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The Politicization of Education

January 13th 2011 17:52
During the Great Depression, people banded together and the union movement began. Jobs were scarce, and working conditions deplorable, and enforced by police and private security firms. That was a time when workers fought for the right to bargain collectively, to go on strike. In the years since, through politics in large part, unions have lost much of their acceptance. Now, it seems, unions are under attack – and although the reasons are complex, it seems as if envy is some part of the cause. The bail-out of Wall Street, where a small number of firms which paid key employees immense bonuses had brought the world economy to its knees was unpopular – but the bail-out of General Motors, which protected the jobs of tens of thousands of assembly line workers and mechanics all across the country, met with barely more approval. Now, the target seems to be teachers, with Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, leading the fight. Mr. Christie has opposed tenure, the job security that has been one of the few significant benefits of the teaching profession, and has attracted national attention and some approval for his fight. Mr. Christie has said (per the New York Times):

“the most important thing for learning is the quality of the teacher standing in front of the classroom. All the rest of the stuff helps, enhances the process,” he said. “Parental involvement, the atmosphere in the school, the level of technology, all the rest of that enhances it. But if you don’t have a good teacher in front of the classroom, all the rest of that stuff is a sideshow.”

This is simply wrong. A good teacher is important, but it’s just one factor in the process. In today’s economy, many students are subjected to stressors that go beyond the ability of any teacher. If a family is faced with foreclosure and bankruptcy, the children will feel it. If the family is living in cramped quarters because they’ve been forced to share quarters with grandparents, the children will be affected. Last year, Central Falls High School in Rhode Island fired all its teachers because of poor performance, but what was left out of many of the reports was this:

Central Falls, Rhode Island has long been among the state's most troubled school districts - 90 percent of the students live in poverty, reports CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod. Many struggle with English in this immigrant community - and that's just for starters.

"We lose 52 percent of our students between 9th grade and the 12th grade," (Central Falls Superintendent Fran) Gallo told Axelrod. "They don't graduate."

The town had a high transient population, and the teacher turn-over was already 33%, but no one, it seems, was ready to blame the elected officials for failure to attract industry and jobs, to provide for the economic security of the families. No one thought that perhaps of the teachers felt more stability in their own lives, more job security, they might be more effective.

There’s no question there are good teachers and bad ones, but there are also conditions that are more and less conducive to both teaching and learning, and to lay all the blame on teacher performance is absurd. In years past, teaching was subject to the classic line “:those who can, do. Those who can’t. teach.” Teachers were underpaid, but compensated with a high degree of job security, good vacation time (although many had to resort to summer jobs) and good benefits and pension plans. Now, as it turns out, many states failed to make their contributions to these pension plans in order to keep taxes low – and the politicians rely on uniform testing, and blaming the teachers if the schools don’t perform up to a national standard. Mr. Christie apparently feels that hunger and poverty can be overcome by a good teaching performance, that a teacher can not only present facts, but emotional support to an overcrowded class of children who have little or no support at home, whose parents (if the plural is appropriate – it isn’t always) may be working 2 and even 3 jobs just to keep food on the table.

The politicians were the ones who underfunded the teachers’ pension plans in order to keep taxes low, and then demanded give-backs by the unions. If we’re measuring performance, the politicos of both parties get, at best a D-.

Mr. Christie has already cancelled what had been the largest public works project in the United States, largely federally funded, because he might have to raise taxes to pay New Jersey’s share. The project, a tunnel under the Hudson River linking New Jersey and Manhattan, would have been essential for future growth. Mr. Christie is a symbol of New Jersey’s future. It’s bnot encouraging.

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