Opinon: Money, not standards, determines education quality

When I was assigned to be a Washington correspondent in 1994, I chose to move my young family to the northern Virginia suburb of Fairfax for a single reason: It had one of the best public school systems in the country. The reason wasn't complicated: The starting salary for its teachers was among the highest in the nation, so the best young educators from across the nation competed fiercely for jobs.

As my son moved through elementary and secondary school, I found that the Fairfax school system's reputation was well-deserved. Thanks to highly motivated and deeply committed teachers, he obtained an outstanding education that prepared him well for success in college.

My son's experience mirrored my own. Growing up in a Detroit suburb of Holocaust survivors, I attended schools with excellent teachers who inspired and pushed my classmates and me to strive for knowledge and skills.

In the current political jargon, that's my privilege — two generations of outstanding education at little cost to my parents or me beyond the property taxes we paid each year.

The drive for education standards, whether imposed by states or the federal government, is founded on a cruel fiction: If kids from poor families just applied themselves more; if their underpaid teachers just worked harder; if the standards for measuring progress were clearer and tougher — the problems in the classroom would vanish.

Americans understand and accept that if you want a great car, you need to pay more. Same thing with great restaurants, great homes, great clothes, great furniture, great sports teams.

As with any broad generalization, there are exceptions. It's always exciting to discover a dive restaurant with good food. It's a small thrill to find a stunning dress or a handsome suit at the local thrift store. But especially in an advanced capitalist society like ours, money talks when it comes to ensuring quality education in public schools.

The notion that more rigorous standards, whether imposed by states or the federal government, can significantly improve public education prevents us from confronting a harsh truth: Teachers, tasked with one of the most demanding and crucial jobs, don't get paid enough.

In 2010, the average teacher's salary nationwide was $55,000. Today it's $65,000. Just accounting for inflation over the last 13 years, teachers should be earning $78,000. Instead, their annual pay is less than autoworkers in Detroit earn. It's less than cops earn. It's less than insurance agents, flight attendants or law clerks earn.

Those occupations are vital, but they pale next to the job of a teacher. As the traditional family fractures while kids spiral down the rabbit hole of social media, the classroom instructor is asked to do more and more.

My experience has shown me that one great teacher is more important than any academic standards that produce only rote and superficial learning.

An excellent eighth-grade chemistry teacher turned my dislike of science into a lifelong fascination that fuels my reading of books and articles about physics, medicine, biology and — yes — chemistry.

Several outstanding English teachers transformed grammar for me from boring rules to an exciting code that unlocks language and elevates writing.

Another mean fiction fueling the imposition of set standards is the absurd belief that teachers have it easy. According to this degrading myth, they work short days, knock off at 3, and get three months of paid vacation each summer.

Anyone who is friends with a teacher or two, as I am, knows how hard they work. They stay up late preparing lesson plans. They meet or email with parents asking all manner of questions about their kids' performance. They respond to constant demands from their principals, assistant principals and other bosses, many of whom have never taught. They spend their summers revising or overhauling their classroom curricula in response to ever-shifting and often confusing or contradictory dictates from school administrators. And, increasingly, they try to squeeze creativity out of one-size-fits-all standards.

Instead of lifting classroom instruction to higher levels, deadening educational standards dumb it down.

You don't need to accept my opinion about classroom standards. The two biggest initiatives to impose them — President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation in 2002 and the Common Core Standards released in 2010 — have produced no discernible progress in learning.

As Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless, a former teacher in California, wrote of the Common Core model in English and math in 2021, "No evidence exists that the standards had a significant, positive impact on student achievement."

The proverb about teaching a person to fish has a powerful application in the classroom: Impose uniform standards on children, and they will learn for a day. Awake intellectual curiosity in children and inspire them to seek knowledge on their own and they will learn for a lifetime.

James Rosen is a former political reporter and Pentagon correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers.

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