Kids Aren't Cars; Schools Shouldn't Be Assembly Lines

Posted: Jan 03, 2011 2:08 PM
As "Waiting for 'Superman'" so eloquently points out, the industrial assembly-line model of America's public schools, created decades ago, isn't working. In fact, it's setting us further and further behind our global competitors.

Today, it is essential that our children graduate high school and college prepared for the fierce competition they will face in the global marketplace. Their economic survival will be determined by their ability to compete with countries like China, India, and other emerging economies.

This requires that our public schools be innovative and effective. Instead, our schools are using a failed, one-size-fits -all approach to education that may actually end up hurting our children.

It's interesting that our slide began in the 1970s. Just ten years earlier, collective bargaining, the crowning glory of labor unions, took root in our public schools. Coincidence?

Collective bargaining agreements, which carry the weight of law, enshrine such policies as seniority (last hired, first fired), tenure (lifetime job protection in as little as two years) and due process (an extra-legal process outside the court system). Oh, and automatic yearly raises-- not for performance, but simply for logging another year in the system. In other words, we give teachers raises simply for not dying over the summer.

This is a beautiful system – if you’re a public school employee. But if you’re a student in the public school system, well, it’s like being drafted by the Detroit Lions.

By bringing the auto manufacturing mentality into our public school system, it has turned teaching from a hard-earned, highly-respected career into a blue-collar, see-you-on-the-picket-line endeavor. Taxpayers deserve better. Teachers deserve better.

So just imagine my disappointment when Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced an Education Reform Conference with Dennis Van Roekel and Randi Weingarten, the presidents of the two national teachers unions. The unions are taking a lot of fire right now, and rightly so. But instead of isolating and marginalizing the unions, Duncan is giving them credibility. And the unions’ purpose is clear: buy enough time until the outrage caused by “Waiting for ‘Superman’” dies down, and then quietly maintain the status quo.

What’s troubling is not just that the Obama Administration is going to link arms with the biggest problem in public education; it's the mindset with which it’s being conceived.

It's called a conference on collaboration between "labor" and "management." Is Arne Duncan now the auto bailout czar and I missed that press release? Or is he using terminology usually reserved for blue-collar factories?

What "Waiting for 'Superman'" showed us is that this assembly-line approach to public education is horribly flawed. If its financial future wasn't guaranteed by tax dollars, it would be fatally flawed.

But Duncan has once again picked up the union song book and will join Van Roekel and Weingarten’s “Amen” chorus.

So much for looking to the Obama administration to get kids off the assembly line.