Thursday, May 31, 2012

Romney vs. teachers unions: The inconvenient truth

From the Washington Post opinion section:

That reality is this: The top performing school systems in the world have strong teachers unions at the heart of their education establishment. This fact is rarely discussed (or even noted) in reform circles. Yet anyone who’s intellectually honest and cares about improving our schools has to acknowledge it. The United States is an outlier in having such deeply adversarial, dysfunctional labor-management relations in schooling.

Why is this?

My hypothesis runs as follows: The chief educational strategy of top-performing nations such as Finland, Singapore and South Korea is to recruit talent from the top third of the academic cohort into the teaching profession and to train them in selective, prestigious institutions to succeed on the job. In the United States, by contrast, we recruit teachers mostly from the middle and (especially for poor schools) bottom third and train them mostly in open-enrollment institutions that by all accounts do shoddy work.

As a result, American reformers and superintendents have developed a fetish for evaluating teachers and dismissing poor performers, because there are, in fact, too many. Unions dig in to protect their members because . . . that’s what unions do.

More here.

While this essay is somewhat annoying in that it comes from an establishment pundit guy, which means he has to subject us to his establishment conventional wisdom about why he hates teachers' unions, too, he makes a very good overall point: here in the US, we just don't take education seriously.

I mean, he's definitely right about the kind of people in the profession. I wouldn't generalize American teachers as being bad, but I certainly do believe that most of them are mediocre intellects, at best--of course, there are some notable exceptions to this, but, on the whole, teachers aren't very bright people, don't question the way things are, don't ponder the universe. Most of them aren't much more than bored classroom managers, lifelessly working their way through whatever state mandated curriculum happens to be in vogue at the moment, punching a clock, yadda yadda.

And this guy's definitely right about teacher training, too. I got my secondary certification at one of those open enrollment schools, and the whole thing was a piece of cake. Sure, there was some interesting stuff, and I had at least one really good professor, but for the most part, the education faculty wasn't much better than the mediocre intellects they send into the field.

All of this leads inevitably to the conclusion that we, as a nation, just don't give a shit about education. The whole enterprise really isn't much more than lip-service to the notion. Pay and social status, as the essay later observes, are, indeed, huge issues when it comes to attracting top flight thinkers to the field, but complicating things greatly is that, given the way the system is currently constructed, intellectuals don't really last because, you know, what intellectual in his right mind can abide what Noam Chomsky has called "a system of imposed ignorance"?

That's the real problem: "education" in the US is essentially the exact opposite of the notion of creating keen minds. Change that, and we'll have better teachers. Of course, this would drive the oligarchy insane, which means it will never happen.