TELLING WHAT WE KNOW

PART I

 10/17/05

            If the United States is to preserve our system of free public schools, teacher unions are going to have to stop accepting the status quo and making excuses for the poor performance of our students.   Most of us know that contrary to all of the talk about how we are raising our standards, in most of our schools they continue to decline.  The low scores on the so-called high stakes tests are testimony to the fact that large numbers of students leave school knowing next to nothing and ill equipped for any but the most menial of jobs.  While many of our most talented young people spend their days in so-called accelerated courses with curricula once thought more appropriate to the college level, too many of them have whizzed right by basic skills and cannot string together three coherent sentences or know to any degree of certainty if they have received the correct change in a store. We must face the fact that some of the right-wing critique of public education, particularly their criticism of the ever inflating costs of public education, resonates with the American public because it is true, or at least truer than some of the blather put out by the people who run the schools and the unions who represent the people who work in them.  If it is true that our freedom is ultimately tied to our being an enlightened and educated citizenry, we are in terrible trouble.    

            Excuse number one – We don’t have enough money to meet the educational needs of our students.  While too many of our school districts do need more financial resources, resources that many find impossible to raise trough the regressive property tax, the fact of the matter is too many of them also waste a substantial portion of what they have, a good piece of the waste mandated by state and federal law.  I’ve written elsewhere about the administrative bloat in school districts where level upon level of bureaucracy insures that teachers and educational support staff are over scrutinized and under supervised to the point where teaching innovation and imagination are increasingly giving way to the routines of educational programs, particularly in math and English, that are intended to make teaching thinking-free.  We have program upon program upon program.  Can anyone seriously say that our students know more and are more skilled than they used to be?  With entrepreneurial aplomb some crafty educators have gone corporate, developing and skillfully marketing programs for everything from mathematics to values education.   School districts employ large numbers of central office administrators who then turn around and hire consultants who often come selling their programmatic wares.  Where are the NEA and AFT to challenge this pentagon-like waste in our schools?   

            Meanwhile, over forty school districts on Long Island defeated their school budgets last spring.  Pressed by ever-escalating property taxes, citizens were in revolt.  That revolt, I fear, will spread as the middle class in the United States is squeezed more and more by a taxation system designed by and for the rich and an economy that increasingly is either exporting or abolishing the good jobs that used to support a comfortable middle class life.  If education unions do not become outspoken advocates for economy in our schools, they will find taxpayers increasingly revolting against them.  Surely some of the budget defeats on Long Island were aided by the local newspaper’s articles on teachers earning over one hundred thousand dollars a year.         

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