This week, rather than speaking to a single topic, I’ll be talking about two that have been much on my mind of late.  First, Mr. Obama’s recent speech about who is really responsible for success, and later, a discussion on school staffing.

So if someone builds a business, it’s really government doing it?  Thus spake President Barack Obama, on the stump.  My article from yesterday also discusses this issue.  His point was that an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving and supportive federal government is truly responsible for all success in America, and without it, nothing could be accomplished.  It follows, therefore, that more and more and more and more government is to be desired, so more people can enjoy the success they could not possibly enjoy without such government.  Oh yes, and part of The One’s example was that the successful might have once had a great teacher—obviously an agent of the all-embracing government—who helped make whatever pathetic, undeserved success they might enjoy (with appropriate guilt, of course) possible.

I have a confession to make: I am that great teacher.  Hey, put down that rock!  I don’t mean the government agent, I mean the competent, caring, capable teacher who really gives a damn about my students.  I’m able to do that because I am actually a human being, an independent human being capable of feelings and actions.  That appears to be one of a great many things Mr. Obama is unable to understand, blinded by collectivist ideology as he so obviously is.

Governments, you see, have no feelings, no conscience.  They have no morals, no ethics, no empathy.  They have only rules, laws, regulations and policies, and they can be rationally judged only on the effect and effectiveness of those policies.  Oh, I know that a given government employee can, from time to time, show a bit of kindness and empathy in the performance of their duty, but again, that’s a human being, not government.

Take The No Child Left Behind law, for example.  It demands that every child in America must be reading and doing math on grade level in 2014—that’s two years from now.  That’s policy, not rationality.  We might as well pass a law requiring every child in American to dunk a basketball and bench press 400 pounds by 2014.  It’s simply not going to happen, but page after page of rules and regulations and laws—and now waivers from all those pages–continue to be written and—of all things—taken seriously, because nothing on Earth is better at taking itself seriously—and with less justification–than government.

So I guess when I worked hard and earned my bachelor’s degree in 2.5 years summa cum laude, government actually did that.  When I didn’t take out a single loan for my education and paid for it myself, I guess government somehow did that.  All of those hours and dollars spent for master’s classes was apparently also the government’s benevolence despite the fact that the time and money involved really did seem to come out of my limited resources of time and money.

And what of the 60-80 hour weeks I spend grading and preparing for class throughout the school year?  Apparently the Federal government is responsible for that.  And the $2000.00 or more I spend each and every year on supplies and supporting materials for my classes?  Must be the government again.  And the meals and clothing and school supplies I provide for kids who have none of those things?  Gee, thanks Mr. Federal Bureaucrat!

I do drive on public highways, and work in a building built with public funds, but I seem to remember willingly paying taxes because it is actually the business of government to do a limited number of things we can’t do for ourselves, things like build highways, schools, maintaining the military for our common defense, securing our borders—oh right, our federal government doesn’t do that anymore, particularly in the border states like Arizona and Texas.  Sorry. Forgot.  So–hey!  I just realized that we–each of us–actually pay for government to do what we want it to do!  You know, the whole “government derives is powers from the consent of the governed” business.  Why doesn’t Mr. Obama understand that?

And I do accept a salary from the taxpayers, but I pay a part of that salary, and the Federal government has nothing to do with it.  The citizens of my community and state decide who they want to hire; any federal role is nothing less than interference in the process.  Some sneer about “government schools,” as though every teacher is a brainwashed drone intent only on indoctrinating helpless children.  I’m no agent of the government, but an agent of America, of the American way, of my community and neighbors, of self-reliance, industry, hard work, personal honor, patriotism, kindness and the value of life-long education.  Yes, I accept public money, but I am determined to give the public far more in value and dedication than I receive.

So yes, Mr. Obama, I am that teacher than helps others, just not in the way you imagine.  I help people to succeed.  You want government to succeed–and rule.

At the Wall Street Journal Online recently, Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute had an interesting—and disturbing—article, the basic theme of which was there are too many teachers. 

This would be a whacking surprise to a great many schools, I’m sure, but let’s let Mr. Coulson make his case:

Since 1970, the public school workforce has roughly doubled—to 6.4 million from 3.3 million—and two-thirds of those new hires are teachers or teachers’ aides. Over the same period, enrollment rose by a tepid 8.5%. Employment has thus grown 11 times faster than enrollment. If we returned to the student-to-staff ratio of 1970, American taxpayers would save about $210 billion annually in personnel costs.

Or would they? Stanford economist Eric Hanushek has shown that better-educated students contribute substantially to economic growth. If U.S. students could catch up to the mathematics performance of their Canadian counterparts, he has found, it would add roughly $70 trillion to the U.S. economy over the next 80 years. So if the additional three million public-school employees we’ve hired have helped students learn, the nation may be better off economically.

To find out if that’s true, we can look at the “long-term trends” of 17-year-olds on the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress. These tests, first administered four decades ago, show stagnation in reading and math and a decline in science. Scores for black and Hispanic students have improved somewhat, but the scores of white students (still the majority) are flat overall, and large demographic gaps persist. Graduation rates have also stagnated or fallen. So a doubling in staff size and more than a doubling in cost have done little to improve academic outcomes.

Mr. Coulson’s article is worth reading in its entirety, but the upshot is an argument for more private schools which will supposedly improve not only the economy, but improve educational outcomes and thus, the nation’s productivity.  Of course, government must be involved in authorizing and subsidizing—through tax credits at the least—these programs.

I can’t speak to the ultimate accuracy of Mr. Coulson’s statistics, but there are some things we ought to keep in mind.  It is easy indeed to claim, for example, that education is failing, but the truth is, in most places, public education is working quite well.  The incredibly abysmal failures such as LA, Detroit, DC and other big city schools probably more than make up for all of the good being done elsewhere in America.

By Coulson’s own figures, 1/3 of “new hires” are not teachers or paraprofessionals that directly assist teachers.  In other words, they’re probably administrators.  I can attest that it’s likely true we have far more administrators than we once had, and probably, than we need.  But at least part of that problem—to the degree it is a real problem in a given school district—owes to the fact that State and Federal mandates virtually require the hiring of administrators and others necessary to generate and shuffle all of the paperwork necessary to fulfill governmental requirements.  The data required is truly voluminous and bewildering, the swath of dead trees cut through forests wide and endless.

If we have too many teachers, part of the issue might be the understanding that smaller class sizes—particularly in the lower grades—are vital.  I’m good at discipline.  I have few problems with my kids, but my largest classes are no more than 24 kids.  This is so because our classrooms as small, and unless we go to bunk-desks, I can’t fit any more desks into my classroom–have you noticed that kids are bigger than they were back in the 1400s when we went to school?  They are–not and have room for things like bookshelves and the walking space necessary to actually reach a desk.

Once you get to 30 and more kids in a classroom, the entire dynamic changes.  I’m always amused and dismayed when I read the comments of older readers—that’s me, folks—who recall very large classes in their elementary and secondary schooling years.  What they sometimes seem to forget is that they—and society—were quite different then.  My family was quite traditional.  My mother worked only to earn a bit of Christmas money around that season, but other than that, my father brought home the family bacon.  They, and virtually every other parent, were intimately involved in their children’s education, and PTA meetings were frequent and standing room only.  Misbehavior was tempered by the fact that whatever punishment the school would hand out would be nothing compared to what parents would impose.  Expectations were different and society really was different in the good old days.

Now, the larger the class, the less learning will take place.  Much more time must be devoted to simply maintaining order, and with more kids, less time is available for really reading and commenting on their work.  It truly is vital that teachers have time to deal with each and every student in a sincere and meaningful way to help them develop to the greatest possible extent.  I sometimes have a handful of kids with limited English skills.  I was going to say it’s hard to imagine having a class with ten or more of them, but it’s actually not hard at all.  It would be a disaster for everyone.

One year I had a class with only three students.  Outrageous?  In my school, I’m given the kids who fail the mandatory, high-stakes English test.  I work intensively with them to bring them up to speed so they can pass.  If they don’t, they can’t graduate from high school, and their failure will drastically affect our campus and district ratings, which in turn can actually get teachers and principals fired.  This is simply an example of the costs of state and federal government mandates.  When all that really matters is passing tests, schools have to hire and organize based on that reality.  I may, inadvertently be one of those too-many teachers Mr. Coulson so laments, at least for one period of the day every other year or so, but it’s really not my fault.  I’m needed and fully engaged the other six classes, and you really can’t hire teachers just to teach kid of sort of part time.

Another matter to consider might be the profusion of coaches in many school districts.  I know of high schools of moderate size across the nation with 20 or more coaches involved in high school football, each drawing a considerable stipend for their participation.  Yet such situations are often sacrosanct.  The mere idea that a high school football program might have to limp along on say, ten rather than 20 or more coaches, is heresy.

Are there school districts with large numbers of essentially useless employees, employees who can’t be fired for malfeasance, even for breaking the law?  Sure, but they’re not the rule in America–I’ve never worked in or seen one–and states and local districts can change those circumstances.  They do not have to give unions sweetheart deals, or indeed, have unions at all, for example.  I know that in my school district, and every district where I’ve ever worked or about which I have reasonable knowledge, there is little or no deadwood. Hiring a single additional teacher is very difficult to justify, and in general, we make do with too few teachers.

All generalities are bad.  As with so much in the education debates, generalities often miss the point or are utterly untrue in much of the nation.  Mr. Coulson might be right in some places, and utterly off base in others—such as where I work.  But it doesn’t hurt to discuss this, and other issues.