I remember Mr. Haas fondly. Mr. Haas was my senior-year high school English teacher, a rumpled, bombastic man with square Buddy Holly glasses and a propensity to sweat through his short-sleeved dress shirts when the weather turned warm. But what I remember mostly about Mr. Haas was his passion. He brought alive the dialogue of Shakespeare with theatric prowling up and down the classroom aisles, performed dramatic readings of Milton and Beowulf worthy of a one-man show. He did an amazing cockney accent for Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion. He made English a joy, something tough to do when your audience is a bunch of disaffected 17-year-olds. His lust for the written word helped lay the foundation for the writer I later became.
Then there was Mr. Blum.
Mr. Blum taught algebra. Or at least I think that was the general idea. Now I did not have a strong aptitude for mathematics, which anyone who has seen me trying to figure out my taxes can attest. But I was smart and grade-conscious, the kind of student who took school seriously. I did the homework, I paid attention, I didn’t cut. But every day of my junior year I walked into Mr. Blum’s class for lessons and walked out more befuddled. Mr. Blum looked and acted a lot like Mr. Magoo, the blind-as-a-bat cartoon character who wreaked havoc wherever he went. Like Magoo, Mr. Blum was a congenial, smiley kind of man. Also like Magoo, he was generally clueless. We all muddled through, took our Cs, and moved on.
The point is that Mr. Haas was a brilliant teacher. And that Mr. Blum, bless him, was not. Each of us can look back at our school days and recall the teachers who inspired us, who fought to make sure we left them knowing more than when we first settled into their classrooms. We can each also remember the incompetents, the teachers who, either through lack of ability, fatigue or just general apathy, collected their paychecks and failed to teach us a goddamned thing.
I’ve been thinking about Mr. Haas and Mr. Blum this week in wake of the Neshaminy schoolteachers going on strike. Starting this past Monday, more than 8,000 students are out of class, perhaps for a protracted period, because the teachers there have been working without a contract for several years and say they’ve had enough. And on the surface, it would appear difficult to argue with them. They have a right to collectively bargain, and they say that after a few years of waiting, they’re tired of the district fiddling around.
Except like all teachers’ strikes, this one is disingenuously framed as being “for the kids.” It’s not. It’s for the Mr. Blums of the world, those bumbling, stumbling drones who populate too many of our classrooms and yet whom we, the people who actually pay teachers’ salaries, have absolutely no right to remove. If you work in the private sector and you do a bad job, you’re fired—or, at minimum, put on notice and not given a raise. It doesn’t work that way with teachers. Do a bad job and your union will make sure you’re protected, that you get cost-of-living raises, that you’ll get tenure, deserved or not, and a cushy defined-benefit pension. And, in the case of Neshaminy and many other districts, you won’t have to pay a dime toward your health benefits. Because, well, it doesn’t matter if you can’t teach your way out of a paper bag, or you’re habitually absent or late, or if you treat your students like they’re annoyances you have to endure nine months of the year before your beach vacation. It also doesn’t matter if the district is broke, or enrollment is declining, or the community is being taxed to death. You’re a teacher. The rules the rest of us have to live by don’t apply to you. It’s Animal Farm with erasers: When it comes to the workplace we’re all equal, but some of us are more equal than others.
Teachers say they can’t be evaluated like other employees. Really? Then how come every single person who’s ever been in school can instantly recite the teachers who were amazing, who changed their lives, and the teachers who were the worst, who were listless dial tones? I went to my high school reunion a few months ago and there was a spirited remembrance of both sets of teachers. The most striking thing about the discussion was that there was universal agreement about who had been a good teacher, and who had been terrible. Don’t tell me you can’t evaluate teaching. That’s nothing but hot air from teachers’ unions out to protect their political power base. And they are powerful: Just ask the governor of Wisconsin.
These are troubling times in American education: The U.S. now ranks behind not only Japan, but Korea, New Zealand, Canada, Belgium and Estonia in literacy; it gets worse in other areas. (We rank below Slovenia, Poland, Ireland, and Hungary in science, for example.) The answer is always the same: We need to spend more on education! No, we don’t. We already shell out more than $809 billion a year. That’s more than Japan, Australia, Canada, Germany, France, Russia, Brazil, Finland, Mexico and the United Kingdom combined. How’s that working out for us?
I want to be clear here: The problem is not that the U.S. has no good teachers. We are blessed with many, many amazing ones. And not to get all Santorum-y about it (God forbid), but it’s not their fault that 40 percent of kids are now born out of wedlock or that the majority of children are being raised in single-parent households, two huge contributors to the general decline in student performance (and the rise in general youth insolence and entitlement) over the last few decades. But as long as teachers’ unions fold their collective arms across their chest and take a stance that boils down to, “We’re entitled to work under a different set of rules than you, and you can’t judge us or fire us or evaluate us,” I have no time for their legitimate beefs about absentee or unfit parents. ABC News reported this week that New York, for example, stands to lose tens of millions of dollars in federal “Race to the Top” money for better schools because … can you guess? Yes, the United Federation of Teachers won’t agree to teacher evaluations. Heaven forbid. Is it any wonder that New York City has an entire “rubber room” of disgraced teachers who have been removed from classrooms for abysmal transgressions? They can’t be fired, of course. And yet at every press conference, on every picket line, teachers beat that same smoke-screen drum: We’re doing it for the kids.
No, you’re not. That’s a mighty big glass school you’re teaching in. And we may be coming to a day when taxpayers are ready to throw some stones.