Dealing with Duncan

Barack Obama formally added another member to his Cabinet by recently announcing Arne Duncan as the new Secretary of Education.  The Harvard grad and Chicago CEO of Schools appears to be the perfect fit for the Obama administration: same schooling, same hometown, and same ambivalence on major policy issues.

Obama and Duncan are for increased parental responsibility, but claim that all students are "our students."  They are for teachers' unions, but demand teacher accountability. They are for helping public schools, yet they certainly don't allow their own children to attend them.  This is the sort of double-talk we've been anticipating from our President-elect and his appointees.  

Duncan has successfully tight-roped between teachers' unions and conservative reform advocates by balancing increased budget proposals and school/teacher/student accountability.  Sounds like someone who can negotiate with both sides, right?  Perhaps, but rehashed ideas and wavering principles are not what education needs these days.

Among other things, Duncan is for increased pay for teachers.  He is for massive levels of Pre-K funding.  He is for closing failing schools.  And he wants to improve recruiting and training efforts.  An interesting blend of liberal and conservative stances.  But these are all ideas we've heard before, and the debate remains on whether the federal government should even be involved in education.  Let us not forget that President Bush gave more money to education than any president in history, and the results of those policies carry mixed feelings on both sides of the aisle.

As someone who has taught at the elementary, high school, junior college, and four-year university level, policies that focus on additional funding are the result of the last functioning brain cell. 

Teachers earn plenty.  Anyone who only works seven hours a day, five days a week, for eight months a year deserves no complaint about money.  There are only a few other professions where one can apply for a job with the salary attached to the listing, get hired at a particular salary level, and then go on strike because the pay is not high enough.

Pre-K education is not the answer.  With first-hand experience with pre-K students ultimately reaching my fifth grade classroom with first and second grade reading levels, clearly the "head start" did not get them very far ahead.  Research on pre-K shows mixed results and often implements comparisons to children who have no early education.  Of course, some teaching is better than none, but does having 20 four-year olds in a room replace the basic reading and math a parent can provide at home?  Not even close.  Can a teacher provide the social education of sharing, being quiet, and using correct manners that a responsible parent can in a one-on-one or familial environment?  No way.  There's a reason why home-schooled kids are often way ahead of their fellow students.  Kids should be able to read by the time they enter kindergarten.  They should know their numbers, how to write simple words, and be able to behave in a social setting.  If children were required to pass a basic entrance exam before enrolling in school, you better believe parental involvement would go through the roof. 

Increasing teacher trainings and certifications is on the right track, but not in the way most people think.  Once teachers are in the classroom, the motivation to gain further training is very thin.  Adding a thousand bucks onto a paycheck doesn't cut it.  And if anyone has ever attended the worthless training seminars imposed by districts, it alone is enough to force early retirement.  The additional training needs to be provided before teachers even enter the workforce.  There's a reason why doctors and lawyers are some of the highest paid and most respected professions in America.  They go through the most training and face the highest competition in order to gain the most clients when they enter the field.  Would you go to a surgeon who earned a 2.7 GPA and had only a semester of actual training?  Would you look to a defense attorney to keep you from jail who spends his time creating coloring and pasting activities?  If you answered absolutely not, just remember that these are the people teaching your children and setting the tone for learning, success, and mental discipline for the future of this country.

Teaching needs to be a profession as highly regarded as medicine and law.  If a future teacher knows he or she could earn $200,000 for a few extra years of specialized schooling, watch the ability to recruit go up.  If a parent knows that his or her child may miss out on the opportunity to receive an education from someone who went through years of elite training, watch the apathy go down.  Individual colleges and communities can change this structure, not the government. 

Of course these few recommendations would never be adopted in a public format, particularly by the overwhelming number of liberals in the profession.  And until someone takes the Secretary of Education position by the throat by eliminating unions, demanding parental involvement, and creating competition, education will stagnate.  Liberalism carries with it the belief that this nation is responsible for its students.  Conservatives believe that students will soon be responsible for this nation.  If America's education system is truly in trouble, and we need to right ourselves to participate in the global economy, there's only one of these ideologies that implies urgency.  And I think we can guess where Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan stand.