When children do poorly in school, and particularly when many students in the same school do poorly, obvious targets for criticism are the teachers. There are cases in which this is appropriate. Bad teachers can be found even in top notch schools. But, as described above, especially in schools serving poor communities, there are usually many more plausible explanations for unsatisfactory student performance.
Opponents of public schooling almost invariably attack teachers' unions, charging them with inflating costs of schooling, and with degrading teacher quality. I strongly disagree. In general, school teachers are, in my view, greatly underpaid in light of the importance of their work, and unions often help alleviate this to a modest extent. In a school system without an effective union, salaries and working conditions are often so bad that good teachers are unlikely to apply for positions, or, to stay very long.
Ensuring teacher quality is a complex matter. Leaving it entirely in the hands of a truly excellent school principal would be fine, but is not a generally available option. A common situation today is to have tenure conferred by boards of education on the recommendations of principals. Retention of non-tenured faculty is at the option of principals.
A better approach might be to utilize competent, experienced teachers to mentor new teachers and to evaluate them. An important part of the process would be frequent classroom observations by the mentors. The views of students, particularly in the upper grades, should be considered, tho these must be treated with caution, as they are often biased in favor of teachers who are not demanding, and who are over-generous with high grades. Similarly, parent opinions should be considered. Unions might also get involved, perhaps as advisors and advocates for teachers. It is important that the evaluation process be flexible enough so as not to screen out outstanding teachers with unorthodox styles.
Not surprisingly unions sometimes go too far to protect incompetent teachers. Union members should resist the tendency to reflexively, unconditionally, fight against every effort to discharge teachers clearly not doing the job. They should insist that their unions act responsibly in such cases. Irresponsible behavior in this regard makes unions less effective in defending competent teachers who are unfairly treated.Charter schools
A big advantage of having all children in a community attend public schools is that all parents in the community are thereby strongly motivated to support the school system. The more students shift to non-public schools, the weaker public support for public schools becomes. This leads to lower school budgets, and hence weaker schools, which motivates more parents to withdraw their children. So we have the possibility of a downward spiral effect that can cripple public school systems.
A number of for-profit corporations operate dozens of charter schools, some more than a hundred. As is the case with public schools, some charter schools do well, some not so well, some very poorly. There are no good ways to obtain clear indications of performance quality, particularly given the variations among student backgrounds. It appears that the for-profit schools tend to be inferior, but there may be exceptions.
Other charter schools are backed by large private foundations apparently devoted to dismantling public school systems . It is significant that very few charter schools have teachers unions, salaries are generally lower than in public schools, and teachers are often less qualified than those in public schools.
Many charter schools look better than they really are because they use a variety of techniques to filter out weak students, even tho they purport to be open to all . They often do lobbying and mount substantial advertising campaigns. It is not surprising that commercializing schools has attracted a number of unsavory operators to exploit the situation . In general, it is a bad idea for schools to be run with the idea of making money. Unfortunately, that is the case for many, perhaps most, charter schools.Testing
The idea of using standardized tests to evaluate students, teachers, teaching methods, and schools seems very reasonable. But, in practice, there are serious problems.
A basic issue is that, when student test performance is the basis for evaluating, not only students, but also teachers, administrators, and schools, the principal objective of the system becomes increasing grades on standardized tests. Classroom time is dedicated to such matters as learning the answers to the kinds of questions expected on the exams in each area, and strategies for guessing the answers to multiple choice questions. Subjects not covered by the exams are given short shrift, and in-depth classroom discussions are regarded as a waste of time.
Cheating has always been a serious problem in our schools, but, in the past, the cheaters were the students; teachers and administrators tried to minimize it, tho they often did this poorly. Now, with high grades being important for teachers and administrators, as well as for students, it would be very surprising if cheating were not much more widespread. Apart from deliberate cheating by teachers or administrators, exams may be proctored carelessly. Grading process errors are yet another problem.
Another mode of cheating available to administrators of charter schools is to increase the average test scores of their schools by encouraging the weakest students to be no-shows on exam day, or simply to drop out of school. Reclassifying inept students as mentally retarded is yet another technique for making a school look better.
There is no way that short-answer or multiple-choice questions can properly test a student's writing ability. In general, questions that about half the students can answer correctly are the best, because they do the best job of spreading out student grades. This leads exam creators to avoid both very easy and very difficult questions. One result is that they do not identify the best students.