- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2011

If teachers unions would use their collective-bargaining rights to do good for their students rather than doing well for themselves, they could make a stronger case for themselves. The good teachers, if they provide a little evidence, might even make a credible argument for getting paid more money. But no. They’re talking “me, me, me.”

Unions originally were formed as protection against exploitive employers, but teachers unions are often trying to exploit their employers - the taxpayers - even though most of us aren’t happy with what we’re paying for. The problem has many causes, but negotiating for ever-bigger salaries and more expensive pensions won’t resolve them.

Fortunately, we’re beginning to discover what any kid taught by the old-maid schoolteacher of unkind stereotype knew in the decades between the little red schoolhouse and the vast public school system: Learning is largely determined by the quality of the teaching.

Feminism accomplished many good things, opening career opportunities for women (married and single) but that meant that many smart, ambitious women became lawyers, doctors, accountants and scientists. They shunned teaching.

That’s not to say there aren’t lots of smart, ambitious teachers today. There are. But they’re not created by graduate schools devoted to Mickey Mouse educationist theory. Nor are the high scorers on the SAT tests usually drawn to teaching. In the 1960s, 25 percent of new female teachers had graduated in the top 10 percent of their classes. Three decades later, the number of new teachers at the top of their classes had declined to just 10 percent. What we teach teachers usually determines who wants to be a teacher.

Unlike other professions, where experience and longevity generally mean more knowledge gained and consequently a better “product,” seniority in teaching has little or no effect on student performance. “The United States spends $50 billion a year on automatic salary increases based on teacher seniority,” Bill Gates wrote in The Washington Post. “It’s reasonable to suppose that teachers who have served longer are more effective, but the evidence says that is not true.” Only a government-funded institution would allow such profligacy. Nor do advanced degrees or smaller classes make a positive difference.

What is true is that excellent teaching begets excellent students. To that end, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will study teachers whose students show performance gains to see whether there’s a way to quantify what makes a great (or even good) teacher.

I wish them luck, though anyone who has ever watched Mr. Chips in the classroom could easily summarize his success as concentrating on three simple principles: Think deeply, teach rigorously and demand excellence. Instead, a new study by the Government Accountability Office reveals that taxpayers currently fund 82 overlapping programs administered by 10 federal agencies looking for ways to improve teacher quality.

Frederick Hess, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, argues that schools rely too much on standardization and efficiency, repeating the same brand-name mistakes by merely freshening up the label. “Time and time again attempts to scientifically identify the ‘right’ teacher or pedagogy can stifle problem-solving and yield troubling consequences,” he wrote in “The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday’s Ideas” (Harvard University Press, 2010).

We think all of our children should achieve high standards in a variety of subjects, no matter their abilities. That’s a mistake, and as a result, teachers often spend excessive time with remedial students and neglect students who need to be pushed forward.

In most cities, only the well-to-do (and the well-enough-to-do) can afford to send their children to private schools, and the rest are consigned to inferior public schools. President and Mrs. Obama live in a city that spends almost as much on each public school student as the Obamas spend on each of their daughters at one of the most expensive private schools in Washington. Congressmen with school-age children invariably retreat to the nearby suburbs of Maryland and Virginia, where schools are better. They can afford to deny school choice to others because they’ve already exercised a choice for their own children.

Mr. Hess wants to reconsider everything, including changing school hours and the length of the school year and providing online teaching and tutoring. “Our schools are not a solid foundation for twenty-first century schooling,” he writes, “but a rickety structure that wobbles under the weight of each new addition.” It’s too late to renovate. We’ve got to rebuild.

Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.

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