I used to be a big fan of HBO comedian Bill Maher. But for me, in March of ’09, the dude crossed a line. So what did he say on his HBO show that was so terminally stupid? He declared that the reason California’s public schools are performing so poorly is because of their lousy teachers, and because the “powerful” teachers’ union won’t let the administrators get rid of them. He actually suggested that we needed to “bust” the union.
How wrong was he? Well, not only do the facts dispute him, they directly and unequivocally contradict him. Not only do they contradict him, they blow him out of the water.
In truth, public school teachers across the country—non-union and union alike—are rarely fired. And why would they be? These are professional educators who hold college degrees and state teaching credentials, and have survived two or three-year (or longer) probationary periods during which they could be fired for any reason whatever, no questions asked—union or non-union.
And why should teachers be fired more often than, say, accountants, actuaries, veterinarians, lawyers or pharmacists? What is it about teachers that makes their profession so suspect? Are our colleges turning out such crappy graduates that they can’t even be trusted anymore? Are we saying that teachers two generations ago were better than they are now—even though today’s standards are far more rigorous?
Generally speaking, teachers who don’t belong to a union get fired roughly as often as unionized teachers. Belonging to a union has little to do with it. For example, in South Carolina, where a full 100 per cent of the teachers are non-union, only a miniscule 0.32 per cent of teachers get fired. And the state of North Carolina, with over 95 per cent of its teachers non-union, fires the same percentage that California does.
Moreover, some of the best public schools in the country are found in states that employ a majority of union teachers. Take Oregon, for example, which has a good school system. What percentage of Oregon’s public school teachers are union members? 100 per cent. If Maher had taken five minutes away from his bong to research these statistics, he wouldn’t have embarrassed himself by going off on that ridiculous rant.
Indeed, had Maher taken the time to investigate, he would have discovered that even California—the state he was vilifying—used to rank among the best schools in the country, and that the teachers who won those national teaching awards were union members. Bill needs to know that what changed wasn’t California’s teachers. The teachers didn’t suddenly, en masse, get amnesia and forget how to teach. What changed was California itself.
Today we have elementary schools in Los Angeles where 40 per cent of the kids are in foster care. We have kids from unbelievably stunted and hostile environments; kids who have little respect for authority, who refuse to do their homework, who don’t show up on time; kids who, through no fault of their own, lack role models and social skills, kids who lack English language skills; kids whose families are disintegrating and whose neighborhoods are decaying.
Add to the mix a precipitous drop in state funding for education—not to mention an excess of overpaid administrators and education “consultants” who, as a means of maintaining job security, are constantly introducing new and disruptive theories about how to teach math and reading—and you see the predicament the state faces.
When a high school student fails to do his homework, it’s his fault; but when a fourth grader fails to do it, it’s the parents’ fault. Simple as that. Yet, understandably, because these parents already have enough on their plates, no one wants to demonize them. After all, a single parent raising a kid on poverty wages in some inner city shit-hole isn’t easy.
But refusing to hold the parents accountable for a child’s poor academic performance doesn’t mean you blame the teachers. And it sure as hell doesn’t mean you blame the teachers’ union. Ask any teacher to describe their “dream” classroom, and they’ll tell you it’s a room full of attentive students who’ve completed their homework and are prepared to learn. Simple as that.
Anyone who doesn’t think a parent’s role in their kid’s education is important needs to ask why so many private schools out-perform public schools. Private schools DON’T require teachers to have college degrees; DON’T require teaching credentials; and DON’T pay teachers as much as public schools do. So how do they get such good results? The answer is obvious: The parents of these children place a premium on education and the students are there to work.
Bill Maher is a comedian, not a philosopher. If he can’t come up with a half-way intelligent comment, he should leave the serious stuff alone and stick to his jokes. In any event, I’ve moved on. I now look to Sarah Silverman to provide my laughs and, I must say, life is better.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor” (available at Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, etc.) He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org