Category Archives: unions

Older Teachers

So I’m the opposite of “blocked”, lately. Lots of ideas and a laptop that’s annoying me. I had two, gave one away and the one I kept hangs so often (memory problems) that I get distracted waiting and watching Broadchurch (not too happy with who the murderer is obviously going to end up being on that one) or not watching Breaking Bad (me and four other people, apparently). Then I fall asleep because hey, it’s the first month of school and that’s how it rolls. So now I have four different ideas, plus two or three straightforward teaching writeups to do, and that’s not good because then I feel overwhelmed and start watching TV shows I’ve already seen 50 times (hello to the mother ship, L&O). I don’t know how actual bloggers do this. Fortunately, I’m just an essayist.

Then a friend who relocated for her job mentions that her husband, a 42 year old teacher, hasn’t yet found a job. I remember telling her when she first got the job to assume that he wouldn’t get hired (she makes enough for that not to be a problem), and she said that I wasn’t the only one to warn her. He has a lot of experience and two master’s, but in most inter-district (much less state) transfers, teachers lose next to all their seniority, so it’s not just about money. It’s a lot about money, but not all.

So I thought I’d talk about older teachers. This is purely an opinion piece; I’m not even sure how much of it I’ll think in a year.

If you know any successful 40-something idealists who dream of “giving back to the community” by becoming teachers, ask if they have jobs lined up. If they don’t, ask them if they are spending a lot of money on their teaching credentials. If they are, tell them to go to a state school. It’s well documented that ed school selectivity is irrelevant in hiring decisions, and they’re going to have enough trouble finding jobs without worrying about loan forgiveness. I can’t really say I’m sorry I went to an elite ed school, but I never fail to consider it an example of luxury spending, as opposed to an educational investment.

Research on this subject is thin, but I did find one study on CPS principal hire/fire decisions on new teachers:
adminhire1
and
adminhire2

(Note: I suspect the bias against male teachers is at the elementary school level. At the high school level, I see a huge preference for male teachers that I’ve mentioned time and again.)

Anything else I say would be anecdotal. Check any teacher training cohort and see who’s last to sign with a school—assuming they have any candidates over 40, they’ll be the last hired, if they are so lucky. Read any story about “firing ineffective teachers” with deep skepticism. And giving administrators full hire/fire over all teachers would lead to a lot of forty-plus teachers losing their jobs. I saw three teachers, two of them in math, targeted and forced into retirement because the principal wanted “new blood” (the principal said as much, often, to anyone who would listen). All teachers have stories like that. All teachers know that the reason job applications ask about education credits is to weed out older applicants. And some teachers think it’s a great idea.

Lately, there’s been a push to reform pensions, push more money to teachers up front. After all, the thinking goes, it will be fairer to teachers who leave the profession:

First, districts should jettison their current approach to retirement benefits, in which teachers accrue relatively meager benefits through much of their careers, and then abruptly become eligible for much more as they near retirement age. In its place, districts should adopt retirement systems where benefits accrue smoothly, year after year, without sudden, arbitrary jumps late in a teacher’s working life. This would allow talented people to teach for part of their career, or teach in more than one district, without harming their retirement security. It would also end an unfair practice that places the majority of teachers on an insecure retirement savings path in order to support more generous pensions for the minority who work a full career in one system.

So we’ll make it easier for teachers to quit and get a little bit of money, and not have to pay as much in pensions. Saves money, right? Fine. Stop talking about fairness to new teachers, then, and focus on cost-savings.

Education reformers are profoundly clueless about what really drives teacher benefits and, I think, genuinely clueless about what really drives administrators. Paul Bruno has an interesting idea that teacher tenure is a perk. Bruno cites Mathew DiCarlo, who reviews the same study I linked in above from a different perspective (although he agrees that the discrimination against men and older teachers is troubling):

…there is little support for the idea that principals are just dying to fire at will – or that, once dismissed, teachers can easily be replaced by “better” alternatives – despite sometimes being taken for granted in our education debates. Although they are far from conclusive, and pertain only to probationary teachers, the descriptive results discussed above tentatively suggest that the supply of appropriate replacements may not always be quite as robust as is often assumed – and/or that there may be some other reasons for low dismissal rates that are not entirely a function of the difficulty of doing so.

What I take away from all this is complicated, but I think relevant. First, coupling the study with my own anecdata and that of many years in the workforce: principals, like all management, exercise their biases. Given the peculiar nature of teaching and its employment structure, I can build a good case that principals be prevented from doing this more than managers in the private sector. Managers pay a price in productivity if they fire good people purely because of their biases. Principals don’t, in the main. Productivity in schools is a complicated issue.

At the same time, most principals don’t fire teachers often because it’s incredibly hard to find new ones. Better the teacher who shows up on time and gets the job done than too many unknown quantities in any given year.

So a principal who is allowed to exercise biases could always defer to his or her particular preferences on a one-off basis, firing probationary or even tenured teachers for age, gender, race, or teaching philosophy, while in the main keeping teachers when in doubt because of the pain of hiring new teachers. Even more unnerving, that principal could keep genuinely weak teachers while firing/dumping good teachers that just happen to activate a bias. For example, keeping an ineffective new young teacher completely intimidated by her students, while dumping or threatening to dump a new older teacher who does a good job. (Not anything I’d have any experience with, nope.)

But wait, say reformers. Principals are constrained by productivity just as private sector management is! Yeah, this is me laughing at them: ha, ha. Of course, private sector management can exercise bias around the edges, and do. But in the case of older teachers, there’s that pesky money problem, too. Older workers in the private sector can adjust their salary if need be, if their value to the company isn’t as great as it once was. Teachers can’t. So take an existing bias against older teachers and toss in the added expense they usually represent, and the whole situation gets worse.

Ah, says the eduformers. That’s why we should revamp teaching entirely! Change the salary structure, don’t reward older teachers as much, and there’ll be less of a bias against them. Let teachers change districts! Let them move to different states! Let districts shift teachers around where they are most needed! (Hey, one of these things is not like the others.)

To which I say, again, eduformers, you aren’t reading the tea leaves. Finding teachers is the holy grail, not firing them. Most people don’t really have a clue about the enormous scale required to maintain millions of people in a job that has quite a few constraints on it—from regimented potty breaks to fingerprint checks to college degrees and competency tests.

So suppose we create the freedom to hire and fire at will, and we give teachers the same ability.

Let’s imagine some possibilities: A teacher can contract with three different districts to teach a popular AP US History course. Or maybe he’s just really good teaching math to low ability kids, and works three classes at two schools. Still other 50 year old teachers kick back and decide they have enough money. They want to teach three classes and then consult as a master coach in another district. Still others teach a couple classes and then go work in ed schools.

Not just 50-somethings, either. A lot of 5-year veterans decide they want to take off and raise their kids for a while, but are happy to put in a few classes here or there.

Meanwhile, very few teachers with any seniority or any talent are ever found at low income schools. No reason. Nothing to keep them there. In fact, any teachers with any talent have realized they have an easier life contracting out a couple classes a year part-time to a suburban district than teaching full-time in a low income district. Once districts are allowed to actually compete on salary, paying by negotiation instead of salary schedules, rich districts will compete heavily for desirable new teachers. Schools with undesirable kids, not matter how much money they have, will be forced to rely on teachers who view the work as a calling, not being able to count on seniority-bound teachers who probably would have switched elsewhere if they weren’t financially precluded from doing so.

In other words, if teachers are allowed to compete on skill and salary, the results might not exactly be what eduformers imagine. They appear to envision a world in which teachers are still committed to a district, with just a few more options on each side. I very much doubt that’s what will happen.

I do know that if districts and administrators were asked to consider a world in which everyone had more freedoms, they would almost certainly reject it out of hand. Charter schools operate on a very small level. That's part of the problem.

All of this goes back to older teachers. They’re a straw that almost everyone—principals, districts, reformers, well-meaning liberals who think they understand education, even a lot of genuine progressives—would like to remove, or redirect to some other area. But I'm not sure that one straw leaves without a bunch of others coming along. And very few people seem to understand what that could mean.

This is my fifth year of teaching, a job I love with a passion that surprises me. Yet I'm relieved that I qualify for both a pension and a lot of loan forgiveness at the end of this year because it's entirely possible I won't ever get tenure. I love my current school; it's the only one of my three that I say that about. I think they like me, but I'm expensive. I'm also old, and this district can keep teachers as temporary or probationary for a very, very long time (some teachers here have been temporary for seven years; in elementary school it's worse). Since I'm in math, it should move more quickly for me. But I'd be a liar and a fool if I didn't fear the possibility that right around the time I should be qualifying for tenure, the administration team will find some fault with my teaching, after x years of thinking I'm just fine, and blammo, I'm gone. I would never voluntarily leave this school, even if I didn't love it, because finding another job has routinely been a crapshoot that goes until less than a month before school starts. My usual line is "I've gotten this far because I look young for my age, but around the time I'm fifty-five I'm going to look forty-five and then it's game over."

And what, specifically, led to this maundering post, Ed? It's eval time, baby. And the principal who reviewed me last year took a new job. Keep your fingers crossed.


What Can We Blame Teacher Unions For?

My dad, a blue-collar Dem, is a die-hard union man and I grew up in a pro-union household. But I was a temp worker most of my working life until becoming a teacher, and prefer to set my own rate and negotiate my own terms, even though I’m probably not very good at it. Consequently, I was not ever a big fan of unions, and until three or four years ago, agreed with the classic reform positions on teacher unions: they were responsible for keeping smart people out of teaching, they were responsible for ballooning education costs, they stood in the way of good teachers getting the job done with ridiculous rules and regulations, they protected bad teachers.

My views have changed, and the change began even before I became a teacher.

Do Unions Keep Smart People Out of the Profession?

If I could beat one new reality into the nation’s head, I would choose teacher cognitive ability, and that beating would take four parts. First, that high school teachers have always been pretty smart, and drawn from the top half of the college grad pool. Second, that testing and knowledge standards for elementary teachers was once low, is now much higher and more than reasonable since the states dramatically increased the credentialing test difficulty as part of their adherence to NCLB. (see table). Third, that this dramatic increase did not result in either improved outcomes or evidence that new teachers who qualified with tougher tests were superior to teachers who didn’t. (Cite: This is the dog that didn’t bark. All research since 2001 still shows that new teachers aren’t as effective as experienced teachers until they’ve taught for a couple years. Ergo, harder tests to find smarter teachers didn’t make a huge difference.)

ETScredreqs

2007 ETS Teacher Quality report, page 23

Fourth, that the research at best shows that smarter teachers give a teeny tiny boost to outcomes, and if we’re just being reasonable instead of squinting hard, shows no real relationship at all between teacher cognitive ability and outcomes. Both progressive and reformer discussion of teacher quality begins with the premise that mouth-breathing morons predominate. Yet the data clearly shows we are not.

Besides, unions have next to nothing to do with teacher credentialing, which is where content knowledge requirements are set. That’s a state function. The states have, as I mentioned, dramatically raised content knowledge for elementary school teachers at least once (twice if you count the original institution of Praxis I and variations). I assume unions protested, although I’m not sure why. But the states have a much bigger problem than unions—namely, disparate impact. Set credentialing standards high, and you lose your black and Hispanic teachers, something I’ve documented at length here, here, and here, and that Stephen Sawchuk has been covering vis a vis the CAEP push to raise standards.

So unions aren’t responsible for stupid teachers, both because there really aren’t that many, and because that’s the state’s job.

But that’s not all, reformers say. Unions promote pay scales that give all teachers the same raise, regardless of quality. They pay old teachers more than young teachers and protect the first at the expense of the second. They oppose merit or performance pay. The best teachers, the really smart ones, the ones who could be hedge fund managers or financial analysts, the ones we’d like to have instead of these dreary wage slaves we’ve got now—well, those sorts of people want competitive salary structures and the knowledge that they’ll be rewarded for their excellence. Otherwise, they’ll sneer at teaching and take jobs that pay them millions to obliterate the country’s financial stability.

Okay. So the very notion of a union is antithetical to getting competitive, performance-driven people who want rewards for their hard work. I’ll pretty much agree with that. But in blaming teacher’s unions, I thought—perhaps wrongly—that the gravamen of the charge was that unions weren’t in and of themselves the problem, they just needed to improve. However, this charge can only genuinely be resolved by killing teachers unions entirely. Good luck with that.

Sure, there are efforts to come up with merit pay or other pay for performance plans. Most of the research shows they don’t work. I have written up my results for algebra I growth in my students, both in algebra I and in algebra II and geometry. I subtitled one of these “Why Merit Pay Won’t Work”, even though I didn’t mention the subject directly.

I realize I am offering anecdata, but I assert here and now that my anecdata is supported nationwide, that the bulk of high school students who enter a math class will leave it scoring at roughly the same percentile of ability. Performance pay of any sort will not alter this fundamental reality. And once everyone else realizes this, no one’s going to pay big bucks to move kids taking algebra I for the third time from Far Below Basic to Below Basic. I suspect that reading ability suffers from the same constraints.

So I’ll agree that the union compensation structure keeps competitive, high-performance people from even thinking about teaching. However, were such people to enter teaching, the realization that the nation’s stated goals for educational outcomes are utterly disconnected from reality would drive them right out again. No point in performance pay if the objectives are delusions.

Do Unions Increase Costs of Education?

Are unions responsible for the ballooning costs of education? Not on a day to day basis. The bulk of increased costs is due to special ed, and we can blame politicians for that one. I agree that unions and politicians are responsible for pension costs, although teacher unions aren’t any worse than any other government union on that count. In fact, given that teachers can’t work overtime per se and retire at an average age of 59 (cops work 20 years and out, and while I can’t find average national data, California cops and firefighters have an average age of 54), teachers are probably among the least offenders. Less likely to get disability, too.

Districts are far more interested in figuring out how to keep teachers than fire them. Teacher turnover is a huge issue and major expense, and one that can’t really be laid at the union’s door.

So I would argue that unions own responsibility for the huge pensions, but day to day costs, I’d want to see more evidence. And where’s the evidence that teacher unions are worse than other government unions?

Do Union Rules and Regulations Prohibit Productivity?

Yeah, this is nuts. What are you all talking about? I assumed, before becoming a teacher, that there’d be union reps all over the place telling me what I can and can’t do, that teachers were busy bitching out other teachers who worked harder and made them look bad. Where is this happening, and is Nick Nolte on the staff?

Just one example: class assignment often results in English and history teachers getting classes bigger than the contract stipulates (usually 34 or 35). I know teachers who have had 40 kids in a class. They complain. Let me be clear: the teachers complain. The teacher union rep (who also has overlimit classes), in response to the complaints, fills out forms and encourages everyone else to do the paperwork. Some do, some don’t. In this last year, the issue was never resolved. The union didn’t attack the school. They get the difficulty of assigning classes. But at the same time, they continue to work the problem—and will probably escalate it. The union is not enforcing rules and regulations that the teachers are fine with, insisting on arcane objectives that no one gives a crap about any more, but rather responding to teacher complaints about onerous work conditions. How is that not its job?

As a math teacher, I’ve been over the limit a couple times, and I didn’t much care—it’s a whole different issue in math than English and history, with grading time being the chief determinant. However, I didn’t have enough desks. So after a union meeting, I went to the rep and mentioned that I had 35 students but only 32 desks.

“You are overlimit! You should grieve it,” she said, instantly.

“Yeah, it’s just not a big deal. But I need more desks.”

Did she insist that I grieve? Look at me with disapproval? She did not. She just gave me the bad news: other teachers had an even higher ratio of missing desks to students, and short of going out and buying my own desks, I was screwed. She didn’t deliver the news with snark, but with understanding sympathy, since her missing desk to student ratio was 6:1. We commiserated, agreed that attrition would probably fix most of the problem, but wasn’t it annoying that we had to wait? For desks, even!!

It was a nice conversation.

Again, I don’t get this complaint at all. I try to think what else it could be, what case it is that unions, as opposed to teachers, insist on silly rules that stop “progress”—which is, of course, whatever the complainer thinks would be a rilly cool idea. Examples?

Do Unions Protect Bad Teachers?

Ah, the big Kahuna of teacher union beefs. It’s hard to fire bad teachers, because unions make administrators lives living hell in order to discourage them from even trying.

There’s an easy out on this one, though. If government unions ceased to exist tomorrow, teachers would still have Loudermill, the relatively recent Supreme Court decision that says that employment is a property right, and states can’t deprive their employees of property rights without due process. And most states have tenure written into their laws, independent of union contracts. So the changes necessary to undo teacher rights are far more than just dumping unions. Moreover, even the states that have eliminated tenure, like Oregon, seem to hold onto most of their teachers. Oregon dropped tenure for 2-year teaching contracts; a story just two years later reported that nothing had changed. This CAP report report on teacher tenure shows that Oregon is below average in teacher dismissal rates. While some states without tenure laws have high dismissal rates for that year (Alabama, Alaska), others have low ones (Mississippi, Texas).

In fact, as this second CAP report on state tenure laws spells out, the bulk of the apparently onerous dismissal laws are encoded in state law. So how is that the unions’ fault?

Naturally, there’s state laws, and then there’s enforcing state laws. Once, I noticed that one of my employers (a large national corporation) wasn’t paying me overtime. I thought that odd. I emailed someone in HR, and was ignored. I emailed again, no response. I emailed a third time, was told that I misunderstood the law. This annoyed me. It wasn’t the money. In fact, I knew that the employer would simply stop me from working overtime, if they took the law seriously. But they didn’t. So I reported them to the state, who eventually subjected the company to a regional audit, and months later I got a nice check. The company had to revamp its time sheets, at considerable expense, and educate managers on overtime laws by state. (To the company’s credit, I wasn’t fired. A senior HR person called me, I told him I don’t like it when companies ignore the law, he observed that I’d probably saved them a class action suit years down the line.)

This took upwards of a year to resolve, and this was on an issue that I had the corporation dead to rights–around 9 separate incidents of submitted timesheets showing overtime, and paychecks showing no overtime. And yet the corporation ignored me, figuring what the hell, it could break the law. Had my case not been so easy to prove and I been less adept at documentation, I’m sure the corporation’s strategy would have proved out.

It will not shock anyone to learn that private corporations routinely ignore state employment law.

So unions merely force their employers to follow state law. Down to the letter. They do it so effectively that districts are loathe to incur the costs of dismissal.

The CAP report I linked in makes a good case for changing state laws. I suspect that unions will fight any attempt to change, but so what? The “onerous” process required for firing government employees involves state law and federal case law. That unionized government employees simply have the means of forcing their employers to follow the law whereas employees of private corporations are screwed unless the violations reach the level of class action suit says more about the state of employment in America than it does about unions. We shouldn’t need unions to ensure the law is followed. Clearly, we do.

Of course, your average eduformer doesn’t want a state law change. Reformers want to abolish all protection for state employees, barring the usual ones, and give principals a free hand. They are okay with competent teachers being fired simply because the principal wants a younger teacher, a different style, or simply a different teacher (which of course means a cheaper teacher). Checker Finn: “The single most important form of freedom for charter schools is to hire and fire employees as they like and pay them as they see fit.” Whitney Tilson: ” Ending LIFO is a critical first step to getting to what’s really necessary: that every principal has the full power to hire and fire every adult (not just teachers) in the school and he/she sees fit..”. Rick Hess, whose new book Cagebusting might be subtitled “How to Fire Teachers Quickly and a Few Other Administrative Tips I Threw In So No One Can Say This is Just a Book about Firing Teachers”, encourages administrators to use private philanthropy to get the equivalent legal power on their side, but at least he’s working within the system instead of ignoring its realities.

So should unions eat the blame for denying reformers their holy grail of hire and fire power? I think not. Go change the state laws and get back to me.

*****************************************************

So in the end, what are teacher unions to blame for? Big pensions—and even then, they were just doing their job with politicians who didn’t want to do theirs. A compensation structure that repels competitive, performance-driven workers. Many of the teacher protections and all of the standards lie at the state level, entirely out of the union’s purview. But there’s another point to consider.

It can’t have escaped notice that most of the beefs against teacher unions are, in fact, true for all unions. So I repeat a question I’ve written about before: why the big push against teacher unions? Cops and firefighters are just as hard to fire. DMV employees harder still, no doubt. As Richard Posner points out, judges also get paid whether they are any good or not, and without a union, even (I have other good things to say about that Posner essay). So do politicians, who get paid with taxpayer dollars if they’re elected, even if they’re horrible, also without a union.

Education is big business and education reformers are often, but not always, Republicans, a group who—totally coincidentally, I’m sure—favors an outcome that weakens or obliterates a big pile of Democrat money. Neither of those facts, however, explain why it’s apparently okay to single out teachers, castigating them for “privileges” that are de rigueur for all government employees. I just cited two separate Center for American Progress reports calling for a weakening of teacher tenure, and unless I’m mistaken CAP is one of the few pro-union organizations left. I’ll leave that question unanswered save for my previous wonderings, but it is something that nags at me.

I am no more in favor of unions for myself than I ever was. I was just reading Andrew Old’s diatribe about scabs—in fact, I think that essay was the cause of this one, because I realized again that I just couldn’t see myself going out on strike. My view of unions have undergone a profound change, but I don’t think of myself as a union member. I get paid, I go to work. I would probably strike if I voted to strike, but there’s the rub, since I can’t see voting to strike. This is visceral. I’m not sure if I can even explain it. (Note: Andrew Old’s views have changed, but I think he’d still call me a scab for not striking.)

But the past decade has made me much more sympathetic to unions in general. I was just rereading this piece by Kevin Drum on the death of unions, realizing that I would have scoffed at it back in the 90s. I still believe that America is largely antithetical to true union thinking, that union acceptance in the post-war period was a fluke due to our economic dominance in the global market. But the disappearance of work will undoubtedly travel up the pay scale, and I’m much more open to the idea that we need to constrain businesses from putting profit before everything, that stockholders don’t really matter more than workers, and that Amazon’s work practices are obscene.

Is my sympathy caused by my job change? Perhaps, but remember that I am not protected by tenure and may never attain it. Speedy termination until I’m too old to hire is a high-probability outcome for me, which is depressing, but at least suggests my opinions aren’t of the “I got mine, Jack” category.

I will grant anyone that unions make education more expensive, both by scaring politicians and, importantly, by holding onto some of the compensation value the private sector has lost because it doesn’t have the same protections that government employees have —unionized or not.

But are unions responsible in any way for our failure to achieve our educational goals, those lofty objectives that declare all high school graduates will be ready for college or career training?

No. Put another way: Pretty much everything Terry Moe says is wrong.

Those who think that teachers, or unions, or poverty causes our educational outcomes are kidding themselves. Our expectations are absurd. Criminal. The cruelest thing our education system does to our kids is not give them terrible teachers protected by thuggish unions, but ignore the role that cognitive ability plays in their ability to learn the material. Our system punishes bright kids, makes life too easy for middling ability kids, and as for the lowest ability kids, disproportionately poor, we give them all sorts of attention coupled with all sorts of absurd expectations, and leave them feeling hopeless and disconnected.

No one is comfortable admitting that. Reformers tried blaming parents, but they just got tagged as racists. Teachers are the only people left to blame. Unions are just a convenient proxy, a way for reformers to try to avoid alienating the largest profession in the country while still gutting its wages and protections—let’s assume, generously, in the genuine belief that teachers are genuinely responsible for student outcomes in an educational world with absurd and cruel expectations.

In fact, I believe teachers could make more of a difference in educational outcomes if we educated by cognitive ability and set goals accordingly. I believe we should spend more time teaching content to low-mid ability kids, and critical thinking and analysis to mid-high ability kids. But all of this starts by accepting the role that cognitive ability plays in outcomes, and coming to terms with the fact that unions have nothing to do with them.


Plague of the Middlebrow Pundits, Revisited: Walter Russell Mead

Three years ago, I taught at a super-progressive small school with a limited opportunity to offer elective courses. So each year teachers got to offer a one-week, 40-hour elective course on any topic they wanted, and if 20 kids signed up, they taught it.

I got twenty signups with this class (the original flyer was a single page, I broke it up into two pages for this, click to enlarge):

scificlass

Will it surprise you that it was 18 boys and 2 girls? Thought not. Only one of them was an A student, the rest were your classic goofball geek underachievers.

On the first day, I gave a 40 minute lecture on the key ideas in Special Providence, by Walter Russell Mead, which I used to anchor the class: “Mead attributes [US foreign policy] success to four schools of thought, named after four American statesmen: the Hamiltonian (protection of commerce), Jeffersonian (maintenance of a democratic system), Jacksonian (populist values, military strength), and Wilsonian (moral principle). “

I explained that science fiction, books or movies, always reflect social norms and values of the time, both intentionally and not so much. They would be watching the films looking for these norms and values, particularly as reflected in the interactions between science and the military and their varying reactions to the threats, with this graphic organizer:

scifigo

Evaluated from this aspect, the cooperation between the scientists and the military in Them! really stands out. The kids all agreed that neither version of Invasion fell into one of the foreign policy models. When I asked why, several kids pointed out that the movie was really about being human, not about space invaders and the need to respond.

The most active discussion involved the Alien duo (I tossed them in as a surprise), as the kids all agreed that the society in the movie was dominantly Hamiltonian, but what was the view of the filmmakers? It seemed Jacksonian, as Ripley had no interest in understanding the aliens, but simply destroying them to protect her world, and the military personnel in Aliens were definitely heroic. Scientists, aka the androids, were untrustworthy—they might come through, or they might knife you in the back. But James Cameron’s Abyss and Avatar were both definitely Jeffersonian, with military goons threatening the live in peace water bubbles and blue people, so had he changed? Or did he use the money from Aliens to make movies he really believed in? (We put aside Ridley Scott, since his movies are hard to pigeonhole.)

Anyway. A terrific class. And proof, I hope, that I quite like Walter Russell Mead’s ideas. I agree in large part with his analysis of the death of the blue model. But the man* simply can’t free himself of pap when he talks about teachers.

As I said last year, he’s part of the plague of the middlebrow pundits:

…these aren’t people with a coherent view; they’ve taken the cheap way out.

They think about education the way I like Hall and Oates, the Eagles, or John Mayer. When I listen to music I want something I can sing along with the radio when I’m driving. Nothing more. I don’t want to think, don’t want to work. There’s nothing wrong with any of these musicians—they’re popular for a reason. I can go on at great length about the excellence of Don Henley. But I like them in large part because they’re easy to like and tuneful. I’m not going to do the work to listen to more challenging music.

Likewise, the middlebrows in education want to opine on a subject that’s very much in the news and, unlike global warming or economic policy, they think this is an area in which their opinions carry a lot of weight. There’s nothing terribly off about their opinions; they are safe and easy. But just as a serious musician hates the proliferation of pop, so too do I get tired of the proliferation of conventional wisdoms by people who haven’t really taken the time to think or research their opinions on education.

You might argue that WRM blasts teachers because they are a handy proxy for the blue model. But so are cops. Does Mead spend a lot of time criticizing cops for doing a terrible job, getting a raise every year whether needed or not, and blame their unions for all societies ills?

Let’s see. Here’s a google of “site:http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/wrm teachers”. Notice, at the time of this writing, that most of the entries are in the anti-union, teachers suck vein.

Meanwhile, a google of site:http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/wrm police reveals a whole bunch of foreign policy posts, interspersed with the occasional sympathetic comment about the poor cops whose pensions are going to be at risk.

I submit, dear reader, that WRM picks on teachers because like most educated elites he thinks he has a clue about what is involved in educating the populace, based on his own exposure to the vast challenges of educating the populace, won through his hard-scrabble experiences at Groton and Yale.

WRM generally hews to the general pro-charter, pro-accountability reformer line, except he’s not as well-educated on the facts as actual reformers. So you’ll often see him say, incorrectly, that teachers and unions are losing parental support (check out this piece when he says that during the CTU strike , ignorant of the fact that the majority of Chicago parents and public were firmly on the teacher’s side–even nearly half of whites polled—and that Rahm lost), that Americans want to go to charters for a better education, when in fact race plays a huge part in their choices, with safety a key second. Oh, and of course, he thinks the Memphis cheating scandal proves that teachers are stupid, when in fact…well, more on that here. And he opines that teaching isn’t a “lifer” job, deciding that older teachers are mostly just in it for the money. (What he means, of course, is that they are expensive. So are older lawyers, doctors, cops, firefighters, and Yale professors, but this doesn’t appear to matter.) Truly ignorant is his post on blue state shame of schools, in which he cites the Challenge Index–the frigging Mathews survey that celebrates how many kids were glued into seats for an AP exam, scores be damned–as evidence that red state schools are superior to the union-run schools in blue states. It is to weep.

You know what’s never mentioned on WRM’s blog? NAEP. Well, not by WRM. The four entries you see at the time of this writing were comments (no, I didn’t make them) made pointing out that if we use actual data, union states do far better than non-union states. (You can’t see them because he killed comments a while back.) Not that I think unions had anything to do these outcomes, but it certainly blows a hole in WRM’s thesis. But then, that’s him all over: citing Jay Mathews instead of Matthew di Carlo. Hey, maybe he just got their names mixed up.

It’s not like he hasn’t been doing this for a while, so what kicked off this rant?

Teachers Unions Don’t Empower Teachers

Our idea of education reform isn’t to take teacher union membership away and leave teachers exposed to the power of uncaring, rigid bureaucracies. Instead, we want to use concepts like charter schools and school vouchers to give good teachers the chance to build cooperative and community schools where a reputation for excellence ensures a stream of students.

Um. What the hell does he mean? Does he even know? Does he really think that teachers won’t get more expensive at charter schools over time? Does he think charters will be less likely to fire “good” teachers that cost thousands more? Really? Moreover, charters demand an ideological lockstep that isn’t even an issue in most comprehensive schools. It’s always dangerous for teachers to have opinions, but at charter schools, all teachers must share the corporate ideology (CF Match, KIPP, and so on).

And of course, most teachers don’t want to be entrepreneurs. Most people don’t want to be entrepreneurs, and they don’t want to work for charters. And anyone who thinks that isn’t a critical fail point in the charter school movement is innumerate.

We don’t like teachers’ unions, but it’s not because we hate teachers and want them to suffer. It’s because the unions are part of what’s wrong with the system: They are the biggest defenders of the bureaucratized, by-the-book system that has stifled many teachers and made it difficult for them to do their jobs as they see fit.

Oh, look, Desert Storm protesters figured out the new party line: “We hate the war, not the soldiers.”

Teachers unions ARE teachers. And unions don’t “defend” bureaucracy. They defend teachers, by finding them as many jobs as they can. That’s their function. That’s what teachers pay them for. I’m no fan of unions, but it’s arrant idiocy to pretend that there’s any space at all between teachers and their unions. Remember that Karen Lewis is in charge of the CTU because the teachers voted out her management-friendly, pro-charter predecessor and she now faces opposition because she wasn’t militant enough (although her slate is very popular.).

We understand the appeal of unions to teachers. We understand why people under the rule of bureaucrats, who are ultimately responsive to big city political machines, would want to have their own representatives as the table. But we think there are ways to decentralize the whole system, to give teachers more autonomy and ground their evaluations more deeply in the views of their peers and local communities, while also giving parents more choice.

So we, the elite, think you teachers are totally wrong to fight our plans for your career. We have a much better way to employ you, even though we personally have no experience in any aspect of public education much less teaching, and we think you should take our word for it. We want you to be totally in favor of lucky parents taking their kids out of schools that have to abide by constitutional protections and educational policies—policies that we, the elite, put on public schools via lawsuits and well-meant but utterly nonsensical requirements—in favor of schools that can boot any kids who don’t toe the line. We also want you to be judged by the test scores of your students without regard to their cognitive ability because we find it distasteful to acknowledge that student cognitive ability is highly relevant to academic outcomes despite decades of established research showing otherwise. Of course, we think teacher cognitive ability is fundamental to student academic outcomes, so we want to wipe out black and Hispanic teachers entirely by raising the require test score burden for all teachers, even though research shows a tenuous at best link between teacher demonstrated ability and student outcomes.

Yeah. Good to see you understand the appeal of unions, Walt.

Or, to avoid repeating myself:

Say what you will of reformers like Rick Hess or Fordham, or of progresssives like Larry Cuban or Diane Ravitch, they have coherent views supported by research and struggle intellectually with the grey areas.

(Well, maybe not so much Diane Ravitch.)

Off I go to Starbucks, listening to Henley and Hall & Oates.

**There may be more than one writer in the WRM blog, but they are unauthored and it’s under his name.


100 Posts

I started this blog on January 1 with two primary goals. As I mentioned in my initial post, I’d gone a whole year without writing anything for publication (under my real name, which is not Ed). I wanted to initiate more and respond less, and I wanted my writing here to spur me to write more under my real name. As a second goal, I hoped to reflect the full spectrum of my views on education and teaching—and nothing more. I wanted to write both about teaching and educational policy. I teach a great many subjects, and the joys of teaching composition, literature, American history, and text prep ideally needed some of my writing attention, while I expected to write primarily about the challenges of teaching math (yes, I am saying there are relatively few joys in teaching math, but that doesn’t mean I’d give it up.) When the subject turned to educational policy, I expected to focus on the degree to which Voldemortean avoidance prevents us from sane, realistic objectives, but I also intended to discuss the very real problems I saw with both eduform and progressive math philosophies.

Thus far, the blog has exceeded my goals. I had one very successful piece go out under my own name, and to the extent I haven’t written more it’s been because of time constraints. I have plenty of ideas, which was not the case a year ago, when I felt hamstrung. I also think my posts fairly reflect all my teaching interests.

What I didn’t expect, and has been deeply satisfying, is the degree of attention many of my posts have had. Here are the top six posts:

  1. Algebra, and the Pointlessness of the Whole Damn Thing

  2. The myth of “They weren’t ever taught…”
  3. Teacher Quality Pseudofacts, Part II
  4. Why Chris Hayes Fails
  5. The Gap in the GRE
  6. Homework and Grades

I wrote all but one of these hoping they’d get a big audience—Homework and Grades is the exception; while it got a nice bump when it first came out with a link from Joanne Jacobs, most of the activity has been from consistent attention over time. People refer to it a great deal, for some reason. (Actually, half of my big pieces got link love from JJ, and a host of smaller ones as well, which means a lot because she’s the best pure education blogger out there. Other bloggers who contributed a lot of readers to the above pieces: Steve Sailer and Gene Expression.)

Three policy pieces that I was personally pleased with, audience or not: Why Chris Christie Picks on Teachers, On the CTU Strike, and The Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform.

Three teaching pieces that are regularly linked to or used as references by teachers: Modeling Linear Equations, Teaching Algebra, or Banging Your Head with a Whiteboard, and Teaching Polynomials.

Total views at the time of this post: 38,000

I’d also like to shout out to my commenters and Twitter readers. Thanks for your great feedback.

So on to the next 100. I’d say I’ll try to keep them brief, but that’s a big lie.


On the CTU Strike

Okay, unless I missed something, Rahm is CTU’s bitch.

Chicago, which is mostly broke, is hiring more teachers in languages, music and special ed, paying them more salary, paying them for supplies (still very little), paying them for suspensions, agreeing to limit their class sizes, paying their health premiums same as always, maybe even paying them for paternity leave. In return, they got….very little. They can hire new teachers over laid off teachers. They can use test scores for teacher evaluations—up to 30%.

I was enthralled by the CTU strike. Totally fascinated that an extremely overweight, frowsy, no-bullshit, way the hell left of center black woman virtually coldcocked a younger, relatively good-looking hard ass Democrat mayor who’s best buds with the big O.

I’m also pleased with the results, because the media was entirely on Rahm’s side. Harold Myerson and, much later, Eugene Robinson were the only major columnists who came out for the teachers. The Nation supported unions, for the most part. Everyone else slammed the unions hard. There were the cautious skeptics, like Kevin Drum, but almost no one criticized Rahm for being anything but too soft, while there were plenty of CTU beatdowns like this Charles Lane rant, which was truly depressing, since I normally like Lane.

Any story that up and bitchslaps the opinion leaders is a joy to behold. The elites are largely of one mind on education reform, even those who aren’t actually in the reform business; whether neo-liberal or conservative, it’s up with accountability and choice, down with unions who protect “bad teachers”. They really don’t seem capable of grasping that after 10-15 years of non-stop rhetoric on the supposed failure of public schools, they’ve barely moved the needle on public opinion, which isn’t sure whether the rhetoric is true and just not relevant, or a flat-out lie, or some of both. So when the polls showed the Chicago residents supporting the unions (Hispanics and blacks supporting by a substantial majority; whites were at 48%, which is much higher than I would have anticipated given how few white kids attend CPS), it was a hoot to watch everyone struggle to accomodate reality. Hard to call parents stupid when your big current issue is parental triggers, but really, what options are there?

The education reform movement and its growing body of elite adherents live in an echo chamber. Their political success, like NCLB and teacher evaluations via test scores, has been gained by a combination of federal fiat and public indifference for a cause that doesn’t affect most voters and sure sounds noble. Their own surveys reveal that public support for reform causes is soft, but they all keep talking as if they’re riding a wave of political outrage with just those nasty unions—not the teachers, just the unions—opposing the will of the people.

A Gallup poll reveals once again that more people think NCLB made public education worse than made it better, and a large majority thinks it made no difference or made things worse. And that’s when they are asked about education at the national level; everyone knows what Americans think of their local schools. Like Obamacare, education reform isn’t gaining fans with time.

But if I’m right about public indifference/rejection, why are charter schools growing like weeds?

I offer this up as opinion/assertion, without a lot of evidence to back me: most parents know intuitively that bad teachers aren’t a huge problem. What they care about, from top to bottom of the income scale, is environment. Suburban white parents don’t want poor black and Hispanic kids around. Poor black and Hispanic parents don’t want bad kids around. (Yes, this means suburban parents see poor kids as mostly bad kids.) Asian parents don’t want white kids around, much less black or Hispanic. White parents don’t really want too many Asians around, either, but that’s the opposite of the “bad kids” problem.

Parents don’t care much about teacher quality. They care a lot about peer group quality.

They are right to worry. Before I became a teacher, I’d read other teachers talk about how just a few kids can really disrupt a classroom, moving management from a no-brainer to the primary focus of the day. Now I am one of those teachers. I’ve worked in several schools in which the overwhelming presence of low income students who didn’t care about their grades has utterly removed the “stigma of an F” from the entire population, causing panic in the upper middle income white parents who can’t quite afford private school yet live in a district that worries about lawsuits if they track by ability. Their kids, particularly the boy kids, start to adopt this opinion, and white failure rates start rising.

So charters become a way for parents to sculpt their school environments. White parents stuck in majority/minority districts start progressive charters that brag about their minority population but are really a way to keep the brown kids limited to the well-behaved ones. Low income black and Hispanic parents want safe schools. Many of them apply for charter school lotteries because they know charters can kick out the “bad kids” without fear of lawsuits. But they still blame the “bad kids”, not the teachers, which is why they might send their kids to charter schools while still ejecting Adrian Fenty for Michelle Rhee’s sins.

As I’ve mentioned before, education reformers are now pushing suburban charters with strong academic focus, which are nothing more than tracking for parents who can’t get their public schools to do it for them.

I really can’t stress this point enough: charters have succeeded because of their ability to control students, not teachers. Comprehensive schools are bound by legal requirements and the constant threat of disparate impact lawsuits. It’s really that simple.

Charter schools don’t scale. What we should be doing, ideally, is “flipping” the populations. Charter schools can focus on one of three populations: low incentives, special ed, or non-native English speakers. Let the large comprehensives focus on the general population.

If comprehensive schools didn’t fear disparate impact lawsuits for expelling problem students and tracking; if free and appropriate education was dramatically limited in scope; if non-native English speakers were expected to learn English on their own, parents in “diverse” districts would become a whole lot less worried about their local schools and the charter movement would take a huge hit.

Wait, where was I? The CTU strike. But it’s related. The strike succeeded in large part because the reform Democrats were shocked to discover that the city population sided with the teachers. While I’m pleased at the outcome for the reasons outlined, costs are still a huge problem, particularly pensions. So what’s the answer?

Rick Hess compares the Chicago strike, brought about by Democrats, to the Wisconsin reforms (assuming they survive the courts). Democrats argue that reform can be achieved by working with unions; Governor Scott Walker just went after pension costs and won (again, so far).

I’m not sure I buy that distinction (although any article that calls Steven Brill a loser gets my vote). Rahm’s not a governor; he could only deal at the district level, and his ex-boss needs unions for his re-election bid. While he seemed to fold on everything, it may be that he had no options once the teachers walked out—again, because to reformers’ consternation, the parents and the public sided with the teachers. Walker had a legislature backing his play.

But I also wonder how much of the difference is due to the fact that Walker focused entirely on cost-cutting, without getting into accountability or merit. It’s one thing for the public to support teachers fighting for air-conditioning and against unfair evaluations, quite another to support their right to free guaranteed pensions on the taxpayers’ dime.

So here is my advice for Republicans:

  1. Focus on government worker pension pcosts. All government workers. No giving cops and firefighters a free ride. (The public supports this, too.)
  2. To the extent possible, scale back existing retirees’ benefits and pay, as opposed to focusing only on new and current workers.
  3. Instead of blaming teachers and unions, blame the frigging courts. They’re the huge obstacle to pension and union reform. Ask Arnold. Ask Scott Walker.
  4. Stop pushing charter schools and accountability. Start talking about the need to bring back tracking, and giving schools control over their environments. Talk about scaling back special education. Accept the Hispanic vote as a lost cause and start asking pointed questions about the cost of educating kids who can’t speak English.

As Rick Hess has noted elsewhere, parents see accountability as a problem for poor people, one they support rather like one supports Brussel sprouts—they taste like crap, but they’re supposed to be healthy. Neither political party is speaking to the hopes and fears of most parents.

So the CTU strike and its outcome, ideally, should resonate as a lasting symbol of the failure of education reform to win public opinion. This could be an opportunity for anyone willing to withstand disapproval by the elite machine that dictates acceptable opinions. That should be the job of Republicans in this environment. I’m afraid they’re not up to the task.


The Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform

A while back*, Rick Hess told education leaders to get over their “allergy” to policy. It took me a while to figure out what he was talking about, since education leaders are, for the most part, all about policy. (Teachers are another matter; they could give three nickels for policy.)

But a closer reading reveals that Hess is chastising education leaders—who do, despite his post, involve themselves in educational policy—for not agreeing with politicians on their current policy mandates. Hess says the politicians are the heart of reason:

Let me put it this way. If you were an elected official and were responsible for elementary schools where only half of kids are reading at grade level and high schools where only fifty percent of students are graduating, it’d be pretty understandable (and laudable, even) to think you can’t simply trust the educators to do the right thing.

Gosh. Those poor elected officials, trudging along, minding their own business, forced—yea, I say forced!–into the educational arena by the sheer incompetence of schools that can’t get their kids to read at grade level. Let us all bleed for them.

But while we are slitting our veins for a few ounces, some questions: what is this “grade level” he speaks of? And what are the academic expectations of a high school graduate? In fact, when did we declare that everyone should graduate high school, and why? When did we establish guidelines of what appropriate standards are? And aren’t those….you know, it kills me to bring it up, but aren’t those state responsibilities?

Yes, yes, I can hear the reply now. Of course it’s a state responsibility, constitution, blah blah blah. In fact the high school movement, the uniquely American push to increase access to a high school education, was a local movement. But the states want federal money, so naturally the federal government has an oversight role.

But when did the feds start giving the states money for education? Well, that would be when the states started incurring costs imposed upon public schools either by federal law or federal court fiat.

First up, of course, was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act’s Title I, designed to improve educational outcomes for the poor. More money would help the poor and close the achievement gap, so the thinking went–and still goes, although the Coleman Report, issued a year later, established that school spending had far less to do with student outcomes than student SES and background. But the expectation was set into law—all outcomes should be equal. No research, no science, no school has ever proven this out. It was just the sort of blithe expectation we had during the civil rights era that certainly seemed to be true. Unfortunately, when that expectation didn’t prove out, no one seemed to recall that we had no proof that it could ever be true. They just looked for someone else to blame. So the federal dollars came with more and more expectations, demanding an outcome that hadn’t ever been established as realistic to start with.

But Title I was just the start. In 1974, the Supreme Court, in Lau vs. Nichols, required the schools to educate kids in their native languages (ironically, this demand originated from the Asian community; bet they’re happy about that one now!). Then the Court told the schools that they have to educate illegal immigrants in Plyler vs. Doe, denying that there might be a “compelling state interest” in educating only those here legally. Don’t forget busing, disparate impact, free and appropriate education, inclusion….they cover all these court cases in ed school, did you know?

Meanwhile, Congress is busy declaring that children with mental and physical disabilities are guaranteed a free and appropriate public education, regardless of the cost, with a guaranteed Individualized Education Plan following when IDEA is passed in 1990.

So the feds are placing increasing burdens on the local school systems, often in the form of unfunded mandates, other times adding dollars with strings of steel.

These reforms were almost exclusively driven by progressives—liberals who believe that educational inequality is caused by unequal spending, white privilege, racism, prejudice, discrimination….you know that drill, too. Progressives were intent on improving access. While it’s likely that they, too, thought that access would end the achievement gap, they adjusted quickly when that expectation didn’t prove out. By the 80s, progressives in educational policy almost entirely anti-testing. They pooh-poohed SAT scores as racist and culturally biased. They instituted the multi-culti curricum, softened analytical requirements as much as possible whilst giving lip service to that all important “critical thinking”, declared tracking or other forms of ability grouping by demonstrated ability as another means of whites maintaining their institutional privilege, and declared that academic achievement could be demonstrated in many ways. To the extent possible, they ignored or downplayed demonstrated achievement in favor of a student’s effort, community service, and dedication to social justice.

So the original federal mandates were all initiated by progressives.

In contrast, the people we now call “reformers” (that I often refer to as “eduformers”) were largely conservatives. Checker Finn, Mike Petrilli, the Thernstroms, and Diane Ravitch before her switch—all policy wonks in Republican administrations or organizations (except Rotherham worked in a Democrat administration.)

The original reform movement originated as anti-progressive reform. Bill Bennett, in many ways the ur-Reformer, began his stint in the public eye by opposing or castigating many of the progressive mandates. He did his best to end native language instruction when he was Ed Sec, was pro-tracking, against affirmative action, and often castigated teacher unions as instruments of political indoctrination. Back in the 80s and 90s, Checker Finn lambasted the anti-tracking push and derided racial or economic integration as an end to itself, arguing that the important outcome was safe schools with effective teachers, not an obsession with numerical balance. Rare were the reformers who weren’t adamantly in favor of tracking, skeptical of mainstreaming special education kids, and opposed to bilingual education in native language. Educating illegal immigrants is possibly the only area in which reformers might have originally agreed with progressives (and consequently stand in stark disagreement with many parents).

They’ve softened this approach in recent years. For example, Mike Petrilli now writes about differentiation, and can be seen here telling a clearly skeptical, but not oppositional, Checker Finn about the way that differentiation avoids the bad old days of racially segregated approach of tracking. While many reformers used to openly oppose affirmative action, now they’re just really quiet about it, or promote charters for suburban families or selective public schools, both of which are just tracking in a different form (or reform, hyuk). No reformer has ever dared take on the special education mandates and the parental torrents of rage that would turn in his direction were he to be so foolish; instead, they’ll just talk up the charters that get to skate those mandates.

So, for the first twenty to thirty years, progressives dramatically reformed public education through federal interventions. Conservatives opposed many of the initiatives. Progressives denounced opposition as racist and elitist. Conservatives tried to hold progressives responsible for these initiatives through accountability, and declared that parents needed more choice in schools, to get away from the forced control imposed by the progressive viewpoint. Progressives continued to denounce opposition as racist and elitist.

Finally, in the late 90s, conservatives figured out an effective strategy to gain support for their reforms. They took a card from the progressive deck, and demanded that the schools live up to the educational objectives the progressives had set for them. It wasn’t enough just to desegregate classes by race, income, language and learning status. The schools needed to demonstrate that they were teaching everyone equally, that there were “no excuses” for failure. Excuses were—wait for it—racist and elitist. Accountability became the club through which they could achieve choice, and choice would weaken public schools, thus weakening progressives and—not to put too fine a point on it—unions, whose political power the reformers saw as the primary opponent of their political objectives. By demanding equal performance and softening or eliminating their opposition to tracking, bi-lingual education, and all the other progressive hot spots, they could beat the progressives on their head with their own club.

They’d finally figured out the unassailable rhetorical approach. Who could oppose setting mandates requiring everyone—of all races, incomes, and abilities—achieve proficiency? Only racists and elitists. Who could oppose punishing such failure with consequences? Only racists and elitists. Who could oppose giving parents and their students a way to escape from these horrible schools that fail to educate their students to proficiency? Yes, progressives with their excuses of poverty and culture and isolation—they’re the racists. The same people who gave lip service to equality are now fighting the reformers’ efforts to achieve the reality—so not only are progressives elitist and racist, they’re hypocrites, too!

And so, the current reform movement set new federal mandates, which takes those original mandates of the 70s and 80s and shoves them down schools’ throats, hoisting any progressive opposition on its own petard. Unions who opposed accountability on behalf of the teachers, who know full well that equal outcomes are utterly impossible, could now be castigated as anti-education, fat, entitled organizations who protected all the terrible teachers preventing the nation from reaching the dream that progressives started, the dream that progressives have now abandoned, that reformers are finally helping the nation reach. Over time, this approach picked up some new democrats, who aren’t overly fond of unions and tend to sneer at the reputedly low educational achievement of teachers, and the billionaires who Diane Ravitch, now on the other side, excoriates regularly for finding a new hobby.

I’m no fan of progressives, so it’s pretty amusing watching them sputter. They can’t say, “WTF? We never thought everyone would actually achieve at the same level, dammit! We wanted everything to look equal, so that we could browbeat employers and colleges! Tests are racist!” Besides, it’s their idiotic mandates we’re all being forced to live up to now, and they had no more basis for demanding them than reformers do in enforcing them.

So here we are. Schools are stuck with the outcome of two different waves of political reform—first, the progressive mandates designed to enforce surface “equality” of their dreams, then the reforms mandated by conservatives to make the surface equality a reality, which they knew was impossible but would give them a tool to break progressives and, more importantly, unions.

From the schools’ point of view, all these mandates, progressive or “reform” are alike in one key sense: they are bent on imposing political and ideological mandates that haven’t the slightest link to educational validity.

No one has ever made an effective case that non-native speakers can be educated as well as native speakers, regardless of the method used. No one has ever established that integration, racial or economic, improves educational outcomes. No one has ever demonstrated that blacks or Hispanics can achieve at the same average level as whites (or that whites can achieve at the same level as Asians, although no one gets worked up about that gap), nor has anyone ever demonstrated that poor students can achieve equally with their higher-income peers. No one has ever established that kids with IQs below 90 can achieve at the same level as kids with IQs above 100, or examined the difference in outcomes of educating kids with high vs. low motivation. And the only thing that has changed in forty years is that anyone who points this out will now be labelled elitist and racist by both sides of the educational debate, instead of just one.

So back to Hess. Hess’s rationale for political interference starts with the premise that low test scores means failing schools. When Hess says that a politician whose district schools show half or more kids reading below grade level can’t trust educators to do the right thing, he is assuming that half or more kids reading below grade level is a bad result.

Hess is using exactly the same rationale that progressives did when they labelled schools racist/elitist/pick your ist for enrolling fewer blacks, Hispanics, poor kids or dyslexics in advanced classes. It’s the fallacy at the heart of all reform: that all kids can achieve equally.

We don’t know that this is true. In order to call test scores “low”, we assume that all populations can achieve to the same average ability. We don’t know that they can. All available evidence says that they can not, that race, special education status, and poverty are not excuses but genuine, reliable predictors of lower achievement.

But thanks to the combined efforts of progressives and eduformers and their blithe lack of interest in the validity of their expectations, schools are now stuck with mandates that force them to pretend that all students can achieve equally to the same average ability, even though no research supports this. When Virginia bit the bullet to acknowledge that race is in some way related to achievement (note: I don’t think race is a direct factor, just an unsettling proxy), they were browbeaten and hammered into backing down, although I was cheered to see they still used race for achievement goals.

Rick Hess is wrong in saying that education leaders are “allergic” to policy. They are “allergic” to mandates with no relationship to reality. And his sympathy for political leaders who are dragged in reluctantly, poor folks, to spare the kids from uncaring, dysfunctional schools is also misplaced. The problem isn’t the schools. The problem is the mandates—both progressive and reform. The problem is the imposition of political and ideological objectives into the educational world, screaming and howling and suing for five impossible things before breakfast.

*Yeah, I started writing this a month ago and got distracted.


Why Chris Christie picks on teachers

I don’t write about politics per se here, and I have no intention of turning this into a political blog, so bear with me on this first part.

I’m voting for Romney. It’s a done deal. I’m not sure who the Republicans could have put up that I wouldn’t have voted for. Mitch Daniels would have been best, but the wife he twice married refuses to deal with the river of media crap she’d face. Whatever. My reasons have nothing to do with Romney per se; I have voted Republican since 2008 when the Dems turned too far left for my liking. I am so not a fan of the current president; I’ve thought him a phony since he first showed up in 2004. (He shouldn’t take it personally. I’ve only ever voted for one candidate who won, and while my esteem for both Bushes and Reagan is higher than the absolute loathing I hold for Obama, Clinton remains the only president of my adult life I’ve ever liked. Which is different from agreed with; I rarely do that with any politician. There, have I alienated all sides sufficiently?)

And, as my various posts have made clear, I’m not protected by a union. I haven’t worked anywhere long enough to get tenure. I can get canned any time of the year, with no warning. I still pay my dues, which is annoying, but not as annoying as the paperwork to get the money back. If I didn’t have to belong to a union I wouldn’t, although I’ve never met a local union rep who wasn’t helpful, realistic, and honest, even if they are, surprise!, always recommending a straight Democratic ticket vote.

I am thus not particularly disposed to be annoyed at Republicans or protective of unions. So it should perhaps mean something that Chris Christie’s little rant on teachers thoroughly disgusted me.

A teacher, a firefighter, and a cop are sitting in a bar watching the Chris Christie speech. When Christie thunders “Real teacher tenure reform that demands accountability and ends the guarantee of a job for life regardless of performance!”, the cop and the firefighter turn to the teacher and ask, “Jesus, what’d you do to piss him off?”

Yeah, it’s been a while since anyone’s pointed out how hard it is to fire cops or firefighters. Haven’t heard anyone cry out that every citizen deserves “the best cop in America” on their doorstep when their house is robbed, or “the best firefighter in America” when Fluffy gets stuck in a tree. No one mentions that cops and firefighters have jobs for life regardless of performance, or that that “life” job is even more expensive because they usually retire earlier and are far more likely to take disability. Cops and firefighters don’t get promoted on merit, and they get raises every year on a step chart even if they just phone it in. Anyone want to talk about the number of cops who look the other way for bribes and sexual favors? Thought not. While everyone knows that parents are likely to hold a low opinion of public schools nationally while loving their local schools, when has that ever been true about cops or firefighters? And hell, firefighters don’t even actually fight fires any more.

Please do not interpret this as a broadside against either cops or firefighters. Cops in particular, please do not hunt me down and give me speeding tickets in your secondary primary role of revenue agents. (Kidding. Kind of.) And yes, being a cop can be dangerous, but it’s dangerous in the same places where being a teacher is primarily about checking for gang colors and guns, and it’s relatively safe in the same areas where being a teacher is actually about, you know, teaching. And of course, actually fighting a fire is dangerous but how often does that happen and anyway, cops and firefighters get a hefty premium precisely because of the increased danger of the job, perceived or genuine.

But the reality is that the three jobs are strikingly similar. They have a relatively low barrier to entry but nonetheless require a high degree of skill and creativity. They are jobs that can’t really be learned except by doing. They require intellect, but not the sort that elites have, or look upon with favor. They are therefore jobs that the elites tend to opine about with a slapworthy degree of condescension, and jobs in which senior members display a distressing sense of entitlement to benefits and guarantees long since lost to the private sector and soon to be lost to the more junior entrants to the profession.

So what’d teachers do to piss off the Republican party while it leaves cops and firefighters alone? Or, as Lenin via Steve Sailer puts it, “Who? Whom?”

Yeah, well, unions, obviously. That’s not the big reveal, that cop and firefighter unions are, traditionally, most likely to support Republicans while teachers, the single biggest occupation in America, pour their millions into the Democrat coffers. And it may or may not be significant that Republicans might be making nice, that firefighters and cops both have been endorsing Democrats lately in large part because the Republicans had been talking tough on cutting government, or that Scott Walker conspicuously left these occupations out of his legislation.

No, the one I wonder about is whether or not teachers were targeted first because cops and firefighters are almost entirely white males, and teachers are mostly white females.

Because it certainly is odd, isn’t it, that the Republicans have a “woman problem” and they are spending all this time attacking an occupation that’s 60% female? Just a little? Around the edges? But what made me wonder about gender as opposed to pure union money is the readiness of the Democrats to attack teachers unions, that pro-reform progressives are lately attacking tenure, bad teachers, the need to bring in “new blood”, and so on. Why would these progressives attack their own, unless they could see that there’s play in attacking government workers? So then, they need a target. Would they have picked teachers, one of their most powerful and loyal donor unions, if teachers weren’t white females?

Eh. I know someone is going to see this as an identity politics bleat, and I don’t mean it that way. We can’t ever escape gender. We sure as hell can’t escape race. I also don’t think any gender bias is deliberate, like the Republicans got together and said hey, what’s the demographically safest union for us to bash? I do think it’s….interesting, and I think the Republicans might want to mull any potential advantages of maybe a little equal opportunity union bashing. The irony, of course, is that teaching is far more male than law-enforcement/firefighting is female. (And yet, while it’s common to call for improved teacher quality by bringing in more males…..yeah, you get the idea.)

But sure, it’s unions, mostly.

Back to my disgust with Chris Christie. It wasn’t the pandering to unions, or any kind of outrage at the use of gender politics, whether a product of my imagination or otherwise. If Mitt Romney were going to tell the truth as Christie so vehemently declared, then he’d talk about all public worker pensions, instead of picking the politically safest group to attack. But what else is new?

Of course, the Republicans aren’t actually interested in improving schools with choice, accountability, and standards. They need the reformer support and enthusiasm, they need white parents, and think they’ll get it with this rhetoric, which ties in neatly with their desire to weaken teachers unions (and do they realize that teacher unions are a whole bunch of white parents? Probably not). That is, yes, I think it’s a CYNICAL PLOY. Heaven forfend.

Democrats, of course, are entirely innocent of all this behavior. Let us all laugh. Ha ha!

No, it was the linkage of bad performance to goal of cutting government costs that just nauseated me. If every teacher, cop, and firefighter was doing a bangup job, pensions are still a huge problem. Salaries and the Baumiol Effect, still a huge problem. Even if teacher quality were a problem—and it’s not—transforming teacher quality wouldn’t do a thing to cut costs. Nor would higher standards, school choice, or accountability. The only way that attacking school quality brings about lower costs is if the results kill the unions and kill the protections, so that labor costs plummet. And again, I’m not against this, if that’s what’s needed, but it won’t help improve the schools.

The problem with our schools isn’t standards or choice or teacher quality. The problem with our schools isn’t money or poverty. The problem with our schools is our expectations, and the pointless demands we make of kids who don’t want to and/or can’t do the work.

So take all the usual political crap, throw in genuinely screwed up solution offerings that won’t fix a thing and ultimately make education even more expensive or, more likely, destroy public support for educating the hard to educate. Um, yeah. Also not new. So why, again, am I particularly bothered?

Back to Lenin and who, whom. I wasn’t a teacher for the other elections. I’m not upset or defensive at my ox being gored, but it’s a lot harder to hear this spew when I see the results of the near-criminal expectations that both political parties have put on schools, teachers, and the students, and the crap we have to go through even to pretend to follow the moronic mandates they legislate.

So nuts to you, Chris Christie. But hell, what do you care? Mitt’s got my vote anyway, because frankly—and oddly—I’m still banking on the unions and the public to stop politicians from doing permanent damage to our schools. Here’s hoping.


The Real Agenda

The Culture of Can’t in America

I clicked in with interest, because Rick Hess doesn’t usually offer a routine perspective.

When it comes to reforming our nation’s public schools, we hear a lot about what educational leaders can’t do. Contracts, laws, and regulations assuredly handcuff school and system leaders. But the ardent drumbeat for “reform” has obscured the fact that school and system leaders can actually do much that they often complain they can’t, if they have the persistence, knowledge, ingenuity, and motivation. In truth, it’s tough to know how much blame should be apportioned to contracts and laws and how much to timid school boards and leaders who prize consensus and stakeholder buy-in.

Sounds promising but apparently, the only thing Hess thinks that leaders can do that they say they can’t do is 1) be creative in getting around LIFO and 2) use a phone to go through some of the more annoying consequences of giving a negative evaluation.

Think bold, move from Can’t to Can, and all he can come up with is a few procedural suggestions to get creative in firing teachers?

You’d think he could just say so. Title the article “Firing teachers: It’s not as hard as you think!”


Sigh…..

My union dollars at work.


Taking Sides

Okay, I’m a junkie and probably don’t know from normal, but I was originally dumbfounded by how utterly clueless most teachers are regarding the education policy debate. Three years down the road, I’m less surprised when I get blank looks in response to a comment about Waiting for Superman (many teachers haven’t heard of it), or the charter school controversies. Teachers are a very pragmatic lot, as a group. When they do think about policy, they start from their own experience, usually reinventing the wheel. More than one teacher has mentioned in meetings, thoughtfully, that it’s entirely possible that charter schools get better results because they have a greater ability to pick and choose their students. Still others have said, also thoughtfully, that perhaps the reason we are under such pressure to raise our passing rates for URMs is because our district was sued 20 years ago. It’s not the opinion that startles me, but the fact that the people have worked this out all on their own, with absolutely no idea of the huge debate on these major subjects in their field.

I am not saying that teachers are stupid or poorly informed. It’s just not something they care about. I was in technology first, and a far higher percentage of the worker bees have passionate opinions on tech policy issues, so this came as a shock.

Of course, the general public, parents in particular, are also largely ignorant of the broad outlines of the educational policy debates.

So here’s a primer I’m very fond of. The National Association of Scholars published Achievement Gap Politics a year ago. The article, written by an anonymous teacher, had a very useful breakdown of the political and ideological schisms in educational policy around the single defining issue–the achievement gap–and coined a phrase to describe an alternate opinion that doesn’t see the light of day.

I’ll summarize the key players here and will continue to develop these profiles. I just wanted to give a hat tip to the original piece:

Progressives: progressives believe that social inequality and injustice cause the achievement gap, that tracking or any form of ability grouping reinforces the achievement gap. Progressives are under fire these days, but dominate at ed schools and thus control much of the research and curriculum development. Curriculum is a huge area of interest for progressives, who seek to make “relevant and meaningful” for students of low income and color.

Conservatives: conservatives may or may not be politically conservative, but they think the achievement gap has been caused by a relaxation of traditional educational values, and can only be fixed by forcing students to live by these values. They believe teachers are woefully under-qualified and rewarded too easily, and hold that unions protect these unqualified teachers. I call those with the “conservative” view “eduformers”, because they see themselves as railing against the evil status quo that is teachers and unions.

Both progressives and eduformers are interested in changing student values. Progressives want to change values by coaxing and persuasion, by inclusion ideally, by integrating low achieving and low income students in with high achievers with culturally appropriate values, while at the same time, of course, respecting the “cultural framework” from which the students came. Eduformers fundamentally think that low achievers have flawed cultural values that the teachers and schools tolerate to the harm of the students; they believe that “no excuses” and high standards are the answer.

Then there’s the Voldemort View, the View That Must Not Be Named: cognitive ability determines academic achievement; therefore, the achievement gap is caused in large part by differences in mean cognitive ability between the “gapped” groups. Think The Bell Curve. Mentioning the Voldemort View is a career destroyer–or, at the very least, the wrath of the establishment crashes down upon the speaker for all of eternity. So while many experts accept the Voldemort View as reality, few people mention it in public.

End summary. Here’s some examples to help with categorization:

Progressives: Diane Ravitch, Linda Darling Hammond, Deborah Meier, Valerie Strauss of the Post, ed schools, and unions. Politically of the left.

Eduformers: TFAers, Michelle Rhee, Jay Greene, Jay Mathews, anyone at the Thomas Fordham Institute, Bill Gates, Eduwonk (Andrew Rotherham), Matt Yglesias, to name a few. While many eduformers are politically progressive, almost all conservatives interested in education are on the reform side.

Voldemorteans: Charles Murray, Steve Sailer, John Derbyshire, James Watson (he got in trouble for it), and anyone else who has ever pointed out the average IQ differences between whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians. You don’t start a conversation with “So I was reading [a Voldemortean] today” unless you know your crowd really well.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 843 other followers