BEN BOVA: Schools won't improve with bureaucrats in charge

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Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

This phrase, from the first-century Roman satirist Juvenal, means, “Who will watch the watchmen?”

The question goes back a few centuries earlier to Plato. In his ideal society, the philosopher wrote, the city will be guarded by watchmen. But, he was asked, who will watch the watchmen? Who will keep the guardians from taking over and running things for their own benefit?

This is the central problem, I fear, with our public schools. The bureaucrats of the school system are running the show for their own ends, and the education of our children is suffering as a result.

Study after study has concluded that quality education depends most strongly on quality teachers. But our schools are riddled with teachers who are not top-grade, and the school system can’t seem to get rid of them.

The standard excuse from the school bureaucracy has been that most schools are riddled with poor, disadvantaged kids who won’t — or can’t — learn; they drop out of school as soon as they get the chance.

This has become a self-perpetuating excuse for the failing schools. How can we teach disadvantaged inner-city kids who have no interest in learning?

Hey. I was a disadvantaged inner-city kid, once upon a time. I loved learning. My parents made it clear to me that education was the ladder I could climb to get out into a bigger, richer world.

Computer entrepreneur Bill Gates, whose charitable foundation has poured more than $4 billion into various education projects, has come to the conclusion that great schools are built around great teachers. That’s no surprise, of course. But it does present a challenge.

How do you bring great teachers into the system? The other side of that question is this: how do you get rid of the poor teachers?

If you were running a multi-billion-dollar business and it was sinking into bankruptcy, you probably would want to get rid of the employees who weren’t producing and go and hire new employees who could turn the company around.

This is what happened to the automobile industry. While General Motors and Chrysler were building highly-automated factories in South America, ironclad union contracts kept them from updating their factories here in the States. Only federal bailouts prevented the collapse of the two automotive giants.

The education business face much the same kind of problem: How can school systems get rid of poor teachers and attract excellent ones?

It’s important to understand that our public education system is a business, a business that we spend more than half a trillion dollars on, every year. A business whose product is supposed to be educated, knowledgeable youngsters who can use their brains to make their lives better.

But in reality the education business is in the hands of those employees. Not the school boards. Not the taxpayers who fund the business. Not the social scientists who study the business and report on its failures.

The employees — teachers and administrators — actually run our school systems, and they run them to protect their jobs and themselves.

Take our nation’s capital, for example. Washington DC’s public school system has long been rated as one of the nation’s worst, a national disgrace.

In 2007, Mayor Adrian Fenty hired Michelle Rhee to turn the system around. Rhee fired administrators and closed dysfunctional schools. She fought the bureaucracy to install techniques for evaluating teacher performance. The teachers union battled her every step of the way.

Their battle tactics included a campaign to get rid of Rhee and the man who hired her. In September Mayor Fenty lost his bid for re-election, and Rhee resigned shortly afterward.

Will Washington’s schools remain a disgrace? They will if the teachers union has its way. Across the nation, teachers have resisted all attempts to evaluate their performance. Business as usual is what they want, while our kids don’t get the education they need.

Top-flight schools need top-flight teachers. But we won’t get them as long as the school systems are ruled by self-serving bureaucrats.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

To put it another way: The inmates are running the asylum.

Ben Bova is a Doctor of Education and the author of nearly 125 books. His website address is www.benbova.com.

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