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Oct 23, 2017

False promises, or When doing the right thing may be the wrong thing to do

As it is often the case, several things that happened recently, have madу me think about the same thing. Giving false promises is not a good thing, as a matter of principle. And of course, principles are pretty shabby tools when they meet reality. So, there is a shortage of teachers in California, a very serious one. Of course, teacher preparation institutions want to help. After all, most of us are public institutions, we serve the public, and want to do our part. However, we can make a difference in a fraction of the problem. The problem is actually in abysmal rates of retention. 20% of new teacher leave within three years, up 50% in urban districts. It is caused by to things – salaries and working condition. Teachers are still significantly underpaid, and feel alienated from their own profession.

Teacher education programs will never be able to fill the leaky barrel bucket. Now the big question is – by trying to be good, by trying to help, do we give the public a false promise? Now, within the narrow circle of informed policy experts, it is well known that retention is the key for solving the shortage. However, I don’t think the public is aware of that. However, I am having trouble imagining the teacher education community rallying under the slogan “No, we can’t.” It does not sound good, even if true.

Here is another, a more dramatic spin on the same dilemma. If we do nothing, the labor economics laws will be allowed to play their course. Acute and worsening shortages will force districts to raise salaries, and to try to make teachers happier. Our honest efforts to produce more new teachers divert the public attention away from the real problem, and perhaps delay a sound response to the actual problem. How’s this for a paradox of the week?

Similarly, I was asked by my Russian friends to comment on a foresight of how technology will change education. Well, if my friends do a good job, the risk is that their input will actually sustain the Russian government’s illusion that technology can solve its problems without real economic, judicial, and political reforms. If my friends refuse to cooperate, someone less qualified will do it anyway. It is a no-win situation.

Now, an even bigger version of the same dilemma. Educators in general have been complicit in distorting the reality on a grand scale. By doing our best, we may have given an impression that education can solve the problems of economic inequality, and lift the American underclass out of poverty. However, it is not true; only income redistribution and smart social safety net can actually make a dent in the inequality. Education may own a small part of the problem, but it seems to take on an exaggerated role. The question is, again, how much do we contribute to prolonging of a dangerous public illusion by doing good?

The right thing to do is to continue to do our best, but state openly, loudly and repeatedly the limits of what we can actually do. We have to be honest with the public we are committed to serve.

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