Friday, February 25, 2011

Some Musing from St. Louis

Bottled water in ... schoolteachers out by Bill McLellan
The charming thing about life is its unexpectedness. Bottled water, for instance. How did anybody come up with that? And what did the boss say when the idea was first proposed?
"You want to do what, Jenkins?"
"I want to put water in bottles, sir."
"What would you do with these bottles of water, Jenkins?"
"We'd sell them, sir."
"Let me make sure I understand, Jenkins. You want to take water — regular, tasteless water, the kind you can get out of the tap — and you want to put that water into bottles and sell it."
"Yes, sir."
It makes no sense, but it worked. Bottled water now costs more than gasoline.
Ornamental oranges are even stranger. They look like real oranges, but they're inedible. Why would that be considered an improvement? How would you present that idea to your bosses?
Televised poker is another oddity. Why would anybody watch other people play cards?
But the strangest thing of all, the thing that years ago would have seemed inconceivable to me, is the denigration of teachers.
When I was a kid, teachers were the ultimate authority figures. They were thought of as cops, but smarter.
Although they were greatly respected, teachers did not make a lot of money. They were in the middle of the middle class. They made roughly what cops, electricians and factory workers made. In fact, most teachers worked summer jobs.
Of course, in those days, baseball players worked winter jobs. Here is a strange tidbit from my youth — my seventh-grade teacher worked at the local Sears store during the summer. Sammy Esposito, a player on the White Sox, worked at the same store in the winter.
Think about that — a baseball player and a seventh-grade teacher sharing a job.
Of course, ballplayers have zoomed up the economic ladder. The average salary for a major league player on opening day rosters last year was $3.3 million.
Teachers are still in the middle of the middle class.
Yet they have become whipping boys and girls. Incompetent, lazy, selfish and so on.
How did this happen? Well, they formed unions. But so did baseball players, and while the baseball players have seen their salaries soar, the teachers unions have only been able to keep teachers safely in the middle class.
Nevertheless, you'd think they were enemies of the state. They're demonized. You can see it happening right now in Wisconsin. The governor has declared war on public employee unions, and the most visible of these public employees are the teachers.
The crazy thing about it is, it's not a crazy strategy.
We are seeing a backlash against all public employees. Part of it is human nature. I understand that part. Public employees have pensions. Fewer and fewer of us in the private sector do. Also, public employees are less likely to be laid off in hard times. So employees in the private sector get jealous and angry. We're taxpayers, we say, as if public employees aren't.
Furthermore, we are in the midst of a financial crisis. Government is broke. Public employee pensions are a big part of this. Just look at St. Louis.
So sure, something has to be done. Reasonable people ought to be able to understand that.
But the animosity toward teachers, that's the part I don't get. They do important work. Vital work. They educate our children. That's a difficult job. In some schools, it's nearly an impossible job. Teachers are supposed to overcome all sorts of obstacles that are not of their doing — poverty, violence, the gangster culture, absent or neglectful parents.
I dare say most of us couldn't make it a week in many schools.
But it has become increasingly popular these days to scapegoat teachers. For that matter, I get lots of e-mail from people who refer derisively to "government schools." Government schools? Oh yes, what we used to call public schools.
I can remember when people took pride in public schools. In fact, public education was considered a hallmark of democracy.
Of course, those were different days. We had not yet thought of bottled water, ornamental oranges or televised poker. And we respected teachers.
McClellan: Don't blame teachers when schools are bad
As far as newspaper columns go, writing about respect for teachers ought to be about as controversial as writing about the approach of spring. Who doesn't like the arrival of warm weather, songbirds, flowers and baseball? Who doesn't believe that teachers deserve our respect?
Lots of people, it turns out. Wednesday's musings about teachers — musings set off by the current battle in Wisconsin — elicited a great deal of response, most of which was against my pro-teacher stance.
Much of the more rational criticism was directed at unions.
"I can remember articles like 'Why Johnny Can't Read' and the like from the 1970s when I was a teenager. Many promises, much money and 30 plus years later, urban public schools are in even worse shape. The teachers union has been a force against reform and improvement in the urban public schools. P.S. Your Clayton school district is probably the best in Missouri. Dan V."
Many other readers struck a similar chord. They suggested that the real problem is with the teachers unions, especially in the urban districts.
David M. took that even further.
"Here's a story to investigate. Growing and radical disparities in the performances of school districts since the late '60s have done much to exacerbate the income inequality that liberals say they are so concerned with. During the real estate boom, the soaring values of houses was closely tied to school district performance, with houses in 'good' districts selling for many times the price of identical houses in 'bad' districts. Those families with houses in 'good' districts had incomes and credit leverage far beyond those in 'bad' districts, with their homes' equity the main source. Ask any Realtor about that.
"In other words, teachers' bad performance helped distort real estate markets. In the immediate postwar period, parents could look for any house they could afford, confident that the closest public school was adequate. That was not true beginning in the late '60s with the erosion and politicization of teaching standards and the subsequent 'sorting' of families into good and bad districts. But I don't suppose any 'mainstream' paper is interested in that investigation. It doesn't fit neat liberal narratives."
No, it doesn't, but it's an interesting thought. Bad teachers distorted the real estate market and exacerbated the income inequalities that liberals like me so often decry.
The last thing I want to do is demean teachers, but I really think that both Dan V. and David M. are giving them too much credit. What I mean is, teachers can only do so much. They are not working in a vacuum.
I agree with Dan V. that urban school districts are in bad shape, and I agree that the Clayton School District is terrific. For the most part, the teachers are great.
But if you were to take the Clayton High School faculty and move them en masse to Vashon High School, Vashon would not turn into Clayton. All the graduates would not magically start going to college. It would still be Vashon. Some of the kids would be motivated, and others would not be. Some would be able to read well and some would hardly be able to read at all. Even the best teachers can only do so much.
In a similar vein, I reject the theory that bad teachers caused bad schools, which in turn distorted the real estate market. Parents, neighborhoods and culture have more to do with schools than do teachers.
I recently wrote about the shooting death of a teenager who was called "Little Bill." He wasn't a small kid. So why the nickname? Because he had joined a gang at the age of 10 and the older gang members — kids in their teens — called him "Little Bill." The name stuck.
Think about that — a fifth-grader in a gang. If you're the teacher in that school, what are you supposed to do? I don't know. Maybe it's triage. Maybe you try to save whoever can be saved.
As for unions, I would never argue that they are always a force for good. Much more good than bad, I'd say. Do they protect their members? Sure, and as a member of a union, I'm glad they do. Do the teachers unions sometimes stand in the way of reform? Yes, and I'd say if a district wants a certain reform, that should be addressed in collective bargaining.
Same thing with pensions and pay. As I mentioned in Monday's column, I think there are legitimate concerns about government employees and pensions. Some of the pensions seem unsustainable.
But those are incidental points. My main point remains — a society that does not respect its teachers is not a healthy society.

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