By Andrew Wilk
Unless one has recently won the lottery and is spending life doing nothing but spending, most of us between the ages of 18 and 65 have to work to pay the bills, put a roof over our heads, food in our mouths, and clothing on our backs. Although how we earn money can vary enormously, if we know nothing else about the world of work, we know this for certain: If the task at hand wasn't a chore, no one would be paid to do it. Therefore, just by definition, many of our working lives are going to have their less-than-pleasant patches along the way.
Moreover, now that the economy can hum along quite well with fewer workers, more and more have to cope with part-time hours, few (or no) benefits, and substantial job insecurity. Would we all prefer that it be otherwise? Absolutely. Are our wishes likely to change anything in an increasingly globalized economy where the competition is intense and the pricing pressures are cut-throat? I, for one, think not.
Even before the most recent cataclysmic downturn in our economy, the private sector was not a breeze, although I suppose it must always seem to be so to those who have never actually been there. The quarterly pressures to turn a profit and make a payroll tend to turn even the nicest individuals into money-obsessed jerks. Very few business discussions revolve around why a goal cannot be met for the very simple reason not meeting it is grounds for immediate dismissal; no one cares a bit about excuses, no matter how reasonable they may be. If you have to stay in the office all month, pull double shifts until your arms ache, or live out of a suitcase until your family forgets your face, that's just what has to be done. You generate results or else start updating your rsum. There is no middle ground to be found.
Having spent more than a few years being pounded in the private sector, I'm well aware of just how that side of the economy works. Although the role of the public sector during my lifetime has always been large, we have to focus on remembering that government is dependent on the private sector, and the fact that it now seems to be exactly the opposite is likely contributing to at least a portion of the lingering economic problems we face. Government spending, which must generate a broad social or economic good to be justified, cannot continue unabated just because those who make their living from government wish it to be so. The idea that education in general — and educators in particular — should be exempt from the pressures faced by every taxpayer today is unsupportable.
I have always enjoyed teaching because it is a pleasure to work with students and help them to create a better future for themselves. However, I am also fully aware that education at all levels is embroiled in revolutionary changes that are only growing both broader and deeper with each passing year and are radically changing the basic concept of what educators should do. Schools and programs, just as with many private businesses and product lines, are closing or being threatened with closure on a daily basis. Technology is both changing how we deliver education and the very concept of education itself. Outcome goals — the desired outcome for any school being a well-educated student rather than a meaningless credential born of a dumbed down curriculum — are becoming increasingly familiar to educators everywhere.
Recent polls have indicated that the morale of educators is at an all-time low. I understand this; those who are wholly unfamiliar with private sector pressures must find the new reality disconcerting. No longer can one expect to do exactly the same thing in exactly the same way for a whole career without eyebrows being raised. Parents and students have become increasingly astute consumers of educational services and are apt to loudly complain if their expectations are not being met. In an era of budget scarcity, results have become of paramount importance and long-held assumptions about what should be taught are being rigorously evaluated. Finally, the concept of lifetime employment in education that is largely divorced from a meaningful performance evaluation is going the way of the dodo. It's a whole new world out there that is shaking up many who were perfectly content to have everything continue to be just the way it was.
Let's commit to stop fussing about change and start to embrace its possibilities for our students and society. Walls are tumbling in every corner of our world, and education is certainly ripe for a variety of changes that will deliver improved value at reduced cost. A bachelor's degree used to cost roughly the same as a car; now four years of college costs about the same as the average house. To pretend this terrifying cost trend is eternally sustainable and expect students and parents to continue to assume a crushing load of educational debt to make it so is contrary to all reason. To also expect local taxpayers to continue to blithely fund local public schools that routinely hand out diplomas to high school graduates who are basically uneducated is equally unreasonable.
Complaining will change nothing, and continuing to press the dubious claim that educational outcomes are wholly dependent on family and community environment will only serve to further support the push for lower-cost alternatives to the current educational structures. After all, if educators are hapless — and helpless — victims of the circumstances that exist outside the classroom walls, it will occur to many that we can likely get the same mediocre results with teachers and administrators who are paid a lot less — or not at all. If we want to be considered professional, we need to embrace a professional sense of responsibility for our students in deed as well as word.
If we don't accept responsibility, embrace change, and adapt in order to both improve results and reduce costs, don't be surprised if, sooner than we might think possible, we will all be cleaning out our desks while a contractor is wheeling in a TeachBot 3000 to take our places. We must not make the mistake of complaining rather than evolving at this critical moment in our nation's education system. Rather than be the impediments to fundamental and beneficial changes, educators at all levels must be leaders in the innovations that will restructure and improve our public schools, colleges and post-graduate programs. If we do not immediately begin to make the necessary changes in a forthright and responsible manner, those who know much less about the classroom and learning will be making decisions that may not benefit our students and could do irreparable harm to both our education system and our nation.
Andrew Wilk is a former teacher at Urbana High School and a regular commentator on education issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.