Why We Care

by Kelly Amis

Decrepit school Michelle Alexander’s New York Times op-ed “In Prison Reform, Money Trumps Civil Rights” is a powerful and depressing assessment of why more Americans are suddenly waking up to our nation’s status as the world’s most prolific jailor (while the U.S. represents just 5% of the world’s population, we account for 25% of the incarcerated).

Alexander explains that while decades of social justice advocacy made scant progress towards eliminating the policies that land inordinate numbers of especially black and Hispanic U.S. citizens behind bars, today’s economic crisis is rousing unprecedented calls for prison reform. In other words, suddenly maintaining a prison system bursting-at-the-seams with minority inmates is not worth the price tag.

The resulting interest convergence (in which formerly “tough on crime” policymakers are joining forces with social rights activists) may result in positive policy change, but I can’t help wondering if change will last if it’s not grounded in enlightened agreement about what is fair and just…and even “American”?

Regardless, I believe the same phenomenon Alexander describes is happening today in K-12 education reform: attention is finally being paid to long-standing inequities that keep urban, minority students from achieving on par with their peers due to an awakening of perceived economic interest from our nation’s majority, not because social justice arguments are finally gaining ground.

Does the motivation matter? Maybe, ultimately, it doesn’t. That would be great. But as someone who has witnessed first-hand the discrimination in our education system, I have mixed emotions about today’s sudden interest in implementing commonsense reforms—specifically those having to do with teacher quality—since their raison d’etre is neither based on student well-being nor equity.

Research now proves, and commonsense dictates, what every educator already knew: the quality of the teacher in the classroom is the single most important factor in the level of education a student receives. Yet it is nearly impossible in America to fire a teacher no matter how ineffective, or sometimes even abusive to students, he or she may be.

Teachers’ contract rules have become so complex and burdensome that some teachers are actually removed from the classroom but still remain on the payroll—often for years—while districts fight lengthy court battles against union-funded lawyers and numerous appeals processes. The expenditures are huge, including the original teachers’ pay plus benefits, legal costs and administration of each case, and the substitute or replacement teachers taking their places.

Some districts, in rational but surreal decisions, choose to pay lump sums to inept or abusive teachers in exchange for them leaving the district on their own volition. The LA Weekly found, for instance, that over the last decade, the Los Angeles school district spent $3.5m trying to fire seven teachers: four were actually fired—after legal battles of five years on average—while two were paid settlements to leave and one was reinstated. The average cost of each case was $500,000.

How does this relate to race-based inequity? When ineffective teachers can’t be fired, but haven’t done enough to warrant a buy-off or paid leave, they are regularly shuffled to schools where the students and parents have the least ability to do something about it: the schools where the students and parents will instead be blamed by the larger society for their academic failure, i.e. schools serving low-income and minority students.

Meanwhile, the pay structure of the profession—a relatively low salary that slowly but steadily increases through the years and is then rewarded with an enviable retirement and health benefits package (starting at the age of 57-60)—induces individuals to remain in the job even if they are terrible at it and/or miserable in it and/or do not believe the minority students they serve are as capable as others.

This unhappy group negatively impacts not just the students who are assigned to their classrooms, but also their colleagues who must try and compensate for students’ lack of learning and often discipline.

This set-up has been the norm for decades, but the focus of education reform—at least since I started paying attention twenty years ago—seems to have been on everything but bringing accountability and commonsense to the profession of teaching and making it resemble any other job that a college-educated person might enter (with expected rewards for performance and the potential to be fired for incompetence or malfeasance).

Our overall economic state and the need to balance government budgets are now forcing the issue to center stage. Paying teachers who cannot or do not effectively teach when so many other hard-working people are unemployed, when our international competitiveness appears to be diminishing, and when locked-in teacher pension promises are felt to be unsustainable is getting harder to rationalize.

However, we need to remember that today’s teachers signed up for the deal that was offered to them: low but automatically-increasing pay, good benefits and a nice, guaranteed retirement. Most of these teachers are working hard and are committed to students’ learning; they stay in the job despite the low salary and prestige. Blaming and punishing teachers en masse for a perverse system foments unhelpful “pro-” and “anti-” teacher stances and the digging in of heels, and is further distancing us from the day when our system actually distinguishes between effective and ineffective teachers.

As a former teacher, I am appalled at the blame heaped on students of color, and their parents and communities, for not somehow rising above a system almost perfectly designed for their academic failure. Until we remove the inept and abusive teachers from their schools, fairly and intelligently compensate and create what would otherwise be typical performance incentives for the rest, and redesign the profession so it attracts and keeps capable people in the classroom, we have no basis for making any such judgements.

The issue considered by Michelle Alexander—the over-incarceration of low-income, minority citizens—is, of course, inextricably linked to their under-education; the vast majority of the American incarcerated are fully or functionally illiterate. Both of these issues have to do with social justice and equity; hopefully the public’s concern with them will not evaporate when the American majority finds itself flush with revenue again.