Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Neel Kashkari on Education Policy

There are issues with the teacher tenure and seniority systems.  But abolishing tenure and seniority would be an inadequate solution, and would simply pander to the public perception that “bad” teachers are impossible to fire and represent the biggest problem with California schools.  I recently had a conversation with a veteran teacher of over 40 years, who ridiculed the popular notion that teachers are impossible to fire, and argued that school administrators have plenty of tools at their disposal to fire bad teachers or to establish more rigorous means of granting tenure, but simply lack the interest in expending effort doing difficult and necessary things that do take time.
I saw on many occasions first-hand at Foothill High School in Palo Cedro how little effort administrators put into evaluating teachers.  I was routinely in classes where principals and vice-principals sat in to evaluate a teacher, and this inevitably consisted of them sitting at the back of the room playing with their cell phone, never once looking up.  In one class, a disgusted economics teacher actually stopped talking mid-sentence, and gestured contemptuously towards the administrator in the rear of the classroom, who never knew what was going on.  All the tools to protect poor and minority students from bad teachers are in place: administrators are simply too often too lazy to use them.
A tenure- and seniority-less system also opens the door to abuses by the nepotistic, good ol’ boy, and frequently macho culture that I’ve seen and heard about in many administrative offices and school boards, a culture in which people with the right connections and political views are absorbed into the system, and those unfortunate enough to deviate are left out in the cold.  A tenure- and seniority-less system would substitute the arbitrary preference of administrators—often bizarrely tuned out from the real world of the classroom—for merit.
Moreover, in an era in which schools are seeing their resources constantly eroded, support staff drained away, and their rationale questioned by one of our two big political parties, a tenure- and seniority-less system would create financial incentives for school administrators to generate quick turn-over amongst teachers to avoid paying higher salaries and better benefits to veteran teachers.  Such turn-over, needless to say, would not benefit the students who are supposed to be the focus of this conversation. 
Republican gubernatorial GOP candidate Neel Kashkari has come out quietly against such teacher protections in embracing the L.A. judge’s ruling.  Of course Kashkari—the man whose woolly-sounding policy proposals could fit on the kleenex on which he presumably dreamt them up—does not say how he would attract people to a job that only pays nine months a year, does not pay a high salary, does not come close to compensating good teachers for the hours they put in outside of their work-day, and for which Kashkari and much of the public have nothing but contempt.  At least today the job comes with a modicum of security, although assaults on the public sphere like that launched by the Republicans over the past several decades and Jerry Brown during his tenure in office shake even that security.  But absent that security, it would become even more difficult to attract good teaches to schools.
Kashkari promised to be a different kind of Republican.  But his party does not care about the “poor and minority children” the L.A. Judge cited in his decision.  His party has spent the last several decades stripping money from the public schools that serve those children and attempting to create a parallel privatized, voucherized system to serve affluent and/or religious families. 
It didn’t take long in this campaign for Kashkari’s kindly mask to drop, his economic fundamentalism leaping out at any opportunity to slaver through the bars, promising to beat up on the people responsible for educating our children rather than addressing the hamstrung system in which those teachers work and children learn.
Kashkari recently whined, “Just pouring more money into the same old education system does not yield better results”.
But a statement of this nature reveals the extent to which Kashkari is out of touch with reality and with the needs of our school system.  Because it is not the “same old education system” to which older generations hark back ad nausea when they want an excuse to avoid paying their fair share into our public institutions.  California’s 21st century classrooms are not the socially and linguistically homogenous classrooms of yore, representing a society that had made a firm investment in its middle class. 
We live in a demographically-transformed state in which we need to educate a new kind of citizen to labour in a new kind of economy to create a new kind of society.  This requires a different approach to learning, which cannot be of the cheap, rote variety that long dominated our classrooms.  It requires different kinds of technology, which costs money to overhaul and install.  And it requires a different kind of teaching, with better teacher-student ratios, more emphasis on writing and experimentation, and a tremendous focus on critical thinking.  And this kind of teaching and learning requires large numbers of teachers who are well-equipped, well-supported, and well-motivated.

The Darwinian school system which Kashkari envisions, in which teachers are motivated by fear and the crack of the administrator’s whips, and students by a mad scramble not to fall through the growing cracks in their poorly-funded and ill-maintained education system, will not work.  And the Republican candidate’s cheap efforts at populism are as hollow as his party’s commitment to justice and equality. 

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