Two of my kids are preparing in class for the upcoming state standards assessment, the one mandated by the Federal No Child Left Behind Act. And as I watch them and their grades, I repeatedly run into the media flogging the newest bad boy for our national educational difficulties. The newest group of floggees, freshly proclaimed by Newsweek, appears to be the teachers. There are bad teachers in the schools – agreed – and it’s well nigh impossible to get rid of those bad ones – also agreed. But blaming the teachers and their unions is simplistic and wrong.
I’m not a fan of unions in their current form as most are recalcitrant and prickly when confronted with any change to the status quo. Let me use Pennsylvania for a brief example. In 2001, the Pennsylvania legislature passed legislation mandating that teacher pension funds must be kept fully funded. It was a worthy gesture, given that those in the rest of the workforce who still have a pension find theirs underfunded. Of course, it also provided cover for the legislature, which was in the process of updating and improving its own pension system but they’ll never admit that. Now shift to 2010. The teacher pension – PSERS – is facing a large group of teachers retiring simultaneously and about 1.5 working union members supporting each retiree. The fund has also been shellacked by the just finished recession and per law, has to be brought up to date by the state and the 501 state school districts. Starting in 2012, many districts will find their pension contributions doubling and for some, tripling. When my local school board voted unanimously to ask the state for help or relief in addressing this, the local union representative asked that they not send the letter at all. Great, don’t move out from under the falling piano because hey, it’s a Steinway!
As much as that instance galls me, it’s simplistic to lay it all on the teachers. The solution is as interconnected as the problem. Poor teaching methods? Yes. Staff that can’t be removed? Yes. Outmoded equipment? Yes. But the missing key is, like the President says, the parent. Do you review the backpack? Do you practice the addition, subtraction and multiplication tables with them? Do you hold your children accountable for their grades? Do you have requirements on homework and studying for tests? Do you contact the teachers to find out what’s happening when there’s a problem, academic or otherwise?
The principal reason that private and charter schools do so well, often with less resources, is that the parents are making the decision to send their kids there and that decision implies commitment. This is important enough that we’ll spend the extra money and if we’re going to do without to educate you, you’re going to make it worth the money spent. This should be the operative philosophy for all parents, regardless where the kids go to school.
There are any number of reasons that parents stand-off from the schoolwork. Guilt for having to work away from the home, societal experts advising not to stress the kids, tired of the hassle from recalcitrant kids. But whatever the reason, they – you – have the responsibility to push them. It’s actually okay to tell them that they can do better if you believe that’s the case. It’s okay to withhold privileges if they don’t measure up to their potential and yes, you can tell if that’s the case. It’s okay to use guilt on occasion – I work hard to provide and it’s not right that you spend the time on the DS instead of getting the homework done – because that’s a way that they see that there’s someone else besides just themselves. If the effort is clearly substandard, it’s even okay to describe that piece of work as crap. Yes, I’ve done that and in the circumstance, it was entirely appropriate.
This matters because you aren’t always going to be around to pull their chestnuts from the fire and they’ll have to compete against people named Helmut, Sanjay and Addaya. So hold the teachers accountable but be comfortable with the knowledge that you’re also holding yourself accountable as well.