Tuesday, October 05, 2010

the problem with public education,
or, why Johnny's much-bemoaned fate is probably a red herring

[Caveat: I've worked in public higher education for 13 years, going all the way back to the year I taught at Indiana University of Pennsylvania's satellite campus in Punxsutawney. I went to public school in Maumee, Ohio and Greensboro, NC, and to a public university for my bachelor's degree, UNC-Charlotte. So my perspective might be biased.]

I'm reading a fair bit lately about public education - about funding, success or failure, even purpose. Well, okay, a lot less about purpose. This morning's San Francisco Chronic web site had two stories about public education that, juxtaposed to one another, give a pretty clear picture of where public educational policy seems to be.

The first is a review of the David Guggenheim documentary Waiting for Superman. Guggenheim advocates for ... something (it's not clear what from the review), by following the families of four kids who are hoping to win a lottery to take a spot in a charter school, freeing them from the failed public school they were attending. The Chronic reviewer notes that, on average, charter schools are no better than public schools, and in fact may be marginally worse, and cites with irony the position Guggenheim has cast his protagonists in: "The families that won spots in the schools just won a future for their kids - why wouldn't they celebrate? Everyone else is just someone else's problem."

So, that's point one. Public education is meant to be a public trust and a public good. To me, the whole phenomenon of charter schools, home schooling and so forth are an admission of a tragic loss of faith - not in the schools themselves (they may be objectively crappy), but in public education as an institution and commitment. This is the deepest, most difficult, and most important problem to deal with, because unless there is public commitment to public education, there can be no political will or moral justification to help them.

Instead, many people blame them. And by "them," I mean the scapegoats they pick out, and by "scapegoats," I mean, for the most part, unionized teachers.

So, that's point two. Unions operating in the least socially conscientious way possible advocate the interests of labor groups. That is, they protect jobs and seek higher wages, expanded benefits, and more desirable working conditions. They do so through collective bargaining, in which (a) there is a powerful group called "management" on the other side pushing against the union, and (b) a need to reach a mutual agreement. Whenever you read a story blaming a teacher's union for schools' failures, you should ask what the relationship actually is between unionization and the alleged failures, and you should ask, if the contract they have seems far too cushy for the teachers, why the hell management agreed to it.

I know, I'm bucking the trend of 40 or 50 years of backlash against organized labor. I'm not a labor historian, but I can tell you about what I've seen the California Faculty Association do. Indeed CFA bargains faculty contracts, including the most recent agreement to give faculty their first considerable raises since I've been employed here. Those raises were eliminated by the CSU administration in the first round of budget trouble, because, they said, they had other spending priorities.

CFA has opposed every student fee increase. CFA has advocated for increased state funding for the CSU (while the administration has sat on their hands). CFA has commissioned a study of the economic and fiscal benefit of funding the CSU (an effort the CSU administration has recently duplicated). I don't think there's a better advocate for the CSU, for CSU students, and for the cause of public education in the state. Whatever one imagines the problems are in the CSU, unionized faculty don't seem to be causing them.

Point three is murkier. It's the question of what, exactly, is wrong with public education. Contrastingly, I think the issue of whether there should be well-funded public schools is obvious, and the issue of whether unions are good or bad for schools can have some actual factual basis - and I'm confident how such a debate would turn out (yes, even in the crappiest school districts).

But what's wrong with public education?

The hidden agenda of the "failing public schools" talk has always been: (1) break the unions, and (2) give the public's money to private companies. Various quantitative accounts of what the failures are alleged to be have been marshaled in order to drive the agenda, not in order to arrive at any objective conclusions about what schools do. We don't even know what schools do at that level of generality.

We judge schools subjectively, based on our own schooling experiences, and on our kids' experiences or our neighbors' experiences. I think we have to admit that. Education is not measurable in terms of general outcomes. And why should it be? Is everyone equally talented or industrious? Are the talents and work the school curricula demand even equal across disciplines? But if the true and proper results of education can't be quantitatively measured or even generalized, and if even qualitative accounts of the success or failure of education are going to be subjective, then we may have to face this rather inconvenient fact.

Trust me, I'm a doctor.

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