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The Failure of American Education

by Dennis Green

Catholic schools in America have a 90% graduation rate. Public schools, by contrast, graduate only two-thirds of their students, on average. America, which spends more per pupil than any other nation, produces student outcomes in the very bottom ranks of all students worldwide. This crisis in education is finally being addressed, and by some unlikely sources.

The American Federation of Teachers and the American Education Association — the national teachers’ unions — are the biggest and most powerful employee unions in America. They contribute huge sums of money to political campaigns, maintain extensive lobbying efforts, and exert tremendous influence with lawmakers. What is their view of education, and what it needs, how and why it is failing?

“Resources and innovation.” They say that more money is the only solution to all our woes. Yet, 93% of our local AUSD budget goes for salaries and benefits, mostly to teachers, and the rest to a few administrators, custodians, and other service and clerical personnel. Chances are that any new money going into that budget will go to raises and contracted benefits, which often mean no employee contribution, and to shortfalls that the district must make up for any losses by pension investment funds — hundreds of millions of dollars nationwide in the past few years.

But a whole new movement is underway — by those who believe that the secret to better education outcomes lies in the quality of the teaching itself — with better prepared, mentored and managed teachers. And they call for merit pay, based on a complex of student test scores, observation of teacher classroom command and presence, and extensive teacher interviews.

Reform of American Education began with President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program, which emphasized the importance of standardized testing and the ranking, (and financial reward or punishment), of performing and failing schools. The program also sparked the creation of charter schools, which are free of school district management and union contracts, and are open for enrollment to children from any home in the district.

Critics of this program point to many schools assuming a strategy of “teaching to the test.” They also note, especially in the humanities and arts, the inability of standardized tests to measure a student’s progress. They defend the concept of “neighborhood schools” as well, often code language for de facto segregation.

Reformers say that teachers are always taking credit for their students’ success, but don’t want to be held accountable for their failures. They say that teachers often blame parents, culture and the students themselves for poor educational outcomes, instead of assuming any responsibility for their own efforts.

President Obama’s new program, “Race to the Top,” is a contest designed to encourage and reward reform, especially toward greater teacher preparation, support and accountability. And it also encourages school choice, a lifting of the caps on charter schools, and strategies for closing achievement gaps. In Round One of the program, 48 states failed to qualify, largely because of union resistance.

Teachers’ unions’ biggest achievements are tenure and seniority — code language, respectively for lifetime job security, regardless of performance, (tenure), and highest pay and stronger job security for the oldest teachers in the face of layoffs, again, regardless of performance, (seniority). Such protectionism and lack of accountability are hardly the dreams of those early union activists fighting and dying in the streets for workers’ rights.

Obviously, the failure of American education will not be turned around so long as those at the very head of the class never get a grade.

3 comments to The Failure of American Education

  • Barb

    Brings to mind Steve Jobs quote from 25 years ago: Students test scores are inversely proportional to the number of years of existence of the teachers unions and the creation of tenure.

  • Joel Jones

    Yes, money from Measure E will be spent on salaries, but who said anything about raises? With the cut in dollars coming from the state to AUSD, that money will be to meet current payroll. Where are the figures about what the budget shortfall is?

  • Never mind raises. Why aren’t we talking about temporary pay cuts until State funding returns? The Supe is guaranteed a 3% raise each yer per her contract. A temporary 10% cut across the board would save $7 million to $9 million, or roughly half of what they hope to raise with Measure E. Then, the tax might be lower – more affordable for lower income people, people out of work (12.5% unemployment in California) and perhaps use a tax structure that doesn’t motivate business owners to sue. (Measure H has cost the District $200,000 to $250,000 so far over 2 years. Enough to pay for a teacher or two to keep class sizes smaller.)

    Note that in March, Burlingame passed a parcel tax that gives money back to voters as State funding returns. Measure E could do this, but does not. So what happens in 2 years if the State returns to full funding? The District will have carte blanche to spend all of that money….

    Again… let’s talk about reform. The CTA is not amenable to the changes needed to participate in the federal Race to the Top program, so California is losing out on federal dollars that might help mitigate the State shortfall. The CTA also recently pushed a bill through the State Assembly (via Ammiano) capping the number of charter schools in the State. On both counts – why is that? Why do they fight reform and accountability, and charter schools, all of which might improve student outcomes at lower cost?