Accountability is important in our society. When you do a job, you need to be prepared to stand behind it and defend the results. From doctors to lawyers and engineers to social workers, our nation’s professionals are held accountable for the jobs they do, and face repercussions if they fail to meet the mark. It’s this system that ensures each individual performs to a certain standard.

What, then, are we to make of America’s education system? It seems that, though we are willing to hold our doctors and lawyers accountable, we have let our nation’s educators slip by unnoticed. Children are our nation’s most precious resource. The ability of the next generation to compete with the best and brightest throughout the world is of the utmost importance. However, as school systems across the nation are increasingly placed under the microscope, it would appear that those charged with preparing our youth are receiving a failing grade.

According to the new controversial documentary on America’s schools, “Waiting for Superman,” America ranks 25th in math and 21st in science of 30 developed nations. The top five percent of American students rank 23rd out of 29 developed nations. Since the 1970s, our nation has fallen behind in education. Before this problem can be addressed, we must determine where our education system is lacking.

Let’s use our University as an example. At the end of each semester, students are sent a class evaluation. As part of those evaluations, we can rate the quality of the professor, GSI and the class as a whole. From these evaluations, faculty and administrators assess the effectiveness of teachers, GSIs and overall classroom instruction. This idea is not unique to the University — colleges across the nation have been using student evaluations to assess the quality of education since the 1920s. Yet, there is disconnect between the effective practices in higher education and what occurs in America’s K-12 system. I never filled out a class evaluation in high school, and I certainly never encountered a teacher evaluation.

This isn’t to say that teacher evaluations haven’t been proposed and supported. On the contrary, school districts in New Jersey and Illinois are putting increased support behind teacher evaluations, much to the chagrin of teachers’ unions. Just watching recent media coverage of this uniquely American problem, it becomes clear why teachers’ unions are so adamantly opposed to evaluations: they would be held personally accountable for the jobs they do in the classrooms.

As members of the Statewide Action & Grassroots Education Campaign in Illinois lobby for parental access to teacher evaluations, educators are fighting back harder than ever. In response to the recent uproar, an education expert preached to Catalyst Chicago, an Illinois-based publication focusing on education matters, that making such information public domain would “unfairly hurt the reputation of some teachers and potentially cause attempts to crowd children into the classrooms of other teachers.” But it seems to me that teachers who consistently fail to educate children to a minimum standard relinquish their right to an untarnished reputation.

In addition to evaluations, K-12 teacher tenure must be abolished. There is no single program as detrimental to the education system as the one that protects inadequate teachers simply because they’ve been in the building for a few years. Tenure makes it difficult to terminate a teacher and protects ineffective educators from being held accountable for their poor performance. According to the Hoover Institution, a conservative public policy think tank, a Los Angeles union representative is quoted as saying, “it’s impossible to get them out. It’s impossible. Unless they commit a lewd act.” Tenure must be eliminated in order for a real assessment of educators to be possible. There must be a real threat of termination for teachers who do not perform in the classroom.

Albert Shanker, one-time president of the United Federation of Teachers, once said, “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.” It seems Shanker didn’t understand the purpose of America’s education system. Schools are not public works programs, nor do they exist for the advancement of a union agenda. Schools exist to serve America’s youth.

But with no programs to assess the effectiveness of a teacher and no means of recourse if an educator is deemed ineffective, teachers unions have America’s schools in a stranglehold. Until teachers can be held accountable for the jobs they do, like every other professional, and put the interests of children ahead of petty union agendas, our nation’s youth will pay the price.

Tyler Jones can be reached at tylerlj@umich.edu.

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