The more one thinks about it, the more inevitable the current clash between business leaders and teachers seems: The worlds in which they function have very little in common, and business leaders are taking a more active and political approach to public education which they perceive as an expensive monopoly which would be both cheaper and more profitable if broken up. Charter schools, vouchers, and the repeal of collective bargaining rights all change the direction in which public dollars flow. In doing so, they also alter the fundamental philosophy of public education to one of competition based on objective data (like standardized test scores) in an attempt to demonstrate “profitability” through superior numbers or “loss” as in lower rankings when comparing schools’ scores. Public education, illustrated by how teachers function, has always been about a collective effort to achieve an overall societal good. Teachers and schools have not seen themselves in competition with each other (except in various extra-curricular activities), nor have they ever viewed their success as coming by way of someone else’s failure. There can be no other way to put this—the war between business leaders and teachers is a battle between capitalism versus socialism.
Of course most teachers don’t view themselves as Socialists, especially with that inflammatory capital S, but their profession operates that way: The workers have a shared goal of educating young people and are encouraged to work hard to fulfill a duty to their pupils as well as to their organization. Their pay schedule is based on experience and training, with little variation or use of other criteria allowed. Their work days are spelled out as specifically as possible in their contracts, and they are supervised by government bodies, elected by the public. Their qualifications, certifications, and licenses are also regulated by the state, with required additional training regularly occurring (as well as changes in their responsibilities) mandated by new state and federal laws. The public is taxed to fund their salaries regardless of the taxpayers’ having children in the schools. Should more revenue be necessary to pay those salaries (buy supplies, make repairs, or construct new buildings), the public is asked to vote on approving additional taxes to provide more money.
The public school culture reeks of sharing and cooperation, not competition. My goal in teaching English was to prepare my students to achieve the standards which had been collectively worked out by teachers (90% of them), administrators (8%), and school board members (at most 2%). My colleagues and I would confer on the best ways to make that happen as well as sharing any materials that might enhance its outcome. While there was much room for individuality and originality in how we achieved our goals, we were encouraged to be open and accommodating to other teachers, to view them as partners, not competitors as would be the case in a merit-based salary system. It would never have occurred to me to refuse another teacher’s request—whether or not that teacher worked in my school district—to use anything that I had created, nor was anyone ever reluctant to make me a copy of something she/he was using. We would even employ institute time to grade essays together in order to make sure we understood the criteria that we all should emphasize so the basis for grades was similar. If none of that sounds like the competitiveness associated with capitalism, that’s because it wasn’t, not even close.
Nobody had a quota of grades to meet, no one hid teaching techniques that might benefit others, and we never felt that any of our accomplishments came at the expense of anyone else. All our students achieved the grades they had earned, based on the work they did in our classrooms. There might have been some competition to get into honors programs rather than average classes, but that all took place between department administrators and parents; we teachers were totally above that particular fray and merely taught the students we were assigned. There was some sniping internally about how hard it was to teach math as compared to social studies or physical education, for example, but we never seriously considered an unequal pay scale to reward “better” teachers or “more important” subject matter. Our unions represented all teachers equally, and we saw ourselves as part of a larger entity. As politics entered schools more and more, teachers tended to vote as a bloc to ensure their rights were maintained. The profession of teaching exists in a country steeped in capitalism, but it functions much more like hippie communes of the 1960s, minus the free love and drugs.
Enter the über-capitalists with their billions in disposable income who no longer need to spend so much time building their businesses and are looking for new challenges. Public education to them seems ripe for a healthy dose of the competitive struggles they endured to become successful in the free-market world. If a school isn’t delivering a quality product for its customers, they reason, why on Earth shouldn’t those customers find another school with a better product? If a community or state is strapped with too much debt to fix roads or incarcerate prisoners, why shouldn’t public employees (like teachers) take a cut in pay, benefits, and/or pensions? And how in God’s name can we allow these expensive institutions to avoid proving, through objective means, that they are providing a quality product? Why should there be a monopoly on this vital service if a different organization could provide similar results for significantly lower costs?
So many of the educational “philanthropists” of recent years jumped into public education with business-oriented models to solve the “problem” of public education. If the monopoly most districts had wasn’t serving their customers well, there needed to be alternatives—charter schools and voucher systems which would allow parents to choose where to send their children and on which district to spend their tax dollars. The best way to cut costs in a personnel dominated field like education would be to lower teacher salaries by eliminating collective bargaining laws which had forced school districts to negotiate contracts directly with teachers’ unions and permitted those irritating organizations to call for strikes. And if we were to assess any school’s performance accurately, a national curriculum and standardized tests were the best ways to determine how well each school—and eventually, teacher—was doing. The battle lines have been drawn.
But the teachers in this war don’t really see their way of doing things as part of a larger struggle. The good ones (which total well over 90% based on my anecdotal experience of thirty-three years teaching English in two school districts—the other 10% breaks down with 9% merely satisfactory and 1% who shouldn’t be teaching, for what my opinion’s worth) can’t understand how comparing different sets of students’ metrics, standardization, a national curriculum, or decreased pay/benefits will make things better. This is especially true in the suburban districts where I worked and live which are doing a good job educating our kids. Visit the vast majority of schools in the Chicago collar counties and you will see amazing things teaching staffs are doing to educate their students. Yes, there are dysfunctional school districts, and they attract the most attention since they also tend to be the largest, but the most objective studies which have been done show that the primary reasons these schools have such difficulty achieving the results suburban districts do are because of poverty, lack of parental support, a weak property tax base, and crumbling facilities. No doubt, many teachers in these systems have become hardened to the stark realities they face each day, but the two greatest predictors of student success and achievement are parental income and parental education. Where families value schooling because of the success it has brought the students’ parents and are willing to fund it, public education is doing exactly what it is supposed to do.
And that leads to a way out of this pointless, expensive struggle between two groups who share the same vision of an educated, enlightened population. Instead of casting aspersions on the entire system, which is working quite well where parental education has led to material success and teachers earn a decent living, these philanthropic billionaires need to work at raising the level of income and opportunity for those at the bottom. The most threatening statistic I’ve seen in recent years is the huge increase in the gap between those financially at the top and the bottom of our country. No matter what your political orientation, the amount of wealth that those in the top 1% have amassed in recent decades while the bottom 50% have been suffering is the key social/economic issue that needs to be better balanced going forward. All the statistics show the same fact—the rich are getting richer while the poor are growing in number. Nothing can destroy our belief in the American dream more quickly (not to mention the motivation to work hard in school) than millions coming to the belief that it is virtually impossible to escape the lower echelons of our economy when you are born to poor parents.
So wouldn’t it make sense for business leaders to use all their savvy, their experience, and (especially) their billions to help poor people improve their lot? Things like increasing the minimum wage, improving health insurance, early education, improved day-care for working families, recognizing the importance of unions in helping workers make it to the middle class, recruiting the most talented candidates into teaching, and re-training/education centers for displaced workers would all contribute to decreasing the inequality which has taken root in the U.S. to the detriment of lower wage earners. Then too, these areas play into the strengths of business people since these “reform movements” would be based on the expertise they used to amass their fortunes.
The screwed up logic, which is pervasive in America and has led to the ludicrous result of our current leading Republican Presidential candidates, results in many believing that accumulating billions somehow gives the accumulator a general brilliance which readily translates to ANY endeavor. That this makes no sense whatsoever has not seemed to sink in as people like Bill Gates (skilled in computer software and monopolistic tendencies), the Waltons (experts on mass marketing and low wages), and the Koch brothers (brilliant in inheriting massive wealth and exerting political influence) have leaped into all kinds of unrelated fields (including education) despite having no qualifications to lead in those fields except huge bank accounts. Money can get you many things, but it can’t purchase experience and understanding in areas as complicated as public education.
Imagine if I were to begin trying to dictate to Microsoft or Walmart based on the huge wealth I had amassed in public education as a teacher (by “wealth,” obviously I mean my rich experiences and affluent grammar knowledge). Nobody would take me seriously, and rightly so. I don’t understand the subtleties or histories of those businesses, and my simplistic ideas on what would improve them would be doomed to failure, especially if I forced them on these companies without much or any input from those affected by my decisions. Yet, we seem to ignore that common sense when it comes to wealthy people and public education. “Of course Warren Buffet has worthwhile advice to provide us when it comes to determining the best ways to train teachers—do you have any idea how loaded that guy is? Surely he knows everything!” Donald Trump currently leads all Republican Presidential candidates based on a platform of, “Hey, I’m incredibly successful and rich, and that will make me a great President!” Despite the illogic of that (You surely wouldn’t even think about soliciting their advice on what technique your surgeon should use for your coronary by-pass operation, would you?), our politicians follow the money more and more, ceding decision-making power to this new class of “experts.”
Completely out of that particular world, however, teachers continue to work together and struggle to do what they know to be best, despite the contrary and time-consuming reforms and mandates raining down on them from legislators influenced by wealthy campaign donors, think-tanks funded by agenda-minded billionaires, and foundations like those started by Bill Gates or the Waltons. The only thing which has saved public education from even more damage at the hands of these meddlers so far is that it is a mind-numbingly huge bureaucracy of thousands of separate school districts. More and more, however, those layers of inefficiency and idiosyncratic procedures are being stripped away so that a few wealthy people can impose their ideas of what would make education better on millions of Americans. And don’t get me wrong; laying waste to the bureaucratic nightmare that is public education is a fantastic goal. It’s just that what should replace it is teachers having freer rein to teach in ways they know will help their students, not putting some well-intentioned-but-educationally-clueless business titan or his well-funded henchmen in charge.
Nobody likes to admit it (or even talk about it), but the best system to educate our children is one based on socialism, not capitalism. If you’d like to show your support for capitalism, however, I would strongly encourage you to buy my e-book, Snowflake Schools. You can read excerpts here, buy the book here, and raise my income into the top 0.1% just to see if I change my tune when I become as wealthy as Gates—clearly a worthwhile experiment for humanity.