Sunday, July 4, 2010

Obama vs. Teachers

Apparently the Teacher's Unions aren't too happy with the Obama administration.  For the last two years of his candidacy, Obama spoke before the NEA and the AFT.  Arne Duncan spoke before them the past two summers.  But this year
"no federal official was scheduled to speak at either convention this month, partly because union officials feared that administration speakers would face heckling"
 It's not surprising, considering how much Duncan's stated policy goals have essentially implied a form of union-busting.  It's no secret among such neo-liberal reformers that the only thing seeming to stand in the way of educational excellence is teacher's unions, which of course are "propping up bad teachers".  But this is sloppy thinking.

Davis Guggenheim, director of An Inconvenient Truth, takes aim squarely at teacher's unions in his new film Waiting for Superman on the failures of the American education system.  If reviews like this are any indication, his work will only reinforce misguided notions about what some of the real problems are. 
One interview subject, a teacher named Canada, is so effortlessly inspiring and simply noble that he may inspire your own kids to become an educator. The only place a man like this can make a difference is in a charter school, which (obviously) has a rather high enrollment list, and therefore its pupils must be chosen by lottery.
I haven't seen the film yet, but I'm assuming he's referring to Geoffrey Canada, head of the Harlem Children's Zone.  There's so much wrong with this interpretation that I'll just throw it out there as an example of the many problems union-bashing rhetoric leads to in public discourse.

Unions, as they represent teachers as a whole, have a vested interest that is going to sometimes stand in the way of dealing with poor performance.  But this is the trade-off you get for giving workers power through representation.  Any entrenched interest is going to have this problem.  This is the nature of power.  It corrupts.  If you take away unions, you have the problem of administrators abusing their power, and acting capriciously or in bad faith.  Their interest is going to be different than that of teachers, and so they're going to make calculations accordingly.

Both teachers and administrators (or politicians, or parents for that matter), can all claim to want "what's best for kids".  While that sounds nice, each has their own special structural dynamics based on how much particular authority and experience they have.  I'm reminded of an interview with Michelle Rhee, the controversial Washington D.C. superintendent who has raised much ire among teachers by pursuing an agenda of "reform" that many feel is unduly harsh and burdensome.  She essentially claimed to be "on the side of children", setting herself against the unions who presumably are not.  The statement was illustrative of why many describe her tactics as unsympathetic or "bullying".

There is some truth to the sentiment.  But being on "the side of children" can take many different forms.  An administrator could ostensibly require teachers to work an extra 10 hours a week, or do home-visits on weekends.  It might be good for children, but it would be unfair to teachers (it may end up harming children as overburdened teachers have less time for planning, etc.). 

So the framing is misleading.  An administrator has a lot of rhetorical sway in this department.  Because children are not cogs, the idea that teachers should be able to stand up for themselves - especially when it means making sacrifices that might take away from student education, seems to set them against the very students they are supposed to be educating.  But where does this end?  How many hours in the day are fair?  How much preparatory time?  How many subjects?  How many struggling learners vs. eager ones?  It's almost as if there ought to be some way for teachers to come together collectively and "bargain" with school officials...

So it's the classic story of worker organization vs. management, free labor markets vs. unions.  The trouble is that the unit of production is children - something everyone has a vested interested in.  And while society is finally waking up to the fact that not only do great achievement gaps exist in America along socio-economic and racial lines, and that their resolution is crucial to giving children their constitutionally guaranteed rights to equal citizenship, it is still having trouble understanding that the problem is simply too great to deal with effectively under current our educational regime. 

The common sense analysis would be to say that if children are failing, then the teacher is not doing their job.  But if teachers were the only issue, we would likely see student failure in relatively equal measure across districts and cities.  Yet like race and socio-economic background, student performance is highly correlated with geography.  Efforts at reform that do not take this structural inequality will only ever be looking at part of the picture.  And to the extent that current reform efforts are seeking to solve the education problem on the backs of teacher's unions, they are not only doomed to fail, but are dismissing the serious concerns of the very people who made the sacrifice to teach in the first place.

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