Generation Gap

Fixing the education system.
Sept. 5 2008 12:59 PM

Generation Gap

One striking phenomenon revealed by the Denver negotiations was a generational split among teachers. Younger teachers were generally in favor the deal being offered, and older teachers tended to oppose it. (Some veteran teachers told the Denver Post that they felt "dissed.")

A similar generational divide has appeared in D.C. , where, as the Washington Post reported last month,

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many of the District's 4,000 public school teachers are locked in a heated debate over Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's proposal to offer salaries exceeding $100,000 for those willing to give up job security and tie their fates to student achievement. ... The split in the teaching corps largely, but not exclusively, is occurring along generational lines, with younger teachers more willing to accept the risks and older ones often questioning the proposal.

The Post story mentioned an anonymous young teacher-blogger, " D.C. Teacher Chic ," who is a fan of Chancellor Rhee and is decidedly in favor of her new deal (under which teachers could choose a "green plan" that would trade tenure for a higher salary or a more traditional "red plan"). Her blog—often funny, usually outraged—offers a great insight into the mind of a teacher on the young side of this growing generational divide.

At the beginning of August, when it seemed that George Parker, the president of the D.C. teachers union local, was going to turn down Rhee's offer, D.C. Teacher Chic blew a gasket :

I am going to cry. Seriously. And then I am going to start looking for another school system.

I cannot believe George Parker is supporting scraping this entire contract and going for a more "traditional agreement." Clearly, not only does he not represent me, but he is also taking money right out of my pocket!

I understand that shitty teachers who have been working in the system since 1952 don't want to give up tenure. Fine. I get it. So choose the red plan! I don't understand opposing the entire proposal, unless you just haven't read it.

On a school-by-school level, a generational war can't be very productive. (Why are all the young teachers sitting together in the cafeteria?) But the split is important in the big picture. According to a recent study , incoming teachers now are better educated than incoming teachers were 10 years ago. (In the mid-'90s, only 27 percent of prospective teachers taking a national licensing test had a GPA of 3.5 or higher; by the mid-'00s, the figure had jumped to 40 percent.)

So: a new generation of better-educated teachers interested in reform? That's a powerful force, one that in the coming months and years might push both management and labor toward a new kind of arrangement, one in which teachers really are treated like professionals.

Paul Tough is the author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character and Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest To Change Harlem and America. He is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and a speaker on various topics including education, poverty, parenting, and politics.

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