Wednesday, June 27, 2012

“Education – The Fixable Problem”

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Education – The Fixable Problem”
June 27, 2012

Problems around the world abound. There are days when the best solution seems to be to turn off the TV, cancel the newspapers, get back in bed and pull the covers over one’s head. North Korea is unstable. China’s navy is beginning to challenge our dominance of the western Pacific. Iran persists in its quest for nukes. The Russian reset needs to be reset again. The situation in Europe keeps getting worse, with uncertainty regarding the Euro causing investors to freeze. Italy is expected to approve a decree to help banks boost capital through the sale of bonds to the government, when a few months earlier the Italian government had demanded banks buy their government-issued bonds. It was the price decline of those bonds that has led banks to their current precarious position. It is, as a friend Alan Rivoir writes, a Monty Python moment. France has decided to face the financial crisis by raising taxes and reducing the retirement age! The United States is faced with a deleveraging consumer and a government whose debt and deficits make Italy and Spain appear models of fiscal prudence.

Children are lucky. They can always revert to a land of fantasy. We can’t.

One can be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problems. However, each day we must rise; there are things we can do and that are being done. Low natural gas prices have made manufacturing in the U.S. far more competitive. Productivity has risen. Low interest rates allow consumers and businesses to access credit markets inexpensively. Technology has radically changed the way and the ease with which we communicate. The internet means that ideas can leap national borders and time zones.

However, with that cloud of despondency threatening the developed world and with technology changing our lives at warp speeds, one aspect of our lives here in the U.S. lies mired in the morass of the past, and is fixable – public sector unions, and especially those that serve the teachers responsible for our children and grandchildren. Despite their intractable attitudes, signs of change are in the wind. According to a recent study conducted on behalf of Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance and the journal “Educational Next”, the numbers of Americans with positive views toward teacher’s unions slid from 29% in 2011 to 22% in 2012. More tellingly, among teachers a positive view of unions fell from 58% in 2011 to 43% this year. Early this month, voters in Wisconsin decided to back Governor Scott Walker who had taken on public sector unions, including the powerful American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA.) So, perhaps the power of unions is beginning to wane.

These battles are never easy. Like the mythical Hydra who grew two heads when one had been lopped off, teacher’s unions refuse to bow to the good of the people. In a column in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, William McGurn wrote of unionized teachers in Idaho battling reform, which would limit collective bargaining rights, introduce merit pay and eliminate the practice of protecting bad teachers who have seniority, while firing newly hired teachers no matter how good they may be. Union goons have resorted to physical violence and vandalized the pickup truck of Tom Luna, Idaho’s elected superintendant of public schools. Like the Hydra, which Hercules did eventually slay, unions in Idaho, like unions elsewhere, will ultimately be forced to accept financial reality. But victory will be neither easy nor quick. But, again, it appears the pendulum is starting to correct.

The Council on Foreign Relations recently sponsored a task force on education reform in the U.S. and national security. It is led by Joel Klein, former head of New York City public schools and Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State. “Educational failure puts the United States’ future economic prosperity, global position and physical safety at risk,” warns the task force. “The country will not be able to keep pace – much less lead – globally unless it moves to fix the problems it has allowed to fester for too long.”

Their findings are disheartening; they demonstrate the depth of the problem and the urgency to fix it, but unfortunately say nothing overtly about the role of unions, perhaps because Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, is a member of the Task Force. Despite the U.S. spending more on K-12 public education (on a per pupil basis) than any other developed country, we lag badly according to the measurement services of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) which measures 15-year-olds in reading, math and science: In the last year studied, 2009, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 25th in math and 17th in science. More than 25% of students fail to graduate from high school in four years; for African-American and Hispanic students the number is approaching 40%. The College Board reports that among college-bound seniors only 43% meet college-ready standards. For those of us who live in wealthier suburbs with decent public schools, we can only imagine how bad things are for those students consigned to poorer urban and rural schools.

Everybody agrees that one of the greatest needs of our country is a better educated youth, able to compete in a rapidly changing, global environment. We also all recognize that public schools, in general, have inadequately addressed these concerns and have, in fact, failed their charges – our children – condemning too many of them to lives of desperate destitution. Where we differ is in the solutions we offer.

Alan Blinder, professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton, in an op-ed, in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, acknowledges the problem, but does nothing to propose a solution, other than to suggest that “on average, charter schools perform neither better nor worse than public schools.” Thanks for the helpful comment, Professor Blinder.

Nevertheless, answers are obvious, though perhaps difficult to implement. Parents must become more involved, demanding better teachers and greater accountability. Political correctness cannot be permitted to deny a child the opportunity for success because one deems it impolitic not to offer courses in the child’s native language. English must be standard in all our schools. Secondary languages should be encouraged, but not at the expense of English. Superintendants and principals need to be able to fire underperforming teachers regardless of tenure. Teachers who are found guilty of sexual relations with students should be summarily fired with no access to union support, deprived of all benefits and turned over to the police. Schools should trim their bloated non-teaching staff, so that good teachers can be paid more. Much on this subject can be learned from Dr. Richard Soghoian’s excellent recent book, Mind the Gap. (The book should be compulsory reading for the student body, faculty, president and trustees of the University of Virginia.) Competition is always good. Monopolies breed inefficiencies. That is as true for schools as it was for ‘Ma Bell,’ regardless of Professor Blinder’s findings. How else would you explain the laughter of joy and the tears of sorrow in “Waiting for Superman?” When Mitt Romney, two months ago, said that students should be put ahead of unions – a statement with which most would agree – he was, unsurprisingly, denounced by the NEA, but also by such mental heavyweights as Matt Damon. He received no support from President Obama.

The answers to the problems that plague us, from Europe’s experiment with an unaffordable political system to the unrest in the Middle East and our sluggish economy at home, require a change to our expectations of instant gratification. And we cannot be afraid to try something new. The market is not looking for a final answer; it is looking for signs that we understand the nature of the problem and that we have the courage and conviction to fix it. We are an attention-deficit disordered society that lives along a continuum and which must recognize that there are no immediate answers, only gossamer threads that gradually can be woven to yield a solution. The most important place to start is with our schools.

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