Category Archives: unions

The Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform

Rick Hess  often tells education leaders to get over their “allergy” to policy. The first time I read this, I couldn’t  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 Hess isn’t really mad at education leaders for not involving themselves in policy. He’s chastising them for  not agreeing with politicians on their current policy mandates:

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!”


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.