I tend to agree with the basic premise that blaming all our problems in our school system on teachers and administrators is wrongheaded. And by extension, it is true that attacks on teachers unions based on this blame would be unfounded.
However, I would suggest caution in linking the basic premise above with a defense of teachers unions. Whatever the problems with our schools, it’s clear that we need room for change and experimentation. For example, I’m currently exploring the argument that the problem with our schools is our students; if this is true, then the solution would be more job/trade training, and a move away from the one-size-fits-all track geared toward shuffling all kids off to four-year colleges.
But the right solution is not the issue here. The issue is that where we need dynamism, entrenched interests (like unions) are fundamentally static. This is a big problem. And I wonder if that might even be enough to justify the extreme top-down muscling that Rhee is engaging in — if nothing else, it will unseize some of the gears so we can try other ideas.
Assume for the moment that we decided the solution was something like diluting the traditional model that’s geared toward four-year degrees in favor of a model that employs different kinds of schools. Some schools would be traditional, but some would be more like trade schools. One would expect teachers unions to object to this, since it would mean a smaller pool of students for the traditional model they’re based on, and thus less demand for their services. Objecting is fine as far as it goes, but given the disproportionate power teachers unions have in the decision of what sort of model or mix of models to use, they pose a serious problem.
I’m generally not sure what people are getting at when they suggest that schools diversify toward vocational training rather than just undergraduate prep. First, I vaguely suspect that people making this argument vastly overestimate the number of U.S. schools that actually view themselves as assembly lines for universities, although I suppose the point is that the prevailing educational model and attendant quirks (e.g. the standardized testing regime) are clearly geared toward this purpose, even if a given school isn’t necessarily steering all of its kids to two- or four-year institutions.
But to my point: what kind of vocational education are we talking about? Isn’t it important to first acknowledge that vocational education in many forms would likely require significantly more resources (especially once someone suggests we start training kids to become farmers) than training kids to read novels and fill in Scantron bubbles? Isn’t it also important to note that, merits of the current model aside, vocation-oriented high schools would likely require levels of teacher specialization that many school districts aren’t necessarily populated to handle effectively, much as they already face problems recruiting teachers who can adequately teach trigonometry?
I’m primarily interested in understanding what kinds of vocational education people think U.S. schools should be more oriented toward. My best guess, whatever that’s worth, is that some would like high schools to be something more like associate’s degree programs, which strikes me as impractical.