Sunday, November 24, 2013

Yes, they must, but can they?

*this is an essay I had to write for one of my college classes, so instead of links, there is a "works cited" at the bottom, as well as in-text citations. It is a summary/response paper. enjoy.*
Yes, They Must, But Can They?

In “Our Schools Must Do Better,” Bob Herbert argues - as the title suggests - that the schools in the United States must do better at educating America’s children, and that we must begin by tackling “teacher quality” (90). He suggests that America needs to think differently when it comes to things like “paper qualifications, such as teacher certification,” which Herbert contends has “very little to do with whatever it is that makes good teachers effective” (90). He argues that these changes can be made without abandoning tenure for teachers (90). He also suggests offering competition with “alternative school models,” noting as an example the Knowledge Is Power Program, a “charter school network” which he says has gotten amazing results for poorer children (91).

Herbert believes America’s schools are failing the nation’s children because they are sticking with an antiquated system (91). He argues that the entire public school system needs to be revamped, and that the United States has not yet “faced up to that fact” (Herbert 89). Herbert contends that by rethinking things like how the country certifies teachers, and offering students different schools to choose from, America will be on the way to better educating her children.

Unfortunately, for someone who argues for the “wholesale transformation of the public school system,” I don’t believe Herbert goes far enough (89). The United States Department of Education has only existed for two more years than myself, and I believe most of the problems facing American education could be solved by eliminating the department entirely. There are almost 14,000 school districts, home to 55.4 million students, with one central education department deciding the standards, lessons, and curriculum for almost every single one of them. If the DOE were perfect, students scores and graduation rates would be skyrocketing; but it is run by human beings - and the worst kind, politicians and bureaucrats - and therefore, every single bad decision that gets made is passed on to fifty-five million students. Students today are still taught that Christopher Columbus was trying to prove that the world wasn’t flat. With the elimination of that federal bureaucracy, school districts would be able to fine tune their standards with their students’ needs in mind, and one mistake wouldn’t bring down the entire nation’s IQ. The monolithic department has had a virtual monopoly on education, as even if one wished to provide their child with a better education, they would be forced to pay twice - once in taxes for the public school which they already deemed unfit to educate, and once for the actual education. This practically insures that their monopoly remains strong while shutting the door to competition.

In regards to how we certify teachers, I do agree with Herbert that it is indeed an archaic and arbitrary process with little to no bearing on the actual effectiveness of a teacher, but he believes that the process can be salvaged without abandoning tenure, and I have to disagree with him. Job security is important, however it should be earned not with time, but with merit. I do believe that tenure allows for complacency in the same way that “qualified immunity” allows for police officers to abuse their authority. Telling someone they can’t be fired generally results in a poorer work ethic. Most “not-so-good teachers,” as Herbert says - because, apparently, there are no “bad” teachers - can be successfully weeded out in the first three years, but even he acknowledges that they have to be “closely observed” within that time frame (90). Most schools don’t have the resources to essentially pay for two teachers (one to teach, and one to supervise) for the first two to three years of a teacher’s career just to make sure they’re worth it. Most schools rely on students and parents to inform them of “not-so-good teachers.” However, if that teacher is already tenured, tough luck; that student will have a shitty teacher, and aside from homeschooling or paying twice for one education, there’s nothing they can do about it. This doesn’t even take into account the teachers who are restricted from student contact because of misconduct (violent, sexual, or otherwise inappropriate) but can’t be fired because of tenure and their unions. New York City alone had over 600 teachers being paid not to teach.

Herbert makes a good argument for more competition in school choices, and I do believe he is absolutely correct about this. According to Betsy Hammond of the Oregonian, Portland public schools have an overall graduation rate of only 62%, performing much worse than Beaverton or Hillsboro despite spending 25% more per student (Hammond). The main problem with government run schools - and there are many - is the lack of accountability. Teacher’s unions wield an insane amount of political power in this country, and they use that power to stomp out any and all competition to their monopoly. Much like the police union, a lot of their power comes from fear and manipulation. After all, who could be against teachers or police officers? This mindset is the breeding ground for corruption, as any who speak out against it are maligned, pilloried, and otherwise ostracized from polite society.

Herbert is right; our schools must do better; however, with the milquetoast suggestions he’s put forward, he misses why schools are failing to begin with. The Department of Education has been able to produce a nationwide 74.7% graduation rate, according to the National Education Association - the highest graduation rate since 1973. Please note that 1973 is six full years before the Department of Education existed. Abolishing the DOE, and at least replacing tenure with a more sustainable model should be the first things we do to fix schools.

Works Cited Hammond, Betsy. “Audit: Portland Public Schools has the worst graduation rate among large Oregon districts.” The Oregonian. Aug 19, 2013. Web. Oct 2013 Herbert, Bob. “Our Schools Must Do Better.” Everyone’s an Author. Eds: Andrea Lunsford, et all. New York. WW Norton & Co. 2013. Print. Yoshida, Helen. “U.S. Graduation Rate Highest in 40 Years.” NEAtoday.org. June 10, 2013. Web. Oct 2013

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