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Shawn Vestal: Teachers ignored in education reform

Wed., Aug. 31, 2011

If you want to “fix schools,” apparently, there’s one group of people you should ignore.

Teachers.

And when, in the course of fixing schools, you ignore this group of people, you should make it clear that you are not really ignoring “the people.”

They’re just teachers.

If you want to fix schools and put students first – well, first after taxpayers and “customers” and federal standards and ideological opponents of unions – what you should do about this group of people is remove them from the equation altogether. Make ’em leave the room while kids learn on computers.

Teachers. If only we could have schools – very cheap, very effective schools – without them.

Idaho is going to show us that we can, apparently. If it wasn’t so deeply sad, it would be somewhat hilarious that the Gem State – which has distinguished itself with a miserly approach to education – is pretending to shine a light on the future of schools. And if teachers line up by the hundreds to tell you they think these are bad ideas, well, you know what to do with their opinions.

Last week, a subcommittee of Idaho’s Board of Education adopted a requirement that students take online courses, after being swamped with opposition to the plan. It’s part of the state’s Students Come First reforms, which include such student-helping provisions as gutting collective bargaining rights for teachers, raiding budgets to buy computers in the name of being forward-thinking, and ensuring that Idaho’s salaries make it the state of last resort for job-hunting teachers.

State Sen. John Goedde, a Coeur d’Alene insurance agent and legislative cheerleader for the law, said he wasn’t persuaded by all the testimony against the mandate for “asynchronous” online classes – that is, classes without a teacher present – because, “I don’t know the makeup of the people that testified.”

“I was there for the Coeur d’Alene testimony, and without exception, every person that testified was either an educator or a former educator,” Goedde said. “And I think that is just consistent with their insistence that education reform is a bad thing.”

Goedde’s attitude is of a piece with the entire Idaho approach – devised by non-educator and top education bureaucrat Tom Luna, shepherded legislatively by insurance agent Goedde and insurance agent Bob Nonini, and championed by former-potato-baron- by-marriage Butch Otter. If there’s one thing all these non-educators know, it’s that you must force teachers to do a good job against their will.

Complaints about extravagant and ineffective school spending are so firmly embedded in the state’s political emissions that they’ve become an article of faith: You can’t create good schools by “throwing money” at them.

But how would Idaho know? If not throwing money at schools was the way to fix them, Idaho’s schools would be all fixed. The state ranked 50th in per-pupil spending in the latest census figures. It’s long been a perennial in the high 40s, along with its ideological neighbors from the Deep South. The state has followed this proud tradition with further cuts in the last two legislative sessions.

Reformers like to talk about making it easier to get rid of bad teachers. But the truth is that Idaho’s current path is a way to make sure good teachers leave for greener pastures. It practically drives them to the border and gives them bus fare to, say, Wyoming, where they can earn a mere $25,000 more green per year.

I called Goedde to ask him if he really considers educators not worth listening to at all. He assured me that wasn’t so.

“I don’t think anyone knows education better than educators,” he said. “I was not trying to discount the testimony of the teachers as much as I was trying to point out that parents did not have enough concern about the online piece to show up and testify.”

Still, he did ignore those teachers, no? He said teachers refuse to adapt to new technology, fight any efforts at reform, want to preserve the status quo.

I asked him why he didn’t think the problem lay in Idaho’s refusal to pay for excellent schools.

“When 40 percent of high school graduates have to take remedial classes before they go to a postsecondary institution, I believe the general public believes they’re not getting their money’s worth out of public education,” he said.

Well, there are problems, for sure. But it’s likely that no state gets more for its money than Idaho, whose students post better-than-average results on a range of student achievement measures, all for worst-in-the-nation support from taxpayers and lawmakers. Might teachers deserve any credit for that? Probably not.

The national game of “Fix the Schools” is fraught with complications, and anyone who pretends to know all the answers is a fool. I certainly don’t, and neither do those who lay all the blame on teachers unions or those who seem not to have paid attention to the research about charter schools. But crafting solutions from a position of proud animosity toward teachers is preposterous.

Goedde said that there are other ways besides money to attract good teachers. One is to elevate their level of public esteem – to help give “them the public perception that they’re more valued, that the community values what they do.”

I agree. We should absolutely give them that perception. As soon as we stop not listening to them.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@ spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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