The Agenda

The Onion on Education

There’s this new Point-Counterpoint in the satirical newspaper The Onion juxtaposing an idealistic young teacher and a struggling inner-city youth, both of whom are, of course, entirely fictional. Here is an excerpt from the fictional youth, who as it happens is a wise Latino called “Brandon Mendez”:

Just once, it would be nice to walk into a classroom and see a teacher who has a real, honest-to-God degree in education and not a twentysomething English graduate trying to bolster a middling GPA and a sparse law school application. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a qualified educator who has experience standing up in front of a classroom and isn’t desperately trying to prove to herself that she’s a good person.

What do we know about the value of a “real, honest-to-God degree in education”? Back in 2002, Dan Goldhaber surveyed the evidence for Education Next and found that it was mixed. More recently, in 2009, the Princeton-Brookings Future of Children project found that the evidence in favor of education degrees was similarly inconclusive

Brandon continues:

I’m not some sort of stepping stone to a larger career, okay? I’m an actual child with a single working mother, and I need to be educated by someone who actually wants to be a teacher, actually comprehends the mechanics of teaching, and won’t get completely eaten alive by a classroom full of 10-year-olds within the first two months on the job.

How about a person who can actually teach me math for a change? Boy, wouldn’t that be a novel concept!

This raises a number of interesting questions and possibilities. When Brandon says he needs to be educated by “someone who actually wants to be a teacher” and “who can actually teach me math for a change,” he might be amenable to work rule reforms that would allow administrators to fire ineffective teachers. That would be a novel concept indeed. 

I fully understand that our nation is currently facing an extreme shortage of teachers and that we all have to make do with what we can get. But does that really mean we have to be stuck with some privileged college grad who completed a five-week training program and now wants to document every single moment of her life-changing year on a Tumblr?

The notion that there is “an extreme shortage of teachers” is not entirely clear given the extent of the class size reduction (CSR) in recent decades. As Matthew Chingos observed in a report for the Center for American Progress, these class size reductions have in many cases led to the hiring of inexperienced and less effective teachers, which is, as I understand it, Brandon central complaint. So perhaps the “extreme shortage of teachers” is the product of a misguided emphasis on class size reduction over teacher effectiveness. That is, we don’t actually “have to make to with what we can get” if we were able to move past the emphasis on CSR. 

The genius of this kind of satire is that it reinforces pre-existing beliefs yet it is not generally subject to critical scrutiny for the obvious reason that, well, it’s satire. But in a world in which many of us get our news from notionally satirical sources, it is fun to see the assumptions that are at work. In this case, for example, the fact that the self-regarding teacher is a young woman from America’s majority ethnoracial group and the student who is expressing the views of Diane Ravitch is a small Latino boy is actually crucially important — because if the self-regarding teacher were African American and the student were a pint-sized version of Diane Ravitch, the story would take on a very different valence. 

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