In high school, I had a teacher who announced in September that he would be sick in October. He had tickets to the World Series.
I had another who was so wacky he appointed a student to taste the water before he would drink from the fountain. And I had a college adviser in the clutches of senility who was advising students to attend colleges that no longer existed.
Later, both as an education reporter and as a parent, I encountered teachers who had no idea how many students were in their classes, could not spell and thought that as long as they kept to the syllabus they could not be held accountable for the unfortunate fact that their students were not learning a thing.
I raise these worst-case examples in defense of President Reagan. He had the effrontery to suggest that teachers not only be held accountable for their teaching ability but, of all things, that they be paid accordingly. It may be the first idea he's had to justify the reckless use of the term "Reagan Revolution."
The president is on the side of the pedagogical angels when he emphasizes the importance of teachers and principals. Every study affirms this, as do our own memories. For more than one person, a great and caring teacher has meant all the difference in the world. And unless things have changed dramatically, teachers still can be judged by their students.
Teaching, after all, is not all that mysterious, and while some aspects of it are hard to evaluate, that is certainly not the case with teachers who simply cannot teach. Their colleagues know who they are, just as they know which ones simply do not care. If there are no teachers like that, then teaching is the only profession without such examples.
For understandable reasons, teacher unions fight the notion that teachers should be paid on the basis of merit. They have made dismissals based on performance a rarity and they have so imbued teaching with a phony mystique you would think they are talking about some discipline the public could not possibly understand--nuclear physics, or something. But most of us have been students. We know a bit about the teaching game.
If the president is right about all that, though, he is wrong when he suggests that federal aid only affects education by making it worse. Terrific teachers and principals are not the norm. If the word "terrific" is going to have any meaning it has to mean exceptional. As a result, we have to talk about the norm when talking about education. We have to talk about average teachers and average principals. In talking about the average, a little money would help.
This, in short, is what Adam Salgado said. He is the principal of San Antonio's Albert Sidney Johnston High School, one of three schools cited by the president as examples of those where the principal, not money, makes a difference. In the case of Johnston High School, Salgado sure did. But so did a court-ordered busing plan and so did an extra $1 million the school district poured in to make sure busing worked.
It should be apparent that there is nothing inherent in money, even federal money, that ruins schools. Money may not be the whole story, may not be even the biggest part of the story, but as long as it buys textbooks and pays salaries, it can hardly hurt. The decline in educational quality that the president cites was caused by other factors. No school ever went bad because it had too much money.
To an extent, the president and the teaching establishment deserve each other. Both are mired in the quicksand of ideology, staking out positions that have more to do with either political advantage or self-interest than with what is supposed to be their main concern--improved teaching.
To those of us who have neither an ideological nor a financial stake in the matter, it seems apparent that both sides have a point. They are both right about some things and wrong about others, but neither side has a monopoly on either good intentions or the truth. Any kid can see that the schools need better teachers and more money. But any kid can see also that the last thing that counts in this fight are the kids.