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If we want to build support for public education, we need to reframe the public discussion about it

Robert Niles
Published: March 11, 2013 at 2:22 PM (MST)
My post last week on the 'myth of the excellent teacher' elicited an intriguing comment from a reader that it should be easier to get rid of the worst of the worst teachers in a school system.

Reframing educationWhile I agree that abusive or bigoted teachers should find no place in our public education system, I think people who support public education need to think about how we frame our discussion of this issue. If we're willing to frame education reform as a question of "how to lay off bad teachers," then we've already lost. Why? That statement implicitly delivers suggestions that a) teachers are bad and b) schools spend too much and c) cuts are a given. By agreeing to address the "how to get rid of teachers" question, then we've conceded those important points about teacher quality and inevitability of education cuts.

Let's instead reframe the discussion as "how do we increase the number of good teachers available to help our students?" Or, how do we increase the chances that a student will be paired with a teacher who can forge an instructive relationship with that student? As I wrote last week, when we cut the number of teachers available to students in a particular grade at a particular school, we reduce the chances that each student will be matched with a teacher with whom he or she can have that type of productive relationship. Students are individuals, after all, not computer programs or gears in a machine that behave predictably in a given situation. Our students need and deserve human instructors who can adapt to their particular individuals needs, temperaments, and personalities. The more -- and more diverse -- teachers we have, the better the chances that our schools can provide teachers who match with every one of our students.

(Also note how I talk about "our" students. If we're to win back support for public education we must insist upon talking about it as a public good -- a system provided by, accountable to, and of great benefit to all. Public education isn't a consumer product, bought by parents for their individual student. Opponents of public education want to frame education as a consumer product, of concern only to parents and students, so that people without children in the system will be less likely to support the taxes that fund it.)

No, our communities don't have an infinite supply of money to spend on public education. But we do, collectively, have a heck of a lot of available money to spend. The stock market trades at an all-time high. Corporate profits are up, and richest Americans are richer than ever before. There's plenty of money out there to, at the very least, stop laying off teachers and even to start hiring more beyond that. But elected officials never will find the political will to raise taxes on the rich in support of public education if supporters of public schools can't reframe news media discussions about education.

Poverty levels in our schools are rising, thanks to declining purchasing power for working Americans over the past generation. More than half the public students in California today come from families that can't afford to pay for their students' daily lunch. Those students need extra attention, extra guidance and extra instruction from our public schools, to make up for all that they aren't getting at home. And yet, because these students' needs lead them to score lower on standardized tests, our cynically labelled "No Child Left Behind" framework gives their schools less money to meet those needs, enabling additional spending cuts for public education around the country. That leaves communities with less educated workforces, ultimately leading to more poverty and lower student performance. It's a vicious cycle, designed to weaken public education and drive away families who can afford an alternative.

(In California, the system is particularly vicious, as school funding is based upon student attendance days. So if a family chooses to send its child to private schools, that decision costs their local public school district money. Sure that decision reduces the district's cost by having one fewer child to educate, but districts maintain necessary overhead expenses that don't go away when students do -- boards, superintendents, buildings, buses, special education infrastructure, etc. That reduces the per-pupil funding remaining for the students who stay in public schools. Heck, if a public school student is sick for a day and stays home, that leads to school funding cuts. But it's not like a school can send a teacher home for an unpaid day for every 25 students who call in sick. For economists, this is called a highly elastic funding system to pay for highly inelastic expenses. You don't design systems this way unless you intend for them to fail eventually.)

If we want to be able to better match students with teachers, and to improve teachers' abilities to work with an increasingly diverse student body, we need more administrators, not fewer. We need principals, counselors, librarians, and coaches who have the time to get to know students and teachers, to discover strengths and weaknesses and to provide the matching, training and support that both students and teachers need to develop instructive relationships.

But districts can't provide that kind of support to their teachers if they must continue to lay off support personnel in an attempt to minimize the number of teachers they must dismiss to meet reduced budgets. Again, to use a sports analogy, we can't continue to play on this side of the field.

Still worried about getting rid of really bad teachers? OK, let's go there for a moment. There's not a district in America where you can't fire a teacher for cause. If a teacher is abusing a student, or discriminating against protected classes of students, a school board can fire that teacher once they build a case of evidence to support those accusations. But again, a district needs administrators to document those cases. Lay off your "extra" administrators, and there's no one left with the time to document a termination case. What about tenure, you might ask? What about it? For public school teachers, "tenure" simply means that a teacher no longer can be fired at the whim of school officials -- they have to have a reason, such as a documented case for cause, or overall layoffs. I suspect most American don't know that, and believe that tenure means lifetime employment for teachers, no matter what.

Again, that shows why we need to reframe the discussion about public education. If we're talking about the acceptable ways to lay off teachers, we've lost. We need to stop laying off teachers, and start hiring more. That is what we need to be talking about. That is what we need to be fighting for.

Robert Niles also can be found at

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