Today, 350,000 students return to school in Chicago where the striking teachers’ union has agreed to a tentative contract.
Much commentary has been written about the seven-day strike but I found this piece by New York Times columnist Joe Nocera among the most interesting. He talks to noted education researcher Marc Tucker, quoted here on the blog a few months on why Finnish schools perform so well.
An ongoing frustration with education debates — including many on this blog — is that we focus on things that don’t matter, that appeal to ideologues and bumper sticker voters who don’t have time to read the fine print.
Georgia is now in a frenzy over a charter school amendment that will do nothing to dramatically alter school transformation. Millions will be spent in the battle, a fair share coming from for-profit education companies that see Georgia a potential new market for their wares.
And the amendment won’t do a thing ultimately for the overall performance of students in Georgia. How do I know? Because we have the examples of other states that have gone down this road before us. And they did not find redemption. Not one has seen remarkable improvements by a dramatic expansion of charter schools. As I have noted again and again, the states that are gaining on us are doing so by investing in standards, curriculum and teacher quality.
But we don’t seem to benefit from anyone else’s mistakes or successes, locally or abroad. The countries transforming their education systems have trained, lifted and empowered teachers, elevating the profession to the status of doctors and lawyers. They have not beaten teachers down, marginalized them and run them off.
I agree with the frequent observations of many folks on this blog — Lee, for one — that every profession is working a lot harder for a lot less. I have done something in the last few years that I never did before in 25 years as a journalist, walked away from unused vacation because my workload won’t allow me to take the break.
Here is the difference. If I get burned out and quit, the consequences are not dire. The blog could fade away without loss to the state’s well-being or future. Or Jerry, Bootney, Dunwoody Mom, Dr. Henson, Jordan Kohanim, Catlady or any number of talented writers could apply for the job.
But if we lose teachers in large numbers, there are serious consequences to the state. Their contribution to the public good is more important than many other professions. If you want to see what happens to a country without an effective, functioning education system, look at the third-world nations.
Here is an excerpt of Nocera’s interview with Tucker. Please try to read the full piece before commenting.
“It is not possible to make progress with your students if you are at war with your teachers,” says Marc Tucker.
Tucker, 72, a former senior education official in Washington, is the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, which he founded in 1988. Since then he has focused much of his research on comparing public education in the United States with that of places that have far better results than we do — places like Finland, Japan, Shanghai and Ontario, Canada. His essential conclusion is that the best education systems share common traits — almost none of which are embodied in either the current American system or in the reform ideas that have gained sway over the last decade or so.
“We have to find a way to work with teachers and unions while at the same time working to greatly raise the quality of teachers,” he told me recently. He has some clear ideas about how to go about that. His starting point is not the public schools themselves but the universities that educate teachers. Teacher education in America is vastly inferior to many other countries; we neither emphasize pedagogy — i.e., how to teach — nor demand mastery of the subject matter. Both are a given in the top-performing countries. (Indeed, it is striking how many nonprofit education programs in the U.S. are aimed at helping working teachers do a better job — because they’ve never learned the right techniques.)
What is also a given in other countries is that teaching has a status equal to other white-collar professionals. That was once true in America, but Tucker believes that a quarter-century of income inequality saw teachers lose out at the expense of lawyers and other well-paid professionals. That is a large part of the reason that teachers’ unions have become so obstreperous: It is not just that they feel underpaid, but they feel undervalued. Tucker believes that teachers should be paid more — though not exorbitantly. But making teacher education more rigorous — and imbuing the profession with more status — is just as important. “Other countries have raised their standards for getting into teachers’ colleges,” he told me. “We need to do the same.”
Second, he believes that it makes no sense to demonize unions. Instead, he points to the example of Ontario, where a decade ago, a new government decided to embrace the teachers’ unions — to treat them as partners instead of as adversaries. The result? Ontario now has some of the best student achievement in the world. (Alas, relations between teachers and the government have recently deteriorated after a two-year wage freeze was imposed.)
High-performing countries don’t abandon teacher standards. On the contrary. Teachers who feel part of a collaborative effort are far more willing to be evaluated for their job performance — just like any other professional. It should also be noted that none of the best-performing countries rely as heavily as the U.S. does on the blunt instrument of standardized tests. That is yet another lesson we have failed to learn.
The Chicago teachers’ strike exemplifies, in stark terms, how misguided the battle over education has become. The teachers are fighting for the things industrial unions have always fought for: seniority, favorable work rules and fierce resistance to performance measures. City Hall is fighting to institute reforms no top-performing country has ever seen fit to use, and which probably won’t make much difference if they are instituted.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog