Someone once described 53-year old Bill Maher, the comedian and host of his own HBO show, as “America’s most brilliant teenager.” Considering Maher’s tastes, his predilections, his likes and dislikes—the way his nimble, post-adolescent mind works—that seems a fairly apt description.
Maher likes sex, drugs, nature, animals, and pornography, but doesn’t like children, fat people or American cars. He believes in free speech and legalized marijuana, but doesn’t believe in marriage, God or organized labor. Basically, your typical teenage boy. Except he’s way smarter and better educated than the average kid (for example, he can pronounce “Ahmadinejad”).
A few months ago Maher went on the warpath, blaming California’s “powerful teachers’ union” for the state’s low test scores, arguing that even though California’s classrooms are infested with incompetent teachers, the union won’t “allow” school administrators to fire them. Strong union = bad teachers = low test scores.
Not surprisingly, given that Maher is a professional comedian seeking laughter and applause—rather than, say, a researcher or policy wonk seeking “wisdom”—his facts, his premise, his assumptions, and his conclusion, all turn out to be dead wrong (which happens a lot to teenagers).
Statistics show that states with an overwhelming majority of non-union teachers have about the same (some even lower!) rates of termination as California. Read that again, carefully: Across the country, non-union states fire their teachers at pretty much the same rate as states with “powerful” teachers unions. The differences are miniscule.
In truth, very few teachers get fired anywhere. And why would they? Why would we expect professional educators—college graduates with teaching credentials and years of experience under their belts—to be unqualified to teach?
We don’t expect a huge percentage of doctors, dentists, pharmacists, veterinarians, opticians, accountants, lawyers, and engineers to be fired for being unable to cut it. Why would we assume that a huge percentage of another profession—school teachers—is unqualified to do their job?
Moreover, when people use private schools as a comparison, when they draw attention to the higher scores being achieved at the privates (with their non-union teachers), they not only miss the point, they tend to get it ass-backwards. Private schools attract less qualified teachers than public schools.
Consider: Not only do California’s private schools not require a state teaching credential, many of them don’t even require a college diploma. You can teach at a private without a bachelor’s degree. And then there’s that little discrepancy in incentive: Private schools pay considerably less than public schools.
So the question becomes: Why would an under-educated, under-credentialed, and under-paid private school teacher out-perform (using test scores as the criterion) his public school counterpart? Perhaps the answer lies not in the quality of the teacher, but in the quality of the students and the expectations of the students’ families.
Unlike public schools, which are not only free but compulsory, private schools are selective and costly. Because families who choose (or can afford) to send kids to private schools are, by definition, concerned with the child’s education, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that their test scores are higher—even with sub-standardteachers.
America’s dirty little secret can be stated in one sentence: Good public schools are generally found in good neighborhoods, and bad public schools are generally found in bad ones. As discouraging and politically incendiary as that observation may be, it’s nonetheless true.
On July 2, Arne Duncan, Obama’s Secretary of Education, spoke before the National Education Association’s (NEA) annual meeting, in San Diego, and implored teachers to seek major reforms, including going to a merit pay system and adopting easier ways of firing “incompetent” teachers.
While the teachers, by and large, listened politely to his remarks, they remained unpersuaded. Because so many of them had spent their entire professional lives inside a classroom, they knew that Duncan’s approach was simplistic, politically motivated and, ultimately, futile.
If educators and politicians truly want to embrace an “innovative” idea, they might consider this one. Instead of giving money to teachers for improved test scores, give it to the student’s family. Make it a “family scholarship.”
When low-achieving students significantly improve their test scores, reward their families with cash. Give the family a tangible, short-term reason to emphasize the importance academic excellence. Yes, a good education should be viewed as its own reward, but, sadly, that’s not the case, particularly in disadvantaged neighborhoods.
If America’s public schools are to improve, it’s absolutely essential that the families of under-performing students get involved. The influence of the home environment cannot be over-emphasized.
And if it takes a “bribe” to get parents to make sure their kids complete their homework, learn their lessons, and don’t miss class, then bribery should be considered. Whatever works. But pretending that it’s the teachers’ fault is just plain dumb.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Americana,” “Larva Boy”) and writer, was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org