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Joel Shatzky

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Educating for Democracy: Mayor Bloomberg's Market Solutions

Posted: 12/06/11 10:48 AM ET

In a recent speech, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg advanced the following solution to the problems of public education. It reveals, once more, how far from "getting it" public officials are in understanding what education is all about. According to the mayor:

"Education is very much, I've always thought, just like the real estate business: there are three things that matter: location, location, location is the old joke. Well in education, it is: quality of teacher, quality of teacher, quality of teacher. And I would -- if I had the ability, which nobody does really, to just design a system and say, 'ex cathedra, this is what we're going to do,' you would cut the number of teachers in half, but you would double the compensation of them, and you would weed out all the bad ones and just have good teachers. And double the class size with a better teacher is a good deal for the students."


If he followed the analogy that education is "just like the real estate business," then the mayor should consider just how successful the industry has been in the past few years: creating false wealth and then sticking the consumer with unmanageable debt. But Bloomberg's error in using a fraudulent system of creating wealth as comparable to teaching goes much further. He assumes that the "quality of a teacher" is quantifiable, just as he assumes that standardized test scores are a measure of quality. But let us follow his line of reasoning further: "Cut the number of teachers in half...[and] you would weed out all the bad ones and just have good teachers." This is truly the logic of the marketplace and the assumption that the "good" teachers and "bad" teachers are easily recognizable in the same way as a car dealer can measure the "good" from the "bad" salesmen by the number of "units" sold. Mr. mayor: children are not units.
There are a few effective ways to attract potentially good teachers into the profession -- and many teachers are "potentially" good when starting out but there is no way of knowing how good they really are until they've been teaching for about five years, which is the average length of service before they leave. What attracts "good" teachers into the profession is as true for me -- a 45-plus-year veteran of college-level teaching -- as it is for a newly graduated grade-school teacher.

1. A degree of classroom autonomy. Even young teachers who welcome guidance don't want to be micro-managed. Bloomberg is a micro-manager of the first order.

2. A need for helpful and positive guidance in teaching practices. Bloomberg's echelon of "new breed" school administrators is wedded to the concept of micro-managing. "Guidance" is often presented in the form of threats to raise test scores or else.

3. The opportunity to use an enriched, multi-faceted curriculum to enable the teacher to reach, inspire and motivate young learners to want to learn. Bloomberg's emphasis on standardized testing and test prep rob not only the students of the desire to learn, but the teachers with the opportunity to teach.

4. A positive attitude and appreciation of the difficult job that teachers have often in environments in which young learners have little motivation to want to learn. The rhetoric of politicians hurled at teachers and teaching has vilified them as lazy and irresponsible and has convinced a significant portion of the public that if only teachers were "good," their children would "learn." This is said without their showing the slightest awareness of the connection between good teachers and good students: good students make it possible to be a good teacher; the most important factor is the students' zip codes.

5. Some sense of job security considering the social and economic conditions in the neighborhood in which the school is located. Poor "location, location, location," Mr. mayor, makes it very difficult if not impossible for teachers to get students to read and calculate "on grade," especially since the standardized tests are not primarily related to good teaching outcomes but test taking.

Although I wouldn't consider Bloomberg in the forefront of "teacher-bashing," his apparent obliviousness to any substantial information that shows him that standardized testing does nothing positive for challenged learners reveals that he has no more concept of education than a motorist who believes that putting gas in the tank will get a car to run that doesn't have an engine.

"Quality teachers" are not easy to develop if they leave teaching after five years; "quality teachers" are not easy to keep in the education system if they are being fired or relocated when their school has "failed" because it didn't have the right zip code; potential "quality teachers" will not be attracted to a profession, no matter what the compensation, if they realize that they are being asked to waste their time and those of their students on a useless and harmful regimen of testing which robs all of them of any of the inherent motivations for learning: the joy of it.

If Mayor Bloomberg were really serious about getting "quality teachers" into the classroom, he would abolish standardized tests, limit charter schools, give more material support to struggling public schools, and, by the way, raise the minimum wage in the city of New York to $20/hour so that children in poor neighborhoods might have a chance to actually want to learn rather than worry about where they are going to sleep at night and when they will be getting another decent meal. You can't have "quality teachers" without a "quality economic and social system." If Bloomberg were to focus on those problems, many of the "quality teachers" he hopes for will suddenly appear.