Tilting at Windmills

May/June 2012 A bad argument

By Charles Peters

The New York Review of Books seems to have embraced Diane Ravitch’s campaign against public school reform. It has published articles by her in back-to-back issues this year. In the March 8 issue, she argues that

The “no excuses” reformers maintain that all children can attain academic proficiency without regard to poverty, disability, or other conditions, and that someone must be held accountable if they do not. That someone is invariably their teachers.
Nothing is said about holding accountable the district leadership or the elected officials who determine such crucial issues as funding, class size, and resource allocation. The reformers say that our economy is in jeopardy, not because of growing poverty or income inequality or the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, but because of bad teachers. These bad teachers must be found out and thrown out. Any laws, regulations, or contracts that protect these pedagogical malefactors must be eliminated so that they can be quickly removed without regard to experience, seniority, or due process.

This magazine has been part of the reform movement since 1969. We have criticized the unions for protecting bad teachers. But we have never said that teachers alone should be held accountable for the failures of public education, and we have never contended that poverty and disability have nothing to do with these failures. We have also criticized second-rate administrators and the responsible elected officials. Indeed, Ravitch’s portrayal of the reform movement is close to being false—and is given a smidgeon of truth by the Johnny-come-lately Republicans who have only recently joined the cause of school reform because they are out to destroy the union movement. (I can remember how hard it used to be to get conservatives interested in reforming public education—their favorite solution to its problems was to provide vouchers so students could attend private school instead.)

Ravitch cites Finland’s teachers as being so good that they never have to be fired. This might be true here if we had Finland’s rigorous standards for training and hiring teachers, but in our public schools, hiring has largely been based on “education” credits or degrees obtained, mostly, from second-rate teacher’s colleges (now often called Somethingorother State) where methodology is emphasized, subject matter is not, and passing grades are far too easily obtained. These standards exist because teacher’s colleges and teacher’s unions have advocated and defended them.

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.

Comments

  • BernieO on August 04, 2012 8:52 AM:

    Finland made a deliberate choice to upgrad their ed system by making it a priority by emphasizing the importance of education. Now teachers in Finland are highly regraded and they turn away many highly qualified applicants. It is not seen as lowly "women's work", either. I once told a German exchange student that I had heard a lot of men taught in their kindergartens. He seemed surprised and replied "not so many - just about half"! He was shocked to learn that we had no men teaching at that level.

    We will never attract enough of our "best and brightest" to the teaching field until our society really starts to value education over money, sports, money, celebrity, money.... We ascribe to the ridiculous belief that "those who can,do; those who can't,teach." Meanwhile we lionize athletes and their coaches no matter how stupid or badly educated they are. Being a "dumb jock" is no longer disparaged like being a nerd or geek is.

    When the Sandusky scandal broke I was amazed and appalled by how many people seriously said that Joe Paterno ran Penn State - and by the fact that this was not seen as an outrage.

    We seem to have completely forgotten that our public schools were not established to provide workers for corporations but to provide citizens prepared to participate in our democracy. Doing that does not preclude a basic prep for work. After all today's citizens not only need to know government and history, they also need to know basic math/statistics as well as science in order to understand the issues we vote on. Serving on a jury also requires a basic grasp of these kinds of things.

    Clearly we need to return to that focus before we destroy our democracy through our ignorance.

  • Freshly Squeezed Cynic on August 06, 2012 8:13 PM:

    This might be true here if we had Finland’s rigorous standards for training and hiring teachers, but in our public schools, hiring has largely been based on “education” credits or degrees obtained, mostly, from second-rate teacher’s colleges (now often called Somethingorother State) where methodology is emphasized, subject matter is not, and passing grades are far too easily obtained.

    Mr. Peter's argument is undermined by this study, which looks into hiring practises at charter schools. It seems that charter schools do have higher staff turnover, but this is not because they are getting rid of "failing" teachers. Instead, this turnover is primarily due to the experienced teachers being the most likely to leave, as well as very new teachers who will be too inexperienced to make judging whether or not they are competent or not a simple task. Charter schools also facilitate this high turnover due to lower standards in working conditions (such as higher class sizes, lower wages, and increased workloads), as well as more limited autonomy than advocates claim charter schools provide.

    Charter schools themselves are more likely to attract younger and more inexperienced teachers with lower standards of formal qualification (considerably more likely to be uncertified, and not have a degree in education). And this is in a largely non-unionised sector! So much for the baleful influence of the teacher's union holding down standards.