We see the failure of our education systems most prominently in a particular national leader who does not read and seldom listens, yet offers plentiful advice about medications, epidemiology, economics and anything else that may pop into his head.
Granted, one poor student does not allow us to condemn entire schools, districts or the nation’s schools as a whole. But, remember, it took a few million American voters to put him there. The bottom has fallen out of our two-plus centuries of effort at creating and sustaining an informed electorate.
Public schools have been financially and intellectually gutted, primarily by Republican administrations at the state and national levels. Privatization, a Republican article of faith, has transferred education funding from public schools to charter schools that operate on a for-profit basis on the feeble theory that education would benefit from the efficiencies of modern business management.
Republican legislators are also in love with the idea of tying school funding, principal and teacher pay to “school performance,” based on testing results. I don’t know where the Texas legislature went with this idea last year, but I know that it was discussed and much data was presented showing the folly of cutting funding to low-performing schools where much of the problem starts with inadequate funding. Still, if they failed to pass it, you know that the idea continues to lie in wait in the small minds of Republican legislators who believe that everything and everyone respond to only one thing – good green American cash.
Some big city districts tried out business leaders in education roles. They usually approached the job with a lumberjack’s finesse, closing underperforming schools and changing incentives to offer cash for success. They have met with a mixture of success and failure. So, why doesn’t it always work?
Most of those managers had been in classes, like some I attended as an undergraduate, which generalized any firms’ products as “widgets”. Good management produced more widgets at the lowest possible cost.
But then, when managers found themselves in the real world, it became necessary to individualize a product to markets in which they expected to compete. Moreover, those managers who would leap in to save public education first needed to understand the purpose of their new business and what, exactly was their product. In other words, they needed to take seriously what they should have learned if they hadn’t fallen asleep over their Peter Drucker management text.
Faced now with providing the educational product in charter schools, managers tended to “widgetize” their product into measurable units, most often standardized test scores. It then became easier and less costly to produce those educational widgets if they reduced the role of the teacher to efficiently communicating correct answers to the questions on the tests or, in its best practice, settling on required educational outcomes and then teaching directly to them, a practice only slightly removed from “teaching the test.”
Republican reformers took over state legislatures. They did not stop with privatization. They also incorporated testing technologies into the public schools and gave “grades” to schools and rewarding and punishing whole neighborhood by tying the purse strings to test performance. Teacher and administration pay were also tied to these debased educational measures.
With that, they effectively killed the concept of professional educator, reducing the teacher and principal to cogs in the educational widget machine. Gone were niceties of education:
- teaching students how to appreciate literature and the fine arts
- awareness of and understanding of the beauty in their culture
- reading and thinking critically about their history
- keeping an open mind to new ideas and thinking the way scientists think even if they only read about science in the newspaper
and, most importantly, teaching humanitarian values of tolerance and caring that broadens the mind, builds community and transcends vacuous political correctness.
So, where do we go post-pandemic?
The teaching profession must be rewarded with more pay, professional pay. Like doctors, lawyers and fund manipulators. But even more important than that, teachers must be treated as professionals, with more autonomy in their classrooms and rewards that include properly equipping those classrooms and students for success. They should be treated as key professionals in our communities.
Contract educators? Return them to what they do best – making widgets. The Orange Narcissus gives us a clue as to what we can expect if we keep returning Republicans to the Texas Legislature, the U.S. Congress and the White House.