Teacher Hatred and Class Warfare

Conor P. Williams

Conor Williams on Twitter. More background here.

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92 Responses

  1. Mike Schilling says:

    Conor, why do you hate teachers?Report

      • Cool piece, Conor. This is all inside-Dem-baseball to me, so I hit the Google. The internet sez 80% of TFAers leave teaching, and you’re a cult. And another TFA alum brings the matter into sharper relief:


        Michelle Rhee Infiltrates Democratic Convention With Right-Wing Film

        Not that this surprises me much, since Michelle Rhee pretends to be some kind of “different Democrat,” but it’s really pretty nervy of her to show up at the Democratic National Convention with a film funded by right-wing education deformers and pretend she’s “one of us.”

        StudentsFirst is screening the film “Won’t Back Down” in the middle of the Democratic National Convention in an effort to convince everyone her brand of education deform is the best pathway forward.

        No self-respecting Democrat should be caught dead at this screening. I plan to be out front with my camera to see who supports public schools and who doesn’t. Please reach out to anyone you know who is attending the convention and encourage them to stand firm for public education.

        But OTOH, what was Rhee doing at the Dem convention atall?


        CHARLOTTE — Michelle Rhee is accustomed to having to insist she’s a Democrat. “It’s funny,” she tells me, “I’m not just a Democrat — I feel like I’m a pretty lefty Democrat, and it is somewhat disappointing when I hear some people saying, ‘She’s not a real Democrat.'”

        Rhee, the controversial former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor known for her hard-charging style, has worked with Republican governors to push her reform ideas in states across the country. Her ongoing pitched battle with the teachers unions has put her at odds with one of the Democratic Party’s most important traditional constituencies.

        Yet there are signs that Rhee’s persona non grata status in her party is beginning to wane — starting with the fact that the chairman of the Democratic convention, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, spoke at the movie screening Rhee hosted at the convention earlier this week. Another Democratic star, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, spoke at the cocktails-and-canapes reception afterward. Across the country, Democratic officials from governors like Colorado’s John Hickenlooper to former President Clinton — buoyed by the well-funded encouragement of the hedge-fund bigwigs behind much of the charter-school movement — are shifting the party’s consensus away from the union-dictated terms to which it has long been loyal. Instead, they’re moving the party toward a full-fledged embrace of the twin pillars of the reform movement: performance-based incentives for teachers, and increased options, including charter schools, for parents.

        Bold face mine. Those are the battle lines, anyway. Whither the Dem Party and the educational-industrial complex? The conventional wisdom may need updating soon.Report

        • 1) TFA claims that 60% of its alums stay in education. This number is disputed (usually without counterevidence) by some TFA critics.

          2) I’m glad that you liked the piece, and I appreciate your civility in the comments on this thread. Any chance that I could bank some of that goodwill for the next time that I write something you find objectionable?Report

  2. Jesse Ewiak says:

    If you want to make the average teacher’s life harder and less secure in favor of ‘reforms’ with no evidence of actually working, then yeah, either you’re uninformed, ideological, or hate teachers.Report

    • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

      Oh, and just because you’re a former “x” something doesn’t mean you have the best interests of current “x’s” at heart. I don’t think the people in TFA are bad people, but I think it’s bad policy shaped by people who want to destroy the teacher’s unions, but dress it up in do gooder clothing to get impressionable young kids right out of college on their side.Report

      • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

        Oh, and teacher accountability isn’t a problem. You can fire any teacher. Even the ones under tenure. But, you actually have to show cause, which means actual work for administrators. No, it isn’t as easy to fire a bad teacher as it is to fire a bad grocery clerk. That’s a good thing. I only wish every working person in this country had the same protections that teachers do.Report

        • Some stats:

          The Widget Effect, a comprehensive study of American teachers, found that less than 1 percent of teachers in the study received “unsatisfactory” ratings from their districts, but 41 percent of teachers said they had a tenured colleague who should be dismissed.
          • Also this: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/24/education/24teachers.html?_r=0Report

          • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Conor P. Williams says:

            1. Let’s see here. Do some basic math. 100 schools. Let’s say 20 teachers per school and that’s probably being a little low. That’s 2,000 teachers. Even if every single one of those teachers are at different schools that are bad, that’s 41 teachers out of 2,000, or about 2%.

            2. From reading that article, the problem was that the administration has to actually show proof of the teacher’s incompetence and with something like teaching, that’s a little difficult. To be blunt, the fact it takes a lot to fire a teacher, even a bad one, doesn’t fill me with any bad feelings. If you make it hard to fire a teacher, the administrators will hopefully actually go after the bad teachers. If you make it easy, then internal politics and favoritism will come back into vogue.Report

            • Ok. First of all, I had my numbers slightly off. Here’s a passage from the study I cited above:

              In fact, 81 percent of administrators and 58 percent of teachers say there is a tenured teacher in their school who is performing poorly, and 43 percent of teachers say there is a tenured teacher who should be dismissed for poor performance.

              It’s 43%, NOT 41%. My bad.

              Second of all, I think you’ve confused percentages and absolute numbers in your basic math example above. I’m not sure that I follow you, but…

              • Given the survey data (which you don’t dispute), we would expect no more than 20 tenured teachers (less than 1%) to be officially rated “unsatisfactory” out of the full 2000.
              • We’d also expect that 43% of the district’s 2000 teachers—860 teachers—to report that they had a tenured colleague performing so poorly that they should be dismissed.

              There are lots of potential conclusions to draw from those data…but it’s pretty hard to see it and maintain that teacher dismissals processes are working great.Report

              • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Conor P. Williams says:

                Yes, but, um, many of them may be pointing to the same teacher. To make a joke, 40% of the commenters on this site may think somebody needs to be banned, but most of them are all pointing to the same person, so only 1% of the total people commenting on this site needs to be banned.

                But math problems aside, I don’t doubt the dismissal procedures are perfect. However, most of the reforms I’ve seen push things closer to something even worse – the private sector dismissal system where the worker has no rights and management has to prove nothing.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

                Yes, but, um, many of them may be pointing to the same teacher

                Doesn’t that give us more reason to think that this teacher should be fired?Report

              • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Jaybird says:

                Sure, but again, 2% vs. 1%. Not exactly a massive indictment of the need to destroy tenure or teacher’s work protections.Report

              • 1) The sample size for the percentages I’m giving you is significantly bigger than 100 schools/2000 teachers (http://widgeteffect.org/overview/). The data were compiled across a number of districts across the country. It’s statistically dubious to pull that into a single-district sample size in order to make it possible to make some odd assumptions about the distribution of unsatisfactory teachers.

                2) But let’s charge ahead anyway—within the constraints of your example.

                Assume that the ratings system were working perfectly. It identifies the (no more than) 20 tenured teachers who are performing terribly in the district. 860 teachers report that they have colleagues performing so terribly that they should be fired. That’s 43 teachers who believe they work with an unsatisfactory teacher/1 unsatisfactory teacher. Since you’ve already stipulated around ~20 teachers/school, distribution biases (“all pointing to the same teacher(s)”) cannot fully explain away the discrepancy between those ID’d as unsatisfactory by the district and those ID’d as unsatisfactory by their peers. There aren’t enough teachers/school for that explanation to hold water.

                Here’s another way of thinking about this: spread those 20 unsatisfactory teachers across the district so that no school has more than one. Even if all 19 of their peers at each school ID the unsatisfactory teacher, you’re not even halfway to the 860 you’d need to explain the Widget Effect’s polling data.

                To bridge this gap, we could go back and adjust your initial stipulation—e.g. give schools in this district an average of 30 teachers—but that’s still not going to close the gap (unless you’re going to insist that 43 teachers/school is the actual number).

                Again, please understand that even this scenario rests upon making a host of assumptions about the data in order to skew them your way…and it still doesn’t work.

                For example, if we allow that some of the 20 unsatisfactory teachers ID’d by the district may be in a school with more than one such teacher, then the fully 860 teachers ID’ing an fireably unsatisfactory teacher get even further from statistical reach.Report

              • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Conor P. Williams says:

                I was mostly trying to make the point that the fact 43% of teachers find one teacher among their number bad enough to be fired isn’t proof we’re in a crisis of the quality of our teacher’s. I have no doubt for example, 43% or more of office workers thinks there is somebody in their office that needs to be fired. There isn’t a massive reform office workers bandwagon out there. 🙂

                The truth is, and this part is going to suck, there’s always going to be people in a job who aren’t good at it. But, the question is, are we actually going to replace that person with somebody better or just somebody who still sucks, but is younger?

                Because if you convince me that making it easier to fire teacher’s will lead to the bottom 10% of teachers being better in a decade than the bottom 10% today, then I can at least understand your argument. But, if the bottom 10% in ten years are going to be about the same skill level as those today, only the average age might be younger and they’re getting worse benefits, I don’t see much of a win.Report

              • I find this comment heartening! Thanks for your patience and reflectiveness. Very few education policy arguments go this well.

                You’re absolutely right that there’s little benefit to dismissing teachers when there’s little chance of replacing them with better ones. This is why education reformers are usually among the loudest advocates for higher teacher pay (as part of treating teachers as accountable professionals, of course). Michelle Rhee’s infamous contract with DC teachers raised base salaries an average of ~22%. It also offers bonuses as high as $20K for teaching in high-need subject and geographical areas.

                Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/02/AR2010060202762.html

                This is also why education reformers are usually so interested in finding other ways of credentialing teachers—since schools of education vary widely in quality. (A recent study showed that we awful, untrained, unprepared TFA teachers outperformed almost every school of ed. program in Tennessee: http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/2011/nov/01/teach-america-memphis-produces-effective-teachers/)Report

            • As for the NYC example: it seems to me as though we’re arguing shades of gray. I maintain that a process that costs a district two million dollars and two years (to support a team of eight lawyers) to dismiss three tenured teachers is prohibitively ineffective.

              I think that’s way too much red tape. You don’t. I’m not sure that there’s a logical path forward by which either of us convinces the other to switch positions. I’d just close by noting that very few districts have the kind of resources to embark on multi-stage arbitration processes that cost this much. At this level of complexity, dismissing teachers for incompetence is fiscally impossible in all but a few districts nationwide.Report

              • Morat20 in reply to Conor P. Williams says:

                Tenure is different across states. Texas, for instance, no longer practices it. There are a (relative) handful of teachers with ‘permanent contracts’, but they’re a massive minority.

                In the three school districts I have contacts in, not one of them has a single permanent contract on record. Three sizeable school districts with not a single teacher with the equvilant of tenure.

                As such, one should be able to compare Texas’ with another state that DOES have tenure, and after some fiddling for demographics, come out with a comparison.

                I believe such comparisons show that not having a tenure system (or weak Teacher’s unions) do very little except lower the median salary of teachers. It’s rather a squeaky wheel gets the grease concept — if there are 10,000 tenured teachers doing a perfectly adequate job, there’s no story, conflict, or interest.

                Now the 4 sitting in a rubber room waiting for their appeals to run out before getting the boot? There’s a story there.Report

    • KatherineMW in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

      So shouldn’t the debate – if we’re going with Conor’s pragmatist ethos – be “Do reforms work?” (or, much better “Which reforms work?”) rather than “Do reformers hate teachers?”

      I’d much rather see people bringing evidence to bear on whether reforms produce better outcomes, and whether the circumstances in which they produce better outcomes are ones which exist within the public school system, than have a debate about whether one side hates teachers or the other side doesn’t care about students.Report

      • Jesse Ewiak in reply to KatherineMW says:

        There have been multiple threads on this very site where there has been reams of evidence have been shown by people smarter than me that most of the reforms put out by the neoliberal/conservative school of education reform either doesn’t work or has meh results compared to the hype. It doesn’t change the conversation. Inevitably, the conversation snaps back to, “but choice! And rubber rooms! Accountability!”

        I’m sorry, but if you’ve been pointed to the evidence again and again and you still come out with the idea that the correct way to fix schools (and again, I point out, most people think their schools are fine. It’s those other schools that need reforms) is to destroy unions, teach to the test, and give money out to for-profit foundations to create charter schools, then yeah, I begin to believe your real goal is to destroy unions, not help students.Report

        • Roger in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

          The data in favor of free markets in education is totally overwhelming.


          For those not wanting to read the entire report, here are some snippets:

          “I found that school choice and direct payment of fees by parents, autonomy for educators, minimal regulation, vigorous competition among schools, and the profit motive for at least some portion of schools were associated with the most effective and responsive education systems. The lack of even one or two of these characteristics was associated with inferior outcomes.”

          “…studies were included in this review if they used generally accepted quantitative methods to compare public versus private school performance in one or more of these areas:
          • Academic achievement (as measured by student test scores)
          • Efficiency (measured as academic achievement per dollar spent per pupil)
          • Parental satisfaction
          • Orderliness of classrooms
          • Condition in which facilities were maintained
          • Subsequent earnings of graduates (of K–12 academic programs)
          • Attainment (graduation rates of high schools, or highest average grade
          • Effects on measured intelligence”

          “While private schools clearly outperform state-run schools all over the world across a host of outcome measures, this difference pales in comparison to that between relatively free education markets and state monopolies. While findings of a private-schooling advantage outnumber those of a public schooling advantage by a ratio of roughly 8 to 1, findings of a free- market advantage outnumber those of a school-monopoly advantage by a ratio of nearly than 15 to 1.”

          “Significant advantages for market provision over monopoly provision persist even in areas where private schools already enroll the majority of students.”Report

          • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Roger says:

            I’ll read that, Roger.

            I’m leery. But I’ll read it. The introduction makes a valid point about monopoly vs. pseudo-market comparisons inside the U.S., but I’m hugely unconvinced that the general case of education in most other countries maps anywhere near the U.S. educational needs case. Maybe the paper has corrections for this.Report

  3. Jesse Ewiak says:

    And if you truly want to help the poor kids being hurt by those evil teacher’s with their unions, pensions, and tenure, work with liberals to cut child poverty instead of working with conservatives to sell off public education to Bill Gates and the Walton’s.Report

    • I think the point of Conor’s post is that some people are too quick to equate reform of teaching with antipathy toward teaching or toward teachers. Your comments seem to suggest he might be on to something, assuming I read Conor’s post correctly.

      For the record, I do believe it’s healthy to start from the proposition that teachers’ interests as workers are not necessarily, 100%, co-terminus with students’ interests as students or the taxpaying public’s interests as taxpayers.

      The CTU in Chicago, for example, did not offer to forgo raises if the city would use the windfall to fund a/c’s or school libraries. There are reasons for this, of course, one is Senate Bill 7 which, if I understand, states that the CTU can bargain only for money issues and conceding the point might take away its bargaining chip. The other is that a union leader who proposes forgoing a pay raise will likely be voted out at the next election. It’s in the logic of the thing. (Even the UMW John Mitchell faced a lot of criticism in 1904 when he accepted a pay cut for the miners in 1904. Even though he did not lose his presidency, he lost a lot of support.)

      Now, as some of your comments rightly suggest, many specific reforms might make the lives of teachers harder, and that, by reasonable implication, might make it harder to hire good or dedicated teachers. Also, as you suggest, tenure is not all that the “we have to fire bad teachers” crowd claim it’s cracked up to be.

      But I also think that in times and localities for public finances are approaching insolvency, sometimes part of the answer is to reduce teachers’ pay or ask teachers to forgo pay raises or increase pension contributions. It sucks. It really does, and in many reals senses, teachers do not deserve pay cuts. But sometimes bullets have to be bitten, and sometimes there are no good choices, just some that are less bad than others.Report

  4. BlaiseP says:

    When William James asks his oft-quoted question, he doesn’t exactly lay out the basis for belief. What is true, that we should believe in it? And by which criteria can we extrapolate consequences, beyond such predictive tools as Newton’s laws of motion and Maxwell’s field equations, the very sort of preexisting and abstract truths the pragmatist says he doesn’t need?

    Public education policy isn’t exactly Galileo rolling his marble down a ramp. Which from among the many worthy goals should we emphasize? Education policy has been kicked around like a ball in the playground, the plaything of politicians and not the province of professional educators.

    While the educational community perpetuates its eternal intramural cat fights over how to measure educational progress, the ignoramuses shall go on thumping the tub and Hating the Teachers. At some point, the educational community will have to stand up for itself. I do not see this happening any time soon. The cobbler’s children wear no shoes and the teachers have done a wretched job of explaining themselves to the larger world. In short, the teachers must make the right enemies: this will begin with a clear explication of just how perverse and counter-productive the current debate has become. Politics has no business in the classroom.

    Professionalism is mostly earning the respect of one’s peers – but there’s the part where the professional earns his pay. In other cultures, teachers have respect. Teachers have allowed themselves to be pushed around, to the point where the Report Card has been turned around: now it’s the teacher’s fault the child won’t learn.

    I believe this trend began when the educational community started coddling troublemakers, both within their ranks and within the student community. Within the military, the command voice is taught. Corey Robin says teachers were seen as failures and fuck-ups. Teachers stupidly forfeited the respect they needed to teach, hoping against hope they would be able to trade that respect for being liked. They gave their hearts away, a sordid boon. They should have stood up straight and fired back at their critics.

    They could stand up again. They just need better PR. The K-12 community, especially this group of educators, needs a guild, a voluntary organisation for the betterment of their profession. This guild could also serve as a political fulcrum. I’d follow the NRA model: they’re a surprisingly small organisation but they can intimidate a politician with a whisper.

    If educational policy has become a political football, the teachers need to learn to play the game – and win. The unions are worthless, politically. Were I organising this new lobbying organisation, I’d start with the TFA graduates, nobody can say they didn’t pull their weight for this nation.Report

    • Lyle in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Re the reputation of teachers: Of course even back in WWII, when my mother went to a major state university in the Midwest it was said that if you could not get thru any other way there was always the school of education. Consider that at the time most teachers were trained by what were called normal colleges or teachers colleges. Most have since become comprehensive universities. Or if you go back further no training was needed in the 1 room school house beyond a year or 2 after grade 8.
      When I went to university in 1968 in several disciplines there were separate course for teachers and regular course, in particular I recall this being true in math.

      But the other question is in almost every other white collar job one is hired at will and except for some protected classes there are no protections, but to do a good, job and a good bit of the evaluation is subjective. For higher pay one has to trade for this kind of job tenure.Report

      • Alan Scott in reply to Lyle says:

        I think it’s very hard to argue that we shouldn’t have higher teacher quality in areas like math and science. But isn’t the reason that we have so few well-qualified math and science teachers that most who have the necessary skill set are going to look at the offered compensation and find some other, better paying work that requires STEM knowledge and effective communication skills?

        With a degree in English or History, Teaching is a pretty attractive career option. With a Math or Science degree, it’s not exactly the best job on the list.Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to Alan Scott says:

          Math ‘n Science aren’t exactly pulling down the big bucks these days out there in the real world. Pedagogy is its own skill, independent of what’s being taught.

          Furthermore, I’m in a situation right now where we can’t find any qualified candidates. The skill is too specialised. STEM, my ass. The skills I’m hunting for aren’t being taught in schools. So here’s my coping strategy, the one they hired me on to implement: train my own team.Report

          • Morat20 in reply to BlaiseP says:

            Ain’t that the truth.

            Anyone who has attended college has learned from experts in their field without a basis in pedagogy. And has the horror stories of crap professors to prove it. Being an “Expert” does not make you a “teacher”.

            (The worst I had was a professor doing a class on Ada. Very, very good as a programmer — but possibly the worst teacher I have ever encountered in my life. He simply could not comprehend anyone who did not understand the language as well as he did. He spoke to us as if we had been using Ada for 15 years like he had and were just in there to talk shop. It’d like your family doctor explaining your medical problem to you as if you were, you know, a general practioner as well).

            An adult can struggle through the inability of an expert to easily convey his knowledge. A 13 year old is not so lucky.

            Classroom management and actual teaching techniques are invaluble to a teacher — but not something one picks up due to being an expert at math.Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to Morat20 says:

              Every good teacher evolves his own style. Often, he has several methologies in his satchel bag: students learn differently. Learned that in drill instructor school: each recruit requires his own form of motivation. But when you’re conducting a block of instruction, watch carefully for those who cross the finish line first. Have them go around and help the others master the skill.

              Some people are just born teachers. My old man worked with a linguist named Frank Laubach at Syracuse University. His literacy work was called Each One Teach One: not only are you teaching people to read, you’re teaching them how to teach others to read.

              The one room schoolhouse worked alone these lines: older students taught younger ones the skills they’d just learned. It must have seemed like pandemonium, all these people talking at once. Yet look at the literacy of the average Civil War soldier: these men wrote beautifully.Report

  5. Tod Kelly says:

    Quality Education is one of those words or phrases like Freedom, Fair, or Limited Government.

    We tend to assume we all mean the same thing when we use them, but we really, really don’t. That we don’t leads to lots of unnecessary confusion and demonizing.Report

  6. NewDealer says:

    I come from a very similar suburb of New York as Mr. Williams. Though mine was on Long Island but it was the absolutely typical upper-middle class suburb that people moved to for the schools. We had an excellent arts department though not as many famous alumni as Chappaqua.

    I don’t remember battles over the school budget though. Perhaps I was just not paying too much attention but I can’t recall a school budget or bond proposal that did not pass swimmingly. Though a decent amount of my classmates did have one or two educator parents. My mom was a teacher and education administrator. My dad taught briefly while attending law school at night. Some teachers raised their children in the school district.

    That biography aside, I think you both have points. Education does need to be reformed but I think a lot of people especially highly type-A, competitive Capitalist types have contempt for teachers and academia. It is seen as place where people go when they do not want to be in business or compete. Even when it is competitive, the competition is mocked. Hence, Kissinger’s famous line about academic politics being so brutal “because the stakes are so low.”

    I am also skeptical of the reforms offered by the charter school/teach for America/hedge fund money set. The whole Teach for America program over all is rather suspect to me. I think most people enter it with a sincere desire to do good but in the end they are young and largely naive people thrown into really tough situations with minimal training (a 5-week summer course). These kids are given the worst or the worse in terms of classrooms. Most large cities have their own mini-Teach for Americas that do the same program. The NYC subway ads are notoriously misleading propaganda.

    The reformers rely too much on standardized testing instead of much harder to quantify metrics like critical reading, writing, and thinking skills and developing a deep curiosity about the world. Perhaps too many people think that these skills are innate and not teachable. Or they just want more pragmatic goals.

    Every reform instituted in the past decade seems to treat a majority of kids as hopeless and only capable of learning though testing. Life is not a multiple choice exam and neither should most education rest on those metrics.Report

  7. Roger says:

    In my discussions with teachers I constantly probe into what creates the current education paradigm. One key question I have had is why a group of supposed professionals would ever want a union in the first place. Most professional fields are not bastions for union sympathies.

    After talking to them though, it is clear that they loathe and distrust the administration and bureaucracy that they are embedded in. They do not have any faith that their principal has any idea how to educate kids, could differentiate a good teacher from a bad one, can separate good rules from bad and do forth. It’s like the Pink Floyd song “Welcome to the Machine. Unions seem to be a good response to a monolithic, idiotic and uncaring bureaucracy.

    The bureaucracy does not care about educating kids or about anything except serving itself. That is what bureaucracies do… they serve, feed and perpetuate themselves.

    The pragmatist in me would say don’t build a bureaucracy to solve a problem, as bureaucracies thrive on problems. It is their energy source.

    I don’t blame teachers. I blame us for building the machine.Report

    • greginak in reply to Roger says:

      The great thing about the word “bureaucracy” is that its really describes an inhuman monster. Oh its made up of people…but not “good” people or people who are trying to do their best or people who are, like people everywhere, sometimes not as good as we would wish. Bureaucracy is the boogie man for wonky adults, its always an easy villain because who doesn’t know that bureaucracy is just plain bad.

      Okay enough snark. Blaming bureaucracy is like blaming inefficiency. Sure its true , but it doesn’t tell you much of anything. Its an easy cardboard cut out villain for everybody to rail against. And those people in the big bad B are still actually , you know, actual people. They may be stupid, fuck up, be brilliant, burnt out, funny or dedicated to what they do.Report

      • Roger in reply to greginak says:


        Oddly enough, your push back strikes a chord with me. It seems to me people are doing something similar with the amorphous monster we call “Wall Street” today.

        Let me try my best to clarify. Organizational dynamics create an emergent entity. This organization develops characteristics of its own, but also some recognizable patterns.

        Among these are the tendency for managers to pursue power through the influence of their decisions and the size of their staff and their budgets. This leads to larger and larger budgets and staffs. Soon everyone needs two subordinates, and they each need an assistant and two subordinates of their own. Soon after, most of their time and attention goes not to addressing the purpose of the organization, but to surviving and thriving within the organization. Everyone’s time is spent meeting, communicating, developing procedures, jockying for position, double checking compliance with the procedures and so forth.

        Senior leaders realize that every change that affects the organization also changes the dynamics of power and influence. Thus change becomes a threat to each decision maker, and decisions are no longer based upon how best to solve the problems at hand, but how least to upset power balance. Failure to comply with the incentives of the system leads to their insignificance and Darwinian elimination within the organization.

        People may enter as fine human beings focused on serving others. The machine quickly either beats this out of them or sends them packing. Soon only the wrong type of person would ever choose to work there, and the race to the bottom begins.

        I think bureaucratic growth is like a sclerosis or cancer on organizations. And as far as I can tell the only antidote is competition from other entities, often other bureaucracies. Even here, the antidote is usually inadequate. In the end what we really need is creative destruction on the level of bureaucracies. They all tend to become bloated and inefficient, so you need a process which eliminates the most inefficient.

        Welcome to the machine.Report

        • Glyph in reply to Roger says:

          For a pretty good fictional depiction of the bureaucratic dynamic Roger describes, try The Wire. It’s fiction, sure, but David Simon based it on his experiences as a reporter in Baltimore.

          Simon is no libertarian or conservative, but he captures with a gimlet eye the way that many well-meaning and hardworking police and civil servants are completely steamrollered by the system itself and the dynamic Roger describes. Anyone who tries to stick their neck out and make a difference for the better or point out that the emperor has no clothes is simply asking to be crushed.

          It’s kind of strange in a way how liberals used to distrust and rail against ‘The System, man!’, believing it inherently inimical to individual freedom and to justice; but the bigger and more powerful it gets, the more trustworthy it somehow becomes?

          I don’t mean to paint all liberals with a broad brush or strawman them, but it just seems weird that now, when the libertarians talk about this stuff, often liberals act like the libertarians are crazy for even worrying about it.Report

  8. Jaybird says:

    Whenever we talk about education, there’s an undercurrent in some comments that the point of educating is to provide middle-class jobs to middle-class people. That’s the point of the union, that’s the point of dismissing the excesses, that’s the point of explaining how rubber rooms practically don’t even exist anymore, that’s the point of explaining how difficult it is to differentiate a good teacher from a bad one from a distance, that’s the point of explaining how little influence a teacher has on a child’s ability to go from “not being competent at English/Math/Science” to being competent at them… and, when that stops being the best argument to defend the status quo, to explaining how very important the job of teaching actually is at the end of the day.

    But I say that every time we talk about education policy.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Jaybird says:

      Wait, people think that the function of schools is to employ teachers?Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Kazzy says:

        I have no idea what people think. I do know that when this topic comes up, there are always comments that seem to communicate that the education of The Children is a secondary, if not tertiary, thought.

        I mean, it seems to me that bad teachers *SHOULD* be fired. Now, I’m not even saying “mediocre teachers” in that sentence. In the same way that bad grocery baggers should be fired, bad sanitation engineers should be fired, and bad coders should be fired, bad teachers should be fired.

        That seems to me to be so trivially true that it seems hardly controversial. I mean, sure, mediocre teachers can be retrained in the same way that mediocre grocery baggers can be, mediocre sanitation engineers might be reassigned to dispatch or something, and mediocre coders might become excellent testers.

        But the second you say “bad teachers should be fired”, the lines are drawn on one side of the debate. It becomes an argument over definitions, how teachers are measured, how difficult it is to teach in the first place, how the most troubled children lack resources at home (hey, the parents who show up for parent/teacher night are always the ones who don’t need to and the ones who don’t show up are the ones you always wish actually would, amirite?), and so on and so forth.

        Have you not noticed this?Report

        • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Jaybird says:

          Yes, because shockingly, figuring out who a bad teacher is a little more complicated than figuring out who a bad coder or grocery bagger is and even then, I’m sure the metrics they base who a good grocery bagger or coder is might be based on some BS MBA theory as well.Report

          • Kazzy in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

            Not necessarily, Jesse. The problem is we want a cheap, easy way to do it.Report

            • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Kazzy says:

              I’d argue that for example, in-class evaluations of teaching ability and lesson plans teachers and administrators that are at other schools would be cheaper than standardized tests, but I guess nobody makes a profit off that.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

                It might be more expensive if you need to hire more folks to do the in-class evaluations. But, yea, that is where I’d start. The problem is the lack of objectivity. Not that there really is an objective way to evaluate teachers. But that folks, the union in particular, are going to balk at subjective evaluation.

                Then again, they balk at supposedly objective evaluation so…Report

              • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Kazzy says:

                First, I wouldn’t call standardized tests an “objective evaluation” that gives you much information about how well a teacher has done their job.

                Second, I’m going to guess, and this is a total guess, for most teachers, they’re going to be more open to, “three teachers from a different school, two administrators from a different school, and two parents who have never had a kid in one of your classes will randomly between October and April drop in on a few of your classes. They’ll give an evalulation, we’ll drop the highest and lowest scores and go from there” a lot more than “here’s a standardized test that has little connection to your actual lesson plan, what you’re teaching, and doesn’t account for the type of kids you’re teaching. Good luck!”

                Maybe I’m completely wrong.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:


                1.) That is why I said “supposedly”.
                2.) I think many teachers might be okay with that… until they get a poor evaluation. I will say that I think that is a far better method than most of what we have going on now. I might tinker with the make-up of the committee but I like your thinking.

                Of course, before we can evaluate the effectiveness of a teacher, we must first determine what the teacher’s goals and objectives are… something there is far from a consensus on.Report

              • Roger in reply to Kazzy says:

                Teachers are right to distrust the machine. Even if we started firing them the Machine would never fire the right ones. It would fire the ones that by being fired best served the interests of the machine. The same is true for incentives and standards and any other “solution” we could suggest.

                The education system we have now cannot be reformed. It will be worse in twenty years than it is now. The only model I am familiar with to reverse this trend is competition. We need new schools that start up that are not encumbered by the dysfunctional bureaucracy of the current ones. We need parents to choose which schools their parents go to. We need the less chosen schools to reform or die because their food supply (consumers) has dried up. We need the selected schools to expand and spin off branches that replicate their success. We need these winners to compete and further improve (or themselves die out).

                Teachers may be part of the machine, but that is because they have to be. With competition and choice, the better teachers would flock to better schools and the demand for the best would drive up rewards for professionalism like every other field.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

                I agree that choice and competition, implemented properly, would be a boon. They’re not a magic bullet, but I think they’re a step in the right direction. Again, assuming they’re implemented properly.Report

              • Roger in reply to Kazzy says:


                In studying systems that progress and comparing them to systems that do not progress, I would say properly designed competition is as close to a magic bullet as there is.

                The recipe of progress is pretty simple. Experiment to solve problems by trying various things. Select the ones that work best. Preserve them, spread them and replicate them. Finally, build upon these successes by combining them, ratcheting upon them and trying variations on success to improve them.

                This is how science progresses. This is how technology progresses. This is how economic entities progress at serving customer needs. This is how we progress in sports. It is even how evolution progresses (though evolution is not usually very progressive).

                Absent competition and selection(choice) there can be no progress.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:


                The primary reason I say that it is not a magic bullet is because education has a few stark differences from all those other industries, primary of which is the students.

                If you have schools that are struggling because their methods are poor, then you have ill-equipped students. This is a very different issue than an electronic company that fails because they made crappy TVs. Crappy TVs can be broken down an recycled or thrown away or sold at a discount. But ill-equipped students present a very different issue.

                So, yes, I agree with you that competition would be a huge boon. I just don’t think it could function exactly the same as other industries. Similar, yes, but not exactly the same. There are simply different bottom lines.Report

              • Kim in reply to Kazzy says:

                roger is entirely too optimistic about science, I fear…Report

              • Roger in reply to Kazzy says:


                Science progresses at providing cumulatively better explanations of natural phenomena.Report

              • Me. Harris in reply to Kazzy says:

                That’s not supported by the recent facts. Obama’s Race To The Top requires new measures of evaluations. Most negotiations between unions and the districts they serve boil down to what percentage of the thing is going to based on test scores – a very salient point of contention wouldn’t you think?

                In New York the Mayor and the union pretty much agree on how the system will look, unfortunately the Mayor has decided to play a game of chicken a refuses to sign the thing so he can make the union look bad if New York State loses RTTT funds. But in the end, it’ll get signed, and the Mayor will probably have to accept provisions that he doesn’t like, such as recourse for teachers who are rated unsatisfactory, etc.Report

              • Mr. Harris in reply to Me. Harris says:

                That’s Mr. Harris.Report

        • Kazzy in reply to Jaybird says:

          “But the second you say “bad teachers should be fired”, the lines are drawn on one side of the debate. It becomes an argument over definitions, how teachers are measured, how difficult it is to teach in the first place, how the most troubled children lack resources at home (hey, the parents who show up for parent/teacher night are always the ones who don’t need to and the ones who don’t show up are the ones you always wish actually would, amirite?), and so on and so forth.”

          When I discuss this online or with folks outside the education world, these are common arguments put forth.

          When I discuss this with fellow teachers, almost all of whom work in the private or charter sector, the extent to which we talk about those issues is almost always with a child-first mindset. We might acknowledge the role that the home environment plays, but no one worth their shorts uses this as an excuse; instead, we talk about how we can ensure that home environments aren’t going to be the deciding factor.

          Bad teachers should be fired. Anyone who considers this to be a controversial position might be serious about a great number of things, but certainly not improving the quality of education offered to students.Report

          • James K in reply to Kazzy says:

            Bad teachers should be fired. Anyone who considers this to be a controversial position might be serious about a great number of things, but certainly not improving the quality of education offered to students.

            That’s the part that I have a hard time with – one cannot simultaneously claim teaching is important and that measuring and encouraging teacher performance isn’t important.

            If teaching matters, then performance must be measured and encouraged, as you say. If getting good teachers doesn’t matter much then we should pay teachers minimum wage, or at least not very well.Report

            • Morat20 in reply to James K says:

              The problem is that measuring teacher performance is hard to do — very hard to do — without great expense (hiring experts to sit in on classes, regularly).

              Short of outright malpractice, there’s no cheap and effective way to do it.

              I think the problem most people have with ‘teacher evaluations’ is the fact that so many are, well, problematic at best! And you want to declare good/bad based on that? (I’ve seen attempts at measuring teacher quality. I have a hard time believing a teacher goes from outstanding to awful to adequate to great to mediocare to abysmal — if your evaluations are bouncing around that much, year to year, you’re measuring something besides teacher performance. Unless your teacher has some annual randomizer to her abilities).

              There once was, in the long-ago days, a way of measuring coders based on k-lines — that is “thousand lines of code”. A good coder produced above x k-lines per month. A bad coder under Y.

              It was, perhaps, the single stupidest method of evaluating programmers to ever be invented. It persisted a surprisingly long time.

              And evaluating code is a lot easier than evaluating teachers, because teachers deal with massive variances that coders don’t. You can standardize coders — give them very similar tasks, the exact same resources, etc.

              Teachers? How do you compare a teacher with a class half-made up of ESL kids with the teacher teaching AP English? Or the one who gets the problem kids, year after year, because she can handle them?Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Morat20 says:

                “Teachers? How do you compare a teacher with a class half-made up of ESL kids with the teacher teaching AP English? Or the one who gets the problem kids, year after year, because she can handle them?”

                You can start by stepping back from a results driven model.

                Think of poker…

                A poker player can play every hand perfectly and still lose.
                Another poker player can play every hand poorly and win.

                In the long run, the former is going to win more often than the latter. But on any given day, at any given table, with any given hand, you won’t know what’s going to happen. If we only look at who’s got the biggest pile of chips at the end of the day, we’re not really going to know who is the best player.

                So we look at methods, at practice, at knowledge… that takes regular, in person evaluation, meetings, etc. It’s not “hard” but it requires a great deal of human resources.Report

              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Kazzy says:

                Don’t measure everybody.

                Measure the people who are suspected of being very bad, and very good. That’s, what, 10-15% of overall teachers?Report

              • Glyph in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                This will never fly, due to lawsuits alleging unequal treatment.

                At my job they *theoretically* can do on-demand drug testing or even random drug testing anytime.

                In practice, they never do it (well, they do it pre-hiring for everybody, then never again).

                The reason, I have been told, is that if they don’t test everybody equally, they are opening themselves up to litigation.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Glyph says:

                The professionalization of teachers really needs to advance.

                One reason teachers justify tenure is because they don’t want to risk “political” firings, i.e., being fired for reasons other than their performance in the classroom or other professional duties. And, I agree that ideally folks would only be evaluated based on those things. But that isn’t the reality for most workers. Most workers can be fired or laid off without cause. And given that teachers tend to work on an annual contract, you don’t even need to “fire” anyone; you can simply opt not to renew contracts.

                For whatever reason, many teachers and (more problematically) their unions seem to think this is an “injustice” that teachers almost exclusively should not have to face.Report

              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Glyph says:

                You’re operating under a possibly flawed assumption that you’re going to be able to come up with a methodology that won’t have lawsuits alleging unequal treatment.

                So the question is, how many of them are going to get, and is litigating that number better or worse than litigating unequal treatment lawsuits in other schemes?Report

              • Glyph in reply to Glyph says:

                Patrick, you *might* be able to do it on a random basis (though as I’ve said, in practice my job declines to do even this) but IMO you will never get it to work by applying testing to only the suspected ‘top’ or ‘bottom’ guys – because on what basis do you suspect they are ‘top’ or ‘bottom’? You haven’t tested them yet. Must be race, or sex, or politics/personal animus that prompted the test.

                It’s either ‘everybody’, or maybe ‘totally random’ – but applying it to a specific (suspected) percentile – which are coincidentally the percentiles you are trying to identify – will never fly.Report

              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Glyph says:

                Everybody agrees that any one standard metric (tests, grades, whatever) are a rotten way to measure teacher efficacy, because they’re generally poor proxy measurements, since they lack clarity.

                But you can easily use them as your first pass. If you have a class where last year in the previous grade 40% of the class was “proficient or better” at reading, and now you’re at 20% or 60%, that says something happened.

                So then you evaluate. Use what people currently call “measurements” as your trigger.Report

              • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Glyph says:

                Kazzy, some of us evil liberals think it should be tougher to fire private sector workers without cause as well. 🙂

                (Or if we’re going to have Danish flexibility on firing and hiring, have a Danish social safety net.)Report

              • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Glyph says:

                Patrick, sure it might mean the teachers was good or bad.

                It may also mean in a class of 40, the difference between 20% and 40% is 8 kids. So, maybe 4 kids had one of their parent’s lose their job so they’re not getting breakfast every morning and they’re worried every morning the lights aren’t going to be on, another two kids just went through a divorce, and two kids actually don’t fit in with the teacher’s style.

                It works on the other end. Three kids moved to better housing where they’re not dealing w/ the drug pushers on the same floor, another two kids had parents remarry into better families, and again, two kids really fit into this teacher’s style.

                Again, I’m being a little ancedote-heavy, but I know as a kid who had a crappy home life at times, there were times I didn’t turn in stuff not because I couldn’t do the work, but because stuff at the homestead was crappy that night. Now, thankfully for me, I’m naturally good at tests naturally and I got through a school a year or two before the standardized test’s became super high stakes.Report

              • greginak in reply to Glyph says:

                FWIW adding onto Jesse’s anecdata, i work with divorcing couples. It is really really common to see the children do much worse during the course of a divorce which can last a year or two. Craptastic marriages can also lead to some poor performance. I’ve had times where i had 2 small children in the same class while the families were going through divorce.Report

              • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Glyph says:

                Anybody got some datadata on divorce and kids? Just axin’. I’m googling and all I see is “yes, but” and Little Timmy has nightmares and there’s Dr. Phil and over there are Christian Answers from The Bible and some lady from the community college over here and I remember a long time ago reading that the kids don’t really give a shit if mom and dad are happy together as long as they’re not hitting each other and I get my quality time with each of them and so frankly I don’t know what to think.

                IIRC, John Locke thought you should stay together for the kids because that’s what a marriage is. After that, your duty to God, man, society and your kids is discharged.

                And if your dad was a real prick, the Fifth Commandment is null and void.

                Pls advise.Report

              • Glyph in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                This is somewhat different than what I read your original comment as saying. So I’ll say *maybe* this could work.Report

              • Glyph in reply to Glyph says:

                And reply/threading fail. This is to Patrick.Report

              • Roger in reply to Morat20 says:

                It may or not be hard, but it is a hard problem that has been solved. My grandson gets a detailed printout several times a year which reveals intricate level proficiency in math, science, comprehension, language, writing, and so forth. It measures his proficiency and progress and points out challenge areas.

                As a concerned grandparent, the teachers job is to help my loved one advance. This is true for all kids and all parents. Thus the evaluation of the teacher is pretty straight forward. Compared to other teachers, with a similar mix of kids, how well do students advance in the class? Some teachers will be able to help more kids advance faster or further than others. These are the better teachers.

                As discussed elsewhere in the thread, it is true that teachers need their teaching load weighted by type of kid, potential, class load and size. That is not difficult as long as we have a way of giving appropriately extra credit for helping special needs children with learning or family problems. I could design such a system on a napkin in twenty minutes based upon my experiences. Hell, kids themselves know how to solve this problem when they choose kickball teams.

                Let’s learn from the pragmatists. The problem is not that we can’t improve the education of our kids. It is that the system we have created is not a system that is capable of solving the issue. We built an algorithm that is solving for feeding the bureaucracy, and that is what we are getting.Report

              • Morat20 in reply to Roger says:

                As discussed elsewhere in the thread, it is true that teachers need their teaching load weighted by type of kid, potential, class load and size. That is not difficult as long as we have a way of giving appropriately extra credit for helping special needs children with learning or family problems. I could design such a system on a napkin in twenty minutes based upon my experiences. Hell, kids themselves know how to solve this problem when they choose kickball teams.

                Then get off your butt and do it. But I’d wager you a cool thousand bucks, here and now, that it’ll fail in the real world.

                You honestly seem to think that no one evaulates teachers because of “the machine”? Schools do it year in and year out. They do it badly, because it is FAR harder than you think (your simplistic ‘solution’ above has been tried. Somehow I doubt your back of the napkin approach is going to be superior to solutions routinely tried and found wanting in all 50 independent states, under thousands of independent school boards — it’s not like we have a monolithic education system.)

                For all you talk of ‘the machine’ — you are aware that all 50 states are entirely independent on education policy? 50 different rules, guidelines, relationships with teacher’s unions, views on tenure, state tests, etc?

                And that those 50 states are divided up into hundreds or thousands of school districts, themselves highly independent from the state? Anyone starting with the view that “American Public Education” is some sort of monolithic entity is starting from an entirely incorrect assumption.Report

              • Roger in reply to Morat20 says:

                Hi Morat,

                I’m pretty sure it would fail too. Like I said, I don’t think the system is designed to succeed at excelling in education.  The problem isn’t in ideas, it is in the machine. Every teacher I talked to has zero trust in their school to use any tool or incentive system wisely. Do you?

                Your point of thousands of independent school districts is an excellent topic.  In fact, I would suggest it should be a front page topic.  

                Let me respond by quoting from Michael Strong from the attached link:


                “Successful school reform only requires a virtuoso principal if one is starting from scratch every time, at every new school.

                Whole Foods offers fantastic produce sections at store after store all over the country not because of one virtuoso produce manager, but rather because of a corporate culture that replicates key store features at site after site, reliably time and time again. The fact that educating students is a far more sophisticated process than is managing a produce section only reinforces the need for educational management organizations to develop in-house training of teachers and administrators in order to bring quality to scale. 

                Corporate success in service and retail industries is largely defined by the corporation’s ability to replicate a specific experience of a specific quality standard over and over and over again. This has been achieved thousands of times outside of education; it is not an accident that the most successful school replicators are using either a franchise or corporate ownership model as they expand. This is how quality control is achieved. Looked at from this perspective, one examines previous public school reform initiatives in vain for any sort of quality control mechanism. Millions of dollars have been spent on thousands of initiatives with no mechanism in place whatsoever to ensure that the reform was replicated to any given quality standard. And how can one control quality if the reform is to be implemented in thousands of diverse districts, with politically-rotating boards, politically-appointed superintendents, and no ultimate ownership of anything? While it may sound pious to claim that “the public” owns the public schools, all that means in practice is that no one knows who will be on the school board in five years or what their agenda might be.

                … large-scale, high-quality replication of well-managed franchises or school chains is the only effective means of leveraging investments in particular educators, methods, or programs. This should not be a surprise; franchises and chains are the way that businesses replicate successful organizational characteristics. If academia and politics had not controlled education for the past hundred years, this strategy for the replication of educational success would have become obvious by now. The best 19th century private schools would have developed into effective national chains that brought superb education to millions of young people but the rise of government-managed, increasingly regulated and centralized “public education” prevented this.”

                End quote. This says it all. The machine killed off education and today’s kids are just collateral damage.Report

          • Mr. Harris in reply to Kazzy says:

            Kazzy, if you we’re teaching in a poorly administered schools lacking in the resources necessary for you to fulfill your professional responsibilities you and your colleagues ABSOLUTELY would be having the conversations about “how can they evaluate me based on all this sh– I have to put up with.”

            I’m not condoning the practice are necessarily arguing in favor of it. But the perspective is much different on that side of the train tracks. Having seen both situation first hand I can tell you that once you step in a school that’s being run properly, the conversation definitely becomes all about meeting the needs of the children first.Report

            • Kazzy in reply to Mr. Harris says:

              Mr. Harris-

              As noted, my conversations happen almost exclusively with private or charter school teachers, where many of these issues are not as prevalent as they are in many public schools. Even that being said, when I’ve had these conversations with public school teachers or others who are dealing with these issues, there is still a very different tone. Good teachers don’t look for excuses and shift the blame.

              There is a difference between saying, “It is hard to teach kids math when they come to school not having eaten breakfast. What can we do to position these kids and their teachers to succeed,” and “Don’t look at me. People at home should be doing more.”

              Good teachers take the former tact; bad teachers take the latter tact. And, just to be clear, there are good and bad teachers in likely equal proportion in public, charter, and private schools. My conversations tend to be skewed because I am less likely to engage a bad teacher in a serious conversation about education policy.Report

              • Mr. Harris in reply to Kazzy says:

                What I think is problematic is a tendency to create a false dichotomy between what good and bad teachers say. In your experience, how often have you been in a room or sitting at a table where teachers who you considered sub-par were kvetching and shifting blame to some power that controlled them unfairly? It almost sounds like a cliche except for the fact that in any grouping of teachers the vast majority of them will, in fact, be quite good at what they do – many still will make salient points.

                If you have survived within the profession past a certain career marker, say 7 years , the likelyhood that you are an ineffective teacher is reduced significantly. Everybody remembers a few “bad” teachers from their childhood but our memories are a poor substitute for empirical data. The system does tend to weed out people that shouldn’t be a part of it

                I think there’s a lot of salt to the idea that the teaching profession should be very hard to enter into and, once there, it should be very difficult to be removed from. Nothing gets my dander up more than overly simplistic explanations about who or what makes a teacher good/bad. I’m always pleasantly surprised to learn about the successes of colleagues who I might have pegged one way or another. My assumptions about which skill set is more valuable in the classroom are constantly being challenged even after 9 years on the job.

                I like to believe that I’m a pretty good student of my profession, which is why I’m always going to be skeptical when others try and reduce the job’s qualifications to a simple check list. My biggest fear is that the Bill Gates’ of the world will succeed in convincing everyone that they’ve discovered the Rosetta Stone of what makes a teacher “effective.” Invariable the people who enter into it will be judged as to whether they are this type of widget or that. That diverse people and personalities that enter the field will be divorced of the qualities that make them interesting teachers.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

                Mr. Harris,

                I think a lot of this has to do with our standards for teachers. Generally speaking, I am someone with exceedingly high standards, such that we likely couldn’t fill the teaching ranks if we accepted them as the bare minimum. So, when I say “bad” teachers, I speaking relatively in a way that might not be particulary useful to this conversation. But I have worked with seasoned teachers, those in the field long enough to have been my teacher, who do espouse the attitude I’ve mentioned. These are in ECE circles, where the standards (both professional/legal and otherwise) tend to be much lower.

                So, if you want to draw the line between better/worse instead if good/bad, that is fair. And, again, I don’t deny that those forces do exist and often are largely out of teachers control. But we can point to them as justificatins for failure or view them as overcomeable obstacles. I prefer the latter and see better work from others who do the same.Report

          • Roger in reply to Kazzy says:

            My recommendation absent true reform is to focus on rewarding good teachers with freedom. Measure student improvement adjusted for student special needs and just let the top half or fourth have freedom from the bureaucracy surrounding them. As long as they continue to outperform their peers, they can do their own lesson plan and ignore the “help” that is forced down teacher’s throat by their school district.

            Every teacher I have talked to would prefer freedom to bonuses or merit pay, though they seem to have trouble envisioning how we could adjust our performance ranking (or class size) for special needs kids (all the kids with learning issues, family issues, etc etc). When I talk it through with them Socratically though I find they are able to answer their own objections. Most end up suggesting that we weight each student based upon evaluations of learning factors scored by previous teachers where the teachers are incentivized to score fairly.Report

            • Kazzy in reply to Roger says:


              I think this still comes down to defining goals and objectives. I have a particular focus and approach to teaching, one that seeks outcomes often different from what other schools want of folks in my position. Were I hired by those schools and given “freedom”, I might very well fail to meet there expectations and “struggle”. Not because I’m a bad teacher or incompetent but because I’d be judged against a different set of criteria than that which I was trying to meet. I turned down positions at these schools because if I hadn’t, I’d either be teaching with goals in mind I don’t agree with -OR- I would be unlikely to meet the schools’ goals. It was a bad fit. Now, this does not mean I couldn’t meet the broader goals; but goals aren’t often couched this way. Can I get most kids to have a firm sense of phonemic awareness by the end of their PreK year? Absolutely. Will I do it with worksheets? No. If your goal is to develop phonemic awareness skills, I can do that. But if your goal is to see the kids doing worksheets, because you conflate the doing of worksheets with the development of phonemic awareness skills… sorry, bub… I can’t help you.Report

              • Roger in reply to Kazzy says:


                I love my grandson’s teachers, but I would be proud to have you join their ranks.

                For the record, I know them all personally and my wife volunteers her services ten hours a week to the teachers to help them with their duties outside of the classroom.

                The point of course is that the measure of performance needs to be established (more accurately — chosen) by concerned parents. Less concerned parents would, as is true in all fields, free ride on the knowledgable consumers research and choices. Values differ of course, so not all schools would be alike or have identical standards. This is a good thing as they would compete, learn and benchmark from each other. Progress 101.

                As a teacher, you would be able to select among those schools that matched your philosophy and which best rewarded you for your expertise and success.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Roger says:

                Which is why I’ve worked exclusively in the private sector. I am a huge proponent of public education in theory. But the current practice is such that I don’t think I’m a good match for it. There are also few public preschools and the pay tends to be shitty, at least in my area.

                I’ve always said that I think an ideal school system would be one with a bevy of schools. Maybe you have a traditional K-4 school and a progressive K-8 school; some high schools offer vocational training while others offer college-level prep. Parents are free to choose for themselves with school their child attends (with increasing input from the child) and are provided with caring, knowledgeable experts to help guide their decision (e.g., “Your child would thrive in this school because the teaching style is more conducive to their learning style.”).

                There are a lot of potholes that would likely prevent this dream from every being realized but, hey, a man can dream, no?

                And thank you for the kind words.Report

  9. Rose Woodhouse says:

    Are you really a philosophical pragmatist?!?!?!

    FWIW, I went to a public high school in a town that is pretty similar to Chappaqua and where no one sends their kids to private schools so all the money goes to the public schools. Very wealthy, Ivy League feeder, etc. I had a couple of amazing teachers, a bunch of mediocre teachers, and a few crap teachers.

    We did have a lot of money for exotic courses like flying and TV production, lots of extra-curriculars, a very involved principal, and very very strong encouragement for gifted students (so they entered national science competitions, etc.). I think the most important advantage was social. You were an outcast for not caring about your grades. Everybody was competitive to get into the best schools. Unhealthy in a lot of ways, but students tended to inspire each other to be driven.Report

    • I try to be! I’m a Deweyan of some stripe.Report

    • …and very very strong encouragement for gifted students (so they entered national science competitions, etc.).

      Long ago, when I was in high school, I was one of the gifted kids. And I absolutely despised the fact that the grown-ups kept trying to turn being gifted into a competition. Because they weren’t doing it for me — I was going to be gone in a year or two — they were doing it so that they could brag about themselves for years down the road.Report

      • Because they weren’t doing it for me — I was going to be gone in a year or tw

        Yeah, though where you go can be influenced by such competitions, no? I mean, maybe not in your case (IIRC, you went to Big State School), but if you’re interested in something to differentiate yourself from the other gifted at smaller, more selective schools.Report

  10. Rose Woodhouse says:

    Well, at the time I was too purple-haired and cool and wanna-be-punk-rock at the time to have cared, and more rah-rah folks at my school only cared about lacrosse.Report

  11. Me. Harris says:

    Ha! After several years of making it his (Mayor Bloomberg’s) priority to give more “unsatisfactory” ratings to teachers in the NY public school system, this past year the amount actually dropped.

    I think it was actually 1%.

    Also a fact: 34% of teachers think one of their colleagues is stealing their paper clips and staplers. (Made up)

    Conner, I would live to debate the finer points of your not-so-subtle straw man argument but I have too much grading to do. As a teacher in the NYC public school system I’m a product of excellent private schools (New England Prep – nose slightly upturned) as well as having grown up in a defunct old paper mill town. I’ve been to expensive and selective private universities and I’ve taught in schools where the students came into my class with gaping holes in their shoes and empty spaces in their bellies. I’ve worked with some of the best people this country has to offer while we toiled away under the yolk of incompetent administrators and impossible teaching conditions. So to your ridiculous class victimization argument I cry, “bullish–!”

    I won’t let you get away with this unfortunate victimization you seem to have about being a “misunderstood” member of an elite organization because you’re existence is somehow more hardscrabble than the some author who came from a Richie Rich town and wrote a nasty piece about the very same elite organization.

    Also, slight quibble, but if you subtract Asian applicants, who are by no means an academic minority in proportion to their overall population numbers, your minority amount shrinks to 32%. If you include only those groups traditionally under-served by our nations Universities (African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics) that amount drops to 24.5%. A respectable number indeed, but by no means on par with national proportions.

    But I digress. Serious anti-reform people don’t actually pinpoint TFA as a major part of the Reform movement. Nationally TFA sends about 5,000 teachers into the pool each year, that’s about 2-3% of new teachers. Criticism against TFA has more to do with the lack of teacher training they receive before entering into a classroom as well as the perceived dropout rate of TFA members who leave the profession after or before their commitment is complete.

    Personally, I have nothing against the program or it’s mission. Traditionally underperforming urban schools have had a difficult time staffing the classroom. TFA seemed like a win-win for Pre-Law…err…I mean recent graduates of elite Universities with a desire to gain some real world experience helping those most vulnerable to crushing poverty back when it was founded in the early 90s.

    But this is not exactly what the current TFA mission has become, is it?

    More and more TFA members are being hired by public schools that have traditionally performed well. This, coupled with a tendency of charter school operators to mine this talent pool, suggests that the original mission has been altered significantly. The question is, why?

    Now, I know what you’re probably thinking, “But TFAers are better teachers and therefore deserve these jobs.” But you and I know that’s not really the case.

    The real reason is because these teachers are far cheaper to hire than veteran teachers and the groupthink among many Administrators these days is that you get more bang for your buck when you hire a TFA. And this gets to the heart of why many union-based, professionally trained teachers feel resentment toward TFAers; these recent college grads are trained to expect hostility from the old guard when they enter a school building and thus act accordingly. As this report out of Detroit shows, in fact most TFAers in that city don’t even teach in the public schools, they teach in the city’s charter schools. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/16/teach-for-america-detroit_n_1095367.html

    Conner, when its all said and done public schools will remain a majority part of the education landscape. If TFA is perceived as having an pro-reform /anti-union agenda, whether true or not, it’s a result of their own making, not some bullshit class argument you seem to be trotting out. But please, feel free to point out where, and how I’m wrong and we can engage in a robust debate. Feel free to agree as we’ll regarding the clear evidence that reform is being driven by a few billionaires who would like to see public schools privatized so they can sink their teeth into an estimated 600 billion-a-year market. Testing and accountability all stem from this.

  12. damon says:

    Let’s just get rid of public education. It’ll solve all these problems. It’s my job to educate my kids, not yours. Conversely, it’s not my job to educate yours.Report