A Little Overdue Praise for Educators

by Mark Naison, professor of African and African American Studies at Fordham University in New York and chair of the department of African and African-American Studies.

America’s public schools were never perfect. But they helped hold the country together through wrenching economic crises that left many communities deeply wounded and many Americans wondering if they had a future. Some of what went on in our most economically depressed schools involved real courage and heroism. All of it required patience and hard work.

One thing these schools showed is that they could effectively run institutions without huge salaries and bonuses for executives and without a huge gap between the employees and their managers. In most public schools, the principal’s salary was never more than a third higher than the highest paid teacher, rather than the 400 to 1 CEO to worker ratio that now exists in American industry. And maybe that was one of the reasons that public schools survived economic crises better than private companies, whose top executives never missed an opportunity to pillage a failing firm for their “golden parachutes.”

If I sound ironic, and maybe a little bitter, it’s because I think most elected officials today have it all wrong. It is not American business that is the great success story and public education the dismal failure. Maybe it’s time to bring teachers and administrators into our top firms and have them show how to run things without wasting huge amounts of money on executive salaries, and without making people work in constant fear of being fired.

It is time to look more realistically at the role our public schools have played in America’s transition from an industrial society into service information society, which has left out huge portions of our population. And it is time to give educators the respect they deserve for handling one of the most difficult jobs in the society with a lot more endurance and courage and generosity than some in the private sector.

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