Thursday, February 25, 2010

Modern "Progressive" Education Reform: Union-Busting

Progressive education reform these days seems like an oxymoron.  Or, at least what is being touted by many otherwise progressives as education reform is not very progressive at all.  A good portion of the rhetoric places an emphasis on teacher accountability and a turn towards charter schools.  What this often ends up meaning is union-busting.  The complaint is that teachers unions are holding back schools by protecting bad teachers, and charter schools, because they are so often non-union, are thus able to present the way forward.  Unions are an anachronism and without them the detritus of bad teaching will disappear, allowing administrators, whose intent is only to help the children, will be free to do their job.

This is absurd.   Teachers are at a disadvantage to administrators by definition, and any employer is potentially oppressive.  Why on earth would a school be any different?  There are any number of examples of how teachers get mistreated routinely (too many prep-periods, unsanitary classrooms, unannounced scheduling changes, feckless discipline follow-through, poor communication, unwarranted and ineffective professional development and curriculum mandates, just to name a few).  And this isn't even getting into capricious or malicious treatment.

Schools are not like regular job environments.  The main difference is simply the level of personal sacrifice and professionalism that is required as part of the job.  In return, teachers have fought for and won certain privileges.

No one wants bad teaching.  I don't want it for my kids or anyone else's.  But effective solutions must be considered in the context of the realities of teaching.  It must also be said that this is especially true with respect to teaching in poor schools, where the environment can be downright hostile due to a variety of socioeconomic reasons.


  1. "Schools are not like regular job environments."

    Not bad work for a part-time job.

  2. Oh yes you are right poor teachers. They work 9 months a year, do a terrible job, and have had student to teacher ratio's decrease while dollars to students have increased for 30 years and academic achievement has either stayed the same. By all means let's think about their right to collectively bargain first and completely disregard the fact that we are all hard wired into an information conduit which would instantly expose administrative abuses in this day and age. Sure lets think about those underachieving, lazy, and frankly undereducated, teachers and their salary's while our nations education system puts up a tough competition to be on par with the mighty empire of Latvia.

  3. I'm not sure how to respond. How do I argue when the premise is flawed?

    I suppose I could start by correcting the premise. But should one bother arguing with an opponent who hasn't taken the time to investigate what the basic facts are, or deliberately skews them so widely as to be useless to debate?

    I wrote about this dilemma here:

    So, while Randy your post seems to be a sort of passing jab, Anon. seems to have vomited up something that s/he has no real interest in debating in an honest and mature way.

  4. I think Anonymous was on your side and was responding to me in a satiracle way. Satire is a hard concept to grasp so I'm just guess here.

    Also it doesn't matter how hard the job is, teachings is 6 hrs a day required and less than 10 months work for full-time pay.

    The point anon was making is our educations system sucks. That's a given. The more money we pour into it the worse it becomes. I'm for something different like the recently canceled Washington D.C. experiment with the very popular voucher system. In other words give parents a choice in the form of a voucher to guide their child’s educational path.

  5. Randy, I hope so!

    I think your point about teachers' hours is fair. That is definitely one of the reasons becoming a teacher was attractive to me. But there more to it than that.

    First, I've never worked with any teacher who only works a 6 hour day. At the minimum, the day is 8 hrs., but then you have an enormous amount of prep-work. I'm laid off right now (I worked for a charter school in which the management basically drove the school into insolvency - but that's another story!). But when I was teaching I taught Chemistry, Biology, Earth Science, Journalism and Visual Arts. I worked 1-2 hours at night, and then another 5-6 on weekends.

    I looked at having winter, spring and summer breaks as part of my compensation, just like health care and a pension account.

    But none of that is an argument against the specific nature of the teaching environment, and how unions can protect teachers from being taken advantage of - which would then of course pass on to the kids in the form of a worse education.

    I also wasn't saying that unions didn't have their problems. When most teachers hear stories about incompetent teachers never getting fired it makes us all look bad. We don't want that lousy schmuck who's likely disorganized, lazy, ineffective and, well, usually yelling at the kids all day, to get treated with kid gloves. I want their ass fired as much as anyone. But the problem is how you put a system in place that doesn't create a situation in which the rest of us get burned.

    Just to use an anecdote - a brother of mine is on detention right now for saying "hell" in the classroom. A kid complained and he was warned. Now, he's teaching in the south, and some teachers sent a racist email around (making fun of how black students talked) and he wrote them back saying it was offensive. Some teachers decided he was an "uppity Westerner" and one filed a hostile work environment complaint. The principle, a friend of theirs, decided this was a good chance to get him back and had the police escort him off campus. She was already upset with him because he was "pushing the kids too hard", even though their test scores were beating the pants off the rest of the school. The kicker was that his students

    Now, what does this show? The boss and some co-workers were a-holes. So what, happens everywhere, right? Except that schools are environments in which who teachers are is often as important as what they are. That is, you are interacting with hundreds of kids in often times very personal and dynamic ways. You build relationships with their parents, and other staff members, in which your personality and expression of empathy and honesty is required in order to build up trust, which in turn allows you to get the best possible performance out of students. The problem however, is that schools are hectic cauldrons of emotion. I mean, kids, especially in troubled communities, can be incredibly wild and out-of-control. This can often create a powder keg environment in which grown ups lose their cool.

    Once an administrator is given the authority to fire any teacher at will, for any reason, the entire culture of the place takes a nose dive. There is suddenly a very different power relationship. At the school I worked at, teachers were let go left and right for little reason (and generally replaced by people no better). Over the years, an aura of suspicion and distrust came over the place. People whispered things. I never once felt I could speak honestly to the boss for fear of getting on his bad side. I kept my distance from students, unsure as to whether the administration had my back. I quietly accepted every crazy policy decision they made for fear of giving the wrong impression that I wasn't "on board" with the program.


  6. But you know, in the end its not even the protection against arbitrary firing that makes unions important. Its just the feeling that someone has your back. Teaching, again, especially in poor school, can make you crazy. Here you have all these kids who come from all kinds of homes and you're somehow expected to turn them into perfect little boys and girls who sit quietly and pay attention and push themselves to be the best they can be. And if you can't, for ANY reason, everyone thinks you're a failure. So if Jimmy's daddy's in prison, mom is on drugs, and his friends are all gang-bangers, your job is now going to be evaluated on your ability to get him to spend 3 hours taking his time to carefully think about all the questions on a multiple choice test. Guess what Jimmy thinks about your Mother-f***ing test?!!!

    Look, I really don't mean to rant. But most people who teach do it because they have a passion to sacrifice themselves to do some good in the world. The ones who aren't doing their very best are rare, in my experience. It isn't a job that anyone can just walk in and do. In fact, most probably can't. You probably have to have a certain level of masochism.
    I just want to say its complicated. And when I hear people giving off-the cuff arguments who sound like they either haven't taught, or haven't read up on both sides of the issue, and are basing most of what they think on what they imagine its probably like, its frustrating. Teaching isn't like any other profession.

  7. You are giving me mixed messages. On one hand you say: “But most people who teach do it because they have a passion to sacrifice themselves to do some good in the world.”

    On the other hand you say: “First, I've never worked with any teacher who only works a 6 hour day. At the minimum, the day is 8 hrs.”

    Do you see that as mixed in my mind?

    Spelling it out; you say teachers sacrifice but you admit you went into it because of the time off. You then say at a minimum you see teachers work 8hrs a day but on less than 10 months a year.

    For the pay that is one very nice job.

    So we can burn anecdotes all day, what do you think about giving parents choice via vouchers to educate their kids? The people in Washington D. C. loved it till the democrats cut it.

  8. Hey Randy - let me just say I appreciate you taking the time to read my blog and holding my feet to the fire.

    I'm not sure I'd describe my message as mixed, as it were. There is a cost/benefit analysis. Part of the reason I signed up for the work was that the difficulty was offset by the rewards. I think there would be a lot less teachers - or at least a lot less good ones if it weren't for the breaks and unions. That's just the market.

    On vouchers - I think that's really where people are coming from who talk about charter schools now. They see a failing school and want kids to be able to go elsewhere.

    I don't disagree with the sentiment. But public education is a socialist enterprise. That means it guarantees everyone a certain level of education, but not necessarily the best. Unfortunately, getting a "good" education has more to do with the demographics of the neighborhood than anything.

    What vouchers or charter schools usually end up doing is simply removing the "good" kids and leaving the "bad" ones behind.

    (Good vs. Bad: A good kid is generally bright but comes from a good home with parents that emphasize academics and enrich the environment with books, conversations, etc. A bad kid may be generally bright enough but has emotional/behavioral issues for a variety of reasons that make him "at-risk" for low performance in school. Check out Hart & Risley's book "Meaningful Differences" for socio-economic correlations on cognitive and vocabulary development - basically the results of a groundbreaking longitudinal study on early childhood development. Check out Neuman's "Changing the Odds for Children At Risk", or Lareau's Unequal Childhoods.)

    While I sympathize with the desire to not force poor parents' children to go to their neighborhood school that sucks because it is in a poor neighborhood and everyone who goes their is poor, I feel like you're either on board with making sure every kid gets a fair crack or you're not. Real education reform needs to start by addressing the socio-economic factors that basically start in infancy and continue on through K-12 (and well, life really, but that's a whole 'nother can of sociological worms).

  9. “I feel like you're either on board with making sure every kid gets a fair crack or you're not. Real education reform needs to start by addressing the socio-economic factors that basically start in infancy and continue on through K-12 (and well, life really, but that's a whole 'nother can of sociological worms).”

    Sort of like our failed War on Poverty?

    If we want to give each child a “fair crack” and you want to address “socio-economic factors” why not give parents a voucher to choose a market-driven education system? That way the parent’s choice if they want to fall into the failing “socialist” experiment in education they can or they can strive to better themselves by taking a “fair crack” at a better life via their own choice.

  10. Like I said, I don't have a problem with that. But what then about all the kids left behind?

  11. At one time they called it parental rights.

    We could use something as outdated as shame to bring peer pressure to those parents that were unfit to raise their kids properly. Of course that would depend on a moral judgment.

    As far as leaving some behind, I think you made the point not all kids go to college. Some simply are going to be toilet cleaners.

  12. Oh Randy where to start? Some kids are meant to wash toilets, just not yours I assume, or those who come out of these hypothetically more productive voucher infused charter schools where apparently they will produce soon to be college graduates, but still pulling the faculty from the same lot that public schools do, if they can even find any new teachers to take the blame for most anything going wrong with adolescents in this country. Who do you think will be teaching there and what hours will they be working? Summer break is a myth for those intending to improve in there practice, as is the 9 to 5 50 week year in the private sector for anyone who intends to "get ahead" in their profession. I teach 240 students with no break whatsoever during an 8 10 hour day at the site and that still discounts planning and the grading of 500 pages of essays per week, minimum. Lets try 60-75 hours per week and then start taking into mandatory professional developments and trainings and the fact that we do not get Summer pay.
    When was the last time you were even in a public school? I want to see you handle 6 groups of forty 16 year old students, much less excite them about a subject that society tells them is unimportant in the process. Got it pictured, now be reminded that George Bush's N.C.L.B. is an impossible task which less than half of the schools in the Country are even making adequate progress towards, much less close to achieving. This is why you want "parent choice", but again, who do you think will do the teaching? Only one third of new teachers are still working in education after 5 years. Still think it's a good gig, or are all those many thousands of well meaning young graduates just lazy and stupid?
    I've worked in many industries and the level of personal and professional accountability that teachers are held to is the highest by far. 240 students equals at least as many parents hoping you can "turn them around' at best, not to mention the constantly changing State and federal expectations and a public that buys into the idea that prison is more important than school, at 56K per inmate per year and 65% recidivism rates because inmates are still left with the 9th grade education that got them on the track to prison in the first place. The Republicans, Ronald Reagan and prop. 13 to start brought about the end of public education in Ca. and it's attempts to create a level playing field for all.
    Some are just meant to clean toilets? How cute of you as an adult man to so blithely write of the entire future of thousands of fellow Americans. Or in your world is it millions? Who are you to take your education for granted and then scoff at the attempts of others to earn the same life that you assume is your birthright, even if you can't even see the issue well enough to appreciate the hard work that was done to create it for you.

  13. Needing praise and adoration for doing your job is an interesting concept, most are happy with a paycheck.

    Sorry you picked a profession that you feel is held in such poor regard.

    FYI, my wife is a special education teacher; I know how hard she works.

    As far as toilet cleaners, I wonder if you understand the concept of metaphor.

  14. I have something I would like to add regarding this voucher issue.

    Before diving in... my main source on this issue is my father, a conservative Republican and former Assistant Superintendent in charge of Business for a variety of different school districts throughout California (including San Francisco Unified, Fresno Unified, and others).

    Vouchers sound like a great idea. They allow parents to have more of a say in their child's education and open potential doors for kids that may not have had an opportunity to go to a certain school. Sounds great so far.

    Here is the problem... they are basically bigoted in nature and will be until the Federal Government forces all private schools to have an open door policy to children with disabilities. School districts run the risk of violating the civil rights of disabled people (i.e. FAPE, ADA, etc.) should they hand over a voucher for a parent to take their typically developed child out of a public school and enter them into a private school that refuses special ed.

    Do you really think some of these powerful private schools that have no special ed. departments are going to open their doors to the disabled? I highly doubt it. So where does that leave you? Right back where you started. Those private schools don't need your voucher money. They have rich alumni and donors that pay for their existence. This voucher idea attempts to leave public schools with nothing but the disabled and socioeconomically depressed. It is an idea shrouded in bettering our education system but is truly bigoted at heart.

    The only way you can get the voucher system to work, Constitutionally, is to enforce regulations on all private, charter or public schools that would accept vouchers to ACCEPT children with disabilities. If that were to change, then I think the voucher system has potential merit. Until then, it is an idea that violates the civil rights of children like mine.


  15. I would like to add an ideological point or two...

    One of the biggest issues running through our political wasteland right now is the private vs. public debate. Where do we draw the line? I freely admit I lean left of center so my opinions generally fall towards trusting in the welfare of the state over the welfare over corporations.

    My big beef with much of the conservative ideology is their lack of answers and examples of how we can trust corporations, and business in general, to care for the welfare (I use the term welfare in a more true form to its definition than actual welfare benefits poor people receive) of the populace. How will privatizing education, public goods, etc. ensure the betterment of our society? I am skeptical of the potential results should we go the direction of truly small government.

    I consider myself a Keyensian capitalist and trust in capitalism when it is regulated to benefit the vast majority of the population, not for a small minority of wealthy individuals and families. There is no question that there are problems with current left-wing stalwarts (most notably unions). There needs to be a reconciliation of sorts and some unions need to understand that they have it too good. UAW have some of the best benefits in the world and should recognize how there current deal has crippled their business. I have relatives that are UAW and are currently getting paid 90% of their salary with full benefits and haven't worked for over 2 years. That's ridiculous. On the flip side, executives need to stop fleecing their companies and realize they aren't worthy of their eight to nine figure paydays. It's out of control.

    In closing I simply ask the simple question...

    how can you (Randy) or the right in general ensure that the public good will be taken care of by private enterprise? I am interested in your answer as I feel there is no honest way to guarantee it. At least I haven't seen or heard of one yet.


  16. “I consider myself a Keyensian capitalist and trust in capitalism when it is regulated…”

    Sad but Keynesian economic policies are on massive display in Washington right now are a miserable failure as they always are. FDR proved that.

    Did you ever read the Statue of Liberty motto? It says “give me your poor, your tired…” and with freedom they will build a great country. And they did!

    Regulated capitalism is exactly what happened to cause the financial meltdown. If you allow booms, you must allow failures to fail and to not be bailed out.

    The market looking for that voucher would make it easy for “children with disabilities” to get the best education for the dollar they can. Our current system takes 4 times more than the average private school and our current system has a 50% drop out rate! Giving more money creates bigger and costler failures. The system is flawed and must compete or we doom another generation to sub standard education.

    An education with the best intent full of people that a passionate about their work but nevertheless an education that isn’t creating critical thinkers but creating state supporting automatons.

  17. Randy,

    Actually, FDR's New Deal didn't work because he didn't follow Keyens's advice. FDR was too hell bent on getting re-elected and decided that looking responsible by trying to balance the budget was more important than truly going all the way with Keyensian principles. When asked what gor us out of the Great Depression the logical and factual answer is WWII, right? I will assume that you agree. If not, it is the common belief of history that this is so. I ask you then, what was WWII economically? IT WAS THE LARGEST DEFICIT SPENDING THE U.S. HAS EVER TAKEN ON PER CAPITA. It was exactly Keyensian policies that got us out of the Great Depression. The failure of banks, businesses and Wall St. are exactly what created the Depression in the late 20's and early 30's. That is historical fact.

    You still haven't responded to vouchers being unconstitutional and the idea a violation of the civil rights of the disabled. Like I said, I a m not against vouchers as long as the schools that accept these vouchers will accept people of all races, religions, gender or whether they are disabled or not. Otherwise the government would be violating the civil rights of many.

  18. Vouchers would be part of a government mandate. It would an intrusion into the free-market. Forcing a business that educates kids for profit to accept all comers is like forcing a bank to loan without regard to repayment. It is a prescription for disaster. If we could have a separation of education and government then I think market-forces would create a better product than the current over-priced bloated education system we have to endure now.

    WWII had more than spending it had an enemy we must defeat and if we didn’t our very survival as a nation depended on it. If run-away spending on war is, what makes up strong economically then Obama needs another war to fight? Johnson’s “war on poverty” is a wonderful example of spending that backfired. It transferred $10trillion dollars of wealth from rich to poor but we have more poor now than before LBJ’s infamous war with no exit strategy.

    GWB, took us to war and the libs howled our economy was being wrecked, so I suspect you supported GWB’s Keynesian economic principals in the face of a $2trillion dollar economic hit from 911?

    It wasn’t until 07 when the libs took control of the purse strings (congress) and accelerated the run-away spending on social programs and wars that our economy started to flourish so with even greater deficits our economy is roaring again!

    Sorry satire is in my blood.