Are teachers necessary?
That’s the question big business is asking.
Well, “asking” isn’t really the right word. They’re implying an answer.
Hedge fund mangers and ed tech soothsayers are betting hundreds of millions of dollars that educators aren’t really all that important.
They’re planning a future where real live people play a much smaller role in student learning.
They’re mapping out a world where kids don’t even have to go to school to grasp the basics, where learning can be accomplished anywhere but instigated, tracked, and assessed on-line through various computer platforms.
It’s called a learning ecosystem, personalized learning, competency based or individualized education. With little to no guiding principles, management or oversight, kids would engage in educational tasks on various devices in order to earn digital badges.
Children would bounce from a few hours of Khan Academy videos here to a software package there and Voila! “Modern” education!
It’s a brave new world where investors hope to make a bundle by reducing the cost and pocketing the savings.
Since teachers are the biggest cost, they’re the first things to go.
Since their rights as workers and human beings are a roadblock on this learning superhighway, they’re the first to go.
And since they’re in a prime position to see exactly what’s going on and to object when this ed tech paradise exploits the students it ostensibly is being built for, they MUST go – now, as soon as possible.
The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Janus v AFSCME is part of that process. It’s another way to weaken labor and clear the path for business – the collusion of politics and corporations to steamroll the rest of us and swipe more of our money regardless of the children in the steamrollers way.
So when I ask “Are teachers necessary?” it’s not a purely philosophical question.
The answer will have a major impact on both the education of today and where we go in the future.
If teachers are not necessary, that removes one of the biggest obstacles to this frightening and uncertain future.
Unfortunately, no matter how much I want to answer in the affirmative that teachers are necessary, I can’t do so.
Even after thousands of years of recorded history, learning remains a mysterious process. Yet it doesn’t take much reflection to realize that it can take place without the presence of a teacher.
Some things can be figured out solely by the learner in the right circumstances.
In fact, many academic studies have shown that teachers are not even the most important factor in the process.
Roughly 60% of academic achievement can be explained by family background – things like income and poverty level. School factors only account for 20% – and of that, teachers account for 15%. (see Hanushek et al. 1998; Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).
Estimates vary somewhat from study to study, but the basic structure holds. The vast majority of impact on learning comes from the home and out-of-school factors. Teachers are a small part of the picture. They are the largest single factor in the school building, but the school, itself, is only one of many components.
In short, teachers are not necessary to student learning.
But neither are doctors necessary to healing or lawyers necessary to acquittals.
Necessity is a very high bar.
To survive, you need food, shelter and clothing. However, having all three does not mean you have a good life. Slaves had all three – no free person would choose to trade places with someone in generational servitude simply because they had everything they needed to survive.
The same with medicine. If shot in the arm, you could provide me with all the medical equipment necessary to remove the bullet, but I would still have a difficult time doing it by myself. I COULD. A doctor is not NECESSARY for that operation. But without a doctor present, my chances of getting the best medical care drop dramatically.
Moreover, you could pop me in a courtroom without the benefit of legal counsel and it’s not impossible that I could argue my way to the dismissal of all charges against me. But the likelihood of doing so is infinitesimal – as undocumented youngsters are discovering when forced into the courtroom to defend against deportation without an attorney or even their parents present.
The same is true of education.
Though teachers are not necessary to learning, they are vital to it.
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Having a teacher dramatically boosts a student’s chances, and the more disadvantaged that student is, the more he or she benefits from an educator.
The academic schemes of the corporate class amount to changing the field into the equivalent of an automated teller or a business robocall.
You can purchase your groceries through the self-checkout line. You can get your customer service from an automated list. But neither of these are the highest quality service.
They are cheap alternatives.
They are ways for the business to cut costs and boost profits. Neither have anything to do with making things better for the customer.
And when it comes to education, eliminating (or even drastically reducing access to) the teacher will decrease the quality of the service beyond recognition.
A 2009 report, Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success, released by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice outlined several real world solutions to increase academic outcomes. None of them involve the elimination of teachers.
- Reduce the rate of low birth weight children among African Americans
- Reduce drug and alcohol abuse
- Reduce pollutants in U.S. cites and move people away from toxic sites
- Provide universal and free medical care for all citizens
- Insure that no one suffers from food insecurity
- Reduce the rates of family violence in low-income households
- Improve mental health services among the poor
- More equitably distribute low-income housing throughout communities
- Reduce both the mobility and absenteeism rates of children
- Provide high-quality preschools for all children
- Provide summer programs for students from low-income homes to reduce summer losses in their academic achievement.
These are ways you improve education FOR CHILDREN.
This is how you make things better FOR THE LEARNER and not necessarily for the investor class.
And when it comes to teachers, there are numerous ways you can help them provide support for students.
First of all, hire more of them!
So if we wanted our kids to have the same quality of service children received in this country only a decade ago, we’d need to hire almost 400,000 more teachers!
That’s how you cut class size down from the 20, 30, even 40 students packed into a room that you can routinely find in some districts today.
And if you want to improve the quality of the teachers in those classrooms, here’s an easy fix – pay them.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, teachers in the United States make 14 percent less than people from professions that require similar levels of education.
Sadly, it only gets worse as time goes on.
According to a report by the Center for American Progress, on average teachers with 10 years experience only get a roughly $800 raise per year. No wonder more than 16 percent of teachers have a second or third job outside of the school system. They simply can’t survive on the salary.
They can’t buy a home or even rent an apartment in most metropolitan areas. They can’t afford to marry, raise children, or eke out a middle class existence.
If you want to attract the best candidates to the profession, you need to make it more attractive. One way to do that is to increase the salary.
And finally, stop micromanaging everything teachers do and stomping on their rights. To do their job effectively teachers need autonomy. They need the ability to make decisions on the ground based on the empirical evidence gathered in the classroom.
Moreover, they need the freedom to speak out when something is going wrong in their buildings or districts. When software packages are purchased that spy on students for corporations, they need the ability to sound the alarm. When high stakes standardized testing is out of control, they need to be able to voice their objections. When shoddy, second-rate academic standards are forced onto them by politicians and business people, they need to be able to blow the whistle.
To do that, they need their union protections. They need collective bargaining rights to give them the power to counterbalance the forces of greed and corruption that have always been at the schoolhouse door.
As a country we have taken our attention away from what’s really important. We’ve stopped focusing on how to make education better and instead equated it with how to make it more profitable for those who are already wealthy.
Teachers are vital to education. They are lifelines to struggling students. We should find ways to support them and not constantly undercutting their social standing, autonomy and rights.
The importance of teachers is beyond doubt. As is the importance of society in supporting them.