September 29, 2023

James Rosen: Money, not standards, determines education quality

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Writing for the Tribune Content Agency, former political reporter James Rosen argues that it’s not more standards that schools need.

The drive for education standards, whether imposed by states or the federal government, is founded on a cruel fiction: If kids from poor families just applied themselves more; if their underpaid teachers just worked harder; if the standards for measuring progress were clearer and tougher — the problems in the classroom would vanish.

Americans understand and accept that if you want a great car, you need to pay more. Same thing with great restaurants, great homes, great clothes, great furniture, great sports teams.

As with any broad generalization, there are exceptions. It’s always exciting to discover a dive restaurant with good food. It’s a small thrill to find a stunning dress or a handsome suit at the local thrift store. But especially in an advanced capitalist society like ours, money talks when it comes to ensuring quality education in public schools.

The notion that more rigorous standards, whether imposed by states or the federal government, can significantly improve public education prevents us from confronting a harsh truth: Teachers, tasked with one of the most demanding and crucial jobs, don’t get paid enough.

In 2010, the average teacher’s salary nationwide was $55,000. Today it’s $65,000. Just accounting for inflation over the last 13 years, teachers should be earning $78,000. Instead, their annual pay is less than autoworkers in Detroit earn. It’s less than cops earn. It’s less than insurance agents, flight attendants or law clerks earn.

Those occupations are vital, but they pale next to the job of a teacher. As the traditional family fractures while kids spiral down the rabbit hole of social media, the classroom instructor is asked to do more and more.

My experience has shown me that one great teacher is more important than any academic standards that produce only rote and superficial learning.

An excellent eighth-grade chemistry teacher turned my dislike of science into a lifelong fascination that fuels my reading of books and articles about physics, medicine, biology and — yes — chemistry.

Several outstanding English teachers transformed grammar for me from boring rules to an exciting code that unlocks language and elevates writing.

Another mean fiction fueling the imposition of set standards is the absurd belief that teachers have it easy. According to this degrading myth, they work short days, knock off at 3, and get three months of paid vacation each summer.

Anyone who is friends with a teacher or two, as I am, knows how hard they work. They stay up late preparing lesson plans. They meet or email with parents asking all manner of questions about their kids’ performance. They respond to constant demands from their principals, assistant principals and other bosses, many of whom have never taught. They spend their summers revising or overhauling their classroom curricula in response to ever-shifting and often confusing or contradictory dictates from school administrators. And, increasingly, they try to squeeze creativity out of one-size-fits-all standards.

Instead of lifting classroom instruction to higher levels, deadening educational standards dumb it down.

Read the full op-ed here. 

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