It is dismaying that there hasn't been a huge public outcry against the Arizona Legislature's all-out assault on the state's teachers. Perhaps it was the timing of the legislative action, which took effect just before the holidays. Perhaps it was the low-key and lackluster coverage it got in the media. Or maybe it's just that the average person just doesn't give a damn about teachers or education.
Since I wrote about this subject last month, I've heard from a couple of legislators who claimed that they're only trying to weed out bad teachers, and that they trust school administrators to do just that. (This, of course, required their selectively forgetting that they are just as likely to rail against school administrators as they are "bad" teachers.)
Albert Einstein used to do what he called "thought experiments" in his head, like one in which he visualized himself riding a motorcycle at the speed of light and then pondered what would happen (if anything) if he turned the motorcycle's headlight on. He was careful to start with clearly delineated parameters, and he then took the process from one extreme to the other.
Allow me to propose a thought experiment. (It will pertain to social science, so any calculations will be kept to a minimum.)
There is a school administrator; she is hard-working, dedicated, professional and altruistic. She is also beset on all sides by parents who are unwilling to take a meaningful role in their children's education; students who confuse work habits with how good they have become at updating their Facebook status; a shockingly superficial media whose members consider knowing how many mistresses Tiger Woods has at any given moment to be in-depth reporting; and last, but by no means least, an openly hostile state Legislature with a decades-old (and largely imagined) ax to grind.
Said Legislature has given the administrator a double-edged weapon to wield: She now has the omnipotent ability (responsibility?) to fire any teacher at any time for any reason. With equal ease and with absolutely no fear of reprisal (or even the need to offer an explanation), she can fire the overmatched (and lowly paid) novice who brings to the classroom enthusiasm and little else, and/or the experienced veteran who, through years of dedicated service and professionalism, has reached the peak (such as it is) of the pay scale.
The barbarians are at the gate, demanding that "something" be done. Test scores must go up. Vague and often conflicting federal standards must be met. Teach the kids stuff, but don't push the poor babies too hard. And don't even think about asking for more money.
The administrator knows that test scores in the foothills don't mean the same thing as test scores in other parts of town, but she certainly can't say that. She also knows that test scores aren't the be-all, end-all they're often made out to be. Japan has long shoved education down its kids' throats in six-days-a-week marathon school sessions. Perhaps that's why Japan passed us as the leading power in the world. No, wait. They didn't.
She realizes that in today's world—with fractured homes being the norm, and kids being bombarded with distractions that didn't exist a generation ago—getting a school to head upstream against the heavy surge of societal nonsense is a major accomplishment. But that would require an understanding of slopes and maybe even derivatives (not the financial kind), and who is up for that? Not the celebrity-obsessed media, which has responded to crisis by dumbing things down and aiming low; not the self-absorbed parents; and certainly not the vengeful legislators who have always despised the teachers' unions and who probably see higher mathematics as some kind of liberal conspiracy.
So what is our administrator to do? She would probably like to do the right thing, to stand her ground on principle. But she's human, too, and she's got a mortgage and a car payment and kids at home nearing college age. She's got to cover her backside, so she dumps the veteran and hires two rookies for roughly the same amount of money. Sure, the experienced teacher could do more on his worst day than the two newcomers, combined, could do on their best, but that doesn't matter. If the screamers ever demand to know what she has done, she can say that she has cut class sizes. Of course, that's the equivalent of throwing people out of an airplane at 30,000 feet and then boasting that you've improved the plane's fuel efficiency.
The media will be happy, because that's an easy concept on which to report. The parents will be happy, because they'll think that such a move is substantial and significant. And the haters in the Legislature will have done God's work by destroying a union (and with it, the lives of countless dedicated professional people).
This may indeed eliminate some underperforming teachers. But it's just as likely to end up like the final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, where an efficiency expert fired the entire staff and kept vapid anchorman Ted Baxter. The "expert" probably then got a bonus for saving the station a whole lot of money.