Is Firing Bad Teachers the Real Solution to the De Facto Segregation in the U.S. Education System?
In “Why We Must Fire Bad Teachers”, Evan Thomas and Pat Wingert have once again identified a very old problem in the U.S. education system, that there is a huge distinction in education quality and outcomes based on class and race in this country. There always has been, and in reality it is still a system that is very highly segregated by race and social class. All the concerns about low graduation rates and falling test scores over the last thirty years are actually a reflection that the gap in wealth and incomes has actually been growing, and in now the highest in the Western world. This is reflected in the very limited educational opportunities available to poor and minority students in the inner cities compared to middle and upper class whites in the suburban public schools or those who have access to private education. Thomas and Wingert are just the latest in a long line of self-described ‘reformers’ offering various nostrums and panaceas for this unequal system, in this case creating more charter schools, weakening the teacher’s unions and permitting school districts to fire bad teachers. As usual, they are simply addressing the symptoms of the problem rather than the causes, and their ideas will fail, just all other such proposals have failed in the past when they do not address the larger social, economic and political problems and an unwillingness to deal with systemic inequality
In the U.S., only about 60% of blacks and Hispanics even finish high school, and far fewer move on to higher education compared to whites. This has always been the case in the history of the U.S. education system, going back to the era when public schools were legally segregated by race. This dual system of education continued into the 1960s and 1970s, and indeed still exists in most major cities, in reality if not in law, for these school systems were never really desegregated at all. Everyone even remotely familiar with the true nature of the U.S. education system is well-aware that there has always been “a dramatic achievement gap in the United States, far larger than in other countries, between socioeconomic classes and races" and there is no question that it was (and is) “a scandal of monumental proportions, that there were two distinct school systems in the U.S., one for the middle class and one for the poor." Of course, the U.S. has never really been willing to address these huge disparities in wealth and income between races, social classes and regions, or the much higher funding available to suburban schools compared to those in the inner cities. Politically, this has simply never been possible, nor is the issue even discussed very often in the mainstream media, so the ‘solutions’ proposed generally blame the teachers for these social and economic conditions and the total lack of will to address them.
Evans and Thomas do not propose this as a solution, but rather start out from certain false premises and then continue to compound their errors. They fail to note that the real causes of poor textbooks and pedagogy, low-quality teachers and large classroom sizes are economic and political, and cannot be addressed by reforms in pedagogy like New Math or adding a few computer rooms. Serious reformers would not simply dismiss the legacy of racial segregation and inequality of wealth and incomes as the real reasons why students in these inner-city schools perform so poorly and have such low test scores and graduation rates. This is the way it has always been in the United States, and simply creating a few more charter schools or firing more bad teachers is never going to fix the problem. Given this overall context, the assertion that “kids who have two, three, four strong teachers in a row will eventually excel, no matter what their background, while kids who have even two weak teachers in a row will never recover" seems very naïve and dubious at best. Even if this were the case, the inner-city schools have rarely attracted the highest quality teachers. Then Evans and Wingert go on to blame the teacher’s unions in places like New York and Chicago for making it impossible to fire bad teachers, once again ignoring the social and economic conditions in these cities that have created all the dysfunctional public schools.
In New Orleans, the public school system was privatized in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and this was done at the direction of the Bush administration in Washington. They did indeed eliminate the teacher’s union, but then again this has been an important political goal for the Republican Party over the years, and is not simply a matter of improving educational standards. This has also been going on at the state level since 2010 when the Republicans took over many legislatures and governorships, such as Wisconsin. As the article points out, the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have nearly five million members and these unions are major supporters of the Democratic Party. Indeed, almost all labor unions are, including all the public sector unions, so the Republicans have a strong interest in weakening them whenever possible. Even the Obama administration under Education Secretary Arne Duncan attempted to adopt some of these Republican policies, such as increasing the number of charter schools and allowing student evaluations to be used in tenure decisions for teachers.
In certain very limited respects, the article is correct, such as when it points out that in Western Europe “where teachers enjoy more social prestige and higher salaries, schools have no trouble attracting new teachers with strong academic records”, but this has never been the case with the education profession in the United States. Compared to the types of salaries and benefits available in private business and industry, the status of the teaching profession has always been among the lowest, most of all in inner-city schools. This is probably the reason that most teachers are recruited from the “bottom third of college-bound high-school students” compared to Western Europe. Even under the best of circumstances, teaching has hardly been a high-prestige profession in the U.S., but the segregated and impoverished inner-city schools are the worst of circumstances. Since the U.S. has rarely been able to address the great disparities based on race and social class, and least of all under the conservative administrations of recent decades, this discussion about the poor quality of public education in inner cities will just continue on as pointlessly as ever. Only in a system where equal funding existed for all public school students regardless of color, ethnicity and class would it be possible to discuss the issue of ‘reform’ in a serious way.
Thomas, Evan and Pat Wingert. “Why We Must Fire Bad Teachers.” The Daily Beast, March 5, 2010.