Reform in America’s public schools occurs with seemingly glacial slowness. In the private sector, businesses (including schools) that provide a lousy product quickly lose customers. They either correct their deficiencies or they eventually close. Similarly, if the problem is poor performance by a private enterprise’s workers, then either the employees start doing a better job or management replaces them to save the company.
These market-based, pro-consumer forces are largely absent from taxpayer-supported schools, because public schools have captive “customers.” Young residents of a public-school district are legally required to attend school, and in areas where those schools lack meaningful, affordable competitors, the youngsters are trapped by a virtual monopoly. The school can do a poor job year after year, and teaching jobs can become sinecures for the mediocre, the burned out, and the indifferent, protected by powerful unions that exist to serve teachers and not the pupils with whose education they have been entrusted.
It is in that context that I was glad to hear the news out of Chicago that Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel has announced plans to close 17 of the city’s worst-performing schools. This seems like one of those Nixon-in-China moments when only a politician from the party normally allied with unions would dare to implement a policy that is so hated by the teachers’ union. Indeed, the mayor’s courageous decision brought upon him the ire of Jesse Jackson and the Chicago Teachers Union, but I salute Mayor Emanuel for challenging a status quo that protects failed, dysfunctional schools.
I can attest from first-hand experience that some schools are so dysfunctional that they simply cannot be reformed. Early in my career, I did some substitute teaching in inner-city Phoenix. While there were several schools that were pathetic, one particular middle school sticks in my memory.
The windows in the classrooms had been smashed so often that the decision was made to brick them up, depriving the rooms of any natural light. A favorite pastime was to turn off the light switch when the teacher wasn’t looking. That was a signal for books to be thrown through the air. Everyone, including the teacher, would take cover, because in the total darkness, everyone was at risk of injury, while it was nearly impossible to know who had thrown the particular book that hit somebody.
At that same school, kids would tear pages out of books to get out of doing assignments. At least a dozen seventh-grade girls were pregnant at any given time. A full-time teacher there (a former college linebacker) told me that a good day was when nobody got hurt. The priority at that school was safety, not education. That school should have been euthanized and something else done in an attempt to salvage a decent education for those children.
Similar to Mayor Emanuel’s decision to pull the plug on a few failed schools in Chicago, there are similar moves afoot in California, where a majority of parents could sign a petition that triggers a major reform of an unsatisfactory public school, up to and including shutting it down if it can’t be reformed or restructured satisfactorily.
That is the good news. The bad news is that union operatives and allies, some from outside the area, used a combination of intimidation and lies against parents who had signed petitions to trigger reforms, causing the petition to be rescinded. It remains for the courts to determine whether the original petition is valid or not, but in the interim, reform is being blocked. This may be a short-term victory for the teachers’ union, but in the long run, they may find (as in Wisconsin) that their aggressiveness may turn people against them.
In New York City, teacher evaluations were made public at the instigation of The Wall Street Journal and other media organizations. This is problematical, and I’m not sure I agree with it. Yes, without a doubt, teachers should be held accountable for their performance and irremediably ineffective teachers should be canned. But can’t this be done without making public spectacles of inferior teachers? Perhaps a small committee of parents could be allowed to see the evaluations on the condition of confidentiality being maintained as long as the school district acts to replace bad teachers. In short, remove them, but don’t make them wear a scarlet letter.
There are signs that significant upheavals are beginning to occur in public education. Let’s hope they gain traction and momentum. We owe it to our young people. A decent education is an integral part of the American Dream.
— Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.