Somebody Save Us

I had a love/hate relationship with school when I was a kid. I loved learning but I hated doing homework. I preferred recreational reading and writing my own stories to completing assignments given to me by teachers. I went to several different schools in different states, and I can remember having some really bad teachers along the way. One teacher, however, changed my life; Nita Norwood taught my 7th-grade English class. Even the most boring subjects were interesting in her class. She had well over a hundred students during the course of a semester, but she found a way to make my recreational reading habits a part of my lesson plan. When she saw me getting bullied in the cafeteria – I had lunch during her class – she offered to let me have lunch in the classroom with her. When she found out that I liked to write, she wanted to read it all. Despite how juvenile I’m sure it was back then she encouraged me to never stop writing. Mrs. Norwood was, by far, the best teacher I ever had, and she’d been teaching for eons.

I have just finished watching an eye-opening documentary about the public education system in America called “Waiting For Superman”, and I am floored. I have known for a long time – since I was a kid – that our education system has serious problems. I saw it firsthand when kids I went to school with were coming into class drunk, high, angry, and not paying any attention to the teacher. I saw it when teachers would leave us to do whatever we wanted while they did whatever they wanted. I went through grade school in the 80’s, jr. high and high school in the 90’s…we’re talking two decades ago that I was in elementary school, and I had teachers that I knew didn’t care. I had classmates who were so used to other teachers that didn’t care that when they came into a class where the teacher DID care, they all but ruined the profession for that teacher.

I knew nothing of teacher’s unions when I was a kid. I never heard about it. Now, it’s all I hear about anymore – when teachers are mentioned in the news, they are invariably coupled with unions. Not long ago I linked Matt Damon’s uber-liberal rant about how teachers deserve tenure because, if you believe him, they make next to nothing and there’s not a teacher in the system that doesn’t care, because nobody gets into a profession like that without caring.

(To that, I say this: in EMS, or emergency medical services, we make less money than teachers do, and we have to go through a lot more to prove that we’re worthy of keeping our credentials. I have worked with more than a few who had no business working on ambulance crews. Every profession is plagued by those who don’t want to work.)

In the documentary, writer/director Davis Guggenheim spotlights DC schools chief Michelle Rhee and her quest to do what no superintendent of the DC schools district had ever done: reform the district and improve the state of education in the area. I remember a few years ago, when Rhee caught unimaginable vitriol from teachers and their unions for closing 23 DC schools and firing several principals. She fired a total of 266 teachers whose evaluations revealed remarkably poor teaching skills – what’s more, 76 of those teachers did not even have the proper credentials to teach, yet they were still defended by their union. Rhee also suggested a reform that gave a few union leaders gray hair: she offered salaries in the mid-six-figure range to high-performing teachers who were willing to give up tenure and offered much smaller pay raises to those who refused to give up tenure. The AFT, or American Federation of Teachers – the union that covers DC schools – was so threatened by the proposal that they refused to even allow the body to vote on it. It was never even considered.

What is tenure? It began in colleges and universities, where professors used to have to teach for years and jump through a myriad of flaming hoops to achieve it. The point was to protect them from losing their careers based on bias or political motivation. When I was a kid, tenure was unheard of for public school teachers.

The unions began back in the 1950’s when teachers organized to protect themselves from unfair pay rates. Back then it was believed that men were the primary bread-winners, and since women were teachers, they didn’t need to make much money. Those unions have evolved into massive money machines that give more money to political campaigns than any other special interest group – and over 90% of their money goes to Democrats and liberal causes. Why? Because the Democrats will fight for anything the unions want, including teacher tenure.

The United States sits at the bottom 10% of developed nations for education rates. In most states, math and reading comprehension rates are abysmal – they tend to run between 15%-35%. The last public high school I went to was in Demopolis, Alabama, and as a sophomore (I was homeschooled after that) I had seniors in some of my classes who could barely read, and they were taking these classes because they wouldn’t graduate without them. Many of these kids graduated despite still failing. In the years that have passed, I have seen the paper in that town report that a number of them are either in prison or well on their way.

And we wonder why idiotic shows like “Jersey Shore” and “Teen Mom” are all the rage with kids.

We have tried every single reform we can come up with. The one thing that stands in the way of true reform and an education system that is workable is the union and it’s demand for teacher tenure. Once a teacher is tenured, by contract, they cannot be fired – no matter how often they miss work, no matter how poorly their students perform, they cannot be fired. We need to put an end to that. The unions need to stick to defending the actual rights of teachers, not keeping poorly-performing teachers in their positions. I would be willing to bet that if teachers had to prove that they deserve their jobs, just as I and my fellow EMT’s and paramedics must, there would be an incredible turnaround.