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Opinion: Farai Chideya: Stop attacking public schools for political gain
Farai Chideya says there is still excellence to be found in public schools, despite the current political rhetoric.
February 20th, 2012
09:31 AM ET

Opinion: Farai Chideya: Stop attacking public schools for political gain

Editor's note:  Farai Chideya is a journalist and the author of four nonfiction and fiction books, and she blogs at Farai.com. She is a spring 2012 fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

By Farai Chideya, Special to CNN

(CNN) – Over President’s Day weekend I traveled from the halls of Harvard to my childhood home in Baltimore, a city far better known for The Wire than its education system. On Saturday night, I heard my mother coach a parent by phone on ways to ensure her child was focused and ready to study. My mother retired as a Baltimore City school teacher several years ago, but she still puts in the time to tutor kids through a program run by a local church. She cared about students then, and she cares now. And, although you would not know it from statements like Rick Santorum's attack decrying the "factories called public schools," dedicated teachers like my mother are not an exception. Not all teachers are great; nor all public schools. But the reason I have been at Harvard, twice - once for my undergraduate education, and now again as a teaching fellow at the Institute of Politics - is based on my parents’ efforts and the excellence that was present in public schools.

That's right - excellence. It's there. A couple of years ago, I had the chance to explain how I benefited from just one of the many extraordinary teachers in my life in a public service ad encouraging people to teach.

Now, to say that excellence is embedded in public schools does not mean every school is excellent. My mother had to push and advocate for me to switch schools between first and second grades, because the neighborhood school I started at just was not up to snuff. (In fact, a few years later, it was shut down.) Not every child is lucky enough to have a parent who is a warrior for their child, who makes sure that in a district of mixed educational outcomes, their kid gets the best education he or she can. There is a vast inequality in education not only between school districts, but within them.

But I've had just about enough of the attacks on the integrity of teachers and public schools. Many of them are fighting heroic battles on behalf of America's children. No one with a lick of sense goes into teaching to get rich. Some people do drift into the profession with a lack of vision, training, or both. Yes, America's classrooms can be unforgiving, both to students and teachers. But within the tapestry of American education, with all of its rips and holes, there are also diamonds woven into the fabric - teachers of imagination, skill, and perseverance against all odds.

My mother stayed in the City schools when she could have made more money in the County. She chose lower-income schools, including one that was walking distance from the house I grew up in, when she had the seniority to go to cushier, more well-funded neighborhoods with more classroom resources. She spent her own money on supplies for her sixth grade science class, and once had to buy a heater because in the dead of winter, her classroom was freezing cold.

Years before my mother became a teacher, she demanded educational excellence from me and my sister. Sometimes I resented the pressure; now I understand how much she had to do to make sure we got the best opportunities we could within a system, a city, and a world that is not fair. Isn't that how kids put it? It's not fair. That may sound childish and petulant, but it is also a simple truth that brings its own grounding if taken as an ethical and spiritual challenge. Life is not fair. Education is not fair. So let's make things better.

We can do better by America's children, schools and teachers. The first step is not to put up with any nonsense about the value of public education. Public education is the mark of a civilized society and the foundation of a meritocracy. To the extent that America is meritocratic rather than oligarchic, and offers social mobility rather than stagnation, we must provide the opportunity for a free and excellent education to as many students as possible.

Attacks like Santorum's mask the fact that federal money is a mere 11 percent of the budget of schools. The fact that local property taxes are the base of school funding is part, though not all, of the recipe that results in educational inequality. And this particular attack by this particular Presidential candidate seems to make less sense as he explains it more. This Sunday on CBS' Face the Nation, Santorum warned against a "one-size-fits-all education... and that’s what President Obama is trying to do." Wasn't it President George W. Bush who championed and signed the most sweeping federal education law of late, No Child Left Behind? In 2005, former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch said we should thank President Bush for his actions. She now says the law "has turned into a timetable for the destruction of American public education." Ravitch also harshly criticizes President Obama's Race to the Top program, which includes The Common Core State Standards, an initiative to set national benchmarks for students’ academic proficiency.

I am not an expert who can provide a roadmap to solving the country's education problems. But I am a witness to and beneficiary of the power of great teaching, and the strengths of public education. Shouldn't we reinforce those strengths rather than tearing at their foundations? The life of our nation may depend on it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Farai Chideya.

soundoff (31 Responses)
  1. rebiii

    My wife and I were both teachers in Massachusetts, unionized. Now my wife is a teacher in Florida, non-unionized.

    The quality of the schools seemed better to me in Massachusetts. Morale of teachers here is low, at least that's what I hear. Teaching is a tough job, made worse when administrators can take advantage of you when there are no unions.

    In Massachusetts, with the "cushy" teacher's unions, my understanding was that 50% of teachers left the job within their first three years. I was one of them.

    I think there needs to be some discussion of what exactly you propose to do if you eliminate teachers' unions. I don't remember a rush of qualified people lining up for teaching jobs. If you don't like what you have now, you are going to get a level beneath that if you reduce pay and benefits, and make working conditions worse.

    As an aside, my first thought when I hear people carping about teachers' unions, is that the carpers were poor students or had difficulties in some way in school, and are still fighting vicarious battles with teachers years later. Time to get over it.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:12 pm | Report abuse |
  2. enkephalin07

    Santorum does have a point, but it completely neglects the problems inherent in the system that lead to them becoming education factories. As heroic as a teacher may be, fighting on so many fronts with dwindling support tends to grind down spirit and replace it with cynicism. I've been through many high schools from coast to coast and overseas - the best American school was pretty much funded by the affluent parents investing in their children's success, and that still wasn't as good as the Department of Defense schools. DoD schools are better funded, have higher standards, better paid teachers with comfortable benefits, more intelligent and motivated teachers and students. You might attribute that to children from military families being better disciplined students, but I haven't found that to be more the case than students from civilian homes. Education funding is key, equipping teachers for success makes more successful students. You may take pride in struggling to teach, but think about how much more effective you'd be if you weren't taking on burdens that other professions wouldn't find reasonable.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:40 am | Report abuse |
  3. James

    Any article on public education in the U.S. would have to take account of the pernicious influence of the unions, pension excesses among other expensive benefits into account. This article is silent on those points, and frankly sounds like one more of many propaganda pieces on behalf of the teacher's unions.
    Ms. Farai dismisses the idea that anyone going into teaching for the money as ridiculous, but as with most propagandists, cites no data to support that view. In NJ, it's common knowledge that private schools do a better job educating students, but that teachers in private schools make much less than those in public schools, due to the power of the public education unions. A public school principal told me that each open teaching job in NJ will instantly have 200 candidates chasing the job, many of them well qualified people with experience teaching in private schools.
    Farai ignores the pension issue, even as pension costs are crippling state budgets around the country, in some cases paying people more in retirement than they earned while working. The pensions have had the ironic effect of reducing funds available for active duty teachers, thereby increasing class sizes and likely reducing the already poor quality of the crony-filled public education system.
    I had a mix of great, fair, and poor teachers growing up but was able to learn with any of them by applying myself. Putting all of the onus on teachers takes all pressure off the student himself/herself and off the parents, and is frankly a cop-out. It's also a great way to promote the idea that directing still more taxpayer money to already overpaid teachers is the solution to a problem that the overpaid teachers helped create. Steven Greenhut has written extensively on this issue, and unlike Farai backs up his statements with hard numbers, not just empty, self-serving rhetoric.
    Equating "supporting education" with paying teachers more has led to the disastrous teacher-centered system we have today, and to the predictable result that teachers do well (retirement at 55 with millions of $ in pension and retiree health benefits) even as many students struggle. If Ms. Farai ever learns to work with numbers instead of merely with adjectives and adverbs, she and the public will be better off for it.

    February 25, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jennifer G

      I call bull poop sir! My mother just retired from teaching in Northern California....her pension is $1900 a month and she pays $600 a month for her medical insurance...millions my backside.

      February 25, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Report abuse |
      • James

        Not bull poop at all. I can recite details of just one of many people retiring in NJ. A teacher I know retired at 55 with an in flation index pension of $50K a year (about 10 years ago; new retirees are getting more than that now). The cost of an immediate annuity with an inflation rider that pays $50K a year would be about is $ 1.55 million (using cost quotations on the web site of Elm Annuities, offered through the Principal financial group). That's just the pension. She also has retiree health benefits (which are rare in private industry) that paid for essentially all of her and her husband's health insurance for 10 years between the ages of 55 and 65. After that, her retiree health insurance plugs the "gaps" in Medicare that the rest of us pay for by ourselves. The 10-year pre-Medicare coverage period, coupled with the Medicare gap period (likely ages 65 to about 85 or so using average life expectancy at that age) is likely worth $200K to #00K on top of the pension. This comes very close to about $ 2 million total, on top of all of the compensation she received during her career. Moreover, 55 years of age is about the latest most state employees in NJ retire at. Many retire younger, with some taking second jobs in their govt sector, and thereafter receiving multiple pensions.
        From what I read from Steven Greenhut (he has a book called Plunder about Cali's govt worker abuses), California's abuses surpass those of NJ and NY which is no mean feat, given the corruption in NJ.
        $24K a year may not sound like much to you. But, the present lump sum value needed to purchase an annuity (i.e. a private insurance company "pension" of sorts) that would yield that is about $700K. That's $700K more than most of the private sector taxpayers who are paying for that pension are going to receive, since most will have to subsist on their 401K funds and social security.
        What exactly are you saying is incorrect about my numbers?

        February 25, 2012 at 6:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • franklinluvsu

      Both of my parents are teachers and they barely make enough money for us to get by each month. Most teachers unions only have the power to negotiate on health care benefits, not pay, not pensions, benefits. My mom has made less money each year she's been teaching due to the state cutting her pay. On top of that the health care companies are raising the rates at which they charge teachers. They get to school at 7 am or earlier and often my Dad gets home at 7 pm. Plus they work on weekends and even when they get home they go over papers. But paying them more for their long hard work in proverty stricken areas is not the answer huh? Yeah right.

      February 27, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Delores

      Each state and the districts within those states is different. Most public school teachers do not retire at age 55. Our district now has the rule of 90 (30 years service +age=90) in order to get full pension which is calculated to be 75 to 85 % of the average of last 5 years salary. School administrators' retirement packages are much more lucrative than those for teachers which may be the reason many gifted teachers leave the classroom. Most teacher retirees are allowed to keep health care group rates no more than 3 -5 years after which they must assume those enormous costs on fixed incomes. Most of my fellow retired teachers continue to work at various jobs into their 70's in order to pay long term health care premiums, mortgage and maintenance payments to keep their homes, help out un or under employed adult children, and maybe take a long wished for vacation for a short period of time. These are the numbers I know about.

      February 29, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Carlos

    One thing our American culture is good at is blaming others for our own shortclmings. Kids don't learn, they blame the teacher. Parents don't parent, they blame the schools. Politicians don't lead, they blame everybody. Teachers find themselves in a bureaucracy that won't let them teach. Why? It all comes down to money. High failure rates mean a reduction in funds. Yet many kids do need to be held back because they are not ready. As a result, many great teachers quit the field because they are not allowed to do what is right for the child. Find me a parent who doesn't think their child is perfect and you found a good parent. These are the parents that push their kids to overcome obstacles, something most of our kids can't do. We have gone soft on our children as a society. As a teacher, I have met many parents where the child is in charge and not the parent. Many parent suffer at the hands of their children because movies glorify the biggest jerks and thugs. We show them that it is cooler to take short cuts rather than work hard for your money. So who is to blame? We all are.

    February 20, 2012 at 11:12 pm | Report abuse |
  5. chris

    If you want to get the politics out of schools you have to get the union out. Know one does not support teachers. But when we look at the public school SYSTEM and try to say we can do better the union covers it's faults with, "you don't care about kids and teachers" We've heard it so many times that public schools asking for maney is as common as a sale at a used car lot. As far as politics go, teachers will lean the way the union leans and as parents we know that means in classroom bias over a good education. You can preach as long as you want but it's a union dominated by one political party and teachers working under the system the union set-up. You (Union) created the politics in th efirst place in our school system. Get rid of th eunion and let the teachers run it. If not..then get use to the attacks.

    February 20, 2012 at 10:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jennifer G

      So when the parents decide to pay "lawsuit lotto" who protects the teachers? I can honestly say the only benefit many teachers feel they truly get from the union is the lawyer and the liability insurance.

      February 25, 2012 at 6:24 pm | Report abuse |
  6. volitionx

    The problem with our schools is NOT lack of funding, and it never has been. Remember the days of the one-room schoolhouse on the prairie? Kids can learn pretty much ANYWHERE there's a good teacher, structure, and DISCIPLINE. Throwing more money at the problem won't help at all; the U.S. spends more money per student than any other country on earth other than Switzerland and our students are IGNORANT. The old-school way was the RIGHT WAY.

    February 20, 2012 at 9:50 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Jordan

    It is different everywhere. We need to stop putting all public schools in the same category and focus on the schools that are struggling. I think if you looked at most of the schools throughout the country you will find professional and knowledgable teachers who really care. The main problems are inner city schools where good teachers don't want to live and work when they can get jobs elsewhere. This is why you find the worst teachers here. In order to fix the schools we need to fix the neighborhoods themselves.

    February 20, 2012 at 8:23 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Todd

    I, too, am tired of elected officials bashing public education. In the majority of schools, kids get a solid education. From President Obama to the majority of republic governors, bashing for public schools needs to stop.

    Our economy did not crash because of public education, but our economy can (and will) be rebuilt by a workforce educated in our public schools.

    February 20, 2012 at 8:18 pm | Report abuse |
  9. reader10

    Own experience with my own kids.Chicago public school STINKS.A complete joke.Teacher that don't speak English well.

    February 20, 2012 at 6:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • volitionx

      You don't speak well either, so there you go; our kids are trapped between lame teachers and lame parents.

      February 20, 2012 at 9:47 pm | Report abuse |
  10. drunkenjesus

    you had the luxury of a parent that recognized your public schools faults and had the money to put you in another districts school, most public educatees dont have that, sure their are some great public teachers but to project that most of them are is a flawed assumption especially since teachers can only be fired if they commit a felony which is ridiculous, teachers need to be held accountable like every other profession, parents should have the option of taking their tax money from a bad school and using it to send their kids to another public or private school, and those like mr santorum who work(ed) for the goverment should be required to send their children to government funded public schools in the districts they're supposedly representing

    February 20, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Naomi

    Bravo! It's about time that a young person stepped up to the plate and fought for "core" fundamentals. I am a 40 something female who has watched our young people get lazier and lazier as the days/months/years go by. I raised my children to be hard working adults who are doing right by themselves, their family, and their communities. For a person my age it is scary to see what our future holds. It is because of people like Farai Chideya that restores my faith that maybe our future has a chance.
    We need to teach our children that if they want something bad enough, hard work and preservance are what is needed to succeed...not a free ride.

    February 20, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Indeeds

      Naomi,
      The truth of the matter is that public schools aren't terrible. They are adequate in and of themselves. The major factor in achievements and goals by a wide margin is parents. I was a product of the public education system and went to a university where most of my classmates were privately educated. I found no substantial gap in our respective educations. I was also educated under NCLB for a brief period of time. My parents wanted me to learn, set goals, taught respect, instilled values and set boundaries. My siblings, all older, were also publicly educated and acheived quite well with similar (arguably better) results. Our school district was anything but exemplary. Parents decide whether a child will do well or not.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Report abuse |
  12. hippioflov

    One thing that really catches my attention – the author's mother valued education and expected excellence. As a teacher, I wish all parents felt this way; half my battle would be done. Countless times I've had parents tell me that their child doesn't have time or isn't all that interested or that he/she's bored. Many of my students leave early to get a start on the weekend. This week we have a 3 day winter break. At least 5 of my students have let me know that they won't be in school for just those 2 days. As for discipline, there's always an excuse or it is because so-and-so made me mad. But as I teacher I live for the moments when a student says, "I love reading now," or "I made a 100 all by myself," or "I know I have improved'. Just when I'm at my lowest, those moments happen and keep me going.

    February 20, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Richp

    The schools are being attacked because your UNION bosses are getting politically involved and not stopping or protesting the unfunded mandates from the DOE clowns in DC. Let teachers get back to teaching knowledge not tests. Reign in the superintendents, principals and vice principles salaries, pulling down 6 figures for being a bureaucrat is disgusting and that includes the clowns in both houses in DC..

    February 20, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Slurry

    One of the big problems we have here is a tradition of pass-the-buck. School systems try to do what politicians do, they stand up and say "hey, don't worry, we know what's best for your kid." The parents, mostly having neither the time or money to do anything else for their kids accept this, choosing to put just enough faith in the public school to send their kid, but also latching on to the comforting knowledge that no matter what their kid does or doesn't learn it's not their fault, it's the schools. Oh those rotten public schools. I've been a private tutor for a few years now and I can't count how many times I've heard that from the parent or grandparent or aunt, whoever is paying for the session. "He's really smart, but his teacher can't give him the special attention he needs." or "His teacher can't get him to focus, because he's got ADD." It's always the school, the teacher, the system, anything but the kid's home life that they blame. I've only had one lady admit to me that her kid was having reading problems because their home life was a disaster and his mother had no time for him. It's just too easy for tired, frustrated parents to throw their hands in the air and say "Not It!"

    February 20, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Herman

    You speak from your experience, mine was somewhat different and I have little faith in the public educational system and feel it is misguided and out of control and self righteous. That is the experience with which I walked away from school. Yes, I have one teacher and one professor I greatly admire and they changed my life but I have had more than one hundred educators in that time. I have met people in the world not tasked with educating who have given me much more in far greater numbers. Let's not create an aura of something that just is not there because of a very few who live up to the hype. These few would do the same whether in a classroom or on the street.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
  16. barb

    Here in Denver, I feel our public schools are being used as a laboratory by a superintendent who does not even send his own children to them. I am betting he will fiddel around with them until he gets tired of it and moves on. I also feel that is way too much emphasis on standardized testing, at the expense of learning.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
  17. Hypatia

    But it makes the thugs and bags feel SO good if they can keep American children from being educated.

    February 20, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Herman

      Was that a public education opinion. I think you just proved the counterpoint to this article. :)

      February 20, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
  18. Atheist Sean

    >But I've had just about enough of the attacks on the integrity of teachers and public schools

    It’s been just over ten years since I attended public school. The majority of my teachers could care less if you learned anything. Giving only minimal effort by simply assigning this chapter or that and then sitting at their desk reading romance novels the entire period. I highly doubt their ability and dedication as IMPROVED since then. However I also believe that parents need to be more involved in their child’s education. (clearly as their teachers are not cutting it). One side blames the other and nothing gets done. As an ‘outsider’ (adult without children) I like to think I have a more objective view. You BOTH need to step up.

    February 20, 2012 at 11:59 am | Report abuse |
    • MrsTeacher

      I'm a teacher. At my school, we are not supposed to sit down during the school day, and I don't. It sounds like you had lazy teachers and poor administrators.

      February 25, 2012 at 10:35 pm | Report abuse |
  19. JuannaFalanna

    Correction:
    I suspect the backwards administration and the focus on "passing" students who IMO don't belong in school may prevent their ability to teach effectively...

    February 20, 2012 at 11:39 am | Report abuse |
  20. JuannaFalanna

    Hi Ferai! Welcome back! I am a fan of your NPR program and I missed ya! I am also an immigrant who attended public schools, and I agree w/ some of the statements you made. I unfortunately ran into two teachers who were not qualified to teach their subjects.

    I think yearly or two-year testing for competence in the subject areas a teacher instructs in would be great for the respect of the profession in general.

    I taught as a volunteer and I think there's a mistaken focus on the "dropout" rate. What's sadder is the students who are allowed to graduate without getting a decent education.

    I think disruptive students or those w/ problems should be encouraged to pursue other options other than academics and the results for students who DO graduate would be better.

    That's my opinion as a taxpayer. I do see a lot of NEW blood in Baltimore, teachers who are competent and motivated, but I hope the backwards administration and the focus on "passing" students who IMO don't belong in school may prevent their ability to teach effectively.

    At any rate WELCOME back gyal!! :) Wishing you a wonderful 2012.

    February 20, 2012 at 11:37 am | Report abuse |
  21. spent

    When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

    February 20, 2012 at 10:43 am | Report abuse |
    • Herman

      Exactly and kids are more ready doing something other than seeping at their desks. That is why coaches have a larger impact on students than teachers. No student is ever ready to be force fed answers.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |