Betsy DeVos and the culture of not caring


I was watching an interview with Sen John Kennedy (R-LA) on CNN yesterday.  He was talking about the confirmation of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education.  Ms. DeVos’s confirmation is rocky and she is not wowing anyone with either her experience or knowledge of the education system.  What she is banking on however is her success in starting charter schools and donating to politicians.  Anyway, Sen Kennedy was sharing that he was going to vote for Ms. DeVos.  No shock there, but what he said about it caught my ear when he said that “She (Ms. DeVos) believes we should put the kids first. Not the parents and not the teachers as important as our teachers are.”  He then went on to say that he has some credibility because he has worked as a volunteer substitute teacher and so on.

This is an interesting sound bite.  No one can argue that it is important to put kids first.  Every teacher worth their salt will agree with this statement.  But when you say that the teachers are less important than the students, you totally miss how education works.  The learning is important, maybe the most important thing that can happen in a classroom.  That learning however does not happen if the teacher is not there to facilitate it to the student.  No computer or curriculum can ever take the place of the teacher in the classroom.  Period

The teacher is the single most important factor in a child’s success in a classroom.  Classrooms with the most qualified and talented teachers are the ones with the most success academically, have the fewest discipline issues, and lowest student absenteeism.  The highly qualified teacher is a prize that every parent hopes their student receives.  So why move them down the food chain?

img_3127No one should ever say that the needs of the student are not a priority.  But that student’s needs cannot be met without a solid teacher.  To say that the teacher’s needs are no longer the number one concern of a school is disrespectful and wrong.  Teachers are the life blood of every school.  Without them, the learning stops.

Education seems to be the only industry where the employee is considered less important than the product.  Every successful business knows how having valued employees is the key too growth.  Howard Schultz revolutionized the coffee world by treating his employees well and Starbucks was born.  Apple computers, Costco, Amazon, all have adopted employee first attitudes and are growing rapidly.  The new millennial driven workplaces are adopting unique rules and perks (pool tables and nerf gun fights) to attract and keep the best and brightest employees, yet education is being squeezed and the output is suffering.

Low morale costs money

What is the cost of low employee morale?  Well, high turnover for one.  Feeling not supported is the number one reason for teachers leaving the profession.  Not pay, not the kids, but lack of support.  Schools with the highest teacher turnover rate are also the least performing schools.

This is not unique to education.  Companies with lower employee turnover are more profitable and more successful than companies where they are constantly restocking the shelves.  Teacher turnover is also an indicator of stability and success.  Schools where the teacher feels valued and supported are schools with higher scores and grades.  Schools and school systems that don’t value and support their teachers are always hiring.

Ms. DeVos’s support of private and charter schools is one of the reasons she has risen to prominence.  She and her foundation have lobbied for vouchers and expanding the charter school system.  Vouchers (giving parents public money to send their kids to private schools) and the privately run charter system tout a “new way” to better run schools and handle teachers.  Well part of the “new way” consists of paying teachers less money.  The average charter school teacher makes 20% less than the public school teacher.  In addition to that they have fewer job protections, worse benefits, and less support.  It is no wonder that the average charter school replaces 20% of its teachers every year.  School culture is almost non-existent with a revolving door at the front of the class.

This is not meant to bash charter schools.  I have many friends that have had great success in both teaching at and sending their kids to charter schools.  Many of those schools have solid cultures and do great things.  Some that focus on special needs students are a lifesaver to parent s and families and give services that public schools cannot.  But to preach that they are the be all, end all and answer to our public education dilemma is ludicrous.  Teachers at charter schools face many of the same challenges and have the same needs that public school teachers do.  And most importantly, they need to be valued.

I taught a class once

Sen Kennedy’s experience as a part time, volunteer teacher, while admirable, does not give him any insight into the day in day out challenges of the classroom teacher.  Every person in government and business has had both positive and negative encounters with teachers.  The idea that because you have sat in front of a teacher for 12+ years gives you the expertise to make decisions is a tough leap to make.  It should be noted that Ms. DeVos has never gone to nor has she have her own children ever go to a public school.

What we are seeing by appointments like Ms. DeVos and Sen Kennedy’s comments is the idea that we need to start “treating government like a business”.  Well if we are going to adopt that model, then let’s look at the companies that are successful and growing and not the ones that give a cut rate product, and the companies that grow value their employees.  No one wants to not make education about the students, but we do want it known that education happens because of the teachers.

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