David Brooks has an uncanny way of taking a complex issue and boiling it down to an either/or situation. That may be what they teach in Punditry 101, but when he’s writing about public education and who Barack Obama should choose for the Secretary of Education, it’s a lesson that is a waste of time.
As in many other areas, the biggest education debates are happening within the Democratic Party. On the one hand, there are the reformers like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, who support merit pay for good teachers, charter schools and tough accountability standards. On the other hand, there are the teachers’ unions and the members of the Ed School establishment, who emphasize greater funding, smaller class sizes and superficial reforms.
If it was that simple, then the problems would have been solved years ago and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. However, what he thinks he can cram into his column and the choices he offers are superficial at best and don’t even begin to scratch the surface.
Take for example the issue of merit pay. It makes sense on the surface; after all, good sales people are rewarded with bonuses for doing a good job, as is anyone who gets a tip, like a waiter or a cab driver. But doing it for teachers has a lot of factors that go into determining whether or not they’re a “good teacher.” What is the standard for judging them? High test scores on standardized tests? What does that prove other than the teacher is good at getting students to learn things by rote? That’s not teaching, it’s drilling, and if the students have no idea what and why they’re learning, they’re no better than where they were before. Second, teachers don’t teach in a vacuum; there’s the support mechanism of the school itself and the staff as well as the parents and the central administration. Why is merit pay only going to the teacher when everyone else — including the students — had a hand in the education process? (On the other hand, students can submarine a good teacher for no other reason than they’re ornery kids and would like nothing better than to take out a teacher they don’t happen to like that week. I’ve seen that happen more than once.)
Mr. Brooks tosses in the teachers’ unions as if they are still a powerful force in dictating to the local school boards and have the ability to hold them hostage to their outrageous demands for decent salaries and working conditions for teachers and support staff. I’m sure there are a lot of teachers in the public schools — especially here in Florida — who wish that it was true. Teachers here are forbidden by law from striking, so what clout do they have other than making their case? Teachers are not required to be union members to do their job, so the cudgel that Mr. Brooks and many conservatives think the NEA holds over public education is more like a Whiffle bat. And yet the unions do serve a purpose, which is to remind the public that teachers don’t “have it easy,” with summers off and done with work at 2:30. Would that that was true. First, most teachers don’t get paid for the summer, or if they do, it’s pro-rated over the ten months, and I have yet to meet a good teacher who didn’t put in 12 hours a day during the school year whether it’s in the classroom, at home grading papers and writing lesson plans, attending after-school events, meeting parents, and generally keeping the peace in a sea of hyperactivity that would exhaust anyone in an hour. And all of it for a starting salary, even with advanced degrees, that would be the same as a file clerk in a small business.
I’ve been around education all my life. I’ve taught at levels from middle school to college, and now that I work in education administration, I can tell just by being around someone whether or not they have spent any time in the classroom. Mr. Brooks clearly has never spent a day in the trenches, and I challenge him to spend a week at the public school of his choice, be it the finest one in the country or the most decrepit in the poorest city in the country. He will learn two things very quickly: first, it doesn’t really matter who the Secretary of Education is because all education is local, and second, the dedication of the teachers who come to school early and stay late is the same fiery passion for the job whether you’re at New Trier in Winnetka, Illinois or Liberty City in Miami. We work for the kids. So knock off the unfunded mandates like No Child Left Behind and the useless boondoggles, give us the tools (and the proper environment), and let us do our job.