Sunday, May 23, 2010

Stood-up and Undelivered

Andrew Klavan sings the praises of "teacher heroes" like Jaime Escalante, and lambastes unions, which he feels are the only thing keeping the Escalantes of the teaching profession from dominating .
The National Education Association is the largest labor union in the US, and its sister union, the American Federation of Teachers, is also huge.  With their Democratic allies, they make the firing of bad teachers almost impossible and the work of good teachers heartbreakingly difficult.  Then, ironically, they trade on the good will generated by men like Jamie Escalante and by movies like Stand and Deliver, knowing that, in Democratic Hollywood, the anti-union sequel will never be made.
I'm sorry Mr. Klavan but this post is ridiculous.  Have you spent much time in different schools, watching actual teachers and administrators work?  Escalante was an amazing teacher.  There are many amazing teachers.  There are many terrible teachers.

But teacher's unions have little to do with this.  Most teachers I know do what they do more out of a passion for their job - to help children succeed - then any monetary reward.  No one goes into teaching for the paycheck.  To the extent that they are good or bad at what they do is nothing more than a reflection of their passion for the work, and unions are largely irrelevant.

Unions do give more protection for failing teachers than they ought to.  But they also give protection to the best teachers.  It's a bargain that, in my opinion, as a teacher who has worked in environments without union representation, ultimately serves children.

At the end of the day, the problem with "teacher hero" movies is that they give a false impression of the job.   Almost by definition, they portray "good" teachers as those who will sacrifice everything in their lives for their students.  Like other real people,  most of us have families and lives outside of work.  I have daughters and a wife that need my love and attention.  I have hobbies that I enjoy and that provide me fulfillment.  Working 9-10 hour days, plus weekend grading and planning already takes up plenty of that.  It is absurd for society to expect that its teaching workforce of over 3 million make such compromises.

But beyond the sacrifices, teaching is as much an art as a science.  Escalante and the best teachers are able to get so much out of their students because they happen to possess an ability to gain rapport and respect from their students.  This isn't something that you can just show up and follow procedurally.  Teachers are all effective and ineffective in their own ways.  They have different personalities which fit with different students, and styles of learning.  An excellent teacher in a suburban school might fail miserably at a poor school, where students generally lack preparedness and social skills to succeed at adequate levels.  It takes  a special type of person to reach these kids. 

The sad fact is that these schools the work is much more difficult (imagine the difference between trying to win a race with a lamborghini vs. a yugo!); there are fewer resources, and the stress levels are vastly higher.  This creates a market force that pushes more qualified teachers out of these schools, who end up being disproportionately staffed by younger, less experienced teachers who tend to struggle even more.  The environment at these schools is often a pressure cooker in which many complicated issues arise and unions can provide protection for teachers who are facing an environment ripe for abuse.

Just to give my own example, I worked at a charter school under no contract, with no union support and situations arose which were very harmful to the students and teachers, but there was no recourse because the teachers had no power to stand up to the corrupt and incompetent administration.  Redundant and pointless meetings would be scheduled at the last minute and take up valuable planning time.  Prep periods were canceled and classes were reorganized in haphazard ways.   Facilities were left in disrepair.  Crucial student services weren't provided and behavioral consequences were left unattended to.  The community was poor and had little knowledge of what to expect from a properly run school, and so there was no pressure on the administration from parents.  The school was receiving Title I federal funding because of the low SES status of the students, yet basic services such as free and reduced lunches weren't provided.  Afters-school tutoring or money for extra-curricular programs was never provided.  Teacher evaluations on 12 different grades  were performed by a single principle who spent barely more than 30 minutes in the classroom yearly.  There was almost no leadership to speak of.  Everything was top-down and teachers were rarely asked for input on basic programmatic decisions.  Firings were often seen as capricious and arbitrary when excellent teachers were removed while incompetent teachers remained.  Yet the principle wasn't even responsible for many basic decisions either: these came from out-of-touch administrators in corporate offices 2 hours away.

So would a union have made things at our school better or worse?  I think they would have been better.  Employees would have felt protected and thus had the courage to stand up for what we felt was actively harming the students.  The administration would have been held accountable.  Would any of us had worked any less hard?  That's literally laughable.  All of us could have worked much less than we did - we are professionals after all.  Because of the administration's reckless incompetence we simply had to work harder.  I know that if I had been given a prep period (instead of being forced to do yard duty) my instruction would have been improved dramatically.

But all of this is coming from an actual teacher.  I can sit down with you and tell you in detail about my job requirements and what I think is best.  The vast majority of people commenting on education are not, or have ever been teachers.  This doesn't mean they are necessarily wrong at all.  But it does mean that they need to be very wary about judging issues in a profession that they they know little about.

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