Friday, July 01, 2005

How to Fix It?

In the comments to the last post, That Girl brings up exactly the kind of exception I mentioned in passing: her son's school is failing him miserably, and even putting him in physical danger, and the efforts she has made to change the situation haven't made a bit of difference. If I were her, I'd be yanking my kid out of school so fast that heads would spin, and, if I had any money or resources (or could get someone to take the case pro bono), I'd be filing a lawsuit, too, despite my general antipathy to the notion that litigation is the way to solve problems. From a different angle, That Girl's predicament actually reinforces my original argument--that good, free, public schools should be available to all kids. Not only is her kid not getting that, he's getting the opposite of that.

There are a number of roots to this problem. First off, the school year as we all know it is based on a no-longer-relevant agrarian calendar: summers off is a relic of a time when all hands were necessary to work the farms, and, until the 1920s, a majority of Americans lived in rural areas. (In 1910, 45.6% of the popuation was urban, and by 1920, 51.2% was urban.) A second population factor, along with the migration to urban areas, was the influx of immigrants at the turn of the last century. There was tremendous urgency around "Americanization" and assimilation of immigrants, and the public schools were regarded as one of the primary means for that socialization.

Then we have an assortment of roots related to teachers. I don't have the space to go into all of it here, but the four most important factors were (a) increased need for teachers, as populations grew; (b) the desire to pay teachers as little as possible, even while requiring extensive qualifications; (c) an effort to "Taylorize" teachers' work, thereby reducing their autonomy and making them subordinate to school boards and the businessmen who typically served on those boards; and (d) a running debate (which continues to this day) about whether teachers should have subject-level expertise or should focus on pedagogy (i.e., teaching per se). (My friend A, for example, despite having a Ph.D. in political science and extensive teaching experience, including experience developing and teaching his own courses, must go through several years of pedagogical schooling in order to be qualified to teach elementary or high school in New York.) In the 1930s, single females were urged to quit their jobs so that married males (who had families to support) could have those jobs; in many areas, women were expected to quit their jobs when they married, and certainly if they were pregnant.

In many ways, the situation faced by teachers is analogous to the situation faced by baseball players. That is, baseball owners maintained such a hold on players, through the reserve clause, for so long, such that when the players finally organized, the situation had become much more acrimonious than it might otherwise have become. In both cases, the people in charge thought they had a stranglehold over the workers, they never dreamed the workers would ever revolt, and they responded badly when the revolution finally occurred. In both cases, the mistrust and acrimony lasted for many years, and the workers ended up with many more concessions (including some that are arguably detrimental to the overall profession) than they might have obtained if the owners/school boards had been more reasonable earlier in the process. For teachers, although this has not meant much in terms of compensation, it has meant that it's much more difficult to get rid of bad teachers. At the same time, typically the only way for a teacher to make more money is to become an administrator: this is not an effective way to keep good teachers in the classroom, teaching. (There was a case in the Chicago suburbs a few years ago, where a principal was encouraging cheating. As punishment, she was "demoted" to teaching.)

And, really, teachers don't make that much, given that a four-year degree is usually the minimum acceptable qualification, given that salaries are generally capped at a certain level, and given the difficulty of the work (yes, I think being a good teacher is very hard work). According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Kindergarten teachers made an average of $43,530, elementary school teachers made $44,960, middle school was $45,600, and secondary school was $47,810. If we made school a year-round thing, and paid teachers accordingly, the salaries would be $58,040, $59,946, $60,800, and $63,746. (Average salary overall for college graduates was $45,400 in 1999.) That step alone--making school year-round, and increasing teachers' salaries to account for the extra work--would cost significant bucks.

A second step would be to reduce class sizes. Here's some research on the subject. (There's also evidence from several studies in there showing that reducing class sizes also reduces the gaps between racial groups pretty significantly.) This, too, costs money.

A third issue facing schools is the question of from where the money will come. In many (most?) places, school funding is a function of the local tax base. That means that wealthy districts will (be able to) spend much more per pupil than poorer districts, which has the long-term effect of further cementing inequalities. The wealthy-suburbs/poor-city issue becomes even more pronounced (which is another reason why suburbs get on my nerves--they do not contribute enough to the metropolitan area as a whole).

I don't know the answers--and I certainly haven't identified all of the questions. What I do know is that education is more important than anything else (yay Larry!). If you can get an education, you can envision, and then make real, a better life for yourself. If you're stuck in a crumbling school, with overwhelmed (or just plain bad) teachers and overcrowded classrooms and inadequate supplies, not to mention parents who don't know how to (or simply cannot) improve your situation, then you are screwed. A free society cannot survive if its citizens are subjugated by their own ignorance.


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