"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, October 25, 2013

Private Schools Are Always Better Than Public

Why are private school teachers paid far less than those in public schools? Supply and demand, says Ben Orlin writing in The Atlantic (10.25.13). Public school systems are huge in comparison to networks of private schools; and since they require specific teacher accreditation and licensing, the number of qualified teachers is always below the number required, thus raising salaries.  Powerful, entrenched labor unions use muscle and strike for even higher pay.

Private school salaries are low either because the reverse is true.  Since there are no licensing requirements, private institutions can hire whomever they please.  Anyone can be a private school teacher so the pool of applicants, particularly in poor job markets, is large.  Supply exceeds demand, so salaries are low.

On the other hand, private school teachers may consider their salaries quite acceptable and commensurate with the demands of the job.  Teaching smart, motivated, disciplined children is far better than being a prison guard in a ghetto lockup.

It seems as though the salary system is working fairly.  Teachers who are no more than prison trusties, subjected to insult, injury, and indifference deserve more money.  A DC teacher’s salary is not inflated, because it includes hazard pay.  A private school teacher, looked up to, listened to, and respected by his students gets more than enough non-economic rewards to compensate for his low wages.

There are inconsistencies as always.  A teacher who has done her Iraq time in the deep slums of the city and who gets transferred to a school in the white, wealthy ward gets paid the same as she did in the war zone.  In principle, she should be paid less for her tour of duty in a school that looks more private than public; but no one complains, for it is just recompense for her previous service.  Parents even put up with – for a while – transferred teachers’ inability to teach students who are eager to learn.  They have been trained to be MPs and a prison guards, not teachers, so they are cut a lot of slack.

My children went to a neighborhood school in wealthy area of a major city, attended by the sons and daughters of lawyers, lobbyists, and corporate managers.  When Mrs. Perkins took over the Second Grade at the Jeffries School, she was greeted by 20 eager, patient, and well-behaved little students.  She couldn’t believe her good fortune, for she had come from one of the worst schools in the city. By the second grade in her former school, children of dysfunctional families who had been provided no discipline, no culture of respect and achievement, and no sense whatsoever of the value of learning, had become totally and irremediably unsocialized. They were as close to feral children as possible; and while Mrs. Perkins knew she had to stay her hand, she thrived in the grey area around the law.  She shut kids up in the broom closet, berated them, screwed her face up into scary masks of threat and torture, and let them have it with torrents of scorn and abuse. Only by frightening her charges with a kind of mad menace could she maintain a modicum of order in the classroom.

No one cared about her unorthodox habits, especially the principal.  He wasn’t going to censure Mrs. Perkins when she was one of the best teachers he had.  In the context of George Bellows Elementary  she was exactly what was required.  She was a brutal disciplinarian who trucked no abuse or disorder.  She understood and carried out her marching orders with obedience and conviction.  She was to keep order, not to teach. Students were always to be moved up and out.  After sixth grade, they were someone else’s problem.

Needless to say, Mrs. Perkins had a difficult transition to our school. Harsh discipline was in her bones, and she didn’t know what do do when her charges shook and quaked every time she came over to their desks and stuck her gnarly face in theirs and blew her rancid breath at them.  She backed off and began to enjoy her tenure.  She had originally been trained as a real teacher and could manage multiplication tables and a few field trips, so the principal kept his distance.  He knew the game, having come up through the ranks, and willingly suffered the abuse of startled and incredulous parents because he knew that his bread was buttered ‘Downtown’ and nothing they did could even dent his political armor.

We bailed our kids out of the public school system after the sixth grade.  There was no way that we were going to send them on to the public junior high school.  Even though it was located in the neighborhood, it took children from a far wider catchment area than just Hydewood Park.  It had metal detectors, armed city police stationed at the doors at opening and closing time, and specially-trained security guards who patrolled the halls.

The private schools we sent them to were exactly what we had hoped for – a community of like-minded students and parents – all smart, motivated, ambitious, and committed to education; and smart, talented, and engaging teachers. It was much like my own experience many years before at a private New England boarding school.  Teachers had graduated from Amherst, Williams, and Dartmouth and taught English with a passion. There was a kind of tenure system at the school, so even the most eccentric teachers were kept on.  The only cause for dismissal was bad teaching, and the headmaster demanded, monitored, and judged performance to assure quality.

All of this made for a great place to live and study. Who could beat eager young teachers with a premier college education; eccentric older ones who gave the school a certain cachet – a feeder to Yale and Harvard but with an ironic twist; and a headmaster with discipline but humor?

Of course our teachers accepted low pay.  The assignment was ideal and by no means permanent. In his article Orlin notes how the turnover at private schools today is very high (24 percent in the first three years) compared to public; but that is never an issue.  One bright, motivated, and talented Amherst graduate is pretty much the same as any other; and given the supply-and-demand scenario, there are plenty to choose from.

Orlin concludes by saying:

The moral is that not all teaching jobs are alike. Different school environments make for radically different work, and many teachers find private schools offer a more rewarding experience. Attracting and retaining teachers, then, means more than just raising salaries. It means taking disciplinary obstacles and bureaucratic nonsense out of teachers’ paths.

There is no way, however, that public schools can compete with private ones.  Private schools are free from intrusive government supervision and from the abusive power of venal and corrupt labor unions.  They are free to develop and apply their own curricula which are flexible enough to be modified and updated every year; and best of all they can select both students and teachers on the basis of intelligence, aptitude, and performance.

There is of course a great range of quality in private education. Many parochial schools are little better than public ones, and although the Catholic Church – the leader in private, religious education – attempts to maintain certain standards of excellence; many smaller church-affiliated schools are more Christian madrassas than places of learning.  Nevertheless, parents do not have to send their children there.

I would never choose to send my children to public school if I could afford the alternative; and I feel that every parent in every ward of the city – rich or poor – should have the same option.  Voucher programs enable the most motivated parents to get out of the miasma of dismal public education, and even if they enroll their children in a parochial school of modest reputation, it is still a giant step up.

I don’t envy public school teachers in the ghetto wards of my city; and never begrudge them their pay. However, I would like to see the entire public school system dismantled and the field opened to competitive private choice.  Reform has not worked.  Our school system  has gotten worse over the years, not better.  While I blame acquisitive unions, corrupt politicians, and indifferent school boards, the real culprits are parents themselves.  No teacher can teach children from dysfunctional homes; and unless communities begin to accept responsibility, accept majority norms of behavior and aspire to the same goals, education is not possible.

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