I believe that what is wrong with our schools in this nation is that they have become unionized in the worst possible way. This unionization and lifetime employment of K-12 teachers is off-the-charts crazy.
Just imagine. The whole world wired to Harry Cohn's ass.
"Hey, man, where you goin'?"
"I'm goin' to class."
"Man, you always goin' to class."
from Overheard in the Hallways, Vol. II
OF course some of us think--and have said so on several occasions--that the only thing wrong with our system of public education is that overpaid, over-praised, egomaniacal gizmo marketers (Jobs), software pirates (Gates), or old-school brigands (Welch) think a coterie of ass-kissers proves their personal bungholes taste like apple danish.
Th' fuck? When was the last time Steve Jobs was in a public school, or talked to a teacher or a student (or, more to the point, a principal)? Where would he go at Apple to find someone with a GED? I have no idea what makes anyone imagine the CEO of a technology firm has the standing to critique secondary education, but I now know what the counter-argument is.
What kind of person could you get to run a small business if you told them that when they came in they couldn't get rid of people that they thought weren't any good?" Not really great ones because if you're really smart you go, "I can't win."
"Really smart", of course, as embodied by...Steve Jobs.
And this is a(nother) guy who famously dropped out of college in his freshman year, who became a multi-millionaire genius by capturing 8% of the exploding personal computer market with someone else's invention, and who would be back home tinkering with the next NEXT if the Apple board hadn't re-elected him Prom King and the iPod hadn't proved the preferred miniature premature-hearing-loss provider of the early 21st century. In the interim Jobs bought himself a company that produces brightly-colored computer-animated baby sitters and product-licensing machines; today he's overseen the vast network of corporate agreements which allows you to watch Jackass: The Movie on your telephone, provided you aren't presently screaming into while walking down the cereal aisle. Some of us might suggest that this, rather than the inability of high-school seniors to perform any better than the general public in a Find Afghanistan On The Map exercise, is the real demonstration of the failure of public education. Maybe education is not exactly in your best interests, Steve.
I mean, I know a guy who became an electrician's apprentice right out of high school who may now have more money than Jobs. It's probably close. He might also have a collection of half-remembered, third-hand anecdotes about Our Failing Schools, but if so he doesn't promote them in public. (Then again, the number of full-time speech-writing toadies he employs is surprisingly small.)
Okay, enough of the ad hominems (they're justified because that's the full extent of Jobs' argument); let's deal with this warmed-over Gospel According to John Stossel once more:
• Bad teachers can't be fired. Unlike Jobs I don't have a Wi-Fi lossless psychic connection to every union contract in the cosmos, but I know one pretty well, and in Indianapolis Public Schools a new teacher can pretty much be fired at will for the first two years, although, sadly, not simply at the whim of a godlike Principal, but through an evaluation process. After that it gets a little tougher (and why shouldn't it?), mostly in that teacher evaluations are less frequent, plus (and one hesitates to explain the obvious to our 21st century seers) the teacher now has a track record. How many good evaluations should a bad evaluation negate? Four? Fourteen?
(This puts me in mind of the decade my Poor Wife spent outside the gigantic Union Featherbed that is public education, working for a couple of studios. The first was in transition from the leadership of the guy who founded it to that of his two daughters, who managed to combine various untreated psychopathies with the absolute assurance that their good sense in inheriting a business was sufficient proof of their Mensa-level business judgment. My wife became the shop steward, in part through her quiet expertise, but also through actually putting up with these nitwits, something she'd later regret.
(And so she was given the occasional glimpse into the inner sanctum, and what passed for thought in the rarefied air. One of them confided to her that "they knew a business owner" whose invariable practice was to fire every one of his employees after two years, without exception, because by that time they had learned to cut corners and developed bad attitudes (gee, there's a shock, huh?). This seemed to them a Very Good Idea.
(Of course it was my wife, not they, who knew how difficult it was to find people with the requisite artistic ability and low income expectation, and just how long it took to get them to master the technical requirements of the job. And she knew how totally nuts those two were, so it didn't really surprise her when she later learned that the paragon of smart business practice in question operated a dry cleaners.)
The main thing seniority grants a teacher at IPS is first call on job openings, all other things being equal (and why shouldn't it?).
We might mention in passing that the no-union solution has been in operation for years now, in the form of charter schools, whose predicted miracle results have, as with the Iraq war, tended to repeated devaluation as the actual vote tallies rolled in.
• Let principals be CEOs. One is tempted to ask, rather more pointedly this time, when the last time Jobs met a public school principal was. I know it may be difficult to believe from the moral aerie that is Silicon Valley, but there occasionally exist petty, venial, self-aggrandizing educators with administrative licenses who occasionally promote personal whim, small-time grudges, or outright cronyism over the needs of the system. Shocking, I know. But I could name names. And places and dates.
• Our failing schools. Look, one, I don't believe it's possible to be a success even in such a marginally intellectual activity as mass marketing and think like this. How many failures has Apple chalked up? Where would it be without that tiny musical device?
Steve, you're welcome to drop by my castle and interview my neighbors. They think our suburban school district is one of the best in the state. A ten-minute drive'll take us to Hamilton county, where they spend like sailors on a spree and like to imagine they get a hell of a lot in return. It's like that all over the country--except in impoverished inner-city districts--people think their own schools are just fine; it's Those Others that collect demagogy and spray paint.
And we know, we've known for over forty years, or since we first bothered to look, that the major predictor of academic success is socio-economic status. Fighting poverty, providing sound nutrition and adequate health care, and giving people below the poverty line a fair shake and the hope of decent employment would do a hell of a lot more for public education than those cadres of virtual software engineers who just can't wait to teach junior-high math, but are prevented from doing so by greedy union bosses.
Funny how that sort of thing never enters into Buck Rogers' Geek Utopia.