Public Educators Speak for Themselves

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critical of public education floods conservative and libertarian
websites. In a recent article, I gave educators a chance to speak
for themselves, in a sense, by providing information that public
university education departments present to the public and to prospective
students. I also related my own classroom experiences with education
specialists. Articles by Thomas Sowell and others, and by me, tend
to relate such facts as they are understood by those of us outside
the profession. While this is necessary, missing from the usual
fare is a study how things appear from the inside. Here, then, are
some problems with public education as experienced by teachers in
public schools:

public schoolteacher faces two primary obstacles to educating students:
social promotion policies and uninvolved parents. In Alabama, for
example, a student is to be promoted if he fails "only"
math or reading and one other course. Thus, a student who can get
(mostly) passing grades in math and other subjects, but is known
to the teacher to be unable to read, must be promoted. The teacher
has no choice in this. A result of such policies is that regardless
of whether a given teacher derives immense satisfaction from successfully
educating students, a sixth-grade teacher who inherits a student
who cannot read is almost hopelessly hamstrung. (To be fair, Alabama
is trying to reform their social-promotion policies right now.)

for uninvolved parents, what is there to say? There is no excuse:
While 74% of impoverished households ("impoverished" per
government classification) in the United States own VCRs, and the
average new VCR sells for around $140, the average children's book
at a garage sale goes for about 25 cents. I have friends who troll
garage sales finding books for their toddlers, so I know it can
be done. Combine this with two other data: Reading is the most important
learning skill at any age; and the typical improverished child shows
up for first grade unable to read. While many critics, myself included,
like to find fault in government nannying – and there is plenty of
government fault to find – parents must share responsibility.

outside Alabama face other obstacles, among them lack of administrative
support for discipline and forced inculcation of statist politics
and permissive – sometimes deviant – moral codes that many teachers
find repugnant. While teachers around the nation tend to enjoy guaranteed
job tenure divorced from quality of performance, a condition unheard
of anywhere outside the profession, teachers tell me that opposing
the school system's official moral or political stance is almost
the only thing a teacher can do to get fired.

teachers face unique obstacles just to get hired in the first place.
They endure being taught psychological education theories that are
often no more than politically correct psychobabble; they must satisfy
their professors that they "understand and are sufficiently
committed to" the profession, according to some public university
catalogs (which can mean whatever the professors want it to mean – usually
that the student is sufficiently liberal); and they must have the
proper degree from an approved institution. Further, they have to
remember the psychobabble long enough to reproduce it on a certification
exam. Unless they leap all these hurdles, they don't get a job.
The end result of this process, of course, is well documented: The
strongest students usually get disgusted early and flee from education
programs, leaving behind the ones generally most susceptible to
the psychobabble and weakest with regard to the subject matter they'll
be teaching.

there are intelligent public schoolteachers, and many of those wish
they could do more, such as changing policies, to make public education
effective. So far, I have been speaking in left-handed defense of
the teachers, but there is more to be said even when seeing things
from their perspective. Most startling is that in many states, 40%
and more of public schoolteachers send their own children to private
schools. This shows these teachers are fully aware of the failure
of public schools, more so because private schools cost money and
public schoolteachers usually are not highly paid.

even taking into account the factors making it difficult for them
to do their jobs well, public schoolteachers must bear significant
moral culpability: If 40% of the teachers in a state or county system
were unified and vocal in their resistance to the most damaging
policies, they could not help but have an effect. If 40% or more
of the teachers in a given district let it be known that they would
not vote the teachers' union party line in local elections, there
would be change. But don't hold your breath waiting for that to

long as teachers face all these obstacles, and as long as the informed
and conscientious ones abdicate their responsibility to improve
the system, the solution for those of us who care remains the same:

school your children.

16, 2001

Edmonds, Doctor of Musical Arts, is a banker in Alabama.

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