Several good friends of mine work as Chicago Public School teachers, and as the strike continues this week, I can’t help but point out it seems like Chicago’s great at coughing up money for Olympic bids, NATO summits, and TIFF slush funds, but pay a public school teacher for the extra time she’s being asked to work? There’s just no money in the budget! Times are hard!
Yet more importantly Chicago’s situation speaks to the systemic failure of American education, the bipartisan de-revolution, which is totally obvious, empirically proven, and taboo to speak of.
From Bush’s No Child Left Behind to Obama’s Race to the Top, there has been consensus that we need to introduce innovation into education, that if schools are failing, it's the fault of the educators, and that we should introduce reforms such as merit pay to make sure teachers don’t suck. Charter schools, Chicago is told, are the answer.
Now take the example of my friend Jenna (not her real name), who teaches at a Chicago public elementary school where she has 32 kids in a class. Another teacher in her school has 40 students, yet the school board is still thinking of eliminating a teaching position because the school is three kids short of its enrollment goal, at which point, a month into school, they’ll have to reorganize every classroom with even larger class sizes. Jenna is a general ed teacher who spends basically the entire day overseeing her class. There’s no librarian at this school, no music teacher, and only a part-time art teacher, a part-time social worker, and a part-time nurse. Jenna has a kid with severe allergies, to whom she’s expected to administer an epi pen even though she’s not certified for this.
“This is a huge liability,” she said. “People think this is about money, it’s not about money. We’re being asked to teach a longer school day, but it’s the quality of the school day, not the length. It’s the learning conditions. You have kids sitting around in 110 degree classrooms. We have kids with speech disabilities who see a speech pathologist fifteen minutes a week. I mean, that’s how much time they spend walking to class.”
Yet the nearby charter school has what’s called “selective enrollment,” which means if a kid misbehaves they can kick him out and off he goes to Jenna’s school. Public schools, of course, have to accept every student. Every time you hear of a charter school touting its unbelievable results, just remember this: Their primary “innovation” is that they don’t have to take the kids who can’t hack it. It’s that simple.
“If I could hand select my kids, of course it would make me look like a fantastic teacher,” said Jenna. “But that’s not public education."
So our public schools with the fewest resources, under constant attack from even the Democratic Party, are then burdened by carrying the city’s entire load of troubled, at-risk youth. The hardest kids to teach, who need the most help, who sometimes don’t even show up to their un-air conditioned school with a bowl of cereal in their stomachs, all end up in the same pool. You don’t need to be George Akerlof to understand that this kind of selection will produce fairly terrible educational results in the schools getting all of the most troubled kids.
Meanwhile, the suggested improvements range from the well-meaning to the totally insipid. Organizations like Teach for America, which attempt to get bright college grads to teach in the toughest communities, are merely stop-gap measures. Researchers keep screaming that merit pay, based on teaching evaluations that rely on test scores, is basically about as scientific as alchemy. If you have 32 kids in a classroom, as Jenna does, wouldn’t it make far more sense to spend the money you’re going to blow on the 95th standardized test of the year on—oh, I don’t know—a second goddamned teacher?
However, this phenomenon extends across the country. It turns out “competition” in education inevitably means a good-quality education for some and a race to the bottom for the rest. Wealthy parents spend tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars on private schools and tutors. Middle class parents flee to the suburbs to get their kids into a good school district. And as soon as that happens to a neighborhood or city, public education collapses (property tax-funded education being a very obvious way to perpetuate inequality and keep a robust underclass).
I spent some time in Macon, Georgia, where my friend pointed to a public school that the city had built in an affluent, white neighborhood in hopes that affluent, white parents would send their kids there. Every parent of any means in Macon sends his child to private school, and of course, none of them saw a reason to go back to public school. Instead, now the school busses in poor black kids from the other side of the city. The Georgia public school system is such a decaying mess that the irony of dragging the children of the working poor on forty minute tours of how their peers live only to spend the rest of the day in a segregated school probably goes largely unnoticed.
Though sometimes in less stark terms, this same situation exists more or less everywhere in America. Which brings us to the story of Finland.
Finland, it turns out, has one of the best education systems in the world according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and it doesn’t have to get those results by forcing students into the insane rote memorization-style learning of Asian countries that leads some to suicide. Of course education reformers then all head to Finland to see how those crazy Fins managed this, and after all the gnashing of teeth about “teacher accountability”, there’s one obvious conclusion that American policymakers can’t even acknowledge: there are no private schools in Finland.
Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education's Center for International Mobility, makes this point all the time, and it’s remarkable and kind of hilarious to hear how we have taken everything the Finnish have learned and are doing the exact opposite. We are trying to pay teacher’s less and pit schools against each other in the hopes that competition will somehow lead overworked, underpaid public school teachers to perform miracles that erase America’s gaping economic inequality. And while proponents may certainly be able to point to limited pieces of data that seem to support increased testing or school vouchers, the inevitable outcome of any market system is that there are losers. In this case, the losers will be poor, troubled kids who need the most from their education, and who will end up costing taxpayers far more when they’re in prison.
Or as my friend James put it when he pointed me to Sahlberg’s work, “Basically, all he’s pointing out is the very obvious fact that Finland funds its education system like they want all their kids to be educated while Americans fund their education system like a bunch of self-interested bigots.”
So you want to do something radical about education? Federalize education spending. Give every school the same amount of money for each student whether she grows up in rural Alabama, Mount Vernon, Ohio, or the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago. Finland didn’t start out by trying to create the greatest education system in the world, they simply decided they wanted every child to have equal access, and by pursuing equality rather than excellence they inadvertently created the world’s finest school system.
Inevitably, people point out that Finland has a more homogenous population and that the scales are vastly different, which is true. Yet it doesn’t change the fact that what Chicago and many other cities are doing is creating a two-tiered system that leaves the worst-off even farther behind and then trying to pin the blame on teachers. People like Chicago’s James Warren, who have fallen into the grip of the totally vapid conventional wisdom that we must “hold teachers accountable”, would do well to look at some of Sahlberg’s additional insights that are stupidly obvious, yet are also taboo for Americans to speak of.
Sahlberg writes, “All children in Finland have, by law, access to childcare, comprehensive health care, and pre-school in their own communities.”
Whoa! Slow down there, Trotsky! That’s just crazy. How could sending a kid to school with an untreated ear infection, who hasn’t even eaten yet that day, possibly affect his learning? And so what if the single mother with three jobs still can’t afford a babysitter? That’s not the government’s responsibility!
And here’s where Sahlberg gets downright nutty. According to him the Finnish government invests 30 times more money in the professional development of teachers than it does on testing students:
“Finns have taken teachers and teaching seriously by requiring that all teachers must be well trained in academic universities. All teachers should enjoy professional autonomy and public trust in their work. As a consequence, teaching has been a popular career choice among young Finns for three decades now.”
Wait, so you mean if we don’t treat teachers like shit, it will attract smart, hard-working people to the field? Revolutionary! I thought maybe if we just ridiculed them on Fox News and blamed the entirety of the inequity of our school systems on how lazy they are, they would just shut the f*** up and finally teach malnourished kids how to overcome their desperate poverty!
Chicago’s teachers may yet prevail in this dispute, but the underlying ethos of American education “reform” will march on, a slow but steady de-revolution that is ensuring inequality, poor educational outcomes and will eventually erode the middle class as those families spend more and more money to get their kids out of failing public schools. Our political leaders’ slavish devotion to the idea that markets and competition can improve education may result in individual victories: certain low-income students may receive better educations at a charter school, but similarly not every sub-prime mortgage resulted in foreclosure. Policies that degrade public schools are leading to a systemic failure in our education system.
“We’ve been flipped off, people have screamed at us,” said Jenna of marching downtown. “They’re trying to turn the parents against us. People need to know that this is not fun for us, that this is really hard on teachers, who care about our kids. None of us came into teaching for money. It’s not about that. We’re out on the picket line at 6:30 in the morning because working conditions are so terrible. You have 30-40 unhealthy and emotionally unstable kids in a classroom with no help and budgets getting cut all the time, and what do you think is going to happen? What kind of test-evaluated superteacher isn’t going to keep these kids from getting left behind?”