What is the big deal with education? I hate it when I turn on one of my favorite political discussion shows, only to find that the topic is education: blah blah falling behind the rest of the world blah blah skills for the twenty-first century blah blah really great teachers blah blah blah. All right, perhaps I am being a little self-centered. As a bachelor, I have never had children of my own to worry about. I received an education myself, of course, and there was that teacher I dated, but both were a long time ago. Perhaps that explains my lack of interest in the subject. Don’t get me wrong. I want everyone to have an education. I just don’t understand what the big deal about it is.
Or maybe I do.
What really gives me pause is all this talk about “really great teachers.” From the first grade through my courses in graduate school, I had some good teachers and I had some bad ones, but most were merely adequate, and it all pretty much averaged out. The worst teachers I ever had still provided me with textbooks, from which I gained enough knowledge to move on to the next grade. Maybe I had a really great teacher along the way, but given my limitations and laziness, it apparently did not make much difference. Mostly, it was up to me, one way or the other.
In other words, I smell a rat. The flip side of all this talk about the really great teacher is the villain of the piece: the really bad teacher, the ultimate cause of our failed education system, the high dropout rate, and the worthless diploma. Once these bad teachers have tenure, the story goes, it is all but impossible to dismiss them. From this follows the conclusion that we must get rid of tenure, and the teachers’ unions that insist on it, so that these impediments to a good education can be removed.
Now, I don’t know about you, but by the time I got to college, I could tell in the first week of class what kind of teacher I had. So, if there is any problem with incompetence, I suspect it could be rooted out within the first year or two. The fact that inferior teachers are not dismissed early on is due to the fact that this is not what the administrators really care about. They merely want the prerogative to fire old teachers when they start costing too much, regardless of competence. Can you imagine being 45 years old, having taught school for over twenty years, and suddenly being dismissed for inferior performance? What school system would hire you with that in your résumé?
Now that I am an old man, I am inclined to reminisce, and all this business about education reminds me of something from the past. In other words, this is not the first time I smelled a rat. In the late 1970s, we started seeing stories on the nightly news and in other venues about the cruelty of mandatory retirement. We were treated to scenes of old men, sitting in the park, feeding the pigeons, because they had been forced to retire at the age of 65. In so many words, they had been told that they were useless, when they still had so much to contribute. There was something phony about all these sad stories, but I could not figure out just what it was.
This went on for about a year, and then, in 1978, the Mandatory Retirement Act was passed, which (with certain exceptions) prohibited the forced retirement of employees before they were 70. “In other words,” I remember thinking to myself, “we have to wait until they are 70 before we can tell them how useless they are.” But I still could not figure out what they were up to. Then, in 1983, it all became clear. A bill was passed that would phase in increases in the full retirement age for Social Security, from 65 to 67. Of course! They could not very well increase the full retirement age for Social Security to 67, if the mandatory retirement age was still 65. The latter had to be raised as a prelude to implementing the former.
So now when I see all these stories about really great teachers, and listen to pundits bemoan the evils of teachers’ unions and tenure, which allow the bad teachers to keep their jobs at the expense of the children, I have that same feeling of being conned. Just like the man who takes the best years of a woman’s life, and then divorces her for a young girl, whose physical beauty and naïve notions of love make her a really great piece; so too do the school administrators wish to rid themselves of the older, expensive teachers, who have been around so long they have become jaded and disillusioned, and replace them with those young, vigorous, recently graduated teachers, who will accept a compensation package consisting of a smaller salary and fewer benefits, so long as it is gilded by rosy promises of the future.
This is a power struggle, pure and simple. And the myth of the really great teacher is a weapon in that struggle.