I’m a certified teacher in Washington state, though I just graduated with my B.A. and am currently working on my M.A., so I haven’t had a full-time public school teaching job yet, just subbing in middle schools and high schools for a per-day wage so far.
I’m not in favor of disbanding teacher unions at all. Keeping labor and wages reasonable and preventing baseless or discriminatory employee termination are key functions of any union in any industry. The problem arises when the unions start demanding things that the industry can’t support and stay solvent. I’m in favor of public employees having competitive health and retirement packages, but demanding things like tenure and making it difficult to fire bad teachers does the students and the state a grave disservice. They start spending more and more money to pay bad teachers and negotiate with unions instead of putting that money where it belongs: in the classroom.
So, out with tenure. I also think that teachers should be paid by the hour rather than salaried. Many of them complain about the long hours they spend both after and before school copying worksheets, grading homework and tests and preparing lessons. I saw a lot of this first hand when I was student teaching, even participated in some myself. So, let’s pay them by the hour, including overtime. Bad teachers probably aren’t willing to put in the time, so they will get paid less. Good teachers will be paid more. It seems like this would at least partially weed out bad teachers.
Charter schools seem like a good solution on the surface, but I don’t like the idea of for-profit or unregulated education because it seems way too likely to become corrupted by special interests. When a solid dollar value can be placed on education, then that value becomes more important than the molding of a young mind. A well-educated student should be the ultimate goal, not a wide profit margin. Also, keeping education in the public sector allows for it to be changed via legislation and elections, as well as ensuring some kind of standard across all schools to ensure an equal education for all. This way, we have some political recourse if our education system is lacking. When schools are run by corporations, they only people who can demand change are stockholders.
People have a right to a free, high-quality public education. Maybe it isn’t in the constitution, but it should be. They have the option to refuse this right (just like waiving their rights when arrested), but it should be theirs for the taking. They also have the right to educate their children privately, either at home in a private school. I think the education of its people is one of the key functions of any government, along with keeping them healthy (through affordable, if not free, healthcare) and protecting them from harm (through quality domestic police and an effective military).
Basic knowledge of things like reading, writing, math and science is essential to any pursuit of happiness, and to deny people of that knowledge is to effectively deny them of that inalienable right upon which we all agree.
Education has always been political, and it always will be. On the surface, people may want to divorce politics from education, but what information is put into a young person’s mind is always a source of controversy. After all, what could be more important than the kind of knowledge we pass on to the next generation?
The hotspots within the overall debate that surrounds modern American education are things like public funding, the teaching of evolution versus intelligent design (read: creationism), sex education, and certain kinds of revisionist history. I will touch briefly on each of these subjects.
The first is easy. One of the key functions of any government by and for the people is to properly educate the populace. Few other concerns can even come close to the monumental importance that is a well-educated populace entrusted with the future of democracy. I see no argument that can justify de-funding any portion of the American education system. All subjects: arts, sciences, languages, etc. deserve any amount of funding they require in order to successfully educate students.
Evolution versus intelligent design is a key issue for religious groups whose children are subject to public education. For me, the question is whether we want students to learn to be skeptical of their world or to blindly accept as fact those things they cannot scientifically analyze. A skeptical populace is integral to a successful society. People who accept things at face value without the benefit of scientific study and free discourse are doomed to ignorance with regard to their own world. Religious beliefs should be independent and allowed to exist in any society, but subjecting the entire public to the supernatural beliefs of one segment of the population is both foolish and illogical. Education must remain secular for proper knowledge to flourish. In the event that religion becomes scientifically testable and provable, a secular society must acknowledge facts just as they would upon discovering contrary evidence in the face of any theory or hypothesis. Thus far, this has not been the case with modern religion and science, so I see no need to teach any kind of intelligent design to students lest they learn to believe things they cannot prove to be true.
Sex education seems like another easy one. Why should students NOT be informed about their bodies and reproductive processes? Are we justified in denying them the best information for any reason? Such information could likely save lives if it were more readily available. Any system of education with the best interests of the people at heart cannot withhold such important information, no matter how taboo or contradictory to established religious doctrine.
Revisionist history is a sticky problem. This issue is most often affected by the reigning political discourse of the day, without the benefit of hindsight. I’m not convinced that the revising of history can ever be complete or completely objective by any effort, no matter how unbiased it may claim to be. Prejudice and dissent will always be found by those with an agenda and a willingness to find whatever evidence they go looking for. Healthy debate should always be welcome, with the intended effect to be as well-rounded a history as possible being taught to America’s emerging generations.
I believe the case now is as it has always been: both proponents and critics of the American education system are often more concerned with hidden agendas and political fallout with the win or loss of any battle over education. What goes on in actual classrooms rarely takes center stage in the ongoing ideological debate that surrounds them. The concern tends to be what kinds of things come out of teachers’ mouths or textbooks, not what students learn or what kinds of young adults develop from such a highly politicized education.
Parents on both ends of the spectrum who disapprove of American public education are free, as they always have been, to teach whatever curriculum they wish to their children within their own home. Most often, these students will turn out no better or worse than their public school counterparts, which says more about education in general than it does about any one faction or school of thought. Still, our priority as a free-thinking people has to be giving the most well-rounded, accurate and bias-free education to our youngest generations, leaving it up to them to decide what to do with the information. If we value freedom as a society, we must allow that freedom to permeate our classrooms and the minds of our students or we will find ourselve regressing against the flow of progress and the expansion of human knowledge.