Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, February 11, 2011

An education about education

Here in New York state, the news has been full of articles about the governor's proposed budget.  Being a teacher (although not insensitive to the effects of cuts in other areas), I have been watching the funding of education pretty closely.  And the budget, should it pass, will result in a $1.3 million dollar loss to our little school district alone.

At the same time, a hugely popular cap on property tax increases is likely to pass, meaning that schools' only other source of revenue will be closed off to them.  The state has not proposed removing any of the many unfunded mandates schools now labor under.  You don't have to be an economist to see the only possible result; cutting teachers, cutting programs, raising class sizes.

I understand the economic stresses of the times, and that something drastic has to be done.  I certainly wouldn't want to be in Governor Cuomo's shoes.  What has appalled me, however, is the deafening howl of anti-teacher rhetoric that is becoming commonplace wherever these issues arise.

To give just one example, here's a reader response to one of the recent articles about education cuts.  It is largely representative of the responses I read, and by no means the most extreme.  I have copied it, verbatim, from the source.

"High time teachers are forced to get up off their lazy asses and work for a living.  Any time the teachers unions whine about anything, the libs cave in and raise taxes.  From what my kids say all the teachers are these days is glorified babysitters.  They do nothing but give out worksheets and show films.  You can do that as easily with forty kids in a classroom as you can with twenty, so why not fire half of them?  Pick out the best ones, and tell the unions to keep their damn noses out of who gets retained and who gets fired.  After that, cut a third of the administrators, and for ALL of them get rid of the free-ride health insurance, paid three month vacations, and cushy, state-funded pensions that allow them to retire early.  You could balance the budget tomorrow if you did that."

And my response to the response: how about I educate you a little about education?

Get up off my lazy ass and work for a living?  This year I am teaching five different subjects -- Introductory and Advanced Biology; Advanced Environmental Science; Brain & Senses (an introductory neurology class); and Critical Thinking.  In addition, I am doing after-school, voluntary (i.e. for no pay) independent study classes in Latin, linguistics, and human genetics.  Just planning for all of my classes takes a minimum of three hours a day, grading student work another hour or two.  Oh, yeah, and there's the teaching itself.  If you think that all I do is show films and give out worksheets, come and spend a day in my classes.  You will, every day, participate in class discussions of current issues.  You will do lab experiments and be expected to use proper technique, and write up your results afterwards.  You will be expected to master technical material, and demonstrate that you've understood it and can apply it.  You will be expected to use correct spelling and grammar in all writing assignments, and no, "This is not English class!" will not be accepted as an excuse.  You will be expected to treat me, and the other students, with respect.

Get rid of the unions?  The unions are the only protection we have preventing capricious and arbitrary breaches of contract by administrators and school boards.  Note that I am not implying that all administrators and school board members would do those things, but some would, and without unions we would have little legal recourse.  I know that unions, too, sometimes fail in what should be the goal of all educators -- to provide the best possible quality of education to students.  Rubber rooms, and protection of poor-quality teachers, do happen.  But even there, the fault is not always with the unions.  The single worst teacher I have ever worked with was retained not because of any kind of union pressure, but because administrators didn't do their job and document her many failings, pressure her to improve, and when that didn't work (which it probably would not have), show her the door.

And just to correct a few factual errors:  we do not get free health insurance.  I don't get a dime during the summer, and in fact when I was a single dad, I had to work two jobs just to save enough to make my June, July, and August mortgage payments.  And no teacher I know of can retire "early" -- I will have to work until I'm 62 not to have major penalties assessed on my pension.  And with the current pension formulas, and the fact that retirees have to pay a much greater share of their health insurance costs, many of us can't afford to retire.  I know one teacher who has been teaching for 38 years, and if she retired she wouldn't make enough money even to cover her expenses.

If  you gut education, cut teachers, break the backs of school districts caught between state mandates and shrinking revenue, you will see the quality of education diminish commensurately.  Yes, educators will continue trying to do the best with what we have; that's what we do.  But if you are worried about the up-and-coming economic threat from the tens of thousands of highly-educated young people from China and India, the last thing you should do is cut education.  "Don't just throw money at the problem," is a nice aphorism, suitable for a bumper sticker, but there's another one that also applies; "You get what you pay for." 

Oh, yeah, and "Build new schools, or build new jails: Your choice."

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