Schwarzenegger’s Education Plan Gets Failing Grade

Rewarding the good. Punishing the bad. It seems like a simple ideology.

And if life were simple, I would have no problem believing in it. However, I don’t think I need to tell you that life is rarely cut and dry, that good and bad are as arbitrary as a person’s definition of the terms.

Try telling that to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, though. In his State of the State Address January 5, Schwarzenegger’s outlined plan to save California from financial ruin amounted to little more than sound bites and a moral certitude that belong in B-grade movies, not politics. The enemy isn’t an alien headhunter or a wayward pack of kindergartners, it’s pay for teachers and funding for schools.

I’m not denying education in the State of California is a mess. However, it’s not the black and white issue the governor is making it out to be. According to Schwarzenegger’s statistics, the educational system of California:

  • does not graduate 30% of students who enter 9th grade;
  • only creates a proficiency in math in 40% of students;
  • creates college students that need remediation in English; and
  • produces failure of federal Adequate Yearly Progress in 35% of California schools.

Frightening numbers — and I believe them. Having been in both public and private schools in California, I’ve witnessed the disparity in the quality of education students enrolled in public schools receive. Out-of-date textbooks, crumbling facilities, crowded classrooms and teachers relieved of any ability to discipline are just some of the problems facing students today.

They are also the problems facing teachers. Teachers can only teach with what they’re given, and when that’s a group of unmotivated, unaccountable teenagers and a stack of outmoded books, it doesn’t take the Governator to see that teachers aren’t the problem, the system is.

Yet teachers bear the brunt of reform under Schwarzenegger’s proposed plans. “We must financially reward good teachers and expel those who are not,” he said two weeks ago when he outlined a plan to strip teachers of tenure-based salary adjustments in favor of a poorly thought-out merit-based system because “the more we reward excellent teachers, the more our teachers will be excellent.”

Teachers are faced with daily challenges that would drive most people to insanity. They work long hours in openly hostile environments for subsistence wages. Thanks to a generation of parents who feel no need to control their own child, but panic when a teacher does, students have no fear of adults and zero respect for authority. Kids are pushed through the system not because of a teacher’s failure to teach, but because today’s student is by and large a lazy creature who receives no guidance in life.

Do I sound harsh on parents? Perhaps — in the end, it is they and they alone who create children so ambivalent to the gift of education they’re given. Poor home life and selfish parents create bad seeds, and teachers are required to germinate it.

Are there bad teachers? Certainly. But why should good teachers have their salaries and benefits stripped because of poor performers?

I choose to think most problems in schools are external influences outside the control of teachers. Many teachers genuinely want to impart their love for education on their classes; many became educators because of the positive influence one of their predecessors had on them.

Blaming them for the failures of the educational system is a philosophy so myopic it staggers the mind.

Mind you, I’m neither opposed to the idea of merit pay or towards rewarding excellence in education; I’m just opposed to Schwarzenegger’s approach. There is no qualitative way to prove that a teacher is “good;” linking classroom performance to standardized test scores fails to take into consideration any number of factors. And how does one “test” humanities classes like art and music, or gauge the success of a mentally handicapped child?

Want to fix teaching? Here’s my proposal:

  • Quit financing bullshit. California is the king of spending money on stupid, untested programs. Get rid of educational decrees and reinstate phonics and simple arithmetic for elementary school students. Combating illiteracy should be a priority.
  • Drop bilingualism. Not only is it the law (Proposition 227), it just makes sense. It’s bad enough the system is glutted with millions of undocumented illegal immigrants; do we really have to teach their children in their native languages? All it does is piss me off and strand these kids in an educational morass.
  • Enable teachers. Let them teach unconventional truths without repercussions. Children today should know what a thieving, murderous bastard Christopher Columbus was, and that the Civil War wasn’t just fought for slavery. Likewise, when kids act out, give teachers the ability to punish them and maintain the hierarchical structure of the classroom. I’m not talking beatings, per se, but man, sometimes these kids really deserve to be yelled at.
  • Don’t hopscotch around Proposition 98. Proposition 98 was enacted to protect public schools from state budget cuts. It was set aside through an agreement with Governor Schwarzenegger and teacher’s unions to help balance the 2004 budget under the strict guarantee that the money would be made available this year. The governor wants to keep that money once again to cover a budget shortfall. It’s criminal and unconstitutional, and it’s why Schwarzenegger is crying reform so loudly.

A pilot program in Colorado called ProComp sounds like an interesting approach to the merit-based system. It is fully supported by the teacher’s union and relies on the teachers themselves setting goals for the year. Raises are then based on the percentage of the goals achieved. The program has shown positive results, and current teachers who wish to remain on the old pay scale can do so — only new teachers will be forced to comply with ProComp should it be enacted across the state.

But it takes years to set up programs like ProComp and requires a fundamental shift in the power structure between teacher, principal, and superintendent. It requires the state to let a teacher teach and not be so beholden to political correctness. It doesn’t sound like California has the patience to enact something so sweeping. Schwarzenegger is looking for a quick fix — a constitutional amendment permanently fixing pay to test scores.

In other words, a disaster waiting to happen.

I applaud the governor’s decision to promote vocational schools; I believe blue-collar trades are unjustly stigmatized in the United States. But bilking the educational system out of billions of constitutionally guaranteed money while holding teachers to an unreasonable and unverifiable standard?

That doesn’t help anyone, least of all students. All it does is call into question Schwarzenegger’s commitment to education.