The Limits of Knowledge in the Education Debate

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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130 Responses

  1. greginak says:

    I think there is certainly a lot more we could know about how to educate kids. What is notable is how few people want to invest a few billion in tons of education research. The kind of research that uses good experimental design. Most people seem to mock Ed schools and don’t seem interested in actual research. There certainly is some research out there, such as the uninspiring results about charter schools, but there we would benefit from a lot more granular level research. My guess is if fancy pants scientists came out with all sorts of suggestions about how to teach kids they would become handy targets for all the usual suspects. If i had any guess about what using the existing research would find, its been many years since i read any ed psych research, its that we need a lot options and an effective sorting tool to get kids in the best learning environment for them.Report

    • tom van dyke in reply to greginak says:

      But the Education Establishment is a tribe, EDK, its orthodoxies and methods rather set. To stand outside it is to stand against it; that’s how tribalism works. I don’t see how the critic does not become the enemy.

      I’m not a wonk on ed, but were I to take on the issue, I’d start at the beginning. Was there a time when the system and its philosophy was more successful?

      Public education: As American as Bavarian Cream Pie

      Neither do I expect the Education Establishment to police itself. I ran across The Conspiracy of Ignorance: The Failure of American Public Schools by Martin L. Gross on the internet, the work of an outsider that received some praise from rebels in the Establishment. It questions the Establishment from the bottom up, from unions to “whole language,” the psychologicalization of education.

      And of course teacher quality, with one undeniable smack in the head:

      “The typical college-bound senior may well have some 50 points more on his SATs than did his or her teachers at the same period of life.”

      From what I gather, Gross has 19 “indictments” along these lines, probably most of them already familiar to you.

      Anyway, it might be worth a look, or a google. I do think tribalism is the problem, but on the part of the Ed Establishment. To question it is to make oneself its enemy, and why it cannot be reformed from the inside.

      “Fredo, you’re my older brother, and I love you. But don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again. Ever.”Report

    • tom van dyke in reply to greginak says:

      Hey, we already spent $1 billion on Project Follow Through. Who knew?

      “Project Follow-Through began in 1967 under President Lyndon Johnson. Its express purpose was to study instructional methods that would lead to a reduction in the disparity between low- and high-performing students by improving the performance of low-performing students. It was ultimately concluded in 1995 after consuming $1 billion and conducting research on over 20,000 students nationwide. The reading portion of this study involved over 15,000 students and was designed to test the effectiveness of three major models of reading instruction.”

      Google around for Project Follow Through for the politics of the thing. Damned interesting.Report

  2. James K says:

    I agree completely, our educational model has ossified and has serious problems that need to be addressed. More knowledge is needed, and experimentation is the only way to do that.

    The problem is that knowledge is not highly praised in political environments. If you do an experiment it might tell you things you don’t want to hear.Report

  3. E.D., have you ever thought about the idea that the most conservative or perhaps even libertarian thing to do w/r/t education is to do nothing? It seems to me that it’s a generally conservative/libertarian inclination to not want to muck around with something that, flawed as it may be, is working relative to what could be the case. Sometimes I think that, flawed as our education system is — and I would most certainly not deny its many, manifest flaws — without having a clear and generally agreed-upon vision of where to go from here, we may be best served sitting on our hands for the time being.Report

    • Elias – I’ve said much the same thing myself. Here, for instance:

      In my rush to the left, I think I have written the most conservative work I have ever written, and much of it stems from this sentiment of things lost and things remembered.

      But this is part of the problem as far as I can tell. Conservatism is inevitably an attempt to preserve the status quo. The status quo in education is a system that works decently for the white middle and upper middle class whose schools are very good; for the upper class whose children attend private schools anyways; and for teachers already in the system who have tenure and seniority. It works much more poorly for poor kids and young people who might want to become teachers in the future. For these groups the status quo is unacceptable, but it is also deeply entrenched.

      I am much too progressive to accept these circumstances, and I am no longer convinced by arguments that posit that simply because poverty is the root of the problem (which it is) we must tackle poverty first. I think we need to tackle it all at once, including the very conservative power base of the public education establishment.Report

      • I’m not sure where I am, to be honest.

        (Aside: funnily enough, like you wrote earlier, I often feel like I’m being conservative when I take ostensibly liberal stances…)

        But my inclination is to agree with you that stasis is a luxury of the privileged; and, with demographics being the way they are in this country and having a young generation so suffused with first or second generation Americans, it’s one we probably can’t afford if we want to remain not only competitive but socially stable in the medium-term future.

        Although this isn’t the subject of your post, this issue is one of the many that just remind me of how much I wish the GOP today had more moderates; this is an issue that can’t be solved without both sides operating in relative good faith and similar goals.Report

        • E.D. Kain in reply to Elias Isquith says:

          Yes, a moderate Republican party truly concerned with issues of poverty and education would be great. Ironically, it is actually in the education debate that I see some of the best Republican ideas and some of the more social-justice-oriented Republican policies.Report

          • I agree that Republicans are most progresssive on issues of education. And in theory education improvements reduce poverty better than tax-based income redistribution.Report

            • There are Republicans with ideas worth talking about and even implementing when it comes to education. I’m not a big fan of charter schools, but it’s not so cut-and-dry. I just wish there were less figures like Chris Christie and Rick Scott. Maybe I’m being tribalist but I just don’t see them as particularly serious about actually helping children so much as enthusiastic about gutting unions. Maybe if they’d stop slashing education spending I’d be less skeptical…Report

      • E.D.

        “…I am no longer convinced by arguments that posit that simply because poverty is the root of the problem (which it is) we must tackle poverty first.”

        But then how do you deal with socio-economic problems as an education issue? Do teachers become social workers? Do schools cater specifically to lower-income kids and drag wealthier kids down through neglect?

        My wide is a social worker wirh our local school system and I can tell you firsthand that almost every single problem she sees is directly traced back to shitty parents and there is very little the school system can do other than enforce attendance policy. They can’t make bad parents be good parents and teachers don’t have the time or ability to fill that gap.Report

        • E.D. Kain in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

          Honestly, there are no good answers which is why I say we need to experiment and innovate. KIPP schools have done a remarkable job with kids from impoverished backgrounds. Obviously other steps also need to be taken. Parents need to be educated. Jobs need to come to poor areas. Literacy rates need to rise. Lots of chick and egg stuff. That is no excuse to throw our hands in the air though.Report

          • What I don’t like about the constant experimentation mindset is that our kids become the guinea pigs. So what if we engage in a five-year experimental program and at the end we find out it’s crap? What happens to the kids that were part of the experiment?

            I feel like we know what works. Traditional instruction from competent teachers / engaged students that work hard / good parents that take an interest in their kids’ education. The first part is easy in theory and if successful it should lead to the second part. The last one (engaged parents) is a big problem and I see no fix in the context of education policy except maybe busing.Report

            • In other words, we know how to produce good education outcomes with high quality inputs (skilled teachers, motivated pupils), but that’s not really that impressive from a systems design point of view.

              There will always be a limit to what we can do with the most disadvantaged children, but that doesn’t mean we just give up on children in inner city schools (and frankly, that’s what the status quo is). And while it’s true that sometimes experiments give you bad results, it’s not like the results now are awe-inspiring.

              Hell, right now for the worst-perforimign schools a renaissance-era education would probably be a step up, teach them to read and figure a little and apprentice them at age 14. At least that way, they’d learn some useful skills.Report

        • “My wife is a social worker with our local school system and I can tell you firsthand that almost every single problem she sees is directly traced back to shitty parents and there is very little the school system can do other than enforce attendance policy. They can’t make bad parents be good parents and teachers don’t have the time or ability to fill that gap.”

          Thank you! Mine too and she sees the same thing. Actually, this was the difficulty my ex-girlfriend had while teaching in Anacostia: she would have kids come in who hadn’t eaten since lunch the previous day, kids who were getting beat up pretty regularly, one kid whose Uncle was shot in front of him at a barbeque over the weekend, and on and on and on, and there really was only so much she could do to reach the kids in spite of all these external factors. But, when Americans talk about fixing education, inevitably there are plenty of armchair administrators whose first and only answer to “hold teachers responsible” for every social problem in their communities. To give just one obvious example that has applied in the last three communities where I’ve lived, if 100% of Dads and Moms ceased beating their kids or each other, I’m guessing test scores would also jump a bit nationwide.Report

          • Rufus – It’s amazing how many elementary school parents were unaware that school attendance is mandatory, isn’t it? I think what the education debate needs is some honesty and someone willing to say that it’s not okay for poverty to equal lousy parenting. You can be poor and still make sure your kids do their homework.Report

          • DensityDuck in reply to Rufus F. says:

            “[T]here are plenty of armchair administrators whose first and only answer to “hold teachers responsible” for every social problem in their communities.”

            I think that both sides can agree that looking at student test results is only the very first part of teacher performance evaluation. If a class does poorly on tests, then it’s a sign that we should see what’s going on, not just fire the teacher out of hand.Report

            • Rufus F. in reply to DensityDuck says:

              But that’s not my point. I’m not saying that one “side” or another doesn’t want to get the most well-rounded picture of teacher performance they can. What I’m saying is that even in a perfect system where 100% of the teachers are top notch, there are still going to be plenty of problems that can’t be addressed solely through teaching, and yet plenty of people seem to think that, if they can just get the very best teachers in there, it’ll solve every problem these kids have. I mean teachers can be held responsible for being teachers, but they can’t also be parents, cops, landlords, psychologists, doctors and everything else these kids need.Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to Rufus F. says:

                “What I’m saying is that even in a perfect system where 100% of the teachers are top notch, there are still going to be plenty of problems that can’t be addressed solely through teaching…”

                This is true, but it’s just as much of a cop-out to say “no such thing as a bad teacher, it’s all parents’ fault”.

                And sure, there are people out there who say “bad test scores = bad teacher, fire ’em and give someone else a go”, and that is definitely the wrong way to go about it. But there seems to be this conditioned-response condemnation of any suggestion that teacher performance be evaluated objectively; as though everyone who wanted to know whether teachers were doing good work was just looking for an excuse to fire a bunch of them.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to DensityDuck says:

                How should we objectively compose a test for teacher competence? If we have to avoid the Scylla of ‘no bad teacher’ and the Charybdis of ‘bad test == bad teacher’, shouldn’t we also test the parents?Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to BlaiseP says:

                We don’t. We objectively compose a test of student skills, and if the students aren’t showing grade-level proficiency then we look at the teacher. And if they’re doing a fine job, then we look at the parents and external factors.Report

          • Jaybird in reply to Rufus F. says:

            If this is the case (and it makes sense to me that it would be), we are now talking about changing the culture.

            Changing the culture would require, at the very least, a much higher degree of Paternalism than the one that we currently have.

            I don’t know that we, as a society, can stomach the conversation to hammer that out, let alone stomach the paternalism that changing things would require.Report

            • Rufus F. in reply to Jaybird says:

              Right, but that’s been exactly my point in two or three threads now. Either we’re going to decide that some of these problems we can stomach because the cure would be entirely too sweeping and paternalistic, or we’re going to decide we have a “duty” to fix them through fairly paternalistic and sweeping means (say Oprah Winfrey boarding schools for every kid in the public school system), or we’re going to try to pin the blame for all of the problems on teachers because they’re not an Edward James Olmos character in their first year of teaching. I’m guessing the political system is pretty well locked on the last option.Report

    • Robert Cheeks in reply to Elias Isquith says:

      Gee, I wonder if the ‘flaws’ related to education are the result of intemperate librul machinations or prudent conservative thinking?Report

        • E.D. Kain in reply to Chris says:

          I’d say human frailty and the inherent flaws of human institutions. This is hardly partisan, but rather the result of human nature, politics, and all the rest.Report

          • Robert Cheeks in reply to E.D. Kain says:

            What political group, the right or the left, dominates American educational system?Report

            • Chris in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

              Bob, neither. Where I live, for example, is fairly representative of much of the country, and here you’ll find that conservatives dominate school boards and to an only slightly lesser extent, school administrations, while schools of education at universities are largely dominated by a moderately liberal/progressive world-view. In some ways, this has led to a freeze out of education experts, as well as subject matter experts, in certain politically-charged curriculum decisions, but for the most part it means that the education system here doesn’t really reflect either side of the political divide very clearly, even if both sides see their opposite’s influence (this is not uncommon – having a world view makes certain violations of it much more easy to discern, even when they’re only apparent).

              Then, of course, there are the teachers unions, which have a largely conservative membership, but collectively tend to promote more liberal, at least in the sense of labor-friendly, policies. But their “liberal” goals tend to be very different from the progressive goals of schools of education.Report

          • Chris in reply to E.D. Kain says:

            Oh, those are certainly problems, and the institutional issues are certainly very important, but when the goal is to educate the entire population, there are inherent problems that come well before any institution, conceptually. The distribution of ability and potential are wide, and the relationship between the two is nonlinear. There’s also a nonlinear relationship between those two things and method. These aren’t issues that fit well within the liberal-conservative dichotomy, because they’re largely empirical issues that are compounded by the fact that there’s another level they have to go through – education education – which has its own problems, and tends to lag behind empirical research as it is. It doesn’t help that the earning potential of teachers is a shit, while the education requirements for teachers are fairly high (post-graduate degrees are generally required after a certain number of years), even though the quality of that education is pretty crappy. And it’s even further compounded by the institutional stuff, and the institutional tendency towards standardization and standardized testing as a method of evaluation of both education and teachers (and schools). And again, little if anything of this is related to any partisan political divide.

            By the way, schools essentially are experiments, and they’re experiments on many levels – experiments in different teaching methods, experiments in curriculum, experiments in outreach methods (e.g., programs to get parents involved), experiments in teacher education and evaluation, experiments in funding, experiments in diversity methods, etc., etc., etc. For one, schools are where education research is conducted, but they’re also where largely untested programs are implemented and evaluated for the first time. Children are guinea pigs, because in a way we’re still feeling our way around this whole universal education thing, which in itself is a sort of experiment.Report

            • Robert Cheeks in reply to Chris says:

              But Chris, but Chris….!
              I guess I hit a nerve?
              Chris, you and I, for some very good reasons, don’t agree on much, but I have, until the above, always thought you were merely wrong not flinging poo.
              Everyone, and I mean everyone, knows that all throughout the edumacational system you will find commie-dems, progressives, leftists, and socialists galore. It’s like that rare combination of moisture and heat that is a perfect environment for the commie-socialist spore.
              Of course, on the rare occasion, one may stumble upon a conservative or two, but they usually keep their mouths shut, collect their salaries, and join in the rape of the taxpayer and the dumbing down of the chilluns.Report

              • Chris in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

                Bob, can you provide some data? Otherwise, I’m pretty sure I’m not the one flinging poo in this case.

                But then again, you have absolutely no idea what a socialist or communist is, so flinging poo is par for the course.Report

              • Robert Cheeks in reply to Chris says:

                Chris, this request for data, facts, etc., is sounding more and more like your favorite interlocutor, Bp.Report

              • Chris in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

                Bob, in otherwords, you have nothing to back your assertion. That’s pretty much the definition of flinging poo.Report

              • Robert Cheeks in reply to Chris says:

                Chris, like I said, education in this country is screwed up because over the past fifty years or so we’ve had progressivism shoved up our collective asses.
                The solution is to de-progress by knocking the union teacher thugs back to the fifties, firing about half the effete, bootlicking penis heads in administration and disallowing all electronic devices in school. You might want to consider telling the ‘students’ that if they fail, don’t show up for class,or cause trouble they are not eligible for welfare.Report

              • Chris in reply to Chris says:

                Bob, like I said, give me some data, by which I mean any evidence of any kind. Since you can’t, I’m just going to keep pointing out that you are the one flinging poo. But fling on, brother. I know it helps you feel better.Report

      • WardSmith in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

        If you are truly interested in the subject I would recommend the deliberate dumbing down of America. At the time she wrote it, the expenditure per student was a mere $6330. That would be a tremendous bargain today, and of course the comparative results from international tests are even more abysmal. From the preface:
        There are many talented and respected researchers and activists who have carefully
        documented the “weird” activities which have taken place “in the name of education.” Any
        opposition to change agent activities in local schools has invariably been met with cries of
        “Prove your case, document your statements,” etc. Documentation, when presented, has
        been ignored and called incomplete. The classic response by the education establishment
        has been, “You’re taking that out of context!”—even when presented with an entire book
        which uses their own words to detail exactly what the “resisters” are claiming to be true.
        “Resisters”—usually parents—have been called every name in the book. Parents have been
        told for over thirty years, “You’re the only parent who has ever complained.” The media has
        been convinced to join in the attack upon common sense views, effectively discrediting the
        perspective of well-informed citizens

  4. Freddie says:

    I’m afraid nothing is as gullible as the endlessly fungible mind.Report

    • E.D. Kain in reply to Freddie says:

      I’m not sure what to make of this, Freddie. My position here is simple. I want to maximize the options available to the most people possible, and where powerful institutions play a role it’s important to critique them and remain as skeptical as possible to them. Unions in this country have taken a serious hit, and largely due to pernicious laws. But the teachers unions are the opposite, representing millions of members. They are a powerful political faction in this debate. I’m not sure we can honestly discuss education policy while leaving them unexamined.

      Essentially, it’s hard for me to criticize the reformers for bringing too much money and power and influence to the table, and then ignore the money power and influence of the educational establishment. It’s also hard for me to look at the poor urban schools and decide that the only way to fix them is to fix poverty first. We have been attempting to fix poverty for ages and it hasn’t worked. We’d better throw whatever we have at the problem, then, including school reform. If poor people in NYC urban schools *want* more choices, what right do we have to tell them they should prefer their neighborhood schools?

      In any case, my entire point here is that I need to be less partisan and more skeptical of *all sides*. Are the reformers right? On some issues, maybe, but on many issues certainly not. Even where they are right they are often far too optimistic. But the forces of the status quo are also wrong on issues (and right on issues) and the whole mess is simply not cut and dry. I’m trying to offer more balance to my critique, not shift courses entirely.Report

      • greginak in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        Its a small point but i’d question whether we have really been trying to solve poverty all that much, especially in the worst off areas. We have fits of doing some things but I’m not sure there there has not been a singular forceful commitment to trying to reduce poverty since Johnson.Report

        • Jesse Ewiak in reply to greginak says:

          Bingo. We have the worst child poverty rate among first world nations. We haven’t done shit on poverty since LBJ and any decreases in poverty have been temporary when the economy was so great (the 90’s) that poverty had to drop by a little.Report

        • E.D. Kain in reply to greginak says:

          Yeah, sure, but “solving poverty” is a lot like “solving education”. It’s not at all clear how to do it. For instance, the really poor urban areas are filled with people who already qualify for Medicaid and yet still have terrible access to healthcare. Universal healthcare won’t benefit them, but we still need to get them better healthcare. A state-based solution to this has already been tried, now we need something *else* on top of that. Poverty is a deeply complicated problem and it’s more complicated here because of our racial and cultural diversity, our population and geography, etc.Report

          • DensityDuck in reply to E.D. Kain says:

            It doesn’t matter how much Medicaid you qualify for if you leave for McDonalds’ at 5 AM and get home from Wal-Mart at 11 PM, and the doctor’s office is only open from noon until 3 PM, and he hasn’t got an opening until next month anyway.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        If you want Freddie’s praise, maybe you could try agreeing with him a little more often.Report

    • E.D. Kain in reply to Freddie says:

      Freddie – here is my latest attempt to explain myself” since apparently everyone is assuming that I have simply “flipped” on the education debate.Report

  5. Jaybird says:

    As trivial and obvious as it seems, I think that we could find out a lot of stuff if we hammered out two things:

    1) What the desired goals of education actually are
    2) What “mission creep” has crept in and might be causing harm

    It seems to me that we aren’t doing a lot of things we should be and the schools are, in practice, doing a lot of things that they were not intended to do at their creation.

    But maybe I’m wrong! I mean, maybe it’s the case that we’re actually doing a pretty good job with #1 and the #2 stuff is obscuring that. That means that we’ve just got a PR problem.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

      I’ll start:

      The point of education is to…

      Teach kids the three R’s
      Teach kids some basic civic lessons (make them read the Constitution, that sort of thing)
      Teach kids some basic skills about living in civil society (balance a checkbook, fill out an envelope, that sort of thing)

      (A cynical follow up would be to list the things that schools are actually doing *IN PRACTICE*. It teaches kids to sit quietly for 50 minutes being bored and then take a 10 minute break for hours at a time… which is the ultimate in job training. It gives parents “free” daycare until the kid is old enough to kick out of the house. It provides job security for low brahmin and gives them a pension when they’re done.)

      If the schools aren’t doing a good job with the non-controversial goals that pretty much everybody agrees the schools ought to have (three R’s), to argue about the importance of the school’s provision of free daycare is to make a mistake (and, if you’re in power to change things, this mistake is likely to result in, if not harm, opportunity cost for dealing with what the goals for schooling actually is).

      Or, maybe I’m making a mistake and assuming that the problem (if it exists) is an engineering problem that can, in fact, be fixed. Perhaps we ought to look into whether the problem is one that ought to be mitigated instead.Report

  6. BlaiseP says:

    It would be helpful to enumerate a few of the flaws in the current education reform debate before coming out against the teachers’ unions. Perhaps you might actually talk to a teacher’s union representative, or even, heaven forbid, an actual teacher. And who, pray tell, is the Educational Establishment, so ruinous and scary-like? If schools are in trouble, they reflect much larger problems in society such as the property tax funding mechanisms and a growing population of children who reach elementary school age not speaking a word of English.

    Michelle Rhee is her own worst enemy. She was, by all accounts, a bad teacher who could not control her classroom, putting tape over children’s mouths. Her students’ average math percentile dropped an amazing 47% in one year. At the end of that year, her students’ average math percentile stood at an abysmal 17%. We can dispose of anything Michelle Rhee has to say about teaching: not only did her students perform poorly she quit the profession after 3 years. She is a cheat and a serial liar. Somehow, despite her manifestly horrible performance as a teacher, she formed a nonprofit with the aim of recycling midlevel professionals into classroom teachers. E mirabile dictu, she reappears as the chancellor of the DC public school system. Curiously, despite her track record of a decade of putting otherwise unqualified teachers into schools through her own nonprofit, she would terminate dozens of teachers for lack of proper teaching credentials.

    Do not present that huckster Michelle Rhee as a reformer. She is nothing of the sort. She is a test-alterer. The most cursory of investigations would reveal these facts. Hers was not a top-down approach: it followed a Delegate Pattern, a buck-passer, an Inversion of Responsibility, the much-vaunted Face of Reform but actually Adrian Fenty’s little macher. With his demise, Michelle Rhee went out of scope and into the garbage collector, joining many other teachers with more experience and success: teachers she had thrown in the trash herself. Facts be damned and lies believed: every actual teacher’s opinion notwithstanding, still there remain no shortage of tendentious bloviators to pick that silly woman out of the skip and brush her off, it seems.

    Do you really want to listen to good ideas? Are you serious about bottom-up reforms? Hie thee immediately to thy nearest elementary school and arrange for an interview with the sixth grade teacher. Inputs and outputs, bebby Jeezus, all such cant and codswallop is so tragically naïve I can barely remain civil. These are actual children, not diodes and capacitors, children who go home to bad situations, whose parents may not speak English, homes without books or people to read them. These are teachers, trying their best in impossible situations, limited by policy and the exigencies of their own lives, administrators fighting to get the holes in the roof patched now that the maintenance man has been terminated in the last round of cost-cutting measures.

    Run along now and do some real interviews. Many of these tendentious myths will be lifted like scales from your eyes. There are a gracious plenty of recycled and embarrassing shibboleths about these problems afoot these days. The chiefest limit to knowledge in the education debate is the paucity of facts presented.Report

    • E.D. Kain in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Uhm yeah, teachers are the most critical in-class factor and the vast majority of them are trying really hard. Does this mean we just ignore the various institutional problems with the educational establishment? Is tackling edu-reform somehow incompatible or mutually exclusive with poverty and problems at home? Beyond the long rambling declarations, what do you propose? Just to talk to teachers?Report

      • From E.D.

        Is tackling edu-reform somehow incompatible or mutually exclusive with poverty and problems at home?

        I wouldn’t say it’s exclusive but maybe linking them is the big mistake. The truth is that reducing poverty is going to fix a host of societal ills, education being one of them.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        These are questions you might put to the teachers themselves, when you get out and investigate what we might do as a society. I don’t have a nice highly-visible blog on Forbes. I’m just a guy who rearranged his whole life so he could raise our kids and sacrificed about half his career to put his wife through college and grad school so she could become a teacher and the guy who propped her up for all those years until at last she resigned in tears and anger and watched his marriage go to hell in a handbasket thereafter. What do I know about this? Bupkis it seems.

        Now I’m telling you plainly: get out there, interview some teachers and find the answers to these questions yourself. You have come down against the teachers’ unions without a single fact at your disposal.Report

        • E.D. Kain in reply to BlaiseP says:

          That is just enormous amounts of bullshit, BlaiseP. I have not “come down against teachers’ unions” I have grown more skeptical of them. Heaven forbid we should be skeptical of powerful institutions! We must be blaming the teachers!

          I’m sure teachers, if they could, would do a fine job reforming our education system. Something is stopping them from doing this – but let’s not ask why.

          Now toss out another personal anecdote that somehow, tangentially, bulwarks whatever point it is you’re trying to make. Interview teachers? I’ve had my own teachers. My father and many of my relatives were teachers or are still. I come from a family of teachers or academics at education schools. I’m still trying to figure out what on earth it is you’re trying to say oh so dramatically…Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to E.D. Kain says:

            Let’s review:

            Similarly, unions have their own interests, and sometimes that leads to protecting bad teachers or to institutional inertia and dysfunction. Nor are teachers and teachers’ unions the exact same thing, and we should be wary to frame all critiques of the unions as demonization of teachers themselves.

            Which union actually protects bad teachers? Got any facts on that contention? Institutional inertia? You don’t have a clue, every year the goals swing wildly in the wind with every fresh kick from the state board of ed or the latest educational fad. One year it’s “let’s segregate the special ed kids” and the next it’s “no, let’s not segregate” which means the SpecEd teacher and her aide are in the regular classroom and the SpecEd kids get disruptive and can’t learn at the pace of the other kids and so back it goes to segregation the next year. There’s no institutional inertia, that claim is horseshit and if you’d ever actually been around a school you’d know that every legislator has his fingers shoved up the asshole of the education community, coz he’s gonna Improve Things, oh yeah.

            And let’s explore this Tribalist debate a bit farther, insofar as the real tribes with any leadership are the taxing bodies. In nice white bread suburbs, the public schools are fully funded, with nice computers and gyms and art rooms. Not so in the fucked up taxing bodies, where not only are the schools in ruins but the incarceration rate is running at 4% and all the kids are on free lunches. Care to comment on those differences? The pay grade is higher in the bad districts, curiously, it’s called Combat Pay and the State of Illinois pays it so they can get anyone to teach there at all.Report

            • E.D. Kain in reply to BlaiseP says:

              Good grief, dude. Unions protect bad teachers. It’s their job. They protect all members, including bad ones, which is why rubber rooms sprung up around NYC recently.

              Also, I agree with the financing argument. We do need to more equitably finance our schools. And I agree that many reforms are bad, but that can also be an excuse to prevent reforms that are needed.

              So whatever. Sound and fury, Blaise, sound and fury.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to E.D. Kain says:

                No they don’t. I’ve seen two teachers removed for cause and the union greased the skids to get them out. How do I know? My wife testified at the grievance hearing.

                The only sound and fury around here is your groundless assertions. They signify nothing because they are not backed by facts or even anecdote. Now do your homework and that means, frankly, talking to teachers and administrators ere I take you seriously on the subject of educational reform.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to BlaiseP says:

                My sister and her husband are teachers.

                When they first graduated from their schooling and got their first jobs as teachers in the crappy part of town, they told me stories about stuff that went on at their schools that was serious nightmare material. Like, they had to call social workers and cops for stuff that they discovered. Vomit-inducing.

                I’m pretty sure that my saying “they’re pretty good” doesn’t communicate whether or not they are good at what they do so I’ll just say that they’ve since been transferred to the good part of town and they are teachers that parents agitate to teach their kids. (My sister teaches first grade and she tells stories about helicopter parents who have college plans for the kid and that’s why they want *MY* sister to be the kid’s first grade teacher.)

                They are both delighted to be teaching where they are teaching now. They have classes full of students with parents who show up for parent/teacher conferences. They no longer tell stories about having to call the cops on the parents of their kids.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Jaybird says:

                Everyone knows, and has known for decades, that the only predictor for educational success is parental involvement.

                See, this is what I’m going on about: all this alchemical bullshit about improving teachers by destroying their union representation has to be discarded. It’s all so much Ptolemaic hooey — as if the world revolved around the teacher. It revolves around the parent and everyone knows it. Look at your sister and husband, obviously doing a great job in a vastly improved situation.

                I can grade a school by how well the parent teacher conferences are attended. Forget everything else.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Well, it seems to me, that the school where they got their start?

                Is full of brand-spanking new teachers who are still wet behind the ears and teachers transferred from other school districts.

                If I wanted to make sure that the best and brightest kids in the bad school district would never get a leg up, I’d have a system much like the current one.Report

              • Mark Thompson in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I can grade a school by how well the parent teacher conferences are attended. Forget everything else.

                I suspect there is more than a little bit of truth in this sentence. The question of education reform then becomes one of “how do we encourage/enable/force parents, especially poor parents, to become more involved in their child’s education?” and, even before that “what are the reasons parents are less involved than they could be or should be?”

                One would certainly expect that poverty, or problems inextricably linked to poverty, are the number one answer to the second question. But are they the only answer? I suspect not. I also suspect that addressing those additional answers, even if they are only secondary problems and even if addressed only wrt the poor, would at least enable more parental involvement on average than currently exists.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Did they get their start in school? Or did their parents read to them, demonstrate the value of education in their own lives. We grow in the image of those we love. We can all point to one good schoolteacher or professor in our lives, but where did we learn to love education itself? Not in the schoolroom but out in the living room, listening to Dad read Gulliver’s Travels and the Lord of the Rings and going to the library every week. By the time we got to school, we’d already been inculcated with those values.Report

              • Freddy "Chopsticks" Chopin in reply to BlaiseP says:

                BlaiseP, you’ve pretty much nailed this in a nutshell, with this:

                “Everyone knows, and has known for decades, that the only predictor for educational success is parental involvement.”

                Why do you insist that continuing to keep throwing $$$ into this cesspool will make schools any better? It has NEVER worked, at least insofar as you want to distribute the money and the results you want to create.

                76% of black males drop out of high school. In a Boston, almost 86% of the 7ooo+ mothers under 20, were not married.

                What’s wrong with separating the unmotivated, disruptive, dumb asses from the students who truly want to learn and succeed? Is having an average of 100+ knocked up teenage girls roaming the hallways the environment you want to create with all this $$$ you seem to believe will be the elixir?

                Does anyone have any accountability and responsibility for their lives?

                I say, buy the problem students a telescope and let them see the radiant heavens that we are all a part of–also, make it absolutely mandatory that the study of music be on the same level of importance as algebra, American literature, chemistry–all life sciences. Kids that love, and are exposed to classical music, have a graduate rate in the high 80s to low 90s.

                A terrible tragedy happened here in Detroit. Vandals, high on God knows what, broke into a local high school, ransacked the entire school and in their “boys will boys” moments, destroyed ALL the musical instrument they could get their hands on–beautiful violins, cellos, horns, a harpsichord even. The students dreams of competing in a statewide orchestra competition, which was to take place in a few weeks, were shattered.

                Damn heartbreaking. The poor kids shed many, many tears.

                My solution’s pretty simple. Separate the thugs, brutes, and no’er do wells and give the students who so deeply and desperately want to learn–give them their right to succeed.Report

            • E.D. Kain in reply to BlaiseP says:

              @BlaiseP – besides this, you’re just yanking one straw man after another and tossing them into the wind, lighting them on fire, and calling it an argument.

              Do you even know, are you even sure you know, what my *actual* positions are or are you just responding to what you think they are? I’m pretty sure I’m not blaming the unions for everything, and I’m 100% I never blamed teachers for everything. I’m also very, very certain that I’ve argued against many reforms and reform fads. That does not mean this is a black and white debate though. And you muddy up the waters and dispense with clarity when you shout so much.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to E.D. Kain says:

                It is manifest, to any reader of that sentence, that you are casuistically paring away teachers from unions. Your further contentions on the nature of unions protecting bad teachers reveal exactly which side of this debate you take.

                Who will represent the teachers in salary negotiations or grievance, if not the union? You do not like the Rubber Room? Let’s just fire teachers for any reason at all, without recourse to due process or arbitration or a hearing, is that your contention? Before the Rubber Room, female teachers were obliged to take two whole years off if they had a child. While I’m on this run of Straw Men, perhaps you would prefer to return to the good old days where political patronage was the order of the day (viz. Michelle Rhee)

                Anecdotally, the process to remove the two teachers I knew took about three months. There was no Rubber Room. This much I do know, anyone can be sent to the Rubber Room for the most trivial or significant of causes. In your search for the limits of knowledge, let us presume in our ignorance of the facts of these cases that just a few of those Rubber Roomies might actually be vindicated if they were actually given a hearing.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to BlaiseP says:

                The unions are also responsible for bad teachers in the school districts with engaged parents being transferred to the school districts with parents who don’t care.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Jaybird says:

                Seen that too. Saw more of it in the military.Report

              • E.D. Kain in reply to Jaybird says:

                Sort of like priests.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to E.D. Kain says:

                I don’t know how I feel about the idea of priest unionization.

                I will say that my first thought is “it’s a little creepy”.Report

              • Robert Cheeks in reply to E.D. Kain says:

                Franciscan Friars, Local 666!
                Now that’s creepy!

                Which reminds me, I’m doing an article on Mgsr. L____. A priest I knew as a ute who had a deformed right hand and walked with a limp. The nuns told us he got them in a exorcism. I’ma going to find out. He wasn’t a unionist. Hell, I don’t think he was a democrat!Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to E.D. Kain says:

                Where is St. Dogbert when he’s needed to heal the crippled and deformed? I sure wish he’d pay a visit to Redmond, WA.Report

              • Robert Cheeks in reply to E.D. Kain says:

                I’m with ya Bp. Them boys is disciples of the Evil ONe!Report

              • Pat Cahalan in reply to E.D. Kain says:

                Priests already have unions, they’re called “orders”.Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to BlaiseP says:

                “Anecdotally, the process to remove the two teachers I knew took about three months.”

                So there you have it, folks. BlaiseP did this one time, and therefore that’s exactly how it should always work, and if you say different then you’re either lying or stupid. Just like everything else that BlaiseP talks about.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to DensityDuck says:

                Spare me, Dr. Pangloss. I am saying nothing of the sort. What I’m asking for, and not getting, may I add in passing not getting, is Erik to go out there and talk to a few teachers and administrators, so we can address this much-ballyhooed Limit of Knowledge in the Education Debate. Facts don’t take sides and though one anecdote doesn’t prove a case, it’s a vast goddamn improvement on the current farting and bucking of the fact-free Meme Recycler currently in operation.Report

              • E.D. Kain in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Did I mention my dad was a teacher as were numerous other relatives? Did I mention my aunt was head of the Oregon state teachers union? I have substitute taught as well.

                So get off your high horse.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Why is it up to me to point out the obvious, here? Where are those Very Real Problems with the Teacher’s Unions? As you say, from within your own family, the teacher’s union has taken root. Take it up with actual teachers, as I have advocated, or at least favor us all with a delineation of these Very Real Problems you see. Your current dispensations of FUD and foo-foo dust are not terribly enlightening.Report

              • E.D. Kain in reply to BlaiseP says:

                You have a very one-sided take on all of this BlaiseP. It’s interesting, but it’s not very useful.Report

              • Robert Cheeks in reply to E.D. Kain says:

                I must confess to confusion. Maybe it’s the thread but my impression was E.D. did come up with anecdotal examples and you congratulated him, and now you’re castigating him?
                You know, Bp, you’d win more converts if you had a friendlier disposition, like me!Report

            • WardSmith in reply to BlaiseP says:

              “Which union actually protects bad teachers? Got any facts on that contention?”

              Can’t speak for the nation as a whole, but in my own community at my own children’s school there was a (quite good actually) math teacher who was a known child abuser. Several times he was brought up on administrative probation, but every time his union rep got him reinstated. Eventually the police got him with what I would have to say was a sting operation and a 17 yr old boy. Another case involved my son’s 5th grade teacher who simply stopped coming to work one day. She skipped the entire year for “personal” reasons and his 5th grade class was combined with the FOURTH grade class because they didn’t have enough budget to /continue/ to pay the 5th grade teacher and her replacement. Needless to say she stayed with the school district due to effective union representation. Finally there was my son’s 8th grade teacher who had been teaching for 35 yrs and was clearly in a state of dementia. She refused to resign and her teaching deteriorated tremendously. My son (a straight A student) got his first ‘D’ in his life in her class. He struggled to fix it and ended up doing badly in his other classes as a result. He was failing tests that had 60 words on them like “contumacious” and he had to name the Latin roots. There were of course no handouts nor lectures on the subject she just expected the kids to “know it”. I had 4 years of Latin and couldn’t have passed the test in the time allotted. She likewise had excellent union representation because when I and 30 other parents attempted to do something about her the administration of the school said their hands were tied. That was the final straw, from then on I put my children in private schools. I had been hoping to have them receive a less “indoctrinated” education than I had, but I only succeeded in having them receive a sub par education. This in the so-called “best” school district in town. God only knows how bad “bad” gets elsewhere.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to WardSmith says:

                See, now that’s more like it, folks. Actual instance data.

                One of the main obstacles to removing a bad teacher is the principal and the administration. Though the union represents the accused in these hearings, I can tell you there’s a lot of horse trading going on with the union rep. I saw it in the case of these two teachers at first hand: the principal wanted these two teachers gone (absenteeism, quarreling with other teachers and failed probationary status). Well, the union rep and the principal had known each other for decades and got along reasonably well, and it was decided these two had to go: they’d exhausted their probation and the absenteeism continued, so out they went. Can you say if this absentee teacher you mentioned was simply placed on leave? As you say, it varies by district, I’m simply observing I’ve seen the exact opposite. When my wife was assaulted for the third time, the district wanted to keep her, and they offered her a year of leave. She didn’t take it.

                I am disturbed by this anecdote about the child abuser. There’s another teacher I know who got into an altercation with his teenage son and he was placed on probation, everyone involved took it very seriously, he was within inches of termination. In the case you mention, the police should have been involved, and probably were, from the outset. It is difficult to terminate anyone for suspicion, inside a union or not: they’ll start a civil case in a heartbeat and these are exceedingly difficult (and expensive) to defend.

                My son had a horrible 5th grade teacher, terribly abusive to the children. I took the matter up with the principal directly and he put the teacher on probation without even resorting to the union.

                Don’t be so sure these bad teachers were exclusively defended from the union’s rep. It’s been my observation, at the periphery of public school education (3 kids, one teacher wife, many teacher friends) that these cases often go the way the administration desires and the administration doesn’t always respond to parents. Administrations are in thrall to the district and the State Board of Ed. As I’ve said, there’s lots of horsetrading going on: the threat of a civil case is always there.

                I’m not defending everything public schools do: I ended up homeschooling my youngest after his freshman year of high school. There was no gifted program for him, he wasn’t being challenged, so we pulled him out. He got his HS diploma online within the year and went on to community college two years early. He then went off to CalTech and is currently doing postdoc work in physics. One thing is for sure, public schools need fixing, but all these fads are only making things worse.Report

              • Pat Cahalan in reply to BlaiseP says:

                > He then went off to CalTech and is
                > currently doing postdoc work in physics.

                There is a decidedly non-zero probability that I’ve bumped into him on campus. Heck, he might even sit in my building.Report

              • WardSmith in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

                @Pat, If I find out you really are working for NSA I’m going to be really really pissed.Report

              • Pat Cahalan in reply to WardSmith says:

                It’s pretty trivial to find me on the web. There are three Pat Cahalans who have a presence in southern California (two of us are here at the moment), and we’re all affiliated with the same undergraduate institution, but you can figure out which one is me pretty easily.

                I gave up on web anonymity a long time ago. It’s too much trouble to use TOR for everything, so I figured I’d just fess up I’m me and go from there.Report

              • Freddy "Chopsticks" Chopin in reply to WardSmith says:

                No—it’s NASA where Pat works.

                I hope he some day gives a lesson on thermonuclear yields in hydrogen bombs.

                Also, do neutron bombs really kill living things, but leave the furniture intact?

                Imagine the attire should such a thing be true!Report

              • Pat Cahalan in reply to WardSmith says:

                > I hope he some day gives a lesson
                > on thermonuclear yields in
                > hydrogen bombs.

                I actually did this (full disclosure – not well) recently for someone who was looking to write an accurate depiction of a nuclear terrorist event in the Los Angeles basin for a work of fiction.

                Turns out, there’s tons of fascinating information readily available about yields and effects. The least readily available are EMP effects. The union of concerned scientists even has a neat little application where you can select between ground- and air-burst weapons with varying megatonnage.

                Doing basic research for ’em did convince me of one thing, though: nuclear terrorism isn’t really all that scary. It’s pretty damn hard to get your hands on a nuclear weapon with a significant yield.Report

          • dexter in reply to E.D. Kain says:

            E. D. Kain, What do your kinfolk the teachers recomend we do about our schools?Report

            • E.D. Kain in reply to dexter says:

              I think it depends. My aunt was the head of the Oregon teachers union for years. She’s obviously very pro-union. Most would say that teachers need to be the driving force of reform, and I would generally agree with that. The reason I distrust unions is that I distrust too much uniformity in general. I think many teachers do, too. I want teachers to have lots more autonomy, but I think there is a strong case to be made that this does not match up all that well with keeping on doing the same things we’ve always done, the same pay scale we’ve always had, the same tenure rules we’ve always known, etc.Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to E.D. Kain says:

                For teacher to have more autonomy, they need hugely better support from the school administration. One of the good things that the union does do is protect teachers from situations where they’re genuinely not at fault, where it’s nothing but an aggrieved parent upset that the teacher told kids that gay people weren’t going to hell (or, maybe, that global warming wasn’t conclusively proven.) If teachers could count on principals and school boards to go to bat for them, then the union wouldn’t need to step in.Report

              • E.D. Kain in reply to DensityDuck says:

                Very true. I think autonomy is key, and yes in many ways unions help provide the cover needed. So yay unions! My argument is that unions can also stand in the way of good reforms. They can stand in the way of bad reforms or petty parents or stupid bureaucrats too. So it’s a mixed bag.

                Of course, BlaiseP knows *exactly* which side of the debate I come down on based on this assessment of unions as a mixed bag, so…Report

              • Jesse Ewiak in reply to E.D. Kain says:

                I think the issue is that people are acting as if the teachers unions are even close to the number one cause for these problems. Yes, do some teachers unions have some issues? Of course. Any large group will.

                But, by the same token, I put unions at like, barely in the top ten when it comes to problems of education. It’s like acting as if cutting Head Start will balance the budget while ignoring the defense budget.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to E.D. Kain says:

                Problem is, it’s not the unions who effect school reforms. That’s the State Board of Ed, stacked with patronage appointments, doling out the money, not on an as-needed basis, but on political whim and the sum of vectors in the yearly legislative scrum for education dollars.Report

              • WardSmith in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Perhaps the perception of uncaring teacher’s unions was self-inflicted? When your union president says things like “When school children start paying union dues, that ‘s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.”

                Of course the new president is much better (or has a better PR dept). I’ll miss ole Albert for sheer refreshing honesty however.Report

              • Jesse Ewiak in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Nah, only political dorks like us have heard of that quote. Truthfully, everybody has had a bad teacher. As a result, when schools don’t “work”, parents don’t want to blame themselves or their kids, so there’s only person left – the teacher. Yes, there are bad teachers, etc.

                I’ll also point out that despite thirty years of attacks on public sector unions, polling still shows healthy support for collective bargaining and decent support for teachers themselves. The Beltway hates teachers unions, but don’t confuse Sunday TV with reality.Report

              • tom van dyke in reply to E.D. Kain says:

                Teachers see themselves as professionals, like doctors; taxpayers see them as public servants. this is the philosophical rub.

                Nobody tells a doctor how to practice medicine, or at least shouldn’t. Teachers want similar “autonomy,” always on the means, and often the ends.

                “Teach to the test” is offensive.

                The irony is that teachers are indeed like doctors in socialized medicine, and of course the practice gets more formulaic. And the taxpayer in the least claims the authority to define the ends. Learn X, Y, and Z, that and how 2+2 = 4, that there are 3 branches of American gov’t, and hopefully, how to read.

                And yes, there will be tests.

                As for the particulars, it’s a black box to me. What’s on the tests that the state [the taxpayer] wants learned, that teachers resent?

                We’re told that “mindless drilling” [phonics, timetables] bores the bejesus out of the kids. [Perhaps—I recall enjoying them, like singing songs. Certainly no more numbing than rap, which kids seem to like!]

                What’s certain is that “rote learning” bored the bejesus out of the teachers. But what if, as public servants, such boring repetition is what the taxpayer requires of them? What the children require?

                Hell, they never made me do it, but I wish they’d made me memorize the list of American presidents. I just finally committed it to memory [I think] looking at a coffee cup the wife picked up at the thrift store. But what a mnemonic aid to contextualize American history it would have been all these years, a framework to lay all those bits and pieces upon!

                [Zachary Taylor is the one who always gets away…]

                Anyway, Mr. Kain’s post has sent me to the [internet] books, so thank you, Erik. There’s a lot out there away from the partisan wars that I never heard about, and I thought I’d share it while the pages were open; hopefully someone finds this stuff as stimulating as I do. As an auto-didact, I have always preferred to start as close to the beginning as possible.

                The idea of teachers as professionals vs. public servants is something I ran across from 1959, iirc. They’ve been talking about this stuff for awhile. And 1959, Dr. Spock and “New Math” aren’t a bad reference point.

                [I left out the progressive-lefty “educational theory” of the 1930s I ran across out for the sake of civility. But it does give a righty like me pause: it’s as bad and manipulative as charged, and I hear the echoes of it still in the present day. Hegel, I make it.]

                I still think the proper approach is to start with educational history and work forward, not backward from the present day with yet more technocratic “innovation.” Modernity is disposed to believe “new is better”; the Burkean says, Stop! or at least “Slow Down!”Report

              • Trumwill in reply to tom van dyke says:

                Some of the classes I’ve been substitute teaching are Direct Instruction. From a teaching perspective, it’s utterly miserable. I understand why they’re dirty words among educators. But there is reason to believe that it is effective. And if it is (and remains so when you account for increased teacher burnout and more talented people avoiding the profession), isn’t that the part that matters?Report

              • Trumwill: The $1B Project Follow-Through study cited Direct Instruction as provably effective, as I linked elsewhere earlier.


                I didn’t link DI and Follow-Through with some stuff I’d read recently on this mind-numbingly boring [to the teacher] method that seemed to have great effect. I reckon you’re closing the circle here.

                It’s been such an educational day!Report

  7. Robert Cheeks says:

    Actually and practically, I think Ohio Gov. Kasich has it right with limiting the power of the Ohio Teacher’s union. It’ll break the money laundering scheme between the teacher’s union and the commie-Dem party, and give ‘good’ teachers a sense of being a tool of the thug union, the taxpayers will appreciate not being systematically screwed by the teacher’s union and may actually work with them in educating the chilluns, and the teachers will find a new sense of worth and pride when they realize that they’re members of a profession that goes all the way back to Socrates.Report

  8. Not to threadjack, but this sentence piqued my interest:

    Indeed, one reason marijuana was prohibited to begin with was the end of alcohol prohibition and the need to keep all those cops employed.

    This is the first I’ve ever heard this claim. Do you have a cite?Report

    • E.D. Kain in reply to Mark Thompson says:

      I’ll have to dig something up. Can’t recall now where I first read it. Suffice to say, there was a huge drop in revenue for police forces and the federal bureau of narcotics and they needed something to fill the coffers and keep people on the payroll, which is why in the 30’s you see this tremendous push and massive propaganda campaign to demonize pot. Other interests were party to it (cotton, Rx, etc.) obviously, but this was at least one driving force.Report

  9. Kris says:

    1. I’m a big fan of your work on education Erik. Some of the most interesting stuff ever written on blogs. I’m very serious. I have a lot to say that I’ve been thinking about in relation to your stuff at Forbes. (I teac Critical Thinking to freshmen students, so I see where students are at after their secondary education.) I’ll post it if you’re interested.

    2. As others have noted, if unions have a negative causal impact on education, shouldn’t we expect at least a mild correlation between bad education and unions? (And between strong unions and really bad education?)

    But don’t we see the exact opposite: strong union countries like Canada and Finland outperform comparable, weak-union places. (I think the explanation for this is that teacher tenure frees teachers to try new things, to be more creative and willing to risk trying and failing. But that’s a guess.)

    Ultimately questions about what causes what have to be answered empirically. The empirical data suggests unions aren’t causing anything negative in education. Indeed, union leaders seem to want to talk about curriculum changes, and what you really want -it seems- are big curriculum changes and the freedom to experiment with different curriculums to see what works best here, especially in underperforming communities. Unions are the only ally of that position.

    I also suspect you and the unions could easily come to an agreement on a sensible, fair, effective procedure for firing teachers. We might not have that now, but I don’t see any proof that it’s the unions’ fault that we don’t have it. It may just be that the debate over teachers has become to politicized to yield a pragmatic solution now; one side wants the end of tenure and unions and the other side senses that and is pulling back from negotiations. But really, a negotiated settlement on firing should be easyReport

    • E.D. Kain in reply to Kris says:

      Thanks! Those are good points. I think that the nature of politics in the US is really to blame. Money plays a far greater role here, and there’s tons of pressure on politicians to do the wrong thing or to act in their own self-interest by catering to special interest groups. In Canada or Finland you have much different political incentives at play and the union/management relationship is quite different.

      So yes, this is not *because* of unions but rather because of the political situation we find ourselves in and that unions play a role in. The organizations themselves are fine until they start using their massive resources to lobby hard for bad policies. The collective bargaining for wages and work conditions – this seems reasonable enough to me.

      And yes, I think reasonable people could come to an agreement on all of this fairly easily. If reasonable people were in charge.

      Also, too, you may be right about unions wanting freedom to experiment with curriculum. On this and many other issues we are allies. I think of myself as an ally of teachers because I do want autonomy and creative freedom for teachers. But I oppose unions on charter schools where I think they are being unreasonable and using their powers for Evil.Report

      • tom van dyke in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        Google “unions phonics UK.”

        I signed up for the “conservative” Thomas B. Fordham Institute newsletter. They seem to play it straight, though, excoriating the Ohio GOP for lowering charter school standards even more [obliterating them, really].

        “Gadfly has criticized Ohio lawmakers for their efforts to water down charter-school accountability in the Buckeye State. If upheld in the state’s biennial budget (due to be finalized by month’s end), these provisions would downgrade the charter movement in Fordham’s home state to a “full-fledged contender for America’s worst.”

        Also of a local school board meeting in NY:

        —“There are several lessons here.
        Congress has nothing over local political skirmishes when it comes to sharp-elbowed tactics. And need it be repeated? The lower the stakes, the bloodier the conflict. The silver lining: Board meeting attendance spiked.
        —Anyone thinking about centralized control—federal or state—should volunteer for a local school board. Or shadow any of our students or teachers or voters for a day. The variety of possible interactions in this tiny place should give any distant policymaker pause. And should remind all that it should be voters who control the boards, not the other way around.

        —The unions have no place in schools. With 80 percent of our teachers living outside the district, they had zero stake in the property tax-levy question, which was bad enough. But bigger than that are the statutory protections they enjoy in the aptly named Empire State. Between the contingency law and the so-called “Triborough Amendment” (which allows for automatic raises during a contract stalemate) teachers are all but guaranteed salary increases in perpetuity. (Sometimes, during board meetings, as I looked out at the audience of mostly teachers, they looked like an occupying army.)”

        And, from the National Center for Education Statistics:

        “Total per-pupil expenditures rose by 39 percent (in constant dollars) from 1989-90 to 2007-08, for example. On the good-news front, drop-out rates have declined for whites, blacks, and Hispanics over the past thirty years.”Report

  10. Kris says:

    Also, I appreciate the more compromising rhetorical stance you’ve adopted. It changes the tone of the debate to be more solution oriented. Blog writers should do more of this.

    But I worry that others will see this -despite your clarifications- as you conceding the debate.

    Ultimately, the data suggests that the using standardized testing as both a carrot and a stick to improve teacher performance and education in the way that Rhee and others recommend is a bad idea. It can’t hurt too much to try it in small places, but the debate you’re participating in has high stakes. If you’re interlocutors win, they will institute a system in education that is very likely to take us in the wrong direction. There is no sin in you using strong rhetoric that reflects the dangers of what those who disagree with you might do.Report

  11. Kris says:

    As a Canadian I can tell you the political situation is not really so different. (And charter schools weren’t part of the solution there.)

    There are differences in unions and politics across states here in the U.S., too, and looking at the different states I don’t see any reason to associate weak unions with good education.

    I do think the problem is political. But I’ll ask you this: Has anyone offered a sensible, effective, fair firing-policy that the unions have turned down? If so, when and where.

    Obviously unions have to oppose charter schools as any union has to oppose non-unionized competition. A deal could be made here easily. The fact that the deals aren’t being made isn’t necessarily the unions’ fault.Report

  12. WardSmith says:

    One major problem with the “American” system versus the “British” system is the (false) concept that /everyone/ goes on to college and is deserving of the same education. My wife was raised under the “British” system. They are regularly given tests, starting as I recall in the 5th or 6th grade. These test results determine whether you go on with the scholarly schools or head into more vocational pursuits. It isn’t really a punishment to go the vocation route BTW, next time you buy a Mercedes, realize it was built by vocation trained employees who started their internships while still in German high school (equivalent). I’ve brought this up with Americans who literally started screaming bloody murder at the whole concept. Given the massive dropout rates, the abysmal performance of these kids once they show up (woefully unprepared) for college – thence to dropout in ignominy (but only after accumulating tremendous debt and/or penurising their parents), and all the other ills that befall our one-size-fits-all system perhaps this most simple of palliatives should at least be considered.Report

  13. Sam MacDonald says:

    “We can take idiosyncratic positions in this debate because it is inherently an idiosyncratic debate. Nobody knows what will work and so we should try as many things as possible.”

    This sounds good, but I am not at all sure it’s true. Sometime you can’t mix and match things. It’s all or nothing. To risk an analogy, look at something like weight loss. There are a lot of idea that work in individual cases. But many of them only work if you follow a specific plan maniacally. You can’t be on the Atkins diet in the morning, the cookie diet at noon and the grapefruit diet at night. These approaches are at odds and ultimately subvert on another. In fact, they make matters far worse that just keeping the standard course.Report

  14. I’ve written recently that I think a compromise could be reached by allowing parents to teach whatever and however they want for an hour or so each month. This sort of cooperative home school/public school hybrid would provide parents with concrete opportunities to address what they may personally view as shortcomings in the school system; and it would foster a culture where parents are necessarily invested in their own children’s education and themselves held partially accountable for their child’s education.

    Such a hybrid school would also provide students with enough broad knowledge to choose what it is they’re truly passionate about and begin pursuing it at an early age at school or in their free time at home. At a certain stage, students can engage in more projects where they themselves take the lead – teaching a topic that they are reasonably competent about to their peers.

    Such a bottom-up cooperative public school would be a solid starting vector towards the education system of the future.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to Christopher Carr says:


      If you want to avoid tribal-adherence behaviors then you better not even hint at homeschooling, because most education supporters take it as an article of faith that the only reason anyone homeschools is for purposes of religious indoctrination.Report

      • That may have been true twenty years ago, but it’s definitely not any more. Homeschooled children are disproportionately represented at elite universities and score disproportionately high on standardized tests, and the reason is largely that parents who homeschool their children and the typical cooperatives they belong to have taken advantage of information technologies in curriculum design, and public schools haven’t.Report

  15. Michael Cain says:

    One of the education issues that I’ve been struggling with — or perhaps it’s really two issues — is the urban/rural divide, and the power of local school boards. In my state, it is clear that almost none of the rural districts can afford to provide the scope of education that the state and federal authorities require. At the same time, rural boards tend to be much more vocal about the need to preserve local control and values; the classic line is “we know what’s best for our kids”.

    Most of the rural areas in this state have shrinking populations. In some cases out-and-out declines in the number of people, but at least shrinking relative to the urban and suburban areas. The fact is that many of the kids in the rural districts are not going to live or work in those areas; they’re going to move to the cities and suburbs and take jobs there because the rural economy simply doesn’t product enough jobs. An uncharitable person (me, on bad days) would be inclined to say, “You don’t know what’s best for your kids. You require fiscal subsidies from the suburbs to keep your schools going, and a lot of your kids are going to live and work in the cities and suburbs. It would certainly appear that the taxpayers who are making up the fiscal difference and generating sufficient jobs are much better suited to know what education is ‘best’ for those kids than you are.”Report