Monday, August 27, 2007

8-27-07: Stupid in America

There's a very interesting 20/20 documentary called "Stupid in America." It's about the poor state of public education in the United States. Although it makes some significant assumptions, it's overall a good piece of journalism. 20/20 is better than most programs, and they have some integrity.

The documentary is about 41 minutes total (fit into a 60 minute program), and it goes through a series of topics surrounding the debate of "Why are American kids stupid?" It raises some good points, and looks at causes and possible solutions. The glaring weakness in their argument is, though, that they put a lot of weight into the role of standardized tests. Yes, Americans test poorly on international tests overall, but there are other factors that come into play, such as college acceptance rate or employment statistics (although statistics do lie). But, it's a 60 minute program, so it's tough to bring in all the factors without watering down the issue. American schools are not doing well overall. That is a solid statement.

One of my favorite parts of the video was the money issue. I can't believe some one in public education, or one of its supporters, can honestly say "more money will solve all of our problems." Yet, charter schools that spend thousands less per child are doing better on standardized tests. Though, there are exceptions to that. But, the core fact is that money alone is not going to solve the problem. It's how the money is spent.

In my opinion, the biggest enemy of the public school system are the teacher's unions, which are thoroughly and deservedly bashed in the 20/20 piece. This is a widely held belief, so I am far from alone. One of the charter schools featured in the video pays their teachers more, and they in turn teach better. Again, there could be other factors involved, but look at it this way: if you were paid 10% more to do your job, would you feel happier and maybe do your job a little better? It's human nature to want to earn your money, and teachers are often beacons of ethics, so I'd hope they would want to earn their money.

What do teachers' salaries have to do with teacher's unions? Simple: pay scales. If you teach for 20 years, you will make more money than some one who has taught for 15 years. That's it. You could be a below average teacher, who has lost all the nerve to teach well, and is tenured. You would make more than the teacher who has won award after award after award. WHERE is the INCENTIVE? People throw in the "they ought to teach well as a matter of principle." Bullshit. This is America, the largest capitalist economy in history. We operate on incentives. Why wouldn't the teachers who mold the minds of our future be any different? My father is a teacher, and hates the union he's in. Hates it. He has worked with terrible teachers, but… they're tenured.

Tenure is another thing. My college has it, as most do. One of my professors put tenure in perspective: "I've been working really, really hard for a few years so I can get tenured. Then, I could just stop teaching, and they couldn't fire me. Unless I shoot one of you, or something like that." He happens to teach economics, by the way. Great guy. If every teacher taught as well as the teachers at the very brink of tenure, we'd be the smartest goddamn country in the world.

If I ran the Department of Education, I'd do the following three things. They might not solve the problem, but they'd hopefully open people's eyes:

1. Ignore the teacher's unions, or speak out against them. They'd go after me, as they've gone after politicians before, such as Mark Sanford, Governor of South Carolina. But I'd do it differently. Instead of citing all their faults and leave myself open to criticism, I'd ask ABC or CBS or any news organization begging for a hot piece of news to do a report on teacher's unions. I'd leave it open, maybe even have a little incentive for them. I'd make sure I was perfectly clear. I wouldn't take a dime from the unions beforehand, either. I'd have a short reign, but I'd go out in a ball of fiery glory, which is all any one can really ask for, anyway. Martyrs are remembered, so they'd do all my work for me.

2. Cut federal funding to schools that encourage tenure. Flat out cut funding. I'd spend the remainder on struggling nationwide social programs that encourage kids to help the retarded or the needy. I'd play to their hearts: "So you want me to give you back that money so you can spend it on a near retiree whose students say won't even see them after class… Can you live with that? If you can, by all means, take the money, but all the professional ethics you pretend to teach will be in vain. I want to see the press release before I sign on the dotted line, by the way."

3. Cut federal funding to schools that under perform. Or, give the states an option. Freedom of choice is a powerful tool to use. I'd say "Either you let the parents pick the schools their children go to, and cut the schools that can't hack it, or you lose all funding, regressively, over the course of 7 years." No gray areas.

Transparency is important, so I'd be completely open as to why I'd do it. I'm sick and tired of the "throw more money at it" approach. It's not the responsibility of the federal government to run the schools nationwide. It's also not the responsibility of the same government to encourage failing programs by spending taxpayers' money on laggards. Wise spending is important, and the encouragement of our social values are priceless.

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