One More Time Around the Track
“So we’re supposed to react to a situation in which our schools are failing and the teachers’ unions are one of the biggest forces standing in the way of commonsensical and much-needed reforms by increasing what we pay our teachers, and … leaving the unions alone.” ~ John Schwenkler, responding to me.
John, of course, presupposes here that unions are in fact “one of the biggest forces standing in the way of…[education] reform.” With that as a leaping point, his response actually makes a good deal of sense, since my original piece didn’t say much about union reforms. Now, to be very clear I do favor sensible reforms when they are necessary, and there are indeed times when unions are too strong. But my point earlier and again now is that teachers unions are not the underlying problem with our educational system. Teacher shortages still lie at the heart of this, along with the lack of really talented, enthusiastic new teachers entering the field. This is certainly not because of the unions.
Now, having read Jason Song’s two–parter in the LA Times, I can see why a lot of people are concerned about the difficulty facing schools who want to fire really, really bad teachers. This is because Song’s articles are intended to shock and alarm us. Billed as investigative journalism, Song’s tales of teacher debauchery make for an entertaining read, but not really a fair and balanced look at the problems facing our educational system.
One teacher with cerebral palsy, accused numerous times of inappropriate touching of students, is “housed” by the school district, with full pay, year after year while investigations and appeals continue. In another case, a 74 year old teacher who had trouble containing her class was unsuccessfully outed by the school district after a commission decided that maybe a 74 year old, rather than being fired, ought to be moved into a training position. In a third case, a special education instructor who, “despite allegations that included poor judgment, failing to report child abuse, yelling at and insulting children, planning lessons inadequately and failing to supervise her class” was still not removed from her position. In Song’s mind, of course, allegations are essentially proof of guilt. Due process, it would seem, is simply far too expensive.
So what do I take from Song’s “investigative journalism?”
First, it’s obvious Song is not, and has never been, a teacher. The bias in his piece makes that very plain. His reliance on student allegations which make up most of the damning evidence against these teachers is ludicrous and one-sided. Second, it becomes quite apparent that his pieces are little more than hit jobs aimed at the teachers unions, which come off as villainous protectors of obviously guilty teachers, and at teacher tenure. Step one – break the backs of the unions; step two, strip teachers of tenure and thus job security and academic freedom. Add to this a standardized testing regime designed to measure “performance” and you can see why few people might decide to go into teaching.
Sonny Bunch asks,
I don’t get why there’s a particular animus against standardized testing. Mr. Kain makes the standard complaints about the evils of “teaching to the test,” but again, that’s a complaint I don’t really understand: If the standardized test for a subject is made up of the basic general knowledge in a subject, well, what’s the problem with teaching to the test?
This strikes me as the strangest sort of thing a conservative could possibly be confused about. I suppose when economic conservatism is the only thing in question, then it makes perfect sense. From a very corporatist standpoint, efficient educators teaching to very standardized tests sounds great. Education is, after all, nothing more than a matter of efficiency, right?
The reality, of course, is that conservatives should be very concerned with standardized testing, because it implements goals and demands results that ignore regional and local concerns, lays waste to any innovation and autonomy, and essentially reduces education to an exercise in sameness. Education should be a more specific endeavor. Yes, math in one region is the same as math in another, but perhaps history is a different matter? Perhaps in the Southwest a slightly different approach to history should be taken than in the Southeast? Perhaps more importantly a teacher should be able to adapt to each of their students and classes with great freedom.
This is why I continue to argue that a greater threat to quality education and recruiting quality teachers – which seems to be at the heart of our inability to fire mediocre (not bad) teachers – is the uniformity forced on smart, creative people who would flourish if mostly left alone. While I agree that there is room for performance pay – and that maybe, indeed, that power should be more at the disposal of the principals involved (though this opens its own can of worms…) – I still think that pay is not the crux of the issue, any more than unions are. Focusing on these subjects misses the larger problems.
But Conor also has a point when he writes:
I wonder whether John and I feel so strongly about this because California’s teachers’ union is a particularly powerful political player in the state, relative to teachers’ unions in many other places. As a Californian, I’ve maybe seen their shamefully dishonest campaign ads, outsize political influence, maximalist rhetoric in newspaper stories, absurdly propagandistic newsletter and intimidation of dissident teachers one too many times to write about them without an edge of disdain.
This is something I hadn’t taken into consideration when I penned my first piece. Here in Arizona the union’s muscle doesn’t seem to be terribly strong. Teachers don’t make nearly enough, and they are pretty easy to let go. We had three teachers at my alma matter let go in one year for sexual misconduct – and they were gone without a fight. This year due to massive budget shortfalls we had every single art, theater, music, and P.E. teacher as well as every school counselor and psychologist laid off across the entire district. Their contracts were simply not renewed. So perhaps there is, as with so many things, a balance that needs to be struck, and perhaps that balance is weighted too far toward unions in California, and not far enough in Arizona – I don’t know.
Either way, I still stand by the argument that overall teachers need to make more money, need to retain more control over their own classrooms, and need to be treated with the sort of respect that will draw in talent rather than repulse it. I want to see tenure remain intact, though I wouldn’t oppose a more graduated implementation of tenure rights. I want to see unions stay strong, though I would prefer a guild structure which was more localized and connected to the community (and on that note, schools that were more connected with their communities as well).
Regarding John’s push for school choice, I remain skeptical. For private vouchers to work I think we would need to move away from public schools entirely; for private schools to compete properly a free public alternative on the market would simply not be viable. Worse, such public/private partnerships and government subsidization of private enterprise (sans oversight of any kind) opens too many doors to corruption and special interests. To my mind modeling public schools on private models makes more sense than gouging public budgets with vouchers. I very much agree with John’s sentiment of putting the power back in the hands of parents – though I would say the kids suffering the most here often do not have parents who would care enough to exercise this freedom of choice to begin with – but I distrust privateers as much as bureaucrats, and I worry that the logical extension of a voucher program will be the eventual corporatization of private schools, and the end of public school altogether.
In the end, I say incentivize the industry not just individual teachers. This may seem counterintuitive at first, but in the long run it will create an industry that attracts better people. As I said before, this will require a sea change in how we think about teachers and schools in general. Maybe creative work-arounds for non-certified professionals can be created to get professionals involved in teaching. In fact, there are lots of creative solutions out there, and I’m glad that different sides of this debate can come together to discuss them. That’s really the only way – not that consensus is always best, but because without discussion we can never peel away the ideologies involved to find the good ideas.