Human Events Blog

The noble professions

Reuters offers a snapshot of frayed nerves on the second day of the Chicago teachers’ union strike:

Many parents stayed home from work with their children on the first day of a strike by 29,000 Chicago teachers and support staff Monday. But patience was being tested on Tuesday as the largest U.S. teachers strike since 2006 dragged on.

“We’re kind of winging it, to be honest,” said Eve Ludwig, a parent outside one Chicago elementary school. “The kids stayed with their dad yesterday. Today they’re with me. We’re hopeful this will be resolved this week.”

Chicago school officials said about 18,000 students took part in a half-day of “safe and engaging programming” on Monday at 144 public schools, supervised by principals, volunteers and non-union employees.

Three more schools will be open for half-day care on Tuesday, but will serve only a fraction of 350,000 students affected by the strike. Another 52,000 students at public-funded but non-union charter schools are attending classes as usual.

The unions are fortunate that Chicago parents have displayed this much patience.  We’re talking about a “trade union” whose “product” includes 79 percent of 8th-grade students who lack grade-school proficiency in reading, and 80 percent who don’t have grade-school proficiency in math.  The unions think a 16 percent raise is too small for these efforts, and they’re particularly angry about attempts to assess the performance of teachers with standardized tests.

We are constantly fed two conflicting assertions about teacher performance:

1. Good teachers are a priceless treasure, indispensible to providing America’s youth with a decent chance at success in life.

2. There is no way to efficiently measure the performance of teachers.

So, which is it?  Are the poorest children of Chicago doomed to illiteracy and poverty because of their upbringing, making it unfair to hold their performance against teachers?  Or are teachers such a priceless resource that an average salary of $71,000 per year, plus gold-plated benefits the city can’t afford to sustain, are insufficient reward for their amazing skills?  If good teachers are a treasure beyond price, aren’t bad teachers an equally formidable curse, which we should spare no effort to trim from the system?  Shouldn’t we solicit bids from private contractors to see if they can do better than substandard literacy among a large majority of eight-grade students, for a lower cost?

But of course, we’re not supposed to talk about teachers in such blunt, businesslike terms, or even make a serious effort to distinguish “teachers” from “teachers’ unions.”  Teaching is one of the “noble professions,” infused with an emotional resonance that suspends the normal practices of critical analysis.  The unions very deliberately extend this armor of nobility to cover themselves as well.  If you criticize the unions – or the government agencies that support their power – you must hate teachers, and by extension children.

Most of the noble professions are associated with government service to some degree.  This is partly because we empower government to take care of matters whose importance to society transcends traditional cost/benefit calculation, such as the maintenance of public order, or defense of the nation.  Many of these noble callings are physically demanding and dangerous.  Cops, soldiers, and firefighters come by their nobility the hard way.

We also tend to automatically associate a degree of selflessness with public service.  Sometimes this is very much earned – there are far easier ways to make a living than hunting down Taliban killers on the borders of Afghanistan.  At other times, the presumption of selflessness is exaggerated to the point of suspending reason.  Politicians and career bureaucrats are every bit as capable of avarice as any private-sector businessman, but they’re far less likely to be caricatured as acting out of “greed,” especially when discussed collectively.

Our perspective on the noble professions shouldn’t entirely erase practical considerations, however.  For one thing, paying the salaries for these professionals remains an entirely practical matter, whose challenges are familiar to everyone who has ever struggled to meet a payroll.  In business terms, society will understandably tolerate far greater “losses” to maintain an essential service, particularly when it’s something that must be done… but we cannot tolerate limitless losses.  In the example of Chicago, there is no point in making retirement commitments that become impossible to fulfill, or promising salaries the city cannot afford to pay.

And there must be standards for quality control.  We cannot simultaneously accept enormous expense for education and agree that neither teachers, nor their management, can be held accountable for the results.  We don’t accept such a lack of accountability for other noble professions.  There are, for example, very strict methods for isolating and dismissing bad cops and soldiers.

Teaching is hard and vital work.  Good teachers put in long and difficult hours.  They really do make a huge difference, especially when the school system supports and multiplies their teaching skills.  I have rarely sampled a frustration deeper than speaking with a good teacher trapped in a bad system.  And to be blunt, I’m not sure that even the very best system can elevate bad teachers to the standard of excellence every mother and father desires for their children.

I don’t think the government-run, unionized model of education is working very well… because I really do believe in the immense value of good teachers, and I think there are plenty of them in school districts across the country, including Chicago.  The system, as it currently exists, is working hard to squander their skills, at ever greater expense, and with increasing hostility towards anyone who thinks its methods and results should be subject to rational analysis.

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