WASHINGTON, September 3, 2012 — Teachers and their unions get bashed by the Left, Right, and center. Everyone blames teacher unions for what is wrong with our schools. It is easier to do that than fix what is really wrong with our schools: our American way of life.
Schools more than anything else reflect our neighborhoods, our community, our American society. Because all children must attend school, their families represent a cross section of America, rich, poor, immigrant (legal or illegal), educated or drop outs, special needs, professional, welfare, working class, white, black, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American.
No other segment of our society can claim that. Most of us live in pockets of isolation, whether it is the street we live on or the place we work at. For the most part we look alike and probably have similar educational and economic backgrounds. But step into a public school and you are about to meet the young representatives of American society.
Suburban vs. Inner City Schools
Yet once that child enters school, she or he is expected to be educated and to be able to learn. For children in affluent suburbs with a tax base to sustain state-of-the-art schools and parents that deeply care about education, those kids will have highly educated teachers, who are paid well, not what they are worth, but at least they don’t have to hold a second job in the mall to make ends meet.
For the rest of the children in the inner city, in rural areas, and in small towns, it is a struggle for students, teachers, and the schools. The schools are dilapidated, the teachers underpaid, taxes to pay for schools are pitiful, the community less than supportive despite protestations that they are, and children arriving unprepared for even kindergarten.
Who gets the blame? Teacher unions, not the teachers, of course not, but the unions. But reality is that teacher unions are composed of teachers, so of course our teachers are being blamed for the failures of our schools.
The Problem with Charter Schools
Whether it is President George W. Bush or President Barack Obama, the Right and Left have some cockamamie scheme to fix schools. Usually the key word is accountability as though kids are so many numbers in a ledger book. Test them six ways to Sunday. Then they’ll learn. And if not, you can always do what Secretary of Education Arne Duncan advocates, close the school and/or send them to another school. Translation: charter schools.
Problem with this so-called solution is that charter schools drain money away from public schools, which are already cash-strapped, and charter and private schools do not have to take everyone who applies there, from children with behavior problems to special needs. Charter schools get to pick and choose.
What needs to be done is for America to face up to its problem. We are asking teachers to teach children from K through 12 who come to school hungry, from badly dysfunctional families barely scraping by, from dangerous neighborhoods where gunshots are as common as the chirp of crickets, or whose families work and are too exhausted to get dinner on the table much less look over homework.
In those schools, the buildings are crumbling or the classes are too big for learning or they are missing essential services like librarians or school nurses or aides in the classroom. Or all of the above. Is it any wonder our students perform so poorly compared to the rest of the world?
Teacher Unions Push for Better Schools
Yet it’s the teacher unions that get the bad rap, even as they push for smaller classes, for the hiring of the best and the brightest from our colleges to be teachers, for improvement in working conditions for teachers and students, for realistic salaries so teachers can afford to live in the communities they teach in, and for up-to-date textbooks and materials that meet the challenges of today’s world.
Have unions been guilty in the past of protecting teachers who are subpar? Yes. But the bigger question is why did that “teacher” get tenure in the first place. Why didn’t a superintendent show them the door by the end of the first year? Everyone — students, other teachers, the parents — knows who is a good, bad or ok teacher within a year. Why not the administrators who hire the less than stellar teachers?
As for tenure, it is essential to protect teachers’ First Amendment rights when in the classroom, such as teaching evolution when some in a community think intelligent design should be taught. And it is essential in protecting teachers from the irate parents who are on the warpath because their children supposedly didn’t get the grades they deserve or from whims of principals, playing their version of teacher’s pet, which is also another reason that teachers are not for merit pay, not even outstanding ones who deserve it.
What America Needs to Do
In the next two decades, America will have to hire a couple million new teachers. To attract the best and brightest from top colleges means starting salaries of at least $70,000 and rising to $170,000. It means a massive investment in the infrastructure of our schools. Tear down the rattraps and build state of the art schools in inner cities and rural towns. Schools should be magnets for learning and not magnets for sloth.
Make schools an oasis in children’s lives, a place where the chaotic home life can’t intrude. That may mean in some areas breakfast and lunch and maybe dinner backpacks as some school districts already do. That will mean making the schools into community centers where kids don’t head home when the bell rings, but stay for homework help, craft projects, sports, or for an extra class or two. Unless we rebuild the next generation there will be no breaking the appalling cycle.
The ugly secret of America is that too many Americans are poor and too many of us just don’t give a damn that they are. Yet education is the escape hatch from the cycle of poverty. American enterprise calls, no begs, for an educated work force. As it is now, we bury some of our best minds in small towns and inner city schools, which cannot sustain real education.
Rather than fix what is wrong with our society, we put band-aids on the problem, demand accountability with no funding mandates and blame the people on the front lines, teachers. Instead we need to make schools our priority like we once did a man on the moon.
This Labor Day, instead of bashing unions, thank your kid’s teacher, who dollar to donuts, belongs to a union.
To contact Catherine Poe, see above. Her work appears in Ad Lib at the Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. She can also be heard on Democrats for America’s Future. She is also a contributor to broadcast, print and online media.
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