Commentary: It’s not the outsiders to blame, it’s the system
Guest contributor | May 20, 2014
This commentary is written in response to Ellie Herman’s commentary last week, asking why policy makers don’t listen more to teachers.
By Larry Sand
Why aren’t we listening? Well, in fact we are. There are organizations whose members include current and former teachers. Teach Plus, Educators 4 Excellence and StudentsFirst take positions on education policy issues, exchange ideas with the likes of LAUSD honcho John Deasy and pile into Sacramento attempting to affect legislation.
Are they as effective as they should be? No. But blaming the likes of Eli Broad, Bill Gates and Wendy Kopp who have “little or no experience in the field” is way off target.
The real villains are much closer to home: the sclerotic, union-dominated state education code, school boards which are, all too often in the unions’ thrall, and strangulating industrial-style union contracts. Hence, there is realistically only so much that can be accomplished by straight-jacketed teachers in California and elsewhere.
Unfortunately, Ms. Herman indulges in shibboleths to make her case. For example, she bangs on the small class-size drum, taking Stanford’s Eric Hanushek to the woodshed because he “never spent even a single day facing down a classroom of squirmy, perspiring, cranky, hormonal children.”
As one who spent most of a 28 year teaching career in a middle school facing down squirmy, perspiring, cranky, hormonal children, I will tell you that Hanushek is right. A teacher’s job may be a bit easier with fewer kids – not as many papers to grade and parents to meet with – but typically, whether it was a class of 20 or 30, it really didn’t affect my teaching or my students’ success one bit. As Hanushek rightfully asserts, class size has no bearing – in aggregate – on student achievement.
Ms. Herman is also off the mark when she claims there is “no incentive for receiving an advanced degree in your field.” Fact is, teachers do get paid more for taking professional development classes and for attaining advanced degrees. Moreover, teachers get yearly raises simply for showing up in the fall. But due to most union contracts, that’s the only way for teachers to make more money. Unlike other professions, the quality of their work has no bearing on their pay.
And yes, there is a “career path” for teachers. Committed educators can become administrators. That having been said, I do think that it would be better to pay good and great teachers a lot more than the mediocre ones and keep them in the classroom. But again, for the unions – not Bill Gates – compensating excellence is a non-starter.
The union-tainted state education code victimizes good teachers in other ways. Due to tenure, the inability to fire the bad actors has an effect not only on kids but on teachers too. When I taught middle school, if a student had an incompetent teacher in the class before mine, I had to expend a good deal of time and energy just getting the kid into learning mode. Seniority, another union favorite, is also having a devastating effect on the profession. Few college students are going into the field now because they know that if layoffs come, no matter how much better they may be than the teacher in the next room, they will be out of work. So why bother.
Perhaps the greatest irony in Ms. Herman’s piece is that she is an outsider proposing policy recommendations at the same time as she is criticizing outsiders for proposing policy recommendations. As a former “insider,” I recognize that in a perfect world, the problems in education should be solved by educators. But given the power of the teachers unions, it ain’t gonna happen. As such, outsiders should be embraced, not damned.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.