In the last couple of weeks we have read that American education system is abysmal compared to other countries. But those who compare us to other countries seldom mention how the comparison is being made. What they don’t say is that most other countries separate their students after about the 6th grade into vocational tracks and college prep tracks, and those countries usually test only those students who move into the college prep track.
All of our students of all academic levels are usually compared only to the other countries’ higher academic level students. Those who criticize the American system usually stress how we pay so much more and get so much less. But they don’t tell us how many highly ranked education countries like New Zealand and Finland pay their teachers quite well in comparison to other workers.
Because of the lower rankings, some people want to eliminate recess and electives in elementary schools, and arts and vocational electives in secondary school, putting the whole emphasis on pre-engineering math, science, and English usage, and basing teacher wages and student success primarily on standardized scores. But I also just read about a study which criticized schools for being too uniform in the way they teach all students, not allowing enough individual exploration and motivation, stunting our children’s educational process.
The more I read, the more I am impressed at how well the American public education system has succeeded in so many ways, the way academics have been supplemented with arts and vocational electives to help students find out who they are and what their talents are other than in the STEM classes, to help them be engaged. And the more I read, the more I question the motives of too many of our political leaders. It looks more and more to me that an upper class is simply trying to avoid paying taxes for a system that benefits so many people other than those of the wealthier class.
But my concern about these mixed messages doesn't end with students. In a Deseret News column ("Blame teachers unions for low grades," Dec. 22) the writer blamed teacher unions for resisting streamlining the system by defending and promoting "regulations that ensure older teachers can keep their jobs over more talented younger teachers." His assumption, that talented younger teachers are better for the system than older teachers, is totally unfounded, and begs the true question. He is obviously not concerned about people being prepared for retirement. Teacher tenure is not designed to protect bad teachers; it is designed to protect good experienced teachers from being laid off to make it easier to balance the budget.
Teachers don’t go into the occupation to get rich, but they do want to be able to support their families, and protection from unfair dismissal and the promise of a fair pension help attract and keep good teachers in the system. I know that in some ways unions, not just education, can wield more influence than maybe they should, but they are mostly concerned about the welfare of their workers, and I would bet that more union workers are better prepared for retirement than other workers.
Fred Ash is a retired educator and the legislative chair of the Utah Retired School Employees Association (URSEA).