Friday, October 21, 2011

The Curse of St. Custard's

So, according to a new biography, Steve Jobs told President Obama:

"Until the teachers' unions were broken, there was almost no hope for education reform." Jobs proposed allowing principals to hire and fire teachers based on merit, that schools stay open until 6 p.m. and that they be open 11 months a year.
I won't comment on the teacher's unions issue, as there aren't any in Texas (right to work state), so I have no experience with them. Suffice to say, on that subject, that not all school districts are created that equally. Hold on to that proposition, it will play into this analysis in a moment.

Matt Yglesias thinks longer school days are fine idea, which only tells me Matt Yglesias knows nothing about school days now. It is true the most practical problem is costs, but the other problem is: who said school is over at 3 p.m.?

My information is anecdotal on this point, but where I live, elementary schools start the day at 7:30, which means teachers are there at least an hour before (some teachers, some staff). Granted, the day ends, for the students, at 2:30. But the teachers don't chase the students out of the parking lot. And if you are going to mandate school keep students in class until 6 p.m., you're asking teachers to work a 12 hour day plus grade papers, prepare for classes, deal with parent/student issues, etc., on a day when they probably will get a one hour break and lunch with the students (which is not a break at all). In other words, you not only need to raise their pay, you need to bring in a swing shift for the afternoon work. That, or work your teachers into burnout in very short order.

Don't even get me started on what pedagogical nonsense this is. By this argument, my community college students should be in class 12 hours a day, too, instead of the 2-4 hours they probably average now. What is the point of keeping students in a classroom for most of their waking hours? They will learn by osmosis, by exposure to books and chalkboards and teachers? Only people who've never taught in a public high school could imagine that more time is better time, or that a a 12 hour day would be as easy for teachers as the 12 hour day a lawyer or doctor might put in (and are we going to pay our teachers as much as we pay lawyers and doctors? I think not, hem hem.*). Teaching is, in no small part, baby-sitting. I don't say this to slight teachers, I say it because it is the truth. Young children through high school students, individually, tend to have far more energy than the average adult (especially the average middle-aged adult, who has experience that is very valuable in the classroom). That energy is multiplied almost geometrically (at least absolutely arithmetically) when you combine 20-30 such persons in one room, and then have school buildings full of them for 12 hours a day. The effort to control them, contain them, educate them, and be responsible for their physical and emotional safety, is a tremendous burden, and Steve Jobs (and Yglesias) want to increase that to half-again what it is now, and extend the teacher's working day after school finally ends, well into the wee hours of the next day?

Is anybody thinking of the children? Or of the teachers, for that matter?

As for the 11 months a year idea, good luck with that. Texas moved the start of school back into early August, a move done by the state Legislature, not any one school principal. The howls of indignation and outrage at disrupted vacation plans, not to mention from vacation providers who saw their season ending far too soon, brought that experiment to an end after one year. There have been discussions about going to a year-round school calendar since I was in elementary school (at least), and we've come no closer to it know than we were then. For better or worse, the 9 month school year is so deeply engrained in American culture you might as well try to get rid of Mom and apple pie first. I'm not opposed to year-round school; in fact, I'd champion it. But I've tried to change culture before, on a very local level, and I have the bruises to show for it. I may think the change is a good idea, but I won't soon try again to even seek to implement such a change.

As for the 12 hour+ work day, I can only say: if you want to drive even more teachers out of teaching, be my guest: implement a 12 hour day, even if you can get the tax revenues to pay for it. But I suspect it will be about as popular with parents as the 11 month school year. The most influential families today, on a local if not a national level, have children in many extra-curricular activities that keep them out of school but also away from home for several hours past 6 p.m. already. Tell those parents all those activities are going to end and their little darlings are going to be in a classroom for 12+ hours a day, and see what happens. Let's just say I won't be in the room when the unfortunate soul announces that plan to the wrong group of parents.

Contrary to what Matt Yglesias says, "The problem a mayor or school chancellor seeking to implement this idea would have is" not "a budget problem." The problem would be long before that, with simply trying to get parents to accept it. You know, we've really got to learn to start taking people into account in these public policy discussions. Steve Jobs may have been able to control the last details of every Apple store on the planet, but his reach ended right about there. Funny how people like Matt Yglesias don't get that, either.

*nigel molesworth, very posh.


  1. What about the children of the teachers? They will never see their parents. Of course, I suppose it doesn't matter, because they will be with other teachers.

    How can people say such stupid things?

  2. Silly Mimi: teachers shouldn't have children!

    Or they should pay someone to take care of them. Or something.

  3. Anonymous5:13 AM

    Yglesias went to high school at The Dalton School in New York City and later attended Harvard University where he studied philosophy. He graduated magna cum laude in 2003. He was editor-in-chief of The Harvard Independent, a weekly newsmagazine, and also wrote for several other campus publications. Wikipedia

    Not a rare kind of educational CV for those in the scribbling classes. At least the ones you've heard of.

    Anthony McCarthy

  4. Scott the Obscure10:22 AM

    As the husband of a public school teacher, I guess I have to conclude that the likes of Jobs and Yglesias want me to be, effectively, a single parent. And since teacher pay wouldn't go up (you don't break someone's union and then _increase_ their pay), I'd still have my full-time graveyard shift gig. So another almost-middle-class family dropped into a morass of disfunction so the schools can do the job, not of producing educated citizens, but fully-trained employees for the corporate rulers. Huzzah for the 1%, I guess!