Educational Follies


An article from last August’s New Yorker which details the difficulty of maintaining teacher accountability in the New York Public schools. To wit, the combination of teacher’s unions, massive bureaucracies, litigiousness, and the sheer size of the NY school system has created an utterly dysfunctional system. We probably already knew that, but this piece is an interesting look at how the system fosters and coddles incompetence, as well as indicating once again how politics is governed by the law of unintended consequences.

Tellingly, the author finds hope in increased federal control of the NY schools (in no small part because the schools “are desperate for money”). Forgive me if I see the outcome of such thinking not to be the improvement of the NY schools, but rather in making the rest of the nation’s schools more like those in NYCity. It’s yet another indication how the failure of political imagination both creates problems and limits our ability to find workable solutions – ones that would emphasize smaller districts and more parental control.

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Jeffrey Polet grew up in an immigrant household in the immigrant town of Holland MI. After twenty years of academic wandering he returned to Holland and now teaches political science at Hope College, where he also grudgingly serves as chair of the department, having unsuccessfully evaded all requests. In the interim, he continues to nurture quirky beliefs: Division III basketball is both athletically and morally superior to Division I; the Hope/Calvin rivalry is the greatest in sports; the lecture is still the best form of classroom instruction; never buy a car with less than 100,000 miles on it; putts will still lip out in heaven; bears are the incarnation of evil; Athens actually has something to do with Jerusalem; and Tombstone is a cinematic classic. His academic work has mirrored his peripatetic career. Originally trained at the Catholic University of America in German philosophy and hermeneutical theory, he has since gravitated to American Political Thought. He still occasionally writes about European thinkers such as Michel Foucault or the great Max Weber, but mostly is interested in the relationship between theological reflection and political formation in the American context. In the process of working on a book on John Marshall for The Johns Hopkins University Press, he became more sensitive to the ways in which centralized decision-making undid local communities and autonomy. He has also written on figures such as William James and the unjustly neglected Swedish novelist Paer Lagerkvist. A knee injury and arthritis eliminated daily basketball playing, and he now spends his excess energy annoying his saintly wife and their three children, two of whom are off to college. Expressions of sympathy for the one who remains can be posted in the comments section. He doesn’t care too much for movies, but thinks opera is indeed the Gesamtkuntswerk, that the music of Gustav Mahler is as close as human beings get to expressing the ineffable, that God listens to Mozart in his spare time, and that Bach is history’s greatest genius.


  1. My favorite tidbit in all this is something the insiders apparently refer to as the “rubber room” where teachers removed from classrooms for mortifying lapses are kept because nobody can fire them. They do not teach but remain paid because it is somehow pragmatic to do so.

  2. Read Frank McCourt’s “Teacher Man,” which reveals more than he intended it to reveal about both teachers and schools.

  3. Excerpted without comment:

    The walls of the large, rectangular room were covered with photographs of Barack Obama and various news clippings. Just to the right of a poster that proclaimed “Bloomberg’s 3 Rs: Rubber Room Racism,” a smiling young woman sat in a lounge chair that she had brought from home. She declined to say what the charges against her were or to allow her name to be used, but told me that she was there “because I’m a smart black woman.”

    I asked the woman for her reaction to the following statement: “If a teacher is given a chance or two chances or three chances to improve but still does not improve, there’s no excuse for that person to continue teaching. I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences.”

    “That sounds like Klein and his accountability bullshit,” she responded. “We can tell if we’re doing our jobs. We love these children.” After I told her that this was taken from a speech that President Obama made last March, she replied, “Obama wouldn’t say that if he knew the real story.”

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