Let’s Try Something New with Policing and Education

In the past few weeks, two white police officers have avoided indictment after killing unarmed black men. Grand juries decided these officers acted appropriately given the circumstances, regardless of the outcome. Of course, those sane people among us disagree and would like to see police officers held accountable when they kill people of color. Yet, there is no conversation in this country about how best to get good outcomes from policing or what good policing looks like or how to hold officers accountable for any outcomes.

Accountability is not a word we often use in conjunction with police officers or whole police forces even. We do not know what sorts of goals or outcomes (like no killing unarmed people) we might hold them to. But there is a profession about which we use that word quite often. That profession is teaching. Organizations like the National Education Association issue Accountability Policies. People like Robert Slavin, who work for whole organizations dedicated to making education better write articles arguing the merits of which evidence should be used to evaluate teacher accountability. Everyone, it seems, agrees that teachers, who rarely kill anyone, need to be fixed and that their work must be constantly scrutinized.

Within the scrutiny of teachers and the marked non-scrutiny of police officers lies another fascinating double standard. The measures by which teachers are judged do not allow for differences in school district, economic well-being of students, social factors, or the facilities and resources in individual schools. When educators point out that such factors can and do affect outcomes for students, they are pooh-poohed. Indeed, it appears that these standards are designed to punish both the teachers who work in difficult educational environments and the disadvantaged children whom they are tasked with – and often do a great job – teaching. Yet, police officers may refer to social factors or economic environment to excuse their behavior and their failure. They can point to working in a tough, “inner-city” or “gang-ridden” part of town or to the social and economic background of their victims and use those data points even to avoid indictment. Calling a citizen whom you wrongfully killed a “thug” or referring to the size of your victim are perfectly allowable for police officers, while similar factors are not a part of teacher evaluation.

I propose we reverse the ways we approach these two professions. For teachers, trust that they too are doing a difficult job ; that they are doing good work; and that sometimes they will not be perfect, and know that it’s ok for them to make mistakes. Trust in their education, training, experience, and their care for the young people they work with. Let them do their jobs and stop the constant setting of standards, changing of standards, holding them accountable to tests or new policies. You know the ones: No Child Left Behind, the Common Core.

For police, let’s set some goals and objectives. One important goal might be to reduce the overall violence in the area that you police. Another might be reducing incidence of crime in the community. Then develop metrics for assessing progress toward those goals. Next, link job security and wage increases to meeting those goals. In this way, we would see policing that responds to the needs of the people rather than the needs of the police officers and perhaps a few wealthy elites. Going forward, let’s treat teachers with the same respect and deference we give police officers and place officers under the same scrutiny as teachers.

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