O'Neil Perspective

Education Reform and the 2010 Election: Two Lousy Choices

mikeoneil | 29 October, 2010 19:01

I have had my 2010 election ballot for almost a month now.  I found most of the choices to be fairly easy.  I have agonized, however, about one particular choice. I'd like to share my thinking with you, not to urge you to vote one way or another, but to explore the relevant issues behind my dilemma.

You have probably received endless communications at this point advocating various candidates and positions.  I want to share with you not so much my advocacy of a particular candidate, as the deep ambivalence that I feel toward the choices that we voters have to make for one office, the State Superintended of Public Instruction.  (The office is in Arizona, but all of the points are relevant throughout the country).

I have read the election materials of each candidate, read their election pamphlet essays, and watched them debate.  While they have substantially different positions, I am absolutely convinced that neither will do anything whatever to alter the pathetic status quo in American public education. 

While this is an Arizona election, the candidates are almost caricatures for the two major strains of thinking about what is wrong with American public education:

The Republican candidate, a state legislator, was an active participant in substantially reducing the level of funding for public education in the state.  From this I infer that he thinks we can improve our schools with less, rather than more, resources.  His position papers include all of the usual Republican canards, "high standards" and references to "English-only education."  The magic pill that he and many of his ilk offer is that of charter schools.  If we simply encourage private entities to create their own schools, these will compete with public schools and will solve all of our educational problems-with no increase in resources.   

The Democratic candidate is also typical of the Democratic view of most of these issues.  As such, she decries any cuts in educational spending, is silent or lukewarm on charter schools and generally thinks that the answer to our educational mess is just supporting the teachers that we have-with increases in funding.  But as head of the teacher union, she held a position whose central tenant seemed to be to protect the job security of the most incompetent teacher who ever walked into the classroom without any regard for the impact on students.

I watched both of these candidates in a public debate.  Superficially, each seemed articulate, intelligent and reasonable.  If I didn't feel I was able to read between the lines of their positions, I might have felt that either could improve public education. When I looked beneath the surface, however, what I saw was a pair of candidates, each completely beholden to the interests of their respective constituencies.  The more I thought about it, the more I was absolutely convinced that there is not the slightest chance that either would contribute in any meaningful way to improving public education.

Much has been made of the fact that American students are performing at a level near the bottom among its peers, the other industrialized nations.  In looking at these discrepancies and the differences, one fact stands in stark contrast.  The most successful counties pull their teachers from among the top third of college graduates, while most of our teachers are pulled from the bottom third.  And both these countries and ours pay accordingly: they pay a lot more than we do.  And value their teachers accordingly.

This stark fact suggests to me an obvious solution, one I am certain each of these candidates would reject out-of-hand (but for different reasons).  Let's announce that in the state of Arizona, effective four years from next September we will double the salaries of all public school teachers.  (I am sure the Democratic candidate would love this.)  Oh, but on that date, teacher tenure would end; all current teachers would lose their jobs, but be free to compete to be re-hired for their now much higher-paying positions. (Now the Republicans cheer). But, they would have to compete for their old jobs with a generation of recent graduates who would go through school knowing that Arizona values educators and is willing to pay them accordingly.  These would include students who would otherwise consider such professions as law, medicine, biosciences or engineering; the most challenging subjects that currently attract our best and brightest students. And current teachers would also have to compete with the best teachers from all over America, and perhaps the world. 

And in doing this hiring, I would favor persons who had excelled in the subject matter which they teach, rather than education. The dirty little secret is that education is the easiest subject in which to major in every college and university of which I am aware.

And to keep these now highly-paying jobs, these newly hired teachers would have to continue to deliver. Exactly like the doctors, lawyers, engineers and scientists the best of whom are currently paid so much more. (The untold side of the lament that we pay teachers so poorly is that even the worst of them is guaranteed a paycheck for life: a paycheck equal to that received by the very best of their fellow teachers. All the highly paid professions offer NO guaranteed salary.  And the worst of the lot in these esteemed professions can actually earn less than the wages we guarantee for life to all of our teachers, regardless of their performance).

Is this the be-all and end-all of the educational reform we need?  Of course not.  I'll say more about the rest of the story in future missives.  But I do offer this as food for thought.

In the meantime, there is actually some hope for the employment prospects for Arizona schoolchildren-for jobs for which they will fully qualify under our current educational regime. If Russell Pearce gets his way, there will be a lot of vacancies for positions as maids and gardeners in the state.

Oh, a few minutes before writing this, I finally marked my ballot for Superintendant of Public Instruction: I cast a write-in vote for Michelle Rhee.


Michael J. O'Neil, PhD


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