That Shalt Teach

I wrote this article months ago and put it aside. Inspired by Drew Carey’s min-documentary over at Reason, I’m posting it.

Note: I had a weird WordPress problem with this post. Any time I wrote out the word un–ns (labor organization), WordPress collapsed. So I’ve replaced it with labor organizations and the NEA.

God, I hate computers.

This story about the battles over teaching methods exemplifies one of the many things I think is wrong with the education system in this country. The article concerned the fight over whether or not phonics should be the method used for teaching literacy in our schools. I absolutely agree that phonics is the way to go. It’s not the policy I have a problem with, it’s the approach. The Bush-mandated “one size fits all” approach is insane.

What our schools need, more than anything, is freedom and authority. We have a system now where the schools are told what to teach and how to teach it. And the success of this cookie-cutter approach is judged by standardized tests. And then . . . well, then nothing. Whether they suceed or fail becomes irrelevant. Compliance with “the system” is the mandate. Occasionally, some government agency comes up with some manipulated numbers to prove that things are getting better. And the closer you look at them, the more the number fall apart.

Testing isn’t the answer – it forces teachers to spend all their time getting the dumbest students to pass. Evaluating schools by test scores is equally ineffective – since schools in poor areas will often have poor test scores but need the most innovation and help. And mandating curricula from Washington . . . or from Austin, for that matter . . . isn’t the answer either. What works in downtown New Orleans differs from what works in suburban Washington differs from what works in rural Montana.

No, what we need is a new diffusion of authority and accountability. We need to give control of the education system back to those closest to the students. And hold them accountable for their success or failure.

To wit:

  • States need the freedom to innovate on teaching. it’s insanity to think that the educational needs of California are the same as Louisiana. And yes, that even means that if states want to teach intelligent design, they should be allowed. That’s a battle we can fight out fifty times if we have to. The cost of mandating a proper curriculum is too high to get bogged down in.

    However, accountability should come with this power. If states are wasting money and falling behind, they need have their funds cut. The Department of Education — after some serious paring down — would be turned into an investigative arm. Identifying fraud and waste and checking on progress.

  • Principals are the key to any meaningful education reform. My own experience in the public schools convinced me that no one has more to do with the success or failure of a school than the man with the wooden paddle. Principals need more authority to fire incompetent teachers, give raises to good ones and make necessary tweaks in the curriculum. Yes, it’s possible that some will abuses this authority. The labor organizations insist that there are no incompetent teachers, just evil principals. They’re full of crap, of course, but they’re not completely wrong.

    But even if some principals abuse their authority, we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

    Principals, of course, need to be held accountable for the success or failure of the schools under their command. If they are firing good teachers and rewarding bad ones, they, in their turn, should be sacked.

  • By the same token, teachers need both more authority and more accountability. Their jobs should not become sinecures from which they are incapable of being fired. But they should also have more freedom to set lesson plans, to decide the appropriate amount and type of homework, to change their methods to the students needs. No one — not George Bush, not Ted Kennedy and not me — knows how to educate a child better than the teacher who is in the room with him. Give teachers the freedom to innovate and hold them accountable if they fail.
  • Returning to this point, why are public school teachers the only people in America exempt from accountability? Why should teachers have such safe jobs that the turnover is less than one in a thousand? Everyone else in America lives in fear of losing his job. And it’s kind of rare these days to spend your entire career with one employer. Why should education be different?

    Some of the biggest benefits of putting teacher’s jobs on the line will come to the teachers themselves. With more freedom and more accountability, they will be able to find the job most suited to them.

    Sometimes a teacher just isn’t right for a particular job. A teacher’s manner, demeanor and method might be totally unsuited to their environment, but work elsewhere. A strict disciplinarian might fail in the suburbs but succeed in the projects. While a more easy-going teacher might fail in a rural town and triumph in a suburb.

  • Finally, we need to give authority back to the parents and the children themselves. Not even the teacher has more control over a child’s success than he and his family. Parents should have the freedom – no matter how hysterical Big Education gets about it – to change schools. Why must we insist, in pure Soviet style, that the education at the nearest school is the right one? Not all children are the same. Not all children can triumph in the same environment. It’s insanity to think so.
  • I’d like to expand on this last point — school choice. I believe we can solve most of our education problems in one big swipe. By privatizing the whole smash.

    Milton Friedman argued that while it is our government’s duty to make sure its citizens are educated, it is not its duty to run the education system. Walter Williams has pointed out that poor people can acquire decent cars, food, homes and clothing – but can’t seem to get a good education. Could this be because one of these is provided by the government and the others (necessities all) by the market?

    The Democrats uniformly oppose school choice. And it absolutely for purely political reasons. If education were in the hands of parents, kids and teachers, the NEA would have less reason to support the Dems. Right now, the NEA and the Democrats have the public trapped in a horrible nepotistic circle in which the NEA gives all their money to the Democrats and the Democrats assure them that the Soviet style education system will never change (and incidentally create a perrenial underclass of uneducated voters). This is clear in the most frequent and revealing quote from the Dems in response to education choice proposals:

    “We don’t want to hurt the system.”

    I say to hell with the system. This system has given us an education system that is embarassing in its ineptitude. This system has trapped generations into poverty. The system costs twice what private school cost. Our “system” of education is no more effective than a Vegas gambler’s “system” of winning at blackjack.

    But I’m being silly — I keep thinking the purpose of our education system is to, you know, teach kids. This is not the case. To the Democrats and the teachers’ organizations, it’s about preserving the broken, overpriced, underperforming, creaking, future-wrecking, command-and-control “system”.

    The Democrats know they are on the wrong side of history. When — not if — choice comes to our education system, we will look back on the present era the way we know look back upon Jim Crowe. We will not believe that the richest nation on Earth condemned millions of children to this Soviet-style system. We will not believe that it succeeded to the extent that it did.

    The Democrats know this. And they don’t care. As much as they save the looove kids, they they will never give up the millions of dollars in NEA donations to save those kids from the education gulag. Because those millions go to elect Democrats. And we all know those kids are better off with Democratic rulers than diplomas they can read.

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