Waste and Abuse

I read with interest a recent post by Mindful Stew in which the author made the outrageous suggestion that teachers be paid what they are worth. Well, actually he suggested they be paid $100,000 to start, but that was to get our attention. And he did get readers’ attention! The comments were numerous and many of them insightful, though others a bit spiteful. The most frequent objection to the notion that we should pay more taxes to support public education is that there is waste and lack of accountability in the public sector. This is true.

I worked for nearly four decades in the public sector, teaching at a small Midwestern public university where I saw countless examples of waste and downright stupidity. As coach of the women’s tennis team, for example, I was expected to order supplies from approved vendors whose names were on a list provided to all coaches when I could buy a gross of tennis balls from Wal-Mart for 35% less than I would have to pay the “approved” vendor — which I did. The women’s basketball team would climb on a bus and travel five hours to Duluth to play a game on the same night the Duluth men’s team came to our campus! Eventually this stopped, but the objection at the time was that if the men and women played in the same place on the same night the men would get a larger audience. So for that reason the practice went on for years. Needless to say, the athletic teams — even at this small university  — stayed in expensive motels. And then there was the time-honored budgetary practice of punishing frugal employees. If the budget was not spent at the end of the fiscal year next year’s budget would be cut by that amount. And there are countless other examples of waste and stupidity. I dare say my readers who work or have worked in the public sector could add many of their own.

So let’s agree that there is waste and abuse of the money we send the state or the federal government to help provide services. There should be accountability, clearly. And employees should be rewarded when they save the taxpayers money, not punished — as should departments and agencies. But none of this really addresses the central issue which is that our teachers are horribly underpaid — barely above poverty levels in many states. For many teachers there needs to be another wage-earner in the family and it is a rare example of a teacher who can even think of buying a home, especially in the first years.

As a consequence of these low salaries, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of young people in this country who steer away from teaching because they know they will struggle. It shouldn’t be about money, but money is essential. Anyone who denies that is purblind or downright stupid. Many of the comments on “Stew’s” blog were from people who went another direction because of the low salaries in teaching. As a consequence, numerous studies suggest that nationwide we are now drawing from the bottom third or in some cases the bottom fourth of the college pool: our teachers were not among the highest achievers in our colleges — as a rule. I have heard from and read blogs by teachers who are sharp and very committed (including “mindful stew”), and while teaching at the college level for forty years I had a number of advisees who became outstanding teachers. But these people are the exception, sad to say.  In most cases around the country our kids are not getting the best teachers and it is not a huge leap to conclude that much of this is due to low salaries which bring with them low self-esteem and low-expectations. I have even read a couple of comments that pointed out that the kids themselves have a low opinion of their teachers because they know they are poorly paid. I dare say they hear this at home. In our culture, like it or not, money speaks volumes.

In any case, while I might blanch at starting teachers at $100,000 a year, a salary of $50,000 does seem reasonable. We can all certainly afford to pay a few hundred dollars more a year to support education. But in the meantime, if the school districts have a problem finding the money to pay the teachers they could save a considerable amount of money by reducing the number of administrators and support staff by 50-60% There’s a bunch of money going to waste there! A couple of well-organized administrators and two or three efficient secretaries could run a school of several thousand easily. It is done in business all the time, though I hate to suggest that we borrow from the business model. Or (and I hesitate to say this) we could reduce the inordinate number of athletic teams at the high school and college levels and concentrate on the few that truly benefit the students and contribute to the goal of educating young minds. But this borders on heresy.

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Education or Catastrophe?

In the 40s of the last century H.G. Wells told us that “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” Since that time, education has been weighed down by the burden of low regard, and it is not clear, given today’s political climate, that it can win the race.

Victor Scheffer, a marine biologist of international reputation worried about the battle that is going on in public education and suggested that “Education may now be entering a feedback loop in which ill-informed voters are continually creating administrations that blindly deny the value of education.” Indeed. Given the hostility in Wisconsin of late toward the audacious attempt on the part of teachers and other public employees to make a decent living, one suspects that this ship has sailed. And this is just the tip of the iceberg, as taxpayers in other states seem to be following Wisconsin’s lead in their mania to save a few dollars at any cost. Sad to say, part of the fault for this reaction on the part of the voters must lie with educators themselves. But only part.

I have argued in print for some time now that education has lost its way. It suffers from a lack of a clearly articulated purpose. Instead of concentrating on the essential role of putting young people in control of their own minds, educators have gotten side-tracked and bought into the myth that education is really about building self-esteem, or, worse yet, training the young to get a job. Further, those who fund education are married to a business paradigm that requires that all “outcomes” be quantified and the bottom line be black, which is absurd. This is part of the explanation of how we could have come to the point where people like Dr. Scheffer rightly worry about the “feed-back loop.” The schools have built an immense bureaucracy that towers over them and dictates educational policy; they are overseen by shortsighted managers who hold teachers to inapplicable standards; and the teachers themselves stumble about in the dark trying to teach out-of-control kids who are ill-prepared for school in the first place. The result is that the schools simply are not turning out the kinds of graduates who can see beyond their own immediate, short-term demands — much less the “common good” that is supposed to be the focus of a democracy.

It was widely understood by our Founders that in order to work a democracy must presuppose educated citizens. This is why, given the uneducated masses, they restricted suffrage well into the Jackson years. And this is why as suffrage was extended the nation opted for universal, public education. As Dr. Scheffer suggests, education is the key. But if so, it is a key that doesn’t seem to be turning in the lock.

In Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley predicted that America would eventually elect an actor to the Presidency. We not only did that, we also elected the village idiot to that highest of offices. Huxley saw what was coming. But my home state has no room to crow: we elected a former professional wrestler to the governorship. And we now have a comic as one of our Senators (though, ironically, that might be appropriate). In any event, we should know better: education does seem to be failing to play the key role it must play in a Democracy. And if this is to turn around, parents must spend more time with their children, and those who would teach the young must learn to put their students’ needs first — not their “wants,” but their needs. They must realize that they themselves know what is best for the students in their charge, or there is no reason whatever for those students to be there in the first place. Education must stop being a mirror, as Robert Hutchins said many years ago, reflecting the demands of unknowing, spoiled young people, and become the beacon it was supposed to be in the first place.

If and when educators put their house in order, those who graduate from the schools  and go to the polls must be willing to spend money on education and recognize that education requires more than the measly 2.1 % of the national budget (contrasted with the military’s 42%); they must be willing to allocate sufficient funds at both the state and national levels to pay those who teach a living wage and make teaching an attractive vocation for the best and brightest minds in the country. As Dr. Scheffer said, “I wish that we Americans would respect, value, and compensate our teachers — caretakers of the mind — as we now do our physicians — caretakers of the body.” Until we do, we will continue to lose the race, and while “catastrophe” is a strong word, if Wells’s dichotomy is viable the fact that we are in a “feedback loop” does not bode well for a democratic system that seems to be faltering, led as it is by weak men and women who are subject to corporate pressure and unable to rise above self interest and party politics to envision what is best for the country.