Teach Your Children Well
Eric Bugyis July 2, 2008 - 7:28pm
Most of our political discussion on how to improve public education seems to focus on ways to encouraging excellence in teaching (merit pay, better training and continuing education credits, and rewards for student achievement on standardized tests), but after readingthis storyfrom Monday's New York Times, I'm not sure finding good teachers is the challenge. The Times reports on a school in Brooklyn, which takes students from the poorest neighborhoods and provides them with a more intimate education than they would receive at a typical public school. The success of the school is unquestionable, but the article points out that it comes at a price and may not be sustainable in the long run. The heroic teachers that work at the school regularly log "14-hour days," and as a result, there is high turn over, as teachers are, understandably, unable to maintain that schedule on a typical teacher's salary as they begin to have families of their own. The principal in the article suggests that in order to maintain this successful educational model, the school will need to either hire more teachers to cut down on the hours each teacher must spend ensuring the students not only complete their class assignments, but also do all they need to do to apply and prepare for college, or pay these teachers more so they are able to afford things like childcare as they get married and have their own kids.A comment made by the Schools Chancellor, Joel Klein, though, strikes me as revealing of a prevailing public attitude about teaching that stands in the way of the reforms requested by this principal. He says, "When people are part of the world of changing things for children, they don't view it as work." Three things:(1) "changing things for": There seems to be an assumption in the policy focus of education reform that if teachers teach, students will simply learn. But, anyone who has taught knows that, while good teachers are invaluable, no one can change a student's world for them. They must take it upon themselves to do the work necessary to actualize their potential. Thus, we need to find ways of not only encouraging good teaching, but also encouraging good learning, with students and parents equally implicated in the educational process. (2) "children": This is closely related to the first point, but the idea that high school students are "children" in need of the same attention as elementary school students is strange. Many of the students at the high school in question came from terribly poor elementary and middle schools (likely due to a broken local tax-based funding system), and having not acquired good learning habits early enough, they require even more attention to set straight an already crooked course. If teachers are going to change the world for children, we must target children by investing in early childhood education at the pre-kindergarten level.(3) "work": Perhaps the most shortsighted, but alarmingly pervasive, part of the Chancellor's statement is the idea that teaching is not considered "work." Unfortunately, the hackneyed adage, "those who can't do, teach," is quite entrenched in our educational culture so much so that many people feel that our already underpaid teaching workforce is actually overpaid. After all, how hard is it to do multiplication tables in front of a bunch of third graders? Until we realize that our teachers are just as skilled and dedicated, albeit in different ways, as those in more lucrative service professions, like healthcare, their 60-hour work weeks will continue to be undercompensated at an hourly rate far below minimum wage, making it impossible for them to even afford for their own children the same education they are providing for other peoples' kids.
About the Author
Eric Bugyis teaches Religious Studies in the Division of Politics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at the University of Washington Tacoma.