Teachers are not overpaid. Their benefits are not too rich. And collective bargaining is a bad way to ensure that all sides get a fair hearing, it’s just better than the alternatives.
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Remember, three years ago everyone was saying we need to increase teacher compensation so that we could attract the best people to the profession so that we could provide great education for our students? Teacher compensation and benefits haven’t changed since then.
What do we hear about teachers today?
- Bad teachers are responsible for the low achievement of US students.
- The unions have protected bad teachers.
- The unions have been able to get unrealistic benefits for teachers, and they need to be scaled back.
- The key to a good education is to have strong standards and assessments.
- Teachers and their unions have held back progress in education.
Let’s look at these point by point.
Who is responsible for student low achievement?
The three most important influences on student achievement are the income and education levels of the parents, and where the student lives. Students who come from households where parents read to their kids, where parents model and teach self-discipline and delayed gratification, and where adults spend quality time teaching and enjoying stimulating activities perform more and achieve more than kids who don’t have those advantages.
In terms of affect on student achievement, the teacher is 4th or 5th.
Yes, there are differences between a great teacher, an average one, and a poor one. Yes, we want to elevate average and poorer teachers. Yes, there are some bad teachers, and yes, the union has protected those teachers and made it difficult to change or fire them.
But if, as a society, we were serious about improving achievement, we would focus on improving the elements that have the greatest influence, not on the easiest scapegoat.
Are there a lot of bad teachers in the system?
No, but there are some, and it has been difficult to change or fire them.
The unions have negotiated stiff due process procedures for firing teachers. Negotiators on the other side found it easier to give in and move on. And superintendents find it easier to live with a bad teacher, (after all, the average super is only in the position for a few years) than to document the bad practices and pursue effective interventions.
Of course, there is a also downside to making it easy to fire teachers. Do you want schools or politicians to be able to fire any teacher for any possible whim? If a principal's sister-in-law wanted a job, should the 4th grade teacher with differing political views be canned? Or, do we want to make sure firings are not politically motivated, and that the only teachers that are fired are ones who are negatively impacting their students? That's what due process means.
But, how many bad teachers are there? Are 3% of teachers bad? Are 5%? And how many of those could improve with proper coaching and professional development? Focusing primarily on getting rid of bad teachers, instead of looking at how to improve instruction and student achievement is counterproductive.
Let's understand that no system is going to be perfect. We want to ensure that good teachers, who are in the vast majority, don't get fired for frivolous reasons, but when a teacher is harmful, we want the ability to take effective action.
Are teacher pay and benefit packages too rich?
The average teacher in the US makes $43,000, about 15% under the median income of the US household. Is that too high?
Teachers who stay in the profession for 30 to 35 years are able to retire comfortably, with both their financial and healthcare needs met. Should we be reducing their benefits, or trying to figure out a way to provide that for more people?
But, a bigger issue is that half of all teachers leave the profession in the first few years. Is reducing pay and benefits, increasing workload, and banning collective bargaining going to solve this issue or exacerbate it?
Do exacting standards and rigid assessment drive student achievement?
Image by Colin Purrington via Flickr
Not one study indicates that high stakes assessment based on detailed standards raises students ability to function in the workplace or in society. Assessment is important to provide feedback to students, teachers, and parents, so students can strive for higher achievement. All assessment systems are manipulable, and the higher the stakes, the more likely the results will be manipulated.
Standards can guide teachers and students on what students should be learning. Standards are not replacements for creativity, problem solving, collaboration, or thinking. Teachers need to be able to inspire their classes to become stewards of their own learning, not whip their students into blind memorization and obedience.
Teachers and their unions have held back progress in education
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There is some truth to this statement. Unions are primarily concerned with promoting and protecting their members, and sometimes this gets in the way of progress and conflicts with the best interests of students. But unions are a form of bureaucracy, and all bureaucracies block progress and try to protect their constituents. Do you think the politicians, who negotiated with the unions, or the politicians who are now trying to remove the rights that the unions have won, have the students’ best interests at heart? Do the executives at financial companies have the interests of their customers at heart, or are they trying to maximize their own net worth? Are the executives of energy companies really concerned about the environment, or are they vying for larger bonuses and stock options?
Saying we shouldn’t have unions because they don’t always have students’ interests at heart is a copout.
We talk about best practices and total quality management, but then we don’t heed the advice of the people who invented the quality movement.
W. Edwards Deming said, “A bad system will beat a good person every time.”
Right now we have a bad education system for our times. It was built in the early 1900’s in a time when most people did not graduate from high school, when schools were primarily preparing graduates for factory jobs, and when only an elite few went on to higher education.
Demagogues have always known that it’s easier to placate a population by demonizing a relatively small population, than it is to actually try to solve their problems. Just like a magician's sleight of hand, get the audience looking in one direction, while you trick them where they are not looking. Get your consituents riled up about some perceived enemy, while you slip in a few hidden provisions that allow you to enrich your close associates or contributers.
But we don't have to fall into the trap of believing them.
For our futures’ sake, we want to continue to attract and retain good people to the teaching profession. We want to educate students so that they can become productive members of society. And we want a good standard of living and adequate healthcare for a growing portion of our population.
Let’s move toward these goals, and let's evaluate political actions by whether they brings us closer or move us farther away.