to pass tests, not to actually learn. There's no one magic bullet solution here, much as John Stossel may think so. I've only touched on some of the themes that go through my head on this issue since there are so many. Most importantly, issues surrounding parents with special needs children, an issue near and dear to my heart.


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