Current American education policy is built on these assumptions: The quality of American education has plummeted because our schools are filled with teachers who can't teach. Teachers' unions and contracts tie the hands of school administrators. And teachers' unions protect bad teachers. Here are a few reasons why these conclusions are leading our educational system in a bad direction.
First, these policies ignore the effects of poverty on educational outcomes. Given the increasing number of children growing up in poverty, we ignore its effects at our peril.
I know something about poverty and its effects because I grew up in an impoverished, single-parent home and attended a low-quality school through eighth grade. Despite those beginnings, I graduated from one of the top US law schools and am now a law professor. If I could make it, then poverty must not matter, right?
But not all poverty is the same. My mother had a nursing degree and our home was filled with books. We lived in rural, small-town poverty near my farmer grandparents, who made certain we had good-quality food. Crime in our area was almost nonexistent. I am white, and my family has spoken standard English for generations. And there wasn't much of a gap between the poorest and the richest in that area.
Compare my experience with a school I saw as part of a San Diego School District oversight team. The home language of 82 percent of the students at the school was not English, and 29 different languages were spoken in those homes. Most students qualified for free breakfasts and lunches. Many had had no formal education when they enrolled. The teachers there worked cooperatively to develop curricula to address the challenges they faced.
That school was a mile from my house and light years from the high quality programs at the magnet schools my daughter attended. She was enrolled in them because she had the guidance of an educated and educator parent. Some of her fellow students at San Diego High School were homeless and lived in cars. Some had parents who were addicts. Many did not complete a full year at any one school before moving on.
I had personal contacts with the staff and many bright students at that school as part of the Law High program my law school sponsored for at-risk high school students. Many of the high school students were very bright, but poverty, instability, and their family's lack of knowledge about how to get a good education for their children held them back.
The best teachers in the world cannot – by themselves – make up for the profound deficits so many children face today.
If we cared about this nation's children and our future, ending poverty would be our highest priority. Instead, we muddle on as a nation in denial about the effects poverty has on so many of our fellow Americans and its corrosive effects on our society. If our nation is to thrive, we must lift people out of poverty and ensure that the rising generation lives in good housing and has quality food, strong community and family supports.
Second, what about teachers unions and those union contracts? Do tenure and union contracts shield bad teachers and undermine education?
It is a myth that tenure means lifetime employment and makes it impossible to fire bad workers. What tenure does is require an employer to have cause to fire an employee. Union contracts require the use of a fair process to determine whether there is cause to fire an employee. In other words, schools can already fire teachers if they have good cause - so all getting rid of tenure would do is let schools fire teachers when they do not have good cause to fire them. It's hard to see how firing good teachers would improve our schools.
Many accuse teachers' unions of protecting bad teachers. But all teachers unions do is provide fair representation to ensure that an accurate decision is made before taking away a worker's job. In fact, the law says that providing fair representation is a duty a union owes to its members.
It is the employer's job to prove that an employee deserves to be fired – not the union's. If bad teachers are kept on, the real story is management's failure to make its case.
Many people overlook the reality that good teachers want bad teachers to improve and, if they do not improve, to be removed. Good teachers' jobs are made more difficult when they have students who had poor instruction the year before. To first help bad teachers improve, teacher contracts include programs such as peer assistance and other supports for struggling teachers. If these support systems don't work, the contracts provide for counseling out those who cannot or will not improve.