Thursday, April 26, 2012

'Making the grade' in the USA

An article, 'Making the Grade', in The New Republic (TNR) early this month really helped clarify for me the issue of hiring and firing of teachers in this country.
First, let me say that The New Republic leans towards the Democratic Party in the USA and can be very sharply critical of anything rightwards of centre-right in US politics, although, having said that, TNR isn’t afraid to criticise adversely Obama’s policies when they think he’s on the wrong track.
In their April 5th issue, the focus of the Op-Ed was a bill presented to the Virginia Legislature on tenure for public (for which read ‘state’) teachers. TNR described the move as ‘an attempt to rectify what is perhaps the least sane element of our country’s approach to education’.
Once teachers in the state sector in the USA achieve tenure, it is virtually impossible to sack them for ‘the rest of their careers’. Sound familiar? It should because it mirrors very closely the situation here in England.
TNR analogises the position of teachers to that of university teachers, who also receive tenure. However, while it is important for university professors to have a certain degree of protection, given their important role in exploring ideas, which may not always be palatable to powerful vested interests, this can hardly be argued as being the case for school teachers.
Is there then a case for making it as difficult as it is to sack underperforming teachers? TNR concedes that it is very difficult to quantify success in teaching. However, this is also true of many other jobs, yet measures are put in place to establish whether employees are performing satisfactorily or not. So, why should teaching be any different?
Given that the job is one of the most important in a society for which education and training are so vital, we need, they say, to ensure that ‘the most able, talented people are doing it – and doing their best work at all times’.
In England, as in the USA, the Labour Party, as the party of the centre-left, continually drags its feet on reform and is too reluctant to criticise the teachers’ unions. That is not to say that unions don’t have an important part to play in defending members against over-zealous heads or local authorities or other such circumstances when the occasion demands.
For their part, the Conservative Party, like the GOP (Republican Party) in the USA, has too often confused their desire to raise standards and get rid of bad teachers with deprecating state education as a whole.
The article ends by making the point that, ‘for liberals, there is nothing more important than public education. Great public schools are the way a liberal, democratic, capitalist society makes good on the promise of providing genuine opportunities to all. Which is why liberals should steadfastly resist any impediments to improving the quality of education in our country.’
There's still a very long way to go before we get right the balance between the consumers and the producers in education.

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