Monday, March 16, 2009

Bill Maher vs teacher unions

Real Time with Bill Maher
On the March 13, 2009 show, Bill Maher used Barack Obama’s comments on the need for school reform as a foil to launch into some extended criticism of teachers unions- This was not part of the President’s message. Unfortunately Maher seemed to be operating from Business Roundtable talking points rather than a serious analysis of the school crisis.
I have not yet been able to get the transcript.
His first claim was that union rules prevent teachers from being fired and that many teachers should be fired. He implies that problem with our schools in crisis was that administrators could not fire teachers.
Well, lets look at that. Large numbers of new teachers quit each year, almost 50% in the first 5 years of teaching. So, there is significant turn over.
And, to understand our school crisis, you need to know that there are many schools that work just fine, usually in middle class neighborhoods, and many urban schools that are crisis zones. There are few teachers fired in both parts of the system. There is a radical difference in where teachers quit. So, there does not seem to be evidence that not firing teachers makes the difference between successful and failing schools.
Where is the evidence?
Maher properly cited drop outs, as did Michael Eric Dyson as a measure of school failure. The drop out crisis is real and severe. What are the causes? Well there are many. However, note that the drop out rate between Freshmen and Seniors in college is higher than the drop out rate between Freshmen and Seniors in high school. And, the drop out or push out rate at community colleges is even higher.
So, what is the cause of the drop outs? Is it unionized teachers? No evidence has been provided.
Most cities now have a number of charter schools where teaches do not have union protection. Some of these charters are doing a good job, like the KIPP schools. The drop out rates, and the push out rates in the charter schools is parallel to the drop out rates in the public high schools. Teacher turn over, including firings, is high in these charters. Yet the achievement rates and the drop out rates are similar.

There is much more to say on this subject. But, this is a blog, not a textbook. You can read the detailed version by reading my book, Choosing Democracy: a practical guide to multicultural education. ( 4th edition, 2010).
While the media and the corporations argue that the schools are failing, I think it is more likely that the society has failed the schools – in particular state legislators and local governments have failed the schools.
First, we need consider the processes of schooling in the social, political, and cultural, and economic context which surrounds the school and to a significant degree controls the schools. Schools did not create and can not resolve the racial, class and gender divisions in our society. But, what schools can do is to effect individual students lives every day. Our multicultural society requires multicultural schooling. Students from all cultural and ethnic groups must succeed, and must learn to get along and to respect each other.

As my friend the late Henry Trueba said
“Education is crucial to the realization of the American dream. The reason is that it is primarily through the acquisition of knowledge and skills associated with formal education that immigrant and low-income students become empowered and a part of mainstream America. It is particularly relevant to speak of multicultural education as the kind of education that will permit Americans to become aware of “democracy at work,” realize their full potential, and live in harmony.”
This is time for a change for our society and in our schools. This generation must renew our democratic society. We face marked crises in government, politics, the economy, families, communities and in the schools. Public schools have a particular responsibility to reverse these crises and to renew our democratic society. The first mission of pubic schooling is to equip all students for the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship – and many of the schools in low income areas are presently not fulfilling this mission. If we do not solve the problems of low performing schools our democracy suffers. For our democracy to survive we need to create schools that value all of our children and encourages each of their educational achievement.

All children need a good education to participate in our democracy and prepare for life in the rapidly changing economy. Making schooling valuable and useful is vital to prosperity for all. Lack of education is a ticket to economic hardship. The more years of school that a student completes, the more money they are likely to earn as adults and the better their chance to get and keep a good job. Unemployment is highest among school dropouts as is incarceration for crimes. When we fail to educate all of our children, the high costs of this failure come back to hurt us in unemployment, drugs, crime, incarceration, violence and social conflict.

We need to invest in urban schools, provide equal educational opportunities in these schools, and recruit a well prepared teaching force that begins to reflect the student populations in these schools. We must insist on equal opportunity to learn, without compromise. When we do these things, we will begin to protect the freedom to learn for our children and our grandchildren, and to build a more just and democratic society.
Teacher advocates for democratic educational opportunities challenge those social forces acting to preserve the present inequalities and injustices in our schools. We consider schools as sites for the struggle for or against more democracy in our society. The struggle for education improvement and education equality will be a long one. The struggle for multicultural education, based in democratic theory, is an important part of the general struggle against race, class, and gender oppression and for democracy.
Schools serving urban and impoverished populations need fundamental change. These schools do not open the doors to economic opportunity. They usually do not promote equality. Instead, they recycle inequality. The high school drop out rates alone demonstrate that urban schools prepare less than 50 percent of their students for entrance into the economy and society. A democratic agenda for school reform includes insisting on fair taxation and adequate funding for all children. Political leaders in most states have not yet decided to address the real issues of school reform. We cannot build a safe, just, and prosperous society while we leave so many young people behind.
At present there is not a political agreement to make the necessary investments to bring about substantial school reform. The U.S. government and your state government will not make the necessary investments to improve education, nor to improve health care or to rebuild the economic infrastructure until we stop investing over 850 Billion dollars in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and whichever military intervention follows. Funding choices made at federal, state and local levels directly affect our children.
The conservative/ media emphasis on accountability for schools, and Bill Maher’s talking points are a distortion. We know which schools need improvement, and we know how to improve them..

The problem is to provide the resources, including well prepared teachers with adequate support, needed to make the current schools successful. We face a choice between providing high-quality schools only for the middle and upper classes, and underfunded, understaffed schools for the poor. Or, we can also choose to work together to improve schools that are presently failing.

Duane Campbell
Director. Democracy and Education Institute – Sacramento
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