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Remembering Teachers the Way We Want

I'm used to hearing nothing but bad things about public-school teachers in this country. But even I was taken aback by the conclusion that Joseph Epstein drew in a recent essay ("That's a Nickel," The Weekly Standard, Jan. 19).  In a discussion at the National Endowment for the Humanities about the importance of their secondary education, one woman from Germany sang the praises of the gymnasium she attended, while the other, an American, did the same about the time she spent at the lycée in France.  In contrast, Epstein, who attended a public high school in Chicago, remembered only how terrible his teachers were. The reason was quite apparent: "They represented the rich fruits of tenure in a public-school system." 

I'm not an apologist for bad teachers, whether in public, private or religious schools.  They have no place in the classroom because they deprive their students of the education they deserve.  But like so many other critics, Epstein provides only one side of the story.  Let me explain.

First, since Epstein relies on anecdotal evidence, I'll begin with my own.  There are outstanding public-school teachers in this country.   I attended a public high school in suburban N.Y. in the 1950s and received a first-rate education.  In fact, I learned far more Spanish there than I did at the University of Pennsylvania.  I'm completely bilingual, as a result.  How come?

Second, tenure has very little to do with poor instruction, despite Epstein's assertion.  All the teachers I had possessed tenure.  In fact, the empirical evidence is clear on this point: The states with the strongest tenure laws and strongest teachers' unions post the highest scores on NAEP ( e.g. Massachusetts and Minnesota). Conversely, the states with the weakest tenure laws and weakest teachers' unions post the lowest scores on NAEP (e.g. Arkansas and Mississippi). Epstein omits these inconvenient facts.  The teachers in Germany and France that he cites as paradigms also have strong tenure laws. The benefits of teachers' unions to the public are ignored as well by too many authors  ("Public Unions vs. the Public," The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 16).  

Finally, generalizing about all public-school teachers is as unconvincing as generalizing about all private-school or religious-school teachers. I had classmates at Penn who graduated from prestigious New England prep schools and from renowned religious schools who ranged in ability as dramatically as those from public schools.  Epstein must have learned far more from his public-school teachers in Chicago than he admits or he wouldn't be writing for The Weekly Standard. 

I'm perfectly willing to engage in a debate with anyone about the shortcomings of public education in this country, including the ineffectiveness of teachers.  But I think it's only fair to enter the debate with an open mind.  

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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