Opinion

Lemonade Lessons: Do unions hurt good teachers?

Many, if not most, discussions of American education begin with curriculum. Do we need more math and science? Are the arts and physical education being ignored or unreasonably minimized? Are the historical “facts” being taught accurate or biased? Is the Constitution or anything to do with civics even in the curriculum? Should the concept of what is now called “intelligent design” be offered as a scientifically sound alternative to Darwinism? Should there be two tracks, one that leads to college and one that leads to trade? These are all valid concerns.

The discussion often includes issues of diversity or teacher bias. Is diversity a valid goal in and of itself? Are teachers really able to separate their political views from their curricula? Do most teachers really want to make this separation? Is global warming settled science? Was Franklin Roosevelt our greatest president? These questions always bring out strong emotions and vigorous debate — as they should.

Eventually, discussions of education turn to performance and fault. Teachers are convinced that any problems with education lay outside the method of teaching, bias or deficits in curriculum, the general competence of teachers, or the lack of incentives for improving student performance. Too many conservatives believe the whole or at least the lion’s share of any shortfall in educating our children is based primarily around the lack of vouchers and school choice. It seems the only agreement is the recognition by both sides that our education system is in decline and that many of our schools are failing.

It is common to hear from the teaching profession that much of the problem lies with parents and students’ disadvantageous home circumstances. Some parents are not home, some are not educated or do not speak English, and some just do not care. These are facts that need to be addressed. So, why not lengthen the school day or add more days so there would be time and professional help to do that which might otherwise be relegated to homework? Why not use this extra time for children for whom English is a second language?

If our education system measured and rewarded success by the increase in student achievement, couldn’t we develop an environment that encourages better teaching? If teachers were rewarded for improving student learning, wouldn’t they likely be more prone to changing the system?

The system as it now exists rewards teachers for seniority and credentials as if more time on the job and more degrees correlates with better education. More teaching experience and more teacher education may be good things, but they have not resulted in higher student achievement. Plus, if a teacher has seniority and made the commitment to further his or her education, the idea of changing the rewards system midstream is understandably unacceptable to them.

Perhaps the question that needs to be asked is why teachers are compensated at lower rates than members of many other professions. Could the answer be that the very unions that have protected teacher job security, given them shorter workdays, and negotiated for a nine-month work year, are the impediment to higher compensation for teachers?

In most other professions, excellence in performance is well rewarded. The best performers can often receive five or ten times the compensation of mediocre performers. Could it be that in the teaching profession, where there is a general disdain for competition and performance measurement among teachers, that the focus is too strong on protecting weak teachers? Could the cost of this weak-teacher protection be lower compensation for excellence?

Curriculum is important, teacher bias is a valid issue, and disadvantageous home circumstances need to be addressed, but having an education system that measures and rewards every teacher who improves student achievement is critical.

Janie Johnson is the author of Don’t Take My Lemonade Stand – An American Philosophy.