The NEA Quotes Again

by Martin Harris 

Martin Harris

Fourth Estaters (even amateurs like your Humble Scribe) are forever, like hogs snuffling for truffles, in search of the next juicy and evocative quote for use in the next brilliantly-incisive column. Sometimes the memorable words come from other Fourth Estaters (quiz your high school history student on the First, Second, and Third, the original components of the French ancien regime) like author Mark Twain (“the more I see of people, the better I like my dog”) or the unnamed NY Times source of the once-lived-up-to slogan “All the News That’s Fit to Print”. Sometimes we harvest a trio from a single industry union, The National Education Association.

Factually, “the NEA quotes again” is an inaccurate mis-quote of the 1925 Phantom of the Opera one-liner, but “the NEA strikes again” would be too-depressingly accurate, as recent K-12 history has shown. And there have been memorable education-union quotes. The two best (Humble Scribe opinion) came from Albert Shanker, then Prez of his once-competitive American Federation of Teachers. He’s perhaps best known for this one: “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children”. His comment on the public education system –”we’ve got a lemon factory and it’s turning out 80-85% lemons”– isn’t shared by modern educators (think Vermont in general and Rutland in particular) who claim the “excellence” label because their students’ math and reading non-Proficiency rate is 20 points better at about 65%) and his comments on teacher (in)competence won’t be shown here. Now the NEA Prez is Dennis van Roekel, and his quote is a question: “How much is it worth to teach our children?” He offers no answer in his 11 Nov 11 Wall Street Journal Letter-to-the-Editor, but there are two, one historical and one current.

Data from 1960 (near the end of K-12’s pre-modern-fads ancien regime) show average class size was near 30, average per-pupil cost near $400, average student Proficiency near 100% (no grade-to-grade promotion without it) and teacher control of the classroom near total. In current dollars, the answer to DvR’s question is $2760 each, per year, using the Consumer Price Index deflator.

Data from the present show an average class size near 15, average student Proficiency near 40%, and average per-pupil cost near $11,000. We don’t know what it would cost to “teach our children” within the new K-12 system, nor can we measure the lost worth in terms of non-Proficient grads who can’t qualify for jobs. The value of the loss of once-widespread literacy and numeracy, like the worth of classroom discipline, are similarly immeasurable. We’re told that bringing any particular percentage of students to Proficient isn’t the schools’ job, but that if they got a lot more money they could do it, according to the Vermont lawsuit against Federal proficiency standards. Maybe the Dennis van Roekel quote was only rhetorical.

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It was preceded by a similar bumper-sticker slogan, a decade or so back: “If You Think Education Is Expensive, Try Ignorance”. Like the subsequent DvR question it presumes, contrary to the earlier Shanker “lemon factory” quote, that present-day educators are actually educating effectively, as measured by results in student Proficiency and system productivity, while the actual statistics say otherwise. In similar vein is the newer bumper sticker: “If You Can Read This, Thank a Teacher.” Note that all words except one are monosyllabic and can be read by students or grads who have made Basic but not Proficient. By historic standards, the industry’s education efforts are expensive. In a practical sense, we are trying ignorance; the schools aren’t preventing it as well as they could and once did.

For a bumper sticker requiring rather more Proficiency to appreciate, try this one: “Fight Illiteracy: Abolish the NEA”. It presumes not only competency with a five-syllable word, but also sufficient currents-events awareness to know what industry organization the NEA acronym represents, and what its management objectives are or aren’t.

Another five-syllable word absent from the usual presentations on vehicle bumpers or in public venues is “productivity” and (a little HS opinion, here) it is one of the keys to the present state of the once-revered K-12 industry. The other is the recent content shift, which needs reversal, and, if the present Common Core campaign succeeds, will get it. In contrast, a reverse of the now-decades-long productivity decline in public education –costs up, student achievement stagnant — is not yet even in sight. Yes, both Shanker then and van Roekel now want (in the union boss George Meany one-word formula) “more” for their members, but unlike Meany and John L. Lewis, who even more directly linked industry productivity gains to better wages, both have been pushing in quite the opposite direction in their class-size-reduction efforts, now showing a 40-year record of promised but not-achieved student-achievement-gain. Teachers can and should be paid more if and when they teach more, not only in Common Core content but in classroom student numbers. The math applies to the class-size side of the question, because it costs no more or less to teach fundamental literacy, numeracy, history, and civics, than the current mix of socio-political ideologies.

With an annual per-pupil Direct Instruction cost near $5,000 (in Tennessee; much more in, say, Vermont and much less in, say, Utah) a Board and administration which decide to enable their teachers to average not 15 but 20 in their rooms, can simultaneously enable their teachers to earn up to $25,000 more annually without depressing overall productivity (achievement didn’t rise during the 80’s, when the then-average class size of 20 was shrinking) in either achievement or spending. Teachers can’t raise their productivity on their own, but, just as in manufacturing or mining, management can do it for them.

First, it must want to. Not yet heard on TV or seen on a bumper sticker: any van Roekel quote extolling both aspects, content and costs, of productivity gains in K-12 education.