Andrew Wilk: Public and educators must grasp one another's concerns
By ANDREW WILK
Every educator is — or should be considered — a hero. The task of teaching our children is sometimes difficult, always important, and occasionally frustrating. However, it is truly one of the most rewarding jobs around, and dedicated teachers and school administrators often define their very existence through their jobs and remain educators in spirit long after they have physically left the profession.
However, it must be said that not all Americans hold K-12 public school teachers and administrators in high regard, and this is troubling to anyone who cares deeply about the success of our schools.
Not surprisingly, teachers and administrators are often exasperated with critics whom they feel simply do not understand the challenges faced in the classroom and believe that, beyond mere ignorance of the daily complexities of education, their critics are often driven by a desire to destroy public schools and transform them into an arm of a corporatized American education system.
Although it can certainly be said that many businesses look at our public schools and smell a profit to be made, it is also certain that their efforts would come to naught if our public schools were producing outstanding — or even generally satisfactory — academic outcomes on a consistent basis.
The now decades-long parade of often dismal statistics regarding how surprisingly few of our nation's high school graduates are proficient in reading, writing and math leads many reasonable citizens to ask reasonable questions about whether their precious tax dollars are being spent effectively — and leads roughly 10 percent of our nation's K-12 students directly into private schools. There would be no opportunity for those who want to "destroy" public schools if our public schools routinely produced well-educated graduates who are prepared for productive and satisfying futures.
Given that I've spent a good deal of my career going back and forth between working in the private sector and teaching, perhaps I am in a good position to identify why those on both sides of the issue don't understand — and sometimes simply dismiss — one another, which is damaging to the consensus we will need to reach — but have not — about how to improve our public schools.
Learning in classrooms where the heating and cooling is terrible, the books are ratty, the technology is unreliable, and the overall atmosphere is more akin to a prison than a school is going to depress both teachers and their students; taxpayers should, before they criticize, perhaps visit their local schools and see if the conditions daily grind down all those involved.
Moreover, parents who refuse to believe their children are sometimes at least partially responsible for their own failures and administrators who are content to leave their teachers twisting in the wind rather than provide the support that would help to create an orderly and productive classroom environment are twin realities that make many teachers wonder why they even bother to try.
In addition, knowing that the pay scale is typically based completely on years in the system so the worst teacher and very best of the same seniority in any school are paid exactly the same is, given that we live in a capitalist system that professes to reward excellence, not going to provide much incentive for any teacher to keep working themselves to the bone for no reward other than the occasional pat on the back, which is usually followed by some bad news about increasing class sizes or cuts in a cherished program.
However, those in the private sector looking at the problems of our public schools have their own perspectives on what is wrong and how to fix it.
Certainly, two related realities tend to grate on taxpayers who know their own employers would simply not permit the same in their own workplaces: the problems inherent in firing even the most flagrantly unqualified teachers and administrators coupled with a seemingly ingrained resistance to any form of accountability for academic outcomes.
When story after story details the months and years of effort and enormous costs associated with firing even a single bad teacher or administrator, it is hard to convince taxpayers and the legislators whom they elect that alternatives to our present systems of public education should not be actively explored.
By the same token, the idea that any employee anywhere in America can tell their boss that failure is not their fault strikes those who are used to the pressure to produce results in the private sector as absurd at best and thievery at worst.
Think about it from the perspective of the person managing a factory, an insurance agency, a hospital, an auto repair shop, or any of the millions of privately owned and managed businesses — both large and small — across the United States.
If all your employees at contract time tout their years of experience, sterling qualifications, and strong commitment to their jobs but at their annual reviews all state that the failures were due entirely to societal forces beyond their control — but they still insist on a guaranteed salary increase — most private employers would simply fire the lot without a second thought. You're paid to produce — end of story.
Therefore, those outside the educational world who routinely focus on results and delivering value for the dollar cannot believe their ears when teachers and administrators insist on guaranteed bumps in salary but loudly proclaim that sinking student test scores and the explosive growth of remedial education at our nation's colleges are simply not their fault nor responsibility.
It is foolish to insist that there are no bad teachers and administrators — there are weak performers in every job category in America, and education is not spared its fair share of slackers and incompetents.
We can argue about the best way to assess teachers and administrators based on student academic outcomes — but assess them we must if we are to ensure that we are putting those who know how to instruct and motivate our children into our public school classrooms and those who know how to properly manage a school into the private offices.
Until teachers and administrators agree to make accountability for student academic outcomes the centerpiece of the evaluation process, we can expect more calls for private sector involvement in education and far less support for — and patience with — our nation's struggling public system of K-12 education.
Educators, after all, cannot be heroes if they insist that success is simply not their responsibility, but they can, if they are not careful, act as the unwitting agents of unwanted changes in their workplaces. Just as we ask our students to take daily responsibility for their actions, we must expect the same of those in front of the classrooms and in the administrative offices.
Although we are nationally making halting progress toward placing student academic outcomes at the forefront of both teacher and administrator evaluations, all involved must internalize this key aspect of their jobs as we push for consistently higher achievement from students and more accountability from the adults who educate them.
Those outside of the public education who know their ability to reliably produce quantifiable results is what keeps their own paychecks rolling in are likely going to settle for nothing less from those whose livelihoods are dependent on their hard-earned tax dollars.
Andrew Wilk is a former teacher at Urbana High School and a regular commentator on education issues. He can be reached at email@example.com.