To understand school funding debate, take a short walk in a teacher’s shoes

To really appreciate the challenges public school teachers face and the pressure they’re under, perhaps it would help to take a moment to try to get into the mind of a teacher. (I find that prospect infinitely more appealing than getting into the classroom of teacher. That just sounds terrifying.)

Indeed, I think this could be a useful exercise for any one of us, so I’ll do my best to draw my own parallels.

One of my skills is copy editing. It’s something I’ve been paid to do, so I guess I’m bona fide. In fact, I once spent two years at a well-known nonprofit doing nothing but editing other people’s often purple prose. So I understand the profession and the difficulties copy editors face, often under deadline pressure.

Now, I’ve never been a public school teacher, so it’s hard for me to completely understand the challenges these brave men and women regularly face, but I think I can relate on some level. Teaching and copy editing are definitely not the same thing, but there are a few superficial similarities. Teachers and editors are both expected to help the people they work with put their best foot forward. Teachers are expected to perform miracles with young minds, and editors are expected to perform their own brand of magic with writers’ sometimes ragged text.

One of the things you learn early on as a copy editor is that all writers are not created equal. At my previous job, I was roughly the same editor each day, but the copy I received varied wildly in quality. There were good writers, average writers, poor writers, and awful writers. I was expected to assist them all, and my boss expected everything that left our hands to be professional-grade, which was fine. As an editor, I expect the same of myself. But with a limited amount of time in the day and a page-count quota to meet, being forced to edit a gruesome reclamation project could put a serious crimp in my day.

Early on in this job, I actually enjoyed dealing with the hard cases. They challenged me as an editor, and I derived a lot of satisfaction from turning a poor story into a decent one. But as I progressed in the job and the expectations and deadline pressure mounted, I found myself doing whatever I could to avoid getting stuck with one of these hot messes. If they took a lot of time to edit (which they invariably did), they made me look bad. If I rushed through them and they ended up reading like something George W. Bush might say while on Jägermeister and Ambien (which was even more likely), they made me look worse. So I was often in a lose-lose situation.

But what really irritated me was when people clearly weren’t trying. The nonprofit I worked with had an India affiliate, so I regularly edited copy from folks whose first language wasn’t English. While it could be frustrating to receive one of these assignments, it was hard to resent the writers. They wrote English a lot better than I wrote Hindi, after all, and they were doing their best.

But occasionally we were forced to deal with people who were sloppy or lazy or just didn’t care. In fact, they seemed to expect that we’d fix whatever mess they’d created, so they didn’t try as hard as they could.

Now imagine if, in addition to all these challenges, the organization had started pulling resources from our department because the copy leaving our desks wasn’t Shakespeare. And what if upper management had decided to outsource some of our work, taking money out of our pockets and removing tools we needed to function so they could redirect them to the people who were taking our assignments? Hey, that might have been fine with me had we been allowed to offload some of the English-as-a-second-language writers and the writers who clearly didn’t care. But what if the best writers (the ones who cared most about their craft) noticed how overworked our regular editors were – how bogged down we were with the hard cases and the disengaged workers – and figured the best course of action was to send all their copy to the private contractors the organization was working with?

I think it’s easy to see what would have happened. The private contractors, who would have had more latitude in selecting their clients to begin with, would have gotten a higher percentage of the conscientious writers because those writers would have chosen to leave our department in order to have their copy read by editors who had the time to edit it carefully. Our department would have then been left to deal with the apathetic writers, which would have made us look even worse. Meanwhile, the private company would have looked better than it actually was because it was drawing a higher percentage of writers who actually cared about the finished product.

The parallels to education are clear. No matter how carefully you set up a school voucher program, at the very least you’re going to end up funneling out of the public school system the children of parents who are engaged enough to seek options for their kids. And any educator will tell you that parental engagement is one of the key factors in student performance. In fact, one study concluded that parental involvement was a more significant factor than the quality of the schools themselves.

So what was my answer to my dilemma? I decided I should leave my job and go somewhere where the writing was a lot better. And so even though I still believed in the mission of this organization, I did exactly that. I looked for greener pastures. My own experience had taught me that there’s a limit to how much B.S. human beings can put up with. And I never had to deal with anything close to the scapegoating and pressure teachers are routinely expected to endure. This was a perverse outcome, to be sure. I had received good performance reviews, but in the end I decided to seek employment with an organization that needed me less (i.e., one that produced much better copy) and leave one that arguably needed me more. (Poor writing wasn’t the only reason I left, but it was a big factor.)

So what message are we sending teachers who might feel called to work with impoverished students in our public schools? The deck is stacked against you – and we’re going to go out of our way to stack it against you more and more – so there’s no point in even trying. Find a good job in an affluent suburb and watch the awards and accolades pour in.

In recent years, public school critics have been quick to point out that America is falling behind in educational achievement despite all the money we’ve poured into education. But what these critics almost always fail to mention is that the total amount we spend clearly masks the inequities that still exist in our schools. While it would make more sense to spend more on our most disadvantaged students, often we do just the opposite.


Indeed, one of the countries that’s been beating us on the international stage has pursued policies that seem to run in the opposite direction of the education conversation in the Badger State. Finland, which has hovered near the top of the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) rankings in the last decade and a half, didn’t achieve its recent success by breaking the teachers unions, slashing teachers’ pay, or turning a blind eye to inequities in the educational system. On the contrary, equality is a major emphasis in the Finnish system. In addition, the teaching profession is highly respected, and teachers are often recruited from among the best and the brightest.

As one Finnish elementary school principal told Smithsonian magazine, “Children from wealthy families with lots of education can be taught by stupid teachers. We try to catch the weak students. It’s deep in our thinking.”

How drastic a departure is that from our own educational system, which rewards wealthy students with excellent teachers and first-class facilities and punishes the needy with poor and failing schools?

As for private school vouchers, they’re a nonstarter in Finland. As Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish education official, said while on a visit to America (as quoted in The Atlantic), “there are no private schools in Finland.”

It’s hard not to sympathize with the frustration politicians, educators, and especially parents feel when confronted with failing and sometimes dangerous public schools. But I really have to question whether flat-lining spending on public schools while expanding voucher programs – as Scott Walker proposed to do in his recent budget – is the way to go. Shouldn’t we be doing more to make sure all our schools give students the best chance to succeed?

Also, is it really in our best interests to further demoralize (or demonize) teachers, who are often handed challenges that would make many of us cringe? How would any of us fare if we were handed fewer resources, a larger percentage of apathetic clients, and higher performance standards? Not well, I’d wager.

I fear that Scott Walker, with his continued assaults on public education, is simply turning good people away from the teaching profession – talented people who could really make a difference in kids’ lives. Worse, he could be steering good teachers away from hard-to-teach students who need the most help.

Is disrespecting the public school system really the most promising way to solve our education woes? Scott Walker appears to think so; Finland’s successful reformers would say no.

In the end, it’s a question we all need to ask ourselves. But first, it’s only fair to take a long look at the kinds of challenges our teachers already face.

Sign up for the free IB Update – your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. Click hereIf you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.