Make My Day, Sweathogs!

Local blogger, Duane Graham, “The Erstwhile Conservative”, recently posted on government involvement in education, raising interesting points that deserve a public conversation.

One Room School

Image by W9NED via Flickr

While I do not believe that unionization is good for the education profession, teachers have my full sympathy.  I don’t blame any individual teacher for wanting to belong to a union.  I would too.  A union enables things like tenure and benefits to make up for salaries that are low relative to their education level.  But the result has been a failure.

Part of the problem is that permissive American culture and lock-step, boring curricula have created crop after crop of pampered, undisciplined “Sweathogs”No way would I want to be in their teachers’ shoes.  This description has been confirmed in the general press and by

the e-mails and posts of Anson Burlingame, another Joplin blogger and former nuclear-submarine Captain, who tried to enforce discipline as a teacher in the R-VIII system and was effectively fired for his trouble.

Education in America is a conundrum.  I do not believe that federal or state government should be involved in education, except for providing the bricks, mortar and nutrition.  In a free country the intellectual content of schools should be free-ranging.  Bureaucratic involvement with the information content leads to sanitizing information of all controversy and homogenizing the remainder.  But to surrender information content to “local control” seems tantamount to religious control, and that potentially disenfranchises all those outside the religion in charge.

I would like to see us try an education system with these elements:

  • Hire good teachers at a high salary, subject to a probationary period of several years during which they can be fired without stated cause by the School Superintendent, who is held responsible for the quality of teaching.
  • Base teaching quality only on annual ACT-style tests from independent companies and college or trade-school acceptance data.
  • Forbid tenure for teachers, but provide excellent 401k-style contributions by the District.
  • Restrict government involvement to brick, mortar and nutrition.
  • Encourage individual initiative by teachers, including complete freedom to build the curriculum and choose textbooks for each class.
    Dirty Harry: The War Against Drugs

    Image via Wikipedia

  • Make grades mean something again.  Shunt failing students to alternate curricula appropriate to their talents and interests, such as technical classes, when they don’t make the grade in the college prep classes.
  • Eliminate lock-step curricula.  Allow students to progress at their own rate, year to year.  Skip grades or repeat as necessary.
  • Recognize that every kid is not college material, but provide routes to re-entry to advanced curricula if motivation improves.
  • Embrace tough love.  Require parents to recognize in writing the school’s authority to exercise discipline over their child.

Government education is a failure and so, through no fault of the teachers collectively, are teachers’ unions,.  I am willing to pay for an experiment like the one described.  Go ahead, raise my property tax.  Bring it on.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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13 Responses to Make My Day, Sweathogs!

  1. jwhester says:

    I’m curious to know by what data you have concluded that government education is a failure.


  2. ansonburlingame says:

    To all,

    Most importantly read the BELL CURVE a long book filled with statistical examples of things done well and poorly in public education since the 1960’s. It is not an easy read but if one in interested in public education it is a must read, in my view.

    Forget reading the recommendations at the end of the book until you have thoroughly absorbed and understand the analysis within the main body of the book. Try coming up with your own solutions rather than reading those of the authors first.

    I have yet to comment on Duane’s blog but will shortly.

    For your above list Jim, I would suggest one major change. The Superintendent of Schools should be responsible ultimately to the BOE for, JUST THAT, the quality of education and nothing more. Don’t go to the Supt. if lunches are not nutrious or buildings not well maintained or there is a perceived need for more buildings.

    Give the Supt the appropriate budget, complete control (including hiring and firing of teachers), technology purchases, classroom materials, etc ALL devoted to providing the best education possible of children at all levels from disabled, real hoodlums, average, hard working kids and the really gifted.

    Forget graduation rates and focus on the quality of the output of each group above based on rigorous testing of some sort by disinterested third parties. ACT or SAT tests would be a good place to start. I also have no concern about MAPS tests as they now are constructed as well. They seem to be pretty thorough tests showing academic knowledge from abysmal to exceptional at the individual level and in the aggregate.

    No curve grades. Make students achieve to set standards, predefined by again outside third party folks. Trade schools standards should be set by trade level professionals including unions. College prep standards set by college educators, average standards by business leaders hiring at the high school graduate (but not college graduate) level.

    A Supt and his/her staff should NEVER become involved with setting the standards but should be involved exclusively to meet them.

    Focus educators on education, not all the politically correct stuff that only frustrates them and holds them back.

    As for unions, let teachers join such to their hearts content and let the BOE become the negotiators from the management side. Keep educators out of union negotiations. And NEVER allow union contracts to dictate the hiring and firing of teachers beyond any laws applicable to all workers in any industry. That will take care of discrimination, sexual harrasement, etc standards and will be between the BOE and the accused teacher(s), not the Supt unless he himself is accused of violation of applicable laws, not union contracts.

    And the real beauty of such an approach is that the public can vote of improving education separately from voting on new buildings, higher salaries for teachers, etc.

    Right now voters have to “glean” from ballot sheets, just what the hell they are really going to pay for with property tax increases. Such ballots should make it very clear where the money will go, to education itself or supporting things like nutrition, poverty focused special programs, etc.

    Again, separate the Supt and all of his administrative staff from anything other than what and how kids in school are learning. Let the politicians on the BOE deal with the politics surrounding education and be accountable to voters for same with no way to “blame the Supt.”



  3. Jim,

    I have to call you on what I see is a glaring non sequitur here.

    You say the result of unionizing teachers is a “failure,” but then you say, “part of the problem is permissive American culture, boring curricula, pampered, undisciplined Sweathogs.”

    Neither teachers nor their unions have any control over those things, if, indeed, they are the problem.

    You acknowledge the “local control = religious school” issue, yet offer nothing that I can see that would prevent such an outcome. Either we turn schools over to religious indoctrinators or we don’t. Your plan, while thoughtful, would seem to allow the religious zealots to control “public” education. I find that unacceptable.

    With the exception of your anti-tenure point, I don’t see much in your list of changes that most teachers would oppose. As you know, I don’t agree with your position on tenure, as even excellent systems around the country and the world have tenured teachers. Tenure isn’t the problem, in my view.

    You and Anson keep stating that government education is a failure, as if the entire system should be junked. But the problem is not the government involvement, Jim; it is the fact that it is the students themselves, or, really, the parents of the students, that are the problem, as you suggested above.

    Good schools have good students who have good parents.

    I just attended a workshop on poverty and its relationship to learning. The truth about our schools is that teachers are trying to educate a lot of kids who are not prepared to receive an education. These kids don’t speak the “language” of the middle class, which, I learned, is the language of education in America.

    Their parents don’t value learning, don’t prepare their kids to value it, or, even if they do value it, don’t know how to prepare them for success. And guess what? Teachers are suppose to single-handedly educate these kinds of kids, often when there are 35 or more of them in a classroom. Under these circumstances, you and me and Obama can test them all day and they will not meet our expectations.

    It’s not teachers, it’s not their unions (although there are some problems with rules that can be easily corrected, and unions have shown willingness to correct them), and it’s not that we’re not doing enough testing.

    Part of the problem that Anson often describes in the classroom is directly attributable to what I am describing: a lack of discipline stems from a lack of appreciation for the education experience, mostly among poor families. The question is, what causes this and what can we do about it?

    I know folks are tired of hearing about the plight of the poor and disadvantaged, but until we address the challenges that the poor face in our culture—working low-wage jobs, working multiple jobs, single-parent families, teenage pregnancy, lack of affordable child care, lack of English language skills—not much is going to change. When I say that it is a parent problem, really, it is a grandparent problem. A great-grandparent problem. A trans-generational problem.

    You can destroy teachers’ unions, pay teachers a gazillion dollars in private schools, kill tenure, conduct ACT testing, allow teachers to create their own curriculum and choose their own textbooks, and move around “failing students” or allow them to “progress at their own rate,” but you will not solve the problem of the underclass’ failure to value education or to prepare their kids to succeed in school, even if they do value it.

    I learned last week this stunning claim: That the children of the poor (welfare families), aged 1-4, here around 13 million words at home. The working class kids the same ages hear around 26 million words. Guess what? The professional class kids the same ages hear around 45 million words! Not only this, but researchers have found that low-income parent (s) have fewer two-way talks with their kids, or read to them or introduce them to books and reading, than middle and upper-income parents.

    But someone will still have to try and often fail to educate those lower-income kids, Jim. They won’t fare any better in your independent school system than they do now, without recognizing that they will require individual attention, mentoring even, to help them see the value of what we are trying to give them.

    I submit to you that rather than paying individual teachers more money, eliminating tenure and teachers’ unions, that we cut their class sizes in some poorer school districts in half or more. Give teachers no more than ten students to teach, to mentor, to convince that education is worth the effort. In order to fix the general problem with American schools—despite your claims of utter “failure,” there are many, many places where education is good—we must recognize that the major reason schools fail has little to do with the schools themselves or the teachers and their unions.

    It has to do with the raw material they are trying to mold into an educated citizenry.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Duane, your comments are thoughtful as always, but, respectfully, I think you are letting your union sympathies overcome the facts in this case. Here is a 2006 ABC News article that pretty well summarizes what I think the problem is. It is dense with real information.

      As I said in the post, I don’t blame teachers, meaning I don’t fault their intent. I do blame the union-supported teaching system for not culling the less-talented, and tenure is a big aspect of that.

      An analogous case is the officer corps of the U.S. military. Before WWII, a form of tenure was entrenched in the military officer promotion system, resulting in timid and ineffective leadership. The war forced culling and thereafter George Marshall and others instituted the “up or out” system we have now. Officers not promoted are forced out and retirement is not an option for those who fail to make pay grade O-4. Those who fail to advance beyond O-4 are forced into retirement after 20 years. That promotion system, built on competition, is an unqualified success. But with extremely-few exceptions, teachers of poor talent remain in the system until retirement.

      I addressed the religious aspect in my post – I believe religious influence can be largely eliminated by structure and management of the programs.

      If we had ideal parents, a chunk of the problem would disappear, but that simply isn’t going to happen. The trend in parenting quality is downward. Curing “poverty”, with its ever-changing definition, would have little effect on the behavior or ethos of present-day parents and although that’s a worthy (long-term) goal in itself, there’s no sign it will happen.. You could “give” every poor parent in America an extra $20,000 a year and I doubt their kids would hear an extra 1,000 words for it.

      Paring classroom size would probably help, but I don’t think it’s a panacea and there is some evidence that good teaching is more important. Think Hans Rosling. Think the charter school experiment in NY that I previously posted on. That school Supe was convinced that good teaching talent far outweighs class size.

      Access to information has improved enormously (internet) while the quality of education has diminished. The deficiency is in curriculum design, motivation and student interest. I believe a Hans Rosling and his ilk can fix that, if they are freed of political pressures and parental bias. Pay them an excellent salary and they’ll work their butts off. If they can’t cut it, we are doomed as a society. And if we don’t let them try, we are doomed before we start. Unless John Stossel is lying.


  4. Jim,

    I promise this will likely be my last post on this subject, as it is obvious we have reached an impasse.

    Perhaps you’re right about my sympathies for unions, but I don’t think so. I don’t have any stake in teachers’ unions’ success, only an understanding that they are not the culprits they are made out to be. Like any large entity, they have their problems, but they are not the root of the problem.

    As for John Stossel’s forays into education stories, I think I have seen them all, including the one you cite. I used to be a huge fan of Stossel, when I was a conservative. He has an ideological agenda, in case you didn’t know, even though he wasn’t open about it back when he was with 20/20. But I knew it and that’s why I liked him.

    Jim, if you read the opening of that story, it has a few weasel-like tricks. It makes grand claims, like “Stupid in America,” seemingly indicting the entire system. But the data is limited. No cameras in New York City schools—why is the focus always on big-city schools?—and limited access in D.C. schools. There are thousands of school districts. He wrote:

    We wanted to tape typical classrooms but were turned down in state after state.

    Okay. Explain how one can indict the entire education system when most of it is off-limits to him? He cites the 76% of parents who think their schools are okay, and then dismisses it with one education “reformer” (read: anti-liberal) who offers no evidence, only a generality. Then there’s this paragraph:

    Chavous and many other education professionals say Americans don’t know that their public schools, on the whole, just aren’t that good. Because without competition, parents don’t know what their kids might have had.

    “Competition.” That’s the ideological component here, Jim. That’s a little like saying that Americans think NASA is a fine space program, but “without competition” they just don’t know what kind of space program we could have had.
    Here’s another problem with the piece:

    National graduation rates and achievement scores are flat, while spending on education has increased more than 100 percent since 1971. More money hasn’t helped American kids.

    You know that doesn’t prove anything like what he is trying to use it to prove. What if, given certain parameters, that it required a 100% increase in spending just to maintain the status quo? That money certainly could be said to “help” the kids, if not spending it meant decline. It’s a crappy analysis.
    If you actually do a little research on Stossel’s featured “success” stories, like, for instance, the Ben Chavis charter school in Oakland, you will find problems. There are several articles on the ‘Net, but just check out Wikipedia. It’s just not so simple as Stossel pretends.
    I could go on about the ideological agenda Stossel is pushing, but let this suffice:

    American schools don’t teach as well as schools in other countries because they are government monopolies, and monopolies don’t have much incentive to compete.

    If education was like widget-making, he would have a point. But it’s not. The truth is, as I said, and as you originally suggested, it’s a cultural problem, not all a school or systemic problem. Public education would be easy if schools could reject students who weren’t motivated for whatever reason, if they could cherry-pick the kids they want to educate. But what happens to the rest of the kids?
    You essentially seem to have adopted the paradigm of Stossel in that you think education is just like any other commodity or service, from food to haircuts. While that’s one way of looking at it, it doesn’t work for me. The content of education can’t be left to individuals to shop around—most people in America would shop around for an anti-evolutionary curriculum for instance— for a program that fit their parochial interests. That doesn’t serve our common interests, in my opinion.
    Stossel expresses the idea that you seem to have adopted:

    Competition inspires people to do what we didn’t think we could do. If people got to choose their kids’ school, education options would be endless. There could soon be technology schools, science schools, virtual schools where you learn at home on your computer, sports schools, music schools, schools that go all year, schools with uniforms, schools that open early and keep kids later, and, who knows what else. If there were competition, all kinds of new ideas would bloom.

    Notice, Jim, that he didn’t mention religious schools. Why is that? There could theoretically be the kinds of schools he mentions above right now. But there isn’t. There is, however, lots of private religious schools. I can guarantee you that under such a system as Stossel advocates, religious schools would dominate the landscape. You said you believe religious influence can be “largely eliminated by structure and management of the programs.” By whom? A government bureaucracy? Are you going to dictate a curriculum that all must follow? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of disaggregating the schools?
    You argue that untalented teachers remain in the system until retirement. Despite what Stossel says, that’s the fault not of the unions but of the administrators. There are ways of firing teachers, or at the start of not granting them tenure, and administrators just don’t want to do what it takes to get rid of them. Sure, it may be difficult in systems like New York to get rid of bad teachers, but look at the system around here. It’s not that hard to fire a teacher, if there is just cause and if administrators do the job they are paid to do.
    You say “paring classroom size would probably help.” Probably? You said that “good teaching is more important.” Don’t you see the relationship between class size and good teaching? Common sense tells me that a teacher with 30 kids will not be as effective as the same teacher with only ten kids. Good teaching can take place when more individual attention is possible. You mentioned the supe in the NY charter school. Of course he’s going to come down on the side of “teaching talent” as opposed to hiring more teachers, Jim. More teachers cost more money than paying one teacher a bigger salary.
    Finally, you may be right about the downward trend in “parenting quality,” I don’t know. But to say only a “chunk” of the problem would disappear if we had “ideal parents,” perhaps betrays your own unwillingness to accept the facts. I don’t see how it can be contradicted that good, involved parents have more to do with educational outcomes than anything else. In fact, I would say it is most of the ballgame. Those kind of parents would not tolerate failing schools, bad teachers, and so on, would they?
    John Stossel is not “lying.” He is promoting his libertarian worldview, one I used to share with him. But it’s just too simple, Jim. The free market is a wonderful tool, but it is not a tool for every job.


  5. Jim,

    Sorry about the formatting. Got in a hurry. And thanks for the interesting discussion, by the way.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Actually Duane, the formatting looks fine to me. I always appreciate the work you put into every comment – it shows.

      Stossel’s piece resonates with me I guess because it seems to fit the many pieces of information in my head, and particularly the issue of discipline in schools. I did read the link you provided on the Chavis school – very interesting. While it raised valid questions, the most serious being the rejection of poorly performing students, I have to say I admire his style – this coming from someone who, like Anson, went to a school where 1/3 of the student population was ruthlessly pared and rejected the first year. I don’t see this as bad. I don’t see it as society’s responsibility to shove a college-prep course down every kid’s throat, whether she likes it or not. I think it IS society’s obligation to try to make every kid verbally and arithmetically literate, to the extent they can be reasonably-functioning consumers and voters, but there it stops, IMO. This may be where we differ, fundamentally – the extent of society’s educational obligation. We are guaranteed the right to pursue happiness, not the right to have it thrust upon us. Why should education be different?

      A decent education should be viewed as an opportunity, not an obligation, but that’s not the way it is presented in our society. It is this idea that drives the idea of “competition” in my mind – parents and kids should be asking, which school can deliver the opportunity for Johnny, not which school will be the most fun for him. Really, Duane, your analogy with NASA is appropriate, but used in the wrong context. IMO, the problem is just that. We have been treating education as a NASA mission by stuffing every kid into a one-size-fits-all public education. That bores the brightest and discourages those in the bottom half.

      I like Anson’s emphasis to separate the education mission from the material aspects of schools. I really don’t see why a principal could not be held accountable to the School Board for avoiding religious indoctrination, while at the same time allowing teachers a wide range of intellectual freedom. Especially if you can hire teachers with fire in their bellies. Like Chavis. I’ll take him, warts and all, over an uninspired drone.



      • Jim,
        I can’t resist one more time.
        You said we’re “stuffing every kid into a one-size-fits-all public education. That bores the brightest and discourages those in the bottom half.”
        But remember how you began the discussion:

        A union enables things like tenure and benefits to make up for salaries that are low relative to their education level. But the result has been a failure.

        I just don’t see how tenure or unions have anything to do with the one-size-fits-all public education “failure” (which I agree is a big problem). Neither teachers nor unions are responsible for setting curricula or structuring the school day, and so on.
        So, I’m still at a loss to understand just exactly what you think is the root of the problem. You have mentioned unions, “permissive American culture,” and now one-size-fits-all public education.”
        To tell you the truth, I had mostly good teachers in my experience, with a dud now and then, but I can’t remember ever having an “uninspired drone.” I can still remember the distinct, often dynamic, personalities of several of my teachers. Maybe I was just lucky.


        • Jim Wheeler says:

          It isn’t easy to drill down to honest thoughts on such subjects like this one, Duane. I think you agree, and I certainly don’t mind the effort to refine them.

          When I blame “tenure” and “unions” as being part of the problem, remember I said that I don’t blame the people, but do blame the system. You rightly point out that teachers nor their unions control culture, but I disagree that they don’t influence curricula or the structure of the school day. How do you think Valentine’s Day came to be a school holiday? (I didn’t just fall off the turnip wagon.)

          I too had generally good teachers and only a few duds, and I think they were all well-intentioned. They just weren’t all first-class. And from what I’m reading and what Anson says, the quality has deteriorated since you and I were in school. The “one-size-fits-all” derives, I think, from the bureaucratic approach to the subject, and the teaching establishment has been in charge of school structure for many decades. The recent BOE election is a good example – the turnout, as you know, was record-breaking tiny, but I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts that almost ALL the teachers voted. Their union-approved ticket-punch system has produced prodigious numbers of PhD’s in Edu. in a sort of cannibalistic bureaucratic dance, but all those PhD’s haven’t fixed the broken system. As I’ve said, I think the best teachers are those with a natural gift, not those who have taken the most “edu” courses. But that’s not our system.



  6. ansonburlingame says:

    to both of you,

    I feel like I am talking to trees here. Neither of you addressed my point that EDUCATORS must be held accountable for EDUCATION, only.

    We are destroying our system of education by adding to it the tasks of fixing social ills, like poverty, immigration, etc. Can’t be done by educators. Those societal ills MUST be resolved by legislators and political leaders. THEY are the ones that must be held accountable for everything from classroom size, school nutrition, social programs outside of the classrooms that provide assistance to the downtrodden, and a host of other social issues.

    As for money, budgets for education should be spent on just that, education. If Johnny cannot learn because of his home environment, then spend other money on the home environment (not that money will solve that problem, but that is a political argument that should not relate to education).

    Finally, Duane, in my experience in classrooms it is NOT the poor and downtrodden kids that cause the problems. It is the spoiled and pampered ones that raise all the hell. And when the boom gets lowered on them they “run to momma” screaming their rejection of simply being held accountable, personally, for their bad behavior or poor grades.

    Everyone “thinks” it is the school’s fault. No so in my view. It is Johnny’s fault full up and square on. And a good educator should be able to look “momma” and Johnny straight in the eyes and tell it like it is, backed up with proof.

    Johnny gets an “F” in math. Momma screams as does Johnny. The teacher with grade book in hand (and even copies of homework and tests), backed up by a good principle simply lays the facts on the table before momma and johnny and says, here is why he failed.

    And every few years show momma and johnny the test results from standardized testing that Johnny failed as well. Daily efforts in school, carefully documented by all teachers backed up by standard test scores to confirm performance and the blame is now laid on where the blame belongs, that being momma and johnny.

    At that point educators have done their job. Now let family services go fix momma and Johnny, if they can.

    But in the seemingly rare case where Johnny admits his own shortcomings and momma asks for additional help, well turn heaven and earth to save the kid. I for one will mentor him free of charge for as long as it takes. And I know a lot of others that will do the same.

    One other new point. Jim wrote, “Access to information has improved enormously (internet) while the quality of education has diminished.”

    Does anyone believe that a student can learn math, basic math from a computer. No way in my view. He needs a textbook (maybe on a computer) and lots of practice, dull, grinding practice to learn mathematics. No one reads a computer like a book to gain an indepth understanding of a subject. Most just look up the subject in Wikkipedia and consider themselves thus experts on the matter.

    Seems to me that computers (and calculators) are used as shortcuts to real learning which takes lots of time and considerable effort to really become “educated”.

    I consider myself reasonably well educated but I stll can’t spell very well and my computer only picks up the “big” ones (spell checkers). And most of my problem in spelling is I am too lazy to really proof read every word I write which NO computer can fix. Some people call such a “defect of character”.



    • Anson,
      The point is that the social ills you describe enter our public schools and teachers are expected to educate kids with all kinds of problems, particularly while fighting in them a lack of appreciation for what Jim calls the “opportunity” of getting an education.
      The poor kids may or may not cause disruptions in the classroom, but that’s not the point. It’s educational outcomes that everyone is interested in. Some of those kids are harder to reach, harder to teach, and there are strategies designed to reach and teach them. I just attended a workshop, related to the Bright Futures program, that is a well thought out attempt to reach the otherwise uneducable kids in our system.
      Holding teachers accountable for educational outcomes, when so much is out of their control, is problematic, not to mention unfair.
      As for the spoiled kids, my daughter deals with them a lot where she teaches in Scottsdale. There are ways of handling them, if a teacher follows the rules, like you suggest.
      Your idea that we can separate the education from the other stuff is nice, but unworkable. Kids bring all kinds of baggage with them to school and there is no politician in America who can solve all the social problems that are responsible for that baggage. Ultimately, it ends up in the teachers’ laps.
      What we need is a comprehensive partnership between the schools, the politicians, the parents, and the community (like the Bright Futures program, for instance, even though it is top-heavy with religiously motivated participants).
      And I’d be all in favor or restructuring the curriculum so as not to force every kid into a college prep program.


  7. Jim,

    I wasn’t aware that Valentine’s Day was a school holiday. Not around here.

    In any case, I bet it would surprise you how many teachers in these parts are right-wing Republicans. A lot.



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