Recently a friend and I were talking about the attacks on education. Of course we travelled the broken down highways of high school and college, but we also bumped along some gravel roads. By the end of it, we decided we should just write something. So we did.
We’ll just call my partner in crime Morgana. Morgana teaches at a very good public high school in northern VA. I teach mainly general education courses at a public university.
I understand why many teachers feel compelled to defend their profession, especially in the face of the massive money cuts, laws attacking their unions, and people rolling out the tired “Those who can’t teach” meme, but seriously they don’t need to. It’s not about the profession, the work, the pay, the union, or even the perceived benefits.
It’s about perceived power and the “breaking” of government.
The problem with education is that it is powerful…and it’s free. If we give an education—correction, a GOOD education—to everyone, we endanger the current power structure and threaten the foundation of the old boys’ club. Isn’t that how every corrupt government keeps its people in line? Control what they know and you control how they act.
In America, however, that line of attack is too blatant. Most Americans know when they are being denied information, but few of them know when they are being handed lousy information. Can I have a “Death Panel” for $1?
Give them teachers; they demand teachers. But give them only the teachers who are willing to work for near-poverty-level wages, and you are sure to give them, for the most part, the least effective teachers that can be found. If we continue to hire our top teachers from the bottoms of their graduating classes (simply because those who graduate at the tops of their classes would not stoop to the wages we offer), then we continue to poison the well from which our future voters drink.
Now don’t go getting all holier-than-thou about good teachers and dedicated teachers and teachers who give everything they have to kids who have nothing. We know. We have a combined history of 30 years in education, and both of us are parents. We have seen some of the best. We’ve seen teachers improve student reading abilities by three and four grade levels in a single semester (this is not an over exaggeration). We’ve seen teachers turn kids on to politics, to calculus, to chemistry in severe and profound ways. We’ve seen teachers pull children up out of the gutter and make something of them–something honest, something passionate, something not to be trifled with. We have seen students straighten up in their chairs, question us, society, themselves. We have seen students in offices shaking hands or near tears thanking teachers for mentoring them into doing things they never thought they were capable of. We have seen teachers give more than education; we have seen them give hope.
But be honest with yourselves, fellow parents, fellow teachers. We have seen some real shit out there too. We have walked by classrooms where nothing happens, day after day after day. We have seen our own children come home with As on essays that are full of grammatical and mechanical errors. Morgana has listened to her son explain that his class was told to put their heads down on their desks for hours that day because the teacher had important work to do. I have watched students stew in busy work, copying definitions from outdated textbooks and memorizing, memorizing, memorizing—the lowest form of understanding and the most commonly used lesson plan in the country. I have seen power point and scan-tron dull children into something right above amoeba. I have seen students make teachers cry, and—honest to God—Morgana has seen them make one man soil his pants. We have seen the best; and the worst. Sadly, the worst are far more common. I hate to say it about my own, dear profession, but the truth will out. The most effective thing you can do for the classroom is to give those kids an effective teacher. But effective teachers do not come around every day…not for these wages, they don’t.
Indeed we could make arguments about any professional, from plumbers to CEOs, and how she makes too much money for what she does. We could go into any office building and find the lazy ass who doesn’t do his/her job, but instead stands around and pontificates about how everyone else isn’t doing what they should be doing. I could go into any business and find one person whose product is ineffective or defective or just plain inadequate. I could even argue whole industries (big oil, big banks, etc.) are just so god-awful that we should just get rid of them (of course, what’s alternative, be like Alaska and give every resident checks from profits and hope that makes the industry more efficient?). I bet I could make broad sweeping generalizations and call managers thugs who push around their employees.
Ask yourself, what would happen if we began paying teachers better wages? We would get better teachers…more of them, anyway. What would happen if schools could afford to offer attractive wages to the top graduates from the top universities? We might begin to produce more top graduates. Isn’t that what we are always crying about? Why can’t we compete in a global economy? Because we don’t teach our kids dick. That’s the fact, plain and simple. And once our students begin to understand that, once they see not only what you have taught them but what you have tried to hide from them, they begin to vote with that knowledge.
This is what the old boys’ club fears most of all, the person who can read, the person who can critically think, the educated voter.