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Saturday, March 5, 2011

A Defense of Education Inspired By Jon Stewart's Interview With Diane Ravitch

     The state of America's education is in the toilet, and overpaid, ineffective teachers are to blame. Or so one might assume based on the national consensus of the past few years. But Diane Ravitch, who appeared on Comedy Central's The Daily Show With Jon Stewart this past Thursday disagrees. As does Jon Stewart. As do I. After watching the interview, I am inspired to lay down my arguments against many education misconceptions, and I will be using some of what Diane and Jon said to make those points. I encourage you to watch the full interview online.

     A quick note: If you have not watched The Daily Show for a few years, you may be forgiven for thinking that it is only a comedy show. It is far from it. Jon Stewart is well versed in policy, and while there are often humorous elements to the series, he gets serious and is knowledgeable on his facts, especially during interviews. There is a reason Stewart has been polled as our most trustworthy newsman over the anchors from CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX, and it was not a joke.

     First, a little background, so you know where I'm coming from as I argue the points. I hold a teaching license in two states and am currently a substitute teacher. I love education dearly. I love most of the teachers I've ever had just as much. Jon's mother was a public school teacher, and he holds a very high opinion of her and the job that she did. Diane studies education and recently release a book called The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Undermine Education. I have not read the book, but it has now jumped to the top of my To Do list. So yeah, I am a bit biased, as are the two people involved in the interview I am referencing.

     Point #1: It is the teacher's fault when kids fail tests. As Diane points out, no one likes tests. Kids don't get excited to come to school for test prep. The emphasis on test scores this past decade has valued that over the things kids actually like about education: art, music, physics, physical education. Those latter are needed for a well rounded education, and participation in each of those has been linked to students doing well in core curriculum. In my opinion, cutting the so-called extra curriculars, as schools are doing now more than ever to balance their budgets, will actually hurt the goals of achieving higher test scores, if nothing else, by decreasing student motivation.

     In truth, as Diane is quick to say, poverty is a much better indicator of how well a student will do than teacher performance. Teachers can only do so much to make a kid want to learn when that kid has other things to worry about, like clean clothes and hot meals. Plus, in poor areas, parents are at work more, and not able to assist with the motivation or making sure students spend time on home work after school, an important component to doing well. Is it a coincidence that the worst test scores are often in poor areas? There's a lot more going on here than just ineffective teachers.

     Point #2: American kids score lower than other countries. This argument really makes me mad because that is like saying the horses on an average farm don't fun as fast as the horses on a ranch that breeds race horses. Many countries do not educate their lower-performing students. Those children work on factories or farms. Perhaps their parents can't afford to send them to school, or don't see the value of an education they never got. Many other countries cited do not include special needs kids or second-language learners in their scores. America does.

     In the United States, we have made a commitment to educate every child. Rich or poor, no matter where they come from, they are included in our test scores. Students who have learning disabilities and are in our special needs classrooms are counted. In most states, students who enter the schools knowing no English are exempted from those tests for only a year or two. Can you imagine having to take complicated standardized tests in a foreign language having only one year to grasp it?

     Now, I am not arguing that we should not educate every child. Quite the contrary. I love that our system performs that way, and I do believe every child has the capacity to learn. They may not all graduate with the same knowledge base, but anything we can do to help every kid succeed is great. I am just saying that if you take our upper-middle class suburban school kids and compare them with other countries' statistics, America is doing great. We have a poverty problem, not an overall failing system problem. Though the system is flawed when those poor areas don't do so well, the changes need to come in more than just schools.

     Point #3: Teachers get paid too much, especially since they only work nine months a year. The 40 hour work week does not exist for teachers when school is in session. Stewart testified that his mother was always working incredibly hard, all the time. Teachers spend up to seven hours a day in the classroom, with the kids. Then they have to make lesson plans, grade papers, research trends and new way of doing things, attend college classes, decorate the room, read the books the kids will be reading, etc. Teachers easily make up for those couple of months off in the summer by all the additional hours they have to put in during the school year. I am certain that most teachers work as much as people with normal, forty-hour-per-week, twelve-months-a-year jobs.

     As for pay, it takes a college degree to become a teacher, which often results in large student loans. I can tell you, new teachers are still living very simply for years until they can overcome that debt. But unlike most other careers where they are done with schooling once they enter the workforce, teachers have to take classes for the rest of their lives to maintain their licensure. That costs money, too. Plus, the money teachers pull out of their pockets to equip their classrooms when schools can't afford to do so properly, or just won't. While the take-home pay (with benefits) may seem higher than some other jobs, once you take out those other costs, it really isn't.

     Again, I am not arguing against requiring continuing education. Teachers used to be able to get permanent licenses, but the computer age helped us see how flawed that logic was. Teachers must keep up with what is going on to relate to and inspire kids, who are always on the forefront of the latest wave. I am just saying that the extra work is worth something, and there is more than a base salary to consider.

     Point #4: Our education system is full of horrible teachers gaming a system that will not fire them. Sure, there are some teachers who do the bare minimum and punch out at 4 p.m., but they are few and far between. There are lazy people in every industry. Diane mentioned talking to one principal who had supervised about three hundred teachers, and he said he only had one who didn't perform, and he got rid of that teacher. Unions make it hard to fire a teacher, but if cause is there, it is far from impossible.

     The thing is, it is so much work to teach and to stay a teacher, that the lazy, poor performers usually wash out quickly. They have to accomplish a number of difficult tasks, from getting a college degree, to a massive license test, to peer reviews, and supervised classroom time before getting that full qualification. Most teachers do not graduate with a regular license. It takes years after college to earn one. You can't fake your way through any of those steps, so the rigorous process tends to weed out a vast majority of the bad teachers. Not all, but most.

     Point #5: Conservative hypocrisy. This last bit is my current personal beef, though Jon Stewart has echoed a number of my sentiments on his program. I guess he isn't echoing me, per se, but anyway; Republicans who recently threw a royal fit when couples earning over $250K a year might have their tax cuts expire are some of the same ones now claiming that teachers make too much. They say it is tearing away freedoms if we try to regulate the financial industry or put ceilings on bonuses (in the millions of dollars), but $50K and some health care is too much when it comes to teachers. As for the argument that the public's taxes pay for teachers, but not those said financial people, after the major bailouts of the last few years, that is simply not true.

     Wall Street got us into this mess, but the Republican party wants to make civil servants, like teachers, pay to get us out. What's more, teachers are willing to make sacrifices, unlike the aforementioned Wall Street workers, but GOP governors want to take away their union bargaining power anyway. It took a long time for teachers to earn a decent wage. How long will that last once they no longer can collectively bargain? The Wisconsin and Ohio fiascoes currently in progress are a total stain on our nation.

     Wrap up: On a broader scale, is it democratic to limit pay, or are we just trying to transfer the wealth, stealing from the rich to give to the poor? The heads of companies now often make one hundred and eighty times what their average employee makes, versus more like forty times as much in the past. These are estimates, but ones in the ballpark with reality. I do not think it is unreasonable to expect employers to pay employees more when we are talking about those kinds of disparities.

      Union membership is down, and some conservatives argue it is time to get rid of unions, as a thing of the past. I say this unsustainable, disgusting gap between the rich and the rest of us is being exacerbated by a lack of unions. If more people unionized at their jobs, balance might be restored a bit better. Don't take away teachers' (and firefighter's, and police officers') unions because teachers (et al) get better benefits than other jobs. Unionize those other jobs and fight for something resembling fair pay!

      I have said my piece, and I welcome any comments or discussion below. I didn't cite sources because I didn't do specific research for this piece, but rather synthesized years of keeping up on the issues from a variety of sources. I ask that the discord stay civil and not resort to personal attacks (they will be deleted), but feel free to cite studies (that are verifiable) and question facts (if you find a legitimate source that disputes them). I look forward to the debate.

Article first published as Education Defense Essay Inspired By The Daily Show With Jon Stewart's Interview With Diane Ravitch on Blogcritics.

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