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Education Opinion

Notorious P.H.D.

By Nancy Flanagan — May 31, 2012 4 min read
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A long-time, much-valued reader of Teacher in a Strange Land, Carl Rosin of Radnor, Pennsylvania, sent me one of those Emperor-has-no-clothes stories this weekend: The school board in nearby Tredyffrin-Easttown--citing a budget shortfall--is proposing that the most expensive teachers (those with a Ph.D.) be demoted to part-time.

Lest readers assume this is a know-nothing school district where pointy-headed intellectualism is derided by the deer-hunter crowd, T/E is a top-performing suburban Philadelphia district, serving the Pennsylvania Main Line in Chester County. In 2008, Philadelphia Magazine ranked the district the best in the Philadelphia area.

Says Rosin:

Nobody denies that budgeting deserves the community’s attention as a serious issue affecting education, taxes, etc. But this proposal may be the most hyperbolically obtuse “cost-cutting” measure I have ever heard.

In an era where all sides agree that education matters, and that teacher quality must rise, the symbolism alone should be powerful enough to derail such an ill-considered idea. What would it say to our students and our teachers if the solution to a tight budget were to take the people who may be the most qualified and derogate the conditions of their employment?

Good question. Why should we elevate the benefits of knowledge and scholarship, encouraging our students to be “college ready” and pursue advanced degrees, when the evidence in front of them demonstrates that academic accomplishment will get their own teachers busted down to temp status?

At a packed school board meeting in Tredyffrin-Easttown, dozens of parents and students defended their local doc-teachers, with one parent whipping out a checkbook and handing over $100 for each year he and family members attended school in the district--a total of $5300. Board members expressed thanks (not to mention shock), took the money, and then returned to their alarmist, we’re-in-crisis script, where tough economic times become the staging ground for de-professionalizing teaching. The district has already added an extra hour to secondary educators’ teaching load, generally considered a move to push attrition among veterans.

Rosin (who does not have a Ph.D--and doesn’t plan to get one) again:

I don’t even have to comment on why the negative effect of demoting highly educated teachers would be more than simply symbolic. Can anyone even imagine this technique being applied in the business world? It’s almost a Swiftian “modest proposal,” but apparently it is intended in all seriousness by the school board’s negotiation team, led by a lawyer who is well-known for his ruthless attacks on educators. Isn’t there a serious need for intelligent, highly experienced teachers who are able to challenge not only students but also colleagues?

I’m thinking that the root of Tredyffrin-Easttown’s own modest proposal lies in Rosin’s final question. What would happen if more teachers pursued terminal degrees, and brought that scope of professional knowledge into K-12 classrooms? What if teachers demanded more control over their own professional practice and issues--including compensation, defining academic excellence, curricular choices and evaluation of instructional effectiveness? Think of the power shift--those highly experienced master educators mentoring young teachers in the principles of high-quality, autonomous practice. Building a true profession, as those in higher education have done.

Rosin sees this as a troubling inversion of what ed reformers and anti-union voices seem to want to call accountability:

I have worked for many years in business and for many years as a teacher; throughout both careers I have held professionalism and accountability in high esteem. I may not love the national ranking systems that are out there but I concede that every measure agrees that Tredyffrin-Easttown’s teachers perform at the top of the profession. Measurements suggest that T/E is a top-flight district, and thus property values have skyrocketed--understandably and deservedly--and it follows that teachers deserve a lot of credit.

Tredyffrin-Easttown should be commended for having kept their costs low through all of this rise in the rankings--the tax rate there is still among the lowest in the region. It should also not be a surprise that a low tax rate eventually leads to a shortfall in funds. It seems to me that the positive return on that delayed investment has already been substantial for T/E’s residents.

It makes some sense when teacher failures bring attacks--but when their successes bring attacks?

Ed reformers and teachers alike agree that a higher-quality teaching force is a crucial step for American education to take. Positions like those taken by the T/E board must send a chill down the spine of any bright young person who is considering being a teacher.

“Accountability” doesn’t seem to mean much in this context. How can teachers, parents, and other taxpayers support so-called “accountability” in the face of this example?

A serious question: Is there any mechanism by which educators can demonstrate their value in a way that satisfies those who claim to want accountability?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.