Most everybody in the United States has been to school at some point in their lives. This seems to result in everyone being convinced that they know the solution to our education woes. I am glad that people are interested in education, but I think we need to be careful to address this problem thoughtfully. As somebody who thinks about education all day, I would offer the following suggestions for discussing educational reform:
1. Don’t dump on the teachers.
It would be political suicide to attack almost any profession the way politicians and pundits are attacking the teaching profession right now. Imagine if a prominent politician talked about how firefighters don’t really work very hard, get paid too much and should bear the brunt of our attempts to cut the federal budget. That politician would be forced to resign within a day or two.
Teaching is not an easy, 9 to 3 job with summers off. Most full-time elementary and high-school teachers I know are at school by 7:30 a.m. and stay most days until at least 5 p.m. Then they go home and grade papers until late into the night. Middle-school and high-school teachers often are involved in extra-curricular sports and arts programs, which can mean that they don’t walk into their home until 9 p.m. The least we can do is see teachers as part of the solution rather than the problem.
2. Solutions take time.
Sometimes I think that all education initiatives should be required to run for at least 10 years before being evaluated, rather than the year that is generally given to most reforms before they are traded in for yet another program. Imagine a system instead where the teachers and administrators come together, decide on reforms particular to their district and schools, then work at implementing them for 10 years.
3. Solutions need to be for all God’s children.
There are many parts of America’s educational system that are not failing. Yet while there are many well-funded, high-performing schools (often in affluent, largely white suburbs), there are also many poorly funded, low-performing schools (often in largely African-American or Hispanic neighborhoods in urban centers.) As Christians, we need to make sure that the solutions we come up with would help all of God’s children.
On the one hand, school choice (also called vouchers) would seem like just such a solution. Average the amount it costs to educate a student for a year, then allow parents to take that voucher with them to whichever school they want. Yes, urban families could send their kids to a better suburban school, but given the realities of travel and work schedules, is that really an option? I am not opposed to voucher systems in principle, but rather I think whatever solutions are proposed need to be for all God’s children, not just the rich, or those who attend church, or those who belong to a particular ethnic group.
4. Want to get rid of teachers’ unions? Make them unnecessary.
The reasons unions still hold power is that teachers are in a bind in which they feel they have to fight to hold onto every concession they have gained over the last several decades. City officials wish to cut staff, increase class size and cut programs. Oftentimes the unions seem like the only voice for stopping such things.
Want the unions to go away? Then your course of action is clear - pay teachers what they are worth, thank them for their service with good health care and provide funding for professional development. In short, treat them like the hard-working professionals they are.
5. Solutions should involve parents.
Teachers should never forget that the children they teach are on loan for seven hours a day from their parents. Working together, teachers and parents can reinforce each other, be more creative about solutions to problems and keep the interests of the children in the forefront.
In fact, we could perhaps broaden this to say that if we are serious about improving our education system, we need to listen to each other. Listen to teachers, administrators, parents, children, politicians. Listen to try to find ways to make things better for all God’s children. If we do that, our discussions will surely bear fruit.