It’s been a tough year to be a teacher, especially a unionized one. Popular opinion holds that unions protect bad teachers at the cost of poor kids’ education. If only we teachers would stop being lazy and complacent, American students would catch up to their peers abroad, graduate from high school and college, and dominate the global marketplace. Fortunately, there’s a panacea for all these problems: charter schools. Unfortunately, the panacea is based on myths.
Myth No. 1: The big problem with U.S. education is the teachers. To assert that this is the foremost problem in education is to ignore the socioeconomic factors that affect our students. Of the five students who failed my senior advanced-placement English class last term, one was pregnant, one had just moved to a shelter, and one is bouncing between foster homes. My students come to school without pencils or paper. They come to school hungry and tired; I keep a vanishing supply of snacks in my locker in the back of the room, but waking a kid who works all night and therefore falls asleep in class produces a cranky teen more often than it does a diligent student.
My students are often not in a mindset to learn. The poor classroom behavior many of them exhibit (talking back to teachers, refusing to do work because it’s “boring,” chatting loudly with peers), and the endless barrage of gang fights in the hallway and trashcan fires in the bathroom attest to that. They miss school constantly—and their truancy is often enabled by parents who want them to stay at home caring for elderly relatives or younger siblings. At my last parent-teacher conferences, only 20 percent of my students’ parents showed up, which was a shame, because I wanted to speak with a lot of them. I’m committed to helping these students, but it’s unreasonable to expect that my efforts can completely circumvent these problems.
Myth No. 2: Charter schools are better than regular public schools. Leaving aside the fact that few of these schools actually outpace their regular public school counterparts, charter schools get to pick more of their “clientele.” They take smaller quotas of English Language Learners or students with disabilities and are largely self-selecting: it’s an involved, savvy parent base that plays the charter school lottery. Someone has to teach the rest of the kids, who have learning or behavioral problems, or who are just learning English, or whose parents are uninvolved. Regular public school teachers work with these kids, yet we are lambasted when they get lower test scores than their charter school peers.
Myth No. 3: Unions stand in the way of all that is good in education because they keep unfit teachers in their jobs (see Myth No. 1). Both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are portrayed as malevolent guilds whose mission is to undermine poor kids’ education in order to thwart the f...
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