There comes a time every few years when teachers’ unions and school districts perform an elaborate waltz for favorable contract terms. We are witnessing this in Chicago — with the fates of thousands of students in the balance. Issues of teacher-school district relations are personal for me, as they should be for the roughly 57 percent of Yale undergraduates who are also graduates of public schools.
In these negotiations, it is perfectly understandable for each side to fight for its own interests. Unions seek to ensure job security and higher wages for their members, and school districts try to ensure quality and reasonable costs for their schools to function. However, in both parties’ self-interested jockeying for higher benefits and lower expenses, they neglect to focus on one thing: the success of their students. It’s time that teachers and school districts put aside the bottom line and discuss policies designed to benefit students.
First, teachers should not be exempt from being judged by their performance. While evaluation methods like test scores have their flaws, this shouldn’t excuse teachers from joining the discussion about developing better ones. Given the importance of their jobs due to the direct impact they have on the lives of millions of children and the future workforce of the United States, there is no reason our teachers shouldn’t be subject to the standards to which we hold our public servants.
Second, teachers’ average salaries should be higher, but only if there is a system in place to ensure the quality of their work matches their payment. This argument may not appeal to Chicago’s striking teachers, whose average salary of $75,000 is far above the national average. But in a just society, people who do well should be rewarded. More stringent pay-for-performance parameters would be a step in the right direction. In fact, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed raises for improvement in student performance.
Third, to ensure better quality from the start, the U.S. should make teaching more competitive by increasing the educational requirements to become a teacher. In Finland, for example, all primary school teachers are required to have a master’s degree, and the application process for education school is more rigorous than medical and law schools. According to the 2009 results of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), Finland ranked in second in reading, first in science and first in math, while the United States ranked 15th, 23rd and 31st in those respective fields. While these tests are not perfect indicators of aptitude and immeasurable skills such as innovation, they are the best we have.
It is imperative to get rid of teachers who are not working for their students. However, extensive bureaucratic measures usually make it very difficult to get rid of teachers performing poorly. One study found that while one in 57 doctors loses his or her medical license and one in 97 attorneys is disbarred, only one in 2,500 teachers eventually loses his or her teaching licenses. Unions are in the right for protecting a teacher’s right to teach, but if the teacher is incompetent and not living up to the task he or she is paid to do, then, as in every job, the teacher should be relieved of his or her duties, period.
I am not in the business of demonizing teachers, but if we are to solve a growing education problem in the United States, we must be honest with ourselves and make the necessary changes to benefit our students. It was a lack of focus on students and a lack of compromise that led to the Chicago teachers’ strike; if we are to solve the problems of our educational system, those two things will be sorely needed.
Morkeh Blay-Tofey is a senior in Trumbull College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .