woody zimmermann 120(First of two articles.)

In the wake of the political uproar over the confirmation of Betsy DeVoss as Secretary of Education, it seems appropriate to offer a few observations on what education was (during my wasted youth), what it has become today, and how it got from there to here.

I was much blessed to grow up in a small, blue-collar city in eastern Pennsylvania, in the 1940s and ‘50s. The old, pre-Revolution city had a rich mix of ethnicities – mostly Europeans, but also some from Africa, Asia, and southern countries of our hemisphere – with a heavy dose of Pennsylvania Dutch thrown in. (I knew people who spoke PA Dutch before learning English.) The common ethic was unambiguously Judeo-Christian. We all knew right from wrong, even if we didn’t always do what was right. (The “alternative lifestyle” and “personalized ethics” eras had not yet arrived.)

My parents had limited means, so public school was our only education-option. Fortunately, public education’s “golden age” was still going on. Teachers were well-educated, demanding, and dedicated. If you wanted a good education, you could get it. Despite being a wild and crazy guy, I possessed some intellectual gifts and was a serious student. So I reached college as well-prepared as any of my classmates, and probably better than most. Much later I learned that I had probably received the finest secondary education available in the state at that time.

Tragically, the schools of that city now rank among the poorest-performing in the state. What a shame. Apparently, many schools across the country have seen similar declines. I don’t pretend to know exactly why that occurred, but you don’t need an Ed.D to recognize obvious problems. Some of what I have seen in the half-century since I finished high school might help us understand where public education went off the rails. In these two articles, I’ll present some of those observations along with some ideas for how the situation might be recovered.

1. Unions.

When we lived on the Jersey shore during the late ‘90s, we knew a young woman who taught in a nearby town’s public schools. She was a bright, pleasant, nice-looking lady – well-liked and highly respected by parents and colleagues. Recently she had been honored as Teacher of the Year in her town.

During our time there, she and her colleagues found that negotiations on their new contract with the school system were stalled when opening day arrived in the fall. New Jersey is solidly union from way back, so the teachers felt comfortable (and fully justified) going on strike and picketing for their demands. I doubt if any imagined that this move might be at all controversial or that the public might not support it.

But our acquaintance received a rude education in union-politics when parents she thought were her friends gave her a piece of their minds during the strike. Some shouted at her that she was “letting the kids down.” Others snubbed her. For the week of the strike, things were very tense. Afterwards, relationships were strained and some appeared permanently broken. All this left our acquaintance depressed and hurt. I heard her ask someone why parents didn’t consider the teachers’ contract “important.” Not having children herself, she evidently didn’t realize that parents might be much more concerned about their children’s education, than with teachers’ pay and benefits.

That strike – the town’s first – probably changed forever the easy relationship between public-school teachers and the townspeople who employed them. For one thing, it showed how far removed we are from those legendary schoolmarms who worked selflessly, for peanuts, to educate their students. Today, New Jersey public school teachers’ average pay is $63,154 a year – 5th highest in the nation. Beginning NJ teachers average $48,631. Not big bucks, but not too shabby, either.

This is not to argue that teachers are lavishly paid – only to show that the hallowed teacher-model of yore is long-gone. In that Jersey town parents questioned whether teachers (and teachers’ unions) are truly committed to students’ welfare. In his 2005 article “The Public School Disaster” [1], retired Texas businessman Mike Ford answered that question:

…educating our children is no longer the primary purpose of the public schools. Today their purpose is to employ 6 million people… It has been this way for at least 20 years. Legislators, the media, and the public may be confused on this issue, but the teachers unions are not.”

As evidence, Mr. Ford cited the 1985 statement of the late Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers: “When school-children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school-children.”

There’s no doubt that teacher-unions once met a serious need. In 1932 my father-in-law was hired as a music teacher in the high school of a small New York town. He earned $900 in his first year. At year-end he was fired so the school could hire a new teacher at $800 a year. Some teacher-protection was obviously needed. But, as so often happens, good ideas have a way of going out of control. Unions wrecked our steel industry, came close to crashing our automobile industry, and have done real harm to public education. Somehow that train must be put back on the rails.

2. Quality and administrative complications.

On the way to Mr. Shanker’s “mission redefinition” – i.e., teachers first, students after – public schools ignored the proverbial elephant in the parlor: the Great Unmentionable of teacher-quality. In 1989 I heard an address by former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett. He described how he had discussed identifying and removing “substandard” teachers with the superintendent of Chicago public schools. With a wry grin Dr. Bennett related how the superintendent had insisted, “There are no substandard teachers in Chicago schools.” (Evidently, “denial” is not just a river in Egypt.)

The public schools do have many dedicated and capable teachers. Some are my relatives, old classmates, neighbors, and friends. Many people will agree that they know plenty of good teachers. Something else must be wrong with the schools. A few years ago I discussed this with old college classmates in New York State. They are a family of educators: the wife a long-time teacher; their daughter a teacher; and their son-in-law a school principal. They bristled at the suggestion that teacher-quality might be at fault, insisting that they and all other teachers they know are “working as hard as we can.” “Administration and parents” were the true problem, they claimed.

I can see their point. Tales abound of contentious parents complaining about grades and disciplinary matters. And school administrators sometimes seem completely obtuse. A few years ago I read about Soon-Ja Kim, a popular third-grade teacher who had won numerous awards for excellence while teaching in Rockville, Maryland, for 23 years. Parents uniformly praised her, and her students achieved at high levels. Yet Montgomery County Public School officials called her to a fitness-hearing because she spoke English with a heavy Korean accent. Mrs. Kim believed that colleagues jealous of her success had brought a complaint. A panel composed of eight teachers and eight principals took just 30 minutes to recommend that she not be renewed for the next academic year. The panel had declined to read any of some 100 letters from parents who declared that she was the best teacher they had ever seen. (How about that diversity…)

3. Performance.

So administrative blundering can be a problem, but what about teachers’ claim that they are all “working very hard”? Suppose a manufacturing executive or a manager of a (losing) pro sports team said that. How does it sound? “Absurd,” you say? (I’m shocked.)

Of course, it is completely absurd. In the Big Leagues, or in industries whose products (e.g., cars) nobody has to buy, how hard you are working (or say you are working) is irrelevant. Competitive enterprises can’t skate by on this claim. Most of us have to produce a sound, sale-worthy product or a winning team, or reach performance-quotas. Many folks work extremely hard, only to see their businesses fail or their teams lose.

When a ball team is playing poorly, its managers scrutinize their roster. Is a quality player at each position? If not, can better players and coaches be found? Teams ruthlessly make trades and moves. A beloved player will be benched or sent to the minors if he’s not producing. Horse-hockey about “how hard you’re trying” doesn’t cut it. (If you’re not hitting, fans will mercilessly boo when you take the field.)

But education doesn’t operate that way. Year after year reports show how poorly American students rank against students from other countries. Recent data show American schools standing 15th among industrialized nations. Yet school budgets keep increasing – especially for poorly-performing schools. Wise men observed long ago that when you subsidize a thing, you get more of it. For years we have subsidized failure in education by shoveling more and more money into failing schools. From an educator’s perspective, it really doesn’t pay for schools to do well. You get higher pay (and more staff) by doing poorly. A child could see that this is a serious flaw.

With respect to personnel, it can take years and cost thousands in legal fees to get an ineffective teacher out of the classroom. As Soon-Ja Kim’s case demonstrated, it’s easy to dismiss a good teacher – but firing a bad teacher is almost impossible. Unions will fight like tigers to retain him (or her). Many school systems simply give up and shuffle bad teachers from school to school whenever parents complain. The cost and effort of termination is too great.

OK. So maybe there are a few bad apples in the barrel. But aren’t most teachers smart and competent? Studies cast doubt on this assumption. In her article, “Testing Teachers,” columnist Linda Chavez wrote:

A recent study by the American Institutes for Research showed that education majors had the lowest levels of practical literacy among college students. When asked to evaluate the arguments in a newspaper opinion article… or summarize the results of an opinion survey, or compare credit card offers with different interest rates and fees, education majors score at the bottom of the class. [They] also have among the lowest SAT scores and do poorly on other measures of verbal and mathematical ability.”

These data do not surprise me. When a close friend taught seminars for elementary school math teachers, she tasked participants to write out a math problem as text – i.e., a “word-problem.” She was horrified to see that only two teachers out of thirty could write a coherent paragraph that posed the problem. Most efforts contained poor grammar, misspellings and incomprehensible wording. “It was pathetic,” she recalled.

The No Child Left Behind Act required that teachers be tested for basic subject-matter competence as a minimal step toward ensuring teacher-quality. Teachers hate this, but wise drafters of the legislation recognized that “trust, but verify” is the best policy. As it turns out, states’ competency testing varies widely.

Miss Chavez reported that in a particular year the Federal Department of Education notified 34 states that “…their teacher testing had major problems and would be subject to mandatory oversight.” Two states stood to lose federal funds because their teacher-testing programs failed federal standards. District of Columbia teachers can be certified if they “…score barely above the 20th percentile (i.e., the lowest one-fifth) on the Praxis test [that is] used by 29 states to test who is fit to teach.” But those 29 states aren’t much better than DC – certifying teachers who score only above the bottom third of all those tested. Miss Chavez concluded: “It’s hard to imagine how students can perform better unless we ensure that teachers know the subject matter in the first place.”


A subsequent article will present additional observations and conclusions.