By Paolo von Schirach
May 13, 2011
WASHINGTON – The urge to transform secondary schools systems in different US states is catchy. Reform movements advocate performance related criteria for teachers evaluations, so that bad teachers can be eliminated, (in most cases they cannot be fired because of tenure systems and others protections created by union contracts). Indiana Republican Governor Mitch Daniels is leading in his state. There have been similar initiatives in Florida started when Jeb Bush was Governor.
School reform in Illinois
But now we see a new bill going through the Democratic dominated Illinois state legislature, to be signed by Pat Quinn, Democratic Governor. The new bill will create teachers’ accountability and will base promotion on performance and no longer on seniority. Besides, teacher seniority would no longer be the sole factor in determining who will be fired in case of budget cuts. Performance will determine future assignments. Before teachers can strike, the last offer on the table will be made public, so that families can evaluate and judge whether strikes are appropriate or not. School boards will be able to fire teachers for bad conduct or performance. Essentially the intent of the law is to make teachers accountable, while making it easier to promote good teachers.
The law would also allow Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel to lengthen the school day in the city’s schools, so that more after school activities benefiting children could be introduced.
America wants higher education standards
Well, this is real progress. It would appear that citizens across America are beginning to grasp the consequences of public education neglect. They pay taxes to fund schools, so that their kids get an education that would give them a good chance to compete in an increasingly tough global economy. But they get a lot of junk. Now we are beginning to see desire for change turning into legislative action.
May be the whole “charter schools” movement and other voices advocating higher professional standards for teachers are finally making a dent. About time, as America seems to fall farther down year after year.
Teachers unions dominated the system
Reform is mostly about ending or curtailing the medieval guild system whereby unionized teachers, once they get tenure, are essentially untouchable and unaccountable. They are protected by a thick wall of contractual arrangements that, whatever the originary intent, de facto created a regime of institutionalized mediocrity across most public school systems, since teachers, even very bad ones, in practice cannot be fired.
The end result of an education system that is not at all about educating children but about teacher’s job security is appalling standards across most US public schools. And the failures are even more noticeable in the poorer neighborhoods. If mediocrity is generally dominant, if you are poor, Black or Latino in America the chances of getting anything at all from the public education system are slim to non existent.
Nobody cared about failing schools
For whatever reasons, until not too long ago, nobody cared that much. The cynics would point out that the well off Americans, inlcluding a big chunk of elected leaders and policy makers, did not care because their children are unaffected. Their children go to private schools or to the few well funded public schools located in rich areas.
And so we have created a two tier society. The rich can get an education, the poor or semi-poor cannot. For them The “American Dream” is destined to remain a dream. Without the tools provided by a decent education, good luck to you in climbing the ladder of success in an extremely competitive society.
Reform: start with good teachers
Well, if these reform movements do catch up, then there is hope. There is nothing mysterious about how one can change failing schools. Start by firing bad teachers and incompetent administrators. Call in motivated educators, engage families. As you raise teachers’ accountability, give them the tools to do their job and at the same time raise academic standards.
Of course, execution on such a massive scale is tough, especially in disadvantaged areas where there is so much catching up to do. But we know what the tools are. A key one is lengthening the school day, so that children, especially poor children who do not have a supportive environment at home, can benefit more from the whole eduction experience. And, as many reformers, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, have passionately argued, it is possible to involve all sorts of non profit groups that can introduce and support after school hours programs that would add real value to the education experience of all the children.
America can do it
For the country that once led the world in space exploration and is still leader in information technology and so many other scientific fields, how to design and implement sound curricula aimed at truly benefiting kids cannot be an overwhelming task. Now that we have woken up from this national inertia, and now that we realize that in schools, as much as in any other sector, unchecked union power is not beneficial, getting on with the actual business of providing a good education cannot be more challenging than landing on the moon.