Schools in Trouble

My father and I like to talk about the state of schools in America from time to time. A friend of his lives in one of the Northeast’s second-tier cities: not a Boston or Hartford or Providence, but a step below that. He’s lived there most of his life, he’s well-connected and he knows people throughout the surrounding towns, too. His daughter has just achieved certification as a teacher. And he, even with all his connections and networking skills, can’t seem to find her a teaching job.

There aren’t any.

This didn’t make sense to me at first. Then my father explained it, thus. Schools, like most businesses that rely on government money, know that the $100 billion promised to schools in the stimulus package probably won’t reach them for four years. Just because Congress authorized the expenditure, doesn’t mean the money will be released in a week or a month. Delays of two to four years are not uncommon; relief money for Hurricane Katrina was only beginning to pour out a few months ago. That’s a delay of three and a half years.

But if you’re a teacher near retirement age, you may think, if I can hold out a couple of years more, I might get a salary boost. That will boost the teacher’s pension pay, and that adds encouragement to stick it out a couple years more. Moreover, the economy just did a little soft shoe and blues number on his retirement portfolio. Maybe he can’t retire right now. So that’s incentive to stick around a little longer. Thus, the school’s most expensive employees, the older teachers, are sticking around for a year or two longer than they might normally.

These are not teachers that are going to be innovating in the classroom. They might be beloved, they might be skillful, but they are not the ones signing out laptops for their class every day, or starting class blogs, or designing wikis.

Meanwhile, principals and heads of school and superintendents and union representatives are having to make tough choices on who to hire and fire in the economic downturn which is coupled with an increase in the number of charter schools, homeschools, and other sources of mischiefs real or perceived. The charter schools want to avoid taking special-education students, because they don’t have the personnel or facilities for them. So the main line public schools are keeping the most expensive teachers, and the most expensive students.

Add to this… wait, there’s more? I hear you scream in horror… Add to this the reality that most companies of any size must run training programs for their new hires. Training in business practices. How to make change. How to manage employees. How to operate a cash register. How to be a bookkeeper. How to obey the ethics rules of their profession.

We’re left with the impression that schools which were doing a moderately bad but reasonably acceptable job, are now doing much worse. The graduates come out unprepared for any sort of real work; they are not conditioned to be entrepreneurial or ambitious; they suffer from a lack of skills applicable in real-world environments.

Further, the real-world environments increasingly have nothing to do with school. Teachers work in businesses that pretend they are not businesses, receive pensions like those that have largely vanished from the American business landscape, receive health care plans that are enviably good compared with those available from most non-profit organizations, and receive low but steady income streams. Moreover, it’s expected that most of them will not be particularly good at their jobs, and will be weeded out within the first three to four years.

So. The daughter of my father’s friend can’t find a job in teaching because older teachers are afraid of retirement and afraid to innovate; because school leaders are caught in a double-bind; and because education in this country is suffering a genuine mismatch between what teachers teach and what students want to learn.

Oh, dear.

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3 comments

  1. Oh, what a gloom and doom post!

    1. Making change is done by the cash register, it tells the clerk how much to give the customer. Bosses have always taught their employees how to count it out — if they care.

    2. Businesses have always had training, every business I worked in putting myself through college has, (and I grew up in “the good old days”).

    2. Old people, particularly old teachers hate stereotyping as much as as youngsters do. I blog, have a delicious account, am on twitter, take care of school’s website and Moodle server, build webpages, use wikis, maintain students email accounts, teach students to program, etc. On the side, I am doing professional development to get teachers on track and have begun doing webinars. Only a few of the new teachers have the skills to use the technology that is available to them, (that is the state of teacher prep. most places).

    So, why haven’t I retired? Because I do not see anyone that can give more bang for the buck. I don’t just sit around. I love teaching, I love my students, I don’t just try to do my best, I pour every effort I can to make my classroom a learning environment. I spend time helping teachers/staff at my school with their technology problems.

    Am I keeping your father’s friend’s daughter from a job, maybe — in a very indirect way, however, there are jobs out there, but maybe not where she wants to live. So the question really is, “Do you want to teach or just live where you live?”

    There are many more things about this post I could comment about, but I will just consider it another teacher bash, focused on older teachers.

    • I think you raise valid objections to my post.

      One of the things that we face is that there are know-nothing young teachers and tech-literate old people. There’s no one prescription that’s going to help all schools, everywhere, for all time. Mary Sue Smith (to fictionalize her name) may simply want to live and work in this particular city or town, and not move. I don’t know anything about HER, particularly. Is business training part of a school’s mission, and does American business see k-12 schools as a failure because of the kinds of training they must do?

      The main point of my post was to demonstrate the real “cash register” forces arrayed against schools, though:
      1. The promise of government money is an excuse to wait before instituting reforms;
      2. the financial press of losing students to charter schools in some areas; ‘
      3. the expense of holding onto retirement-age employees who are unable or unwilling to innovate in a crisis.

      My father’s friend’s daughter was merely the opening story that helped focus my father’s and my conversation on the economic challenge ahead for academic institutions.

      The nature of your comments suggests that I failed to indicate those three points clearly enough, and I’ll have to think about how I would rewrite this post in the future.

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