What’s Missing in Discussions of “Children’s Interests”?
If you follow education policy debates in the media, you’re sure to hear certain phrases that catch on for a while because they provide a quick and convenient way to simplify and label people. “Defenders of the status quo” know all too well what I’m talking about. I once commented that if I were to refuse education “reformers” offering me gasoline to put out a fire, they’d call me a defender of the status quo. If you don’t want the change they’re selling, there’s only one possible explanation.
Another simplification I hear and read often is that school reform must be carried out with the interests of children placed ahead of the interests of adults. Most recently, I found it (and commented on it) in a blog post by John Merrow. What a beautiful sentiment! You can’t argue against that, can you? Well…
I’m going to. Though first, let’s stake out some common ground. I’m not going to defend every article ever negotiated by districts and unions. I’m not going to pretend that unions are not labor organizations and are instead altruistic and philanthropic organizations. I have been in situations (not at my current school) where I felt union representatives were more concerned about strict implementation of the contract than they were about staff cohesion and school improvement. I’ve been told that one of my ideas for increased professional development would be “sacrilege” because I suggested compensation need not be tied to teaching experience when the day’s work is not teaching. Still, on the balance, I’m a proud member and supporter of teachers’ unions, and I’m not airing these exceptions in any lead up to a waivering in that support.
So, let’s get back to this idea about the adults’ interests versus the children’s interests. Sometimes the union is held up as the bad guy, and sometimes it’s the school, district, or even the whole notion of public education. Now, as a daily reminder, a check on our actions, I do find value in the idea of putting the students’ first. In my school, we recently discussed in a meeting where and when teacher advisors should make ourselves available to students who have schedule questions or problems on the first days of school. In that case, I think it’s fair to push back if one side argues for the teachers’ convenience while the more compelling argument is to make the process work smoothly for students.
Other times, I think it’s fair to push back at someone arguing in terms of “the children’s needs” by asking, “which children?” An administrator might take advantage of a sympathetic teacher who has great skill in supporting students with special educational needs in a mainstream classroom. It’s best for the children to be with a teacher who can best serve their needs. And so it keeps happening. Eventually, you reach a tipping point, and it’s fair to ask if it’s best for the students already in that class to have their teacher pushed and stretched and taken advantage of repeatedly. If my son were in that classroom, would his best interests be served by putting someone else’s son in an already over-crowded classroom? It’s no longer so clear, is it? Might a teacher turn to the contract, seek help from the union, and tell the principal, “Enough!” – and still be looking out for children’s interests?
Then there are issues of working conditions and pay. For example, it really would seem to be in students’ best interests if my contract required me to be on campus an extra hour each school day. If the proposed change does not include an increase in salary, I’m being asked to work an extra five hours “for the children” rather than for the money. That’s five hours per week that I currently use to care for my family, manage my household, and maintain my health. If my employer can invoke the greater good of “chidren’s interests” and expect me to give up my “pursuit of happiness” for free, then somehow I’ve lost my bearings in this country.
Just because a policy change will serve children well doesn’t mean that I’m obligated to accept it. The logical extension of always serving the children’s needs is that teachers should give away their work and their rights, and forego their individual prerogatives. There’s an exchange of pay and labor involved in this and any other profession, and a segment of society that has taken advantage of teachers for far too long and expects us to keep on giving. As a career, teaching is already underpaid relative to other careers with comparable education levels and experience levels, even with the pensions included. Career teachers have bent and bent for decades, but since it’s “for the children” some people just won’t be satisfied until we have nothing left to give. (In fact, the overall debate right now about compensation in the public sector is rather depressing, as it seems any aspirations towards professional pay for professional work have been deemed greedy and unsustainable, despite the fact that our nation has a vast and growing income and wealth inequality, and relative to other modern industrial nations, a low tax burden as a percentage of GDP).
And yet, to turn the argument in another direction, I would also suggest it’s unfair to suggest that teachers’ professional interests are fundamentally or even consistently in opposition to children’s interests. My union promotes working conditions that best support the quality of my work with children; furthermore, deriving a reasonable living from my labor is what keeps me where I am, doing high-level professional work for the benefit of children in a public school. Attracting and retaining quality teachers is not only in the best educational interests of children, but also in the financial interests of governments, as teacher turnover is incredibly costly.
Or, as I commented on John Merrow’s blog, if we’re going the route of pitting children’s interests against adults’ interests, then let’s be consistent; anyone who profits by providing an essential service to others should be held to the same standard as a self-interested group seeking to maximize their own income at the expense of those they serve. I now call on employees in public broadcasting to work more hours and produce more stories for the same pay; they take our tax dollars, and it’s about time they put the interests of an informed American citizenry first. And forget asking for any new equipment; they can use what they’ve got. If they want anything more, it can only mean they’re putting their own interests ahead of the nation.
Another option: let’s have a serious conversation about really serving children’s interests as a society. It would really serve children well if we helped more of them out of poverty in this country, or prevent them from entering poverty in the first place. Instead, we lead the world in consumption and tolerate having a fifth of our children living in poverty, and the next fifth in low-income households. If we really want to put children’s interests first, then it’s time we provided them all with proper health care, dental care, hearing and vision screenings. And while we’re at it, wouldn’t children be better off if their parents also had guaranteed access to health care? But when it’s time to pay for what children really need, we have a society that rapidly loses interest in (other people’s) children.