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How to fix the schools

No matter how quickly the Chicago teachers strike ends, whether it is today or two months from now, it's not going to end well for the city's public school students. Yes, I know; that's the hoariest of cliches. But that doesn't mean it's not true.

It's not just the school days that are being lost. Far more important, the animosity between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his administration will undoubtedly linger long after the strike ends. The battle will end, but the war between education reformers and urban public schoolteachers will go on.

Teachers — many of them — will continue to resent efforts to use standardized tests to measure their ability to teach. Their leaders — some of them — will denounce the "billionaire hedge fund managers" who are financing many of the reform efforts. Reformers will continue to view teachers unions as the greatest roadblock to higher student achievement. How can such a poisonous atmosphere not affect what goes on in the classroom? Alienated labor is never a good thing. "It is not possible to make progress with your students if you are at war with your teachers," says Marc Tucker.

Tucker, 72, a former senior education official in Washington, is the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, which he founded in 1988. Since then he has focused much of his research on comparing public education in the United States with that of places that have far better results than we do — places like Finland, Japan, Shanghai, China, and Ontario. His essential conclusion is that the best education systems share common traits — almost none of which are embodied in either the current American system or in the reform ideas that have gained sway over the last decade or so. He can sound frustrated when he talks about it.

"We have to find a way to work with teachers and unions while at the same time working to greatly raise the quality of teachers," he told me recently. He has some clear ideas about how to go about that. His starting point is not the public schools themselves but the universities that educate teachers. Teacher education in America is vastly inferior to that of many other countries; we neither emphasize pedagogy — that is, how to teach — nor demand mastery of the subject matter. Both are a given in the top-performing countries. (Indeed, it is striking how many nonprofit education programs in the United States are aimed at helping working teachers do a better job — because they've never learned the right techniques.)

What is also a given in other countries is that teaching has a status equal to other white-collar professions. That was once true in America, but Tucker thinks a quarter-century of income inequality saw teachers lose out at the expense of lawyers and other well-paid professionals. That is a large part of the reason that union teachers have become so obstreperous: It is not just that they feel underpaid, but they feel undervalued. Tucker thinks teachers should be paid more — though not exorbitantly. But making teacher education more rigorous — and imbuing the profession with more status — is just as important. "Other countries have raised their standards for getting into teachers' colleges," he told me. "We need to do the same."

Second, he says it makes no sense to demonize unions. "If you look at the countries with the highest performance, many of them have very strong unions. There is no correlation between the strength of the unions and student achievement," he says.

High-performing countries don't abandon teacher standards. On the contrary. Teachers who feel part of a collaborative effort are far more willing to be evaluated for their job performance — just like any other professional.

It should also be noted that none of the best-performing countries rely as heavily as the United States does on the blunt instrument of standardized tests. That is yet another lesson we have failed to learn.

The Chicago teachers strike exemplifies, in stark terms, how misguided the battle over education has become. The teachers are fighting for the things industrial unions have always fought for: seniority, favorable work rules and fierce resistance to performance measures. City Hall is fighting to institute reforms no top-performing country has ever seen fit to use, and which probably won't make much difference if they are instituted.

The answer lies in a different approach to teaching education and to dealing with the unions. It won't be easy, but it is not impossible. It's the only way forward.

© 2012 New York Times News Service

How to fix the schools 09/18/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 18, 2012 7:30pm]

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