Sunday, May 23, 2010

Teaching America 

The cover story by Steven Brill in today's New York Times Magazine is entitled "The Teachers’ Unions’ Last Stand," and is worth reading in its entirety. Brill outlines a number of forces which he believes are culminating in a sincere effort by Democratic politicians and their advisors to actually reform public eduction.

Underlining the "Nixon to China" element of this effort, which Brill acknowledges in the article, is his description of the sheer size and force of the unions within the party:
If unions are the Democratic Party’s base, then teachers’ unions are the base of the base. The two national teachers’ unions — the American Federation of Teachers and the larger National Education Association — together have more than 4.6 million members. That is roughly a quarter of all the union members in the country. Teachers are the best field troops in local elections. Ten percent of the delegates to the 2008 Democratic National Convention were teachers’ union members. In the last 30 years, the teachers’ unions have contributed nearly $57.4 million to federal campaigns, an amount that is about 30 percent higher than any single corporation or other union. And they have typically contributed many times more to state and local candidates. About 95 percent of it has gone to Democrats.
So, one of the fundamental questions is whether Democratic politicians at any level of government can literally bite the hand that feeds them. Is the "Race to the Top" program launched by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Obama a genuine challenge to the "protectionist contracts" that the NEA and AFT have enjoyed for most of the past several generations?

One of the interesting elements of Brill's article is the number of people in the education reform movement who are alums of Teach for America, founded by Wendy Kopp, Princeton Class of 1989, "based on a senior thesis she wrote envisioning a Peace Corps-like cadre of young college grads" (this is a rare instance where it is probably fair game to to look closely at a thesis to help discern a graduate's thinking a few decades later!). The vision, idealism, and ingenuity of Ms. Kopp and her TFA alums are now confronting the reality of powerful organizations where -- at least with respect to compensation -- seniority is everything, and measuring performance is a concept that is not embraced.

I spent Kindergarten through 9th grade in a large suburban public school system, and I believe I received a good education from a unionized work force, although the quality of teaching was better at the private school I attended for the last three years of school. I had the enormous advantage of having two parents with Ivy League degrees who emphasized school work above all else, and were available to answer almost all home work questions (clearly, even the best teachers might struggle to demonstrate performance through the achievement of their students, in districts where the home life of students is not conducive to education). One of the secondary reasons I left the public school system was the labor strife which began in the early 1970s, when I was in middle school, with a series of short strikes. My family was concerned with the possibility of a longer strike, which could compromise the academic calendar. That nearly came to fruition in the late 1970s, when a strike lasted almost long enough to prevent seniors from having a sufficient number of days in school to be able to graduate.

Public education is usually more of a local hot button political issue than a national one, but it is important, and I think everyone along all parts of the political spectrum can acknowledge that it has consequences in terms of how well American citizens compete in a global economy. Everyone has heard war stories about an incident at a public school -- my personal favorite is a teacher in Jersey City showing the 1999 movie "The Mummy" during a class that was supposed to focus on African-American History Month (Egypt being in Africa, one supposes). Schools will get better only when parents, students, administrators, and, yes, teachers are held accountable for results. Without accountability, there is little possibility of improvement.


By Blogger Progressively Defensive, at Sun May 23, 08:54:00 PM:

John Stossel responds well to this ... you and those satisfied with their public schools don't know how much better they could have been with the same funds. In NYC the government spends approaching $14,000/student. Can you imagine how much better those schools could be with no unions, charters as competition, and equally priced vouchers?

Public education's union horrible effect on the USA's education is the great shame of this nation.

Here is what boggles my mind. Why would the GOP campaign on anything else? Commercials should be education, education, education. I'm a moron and I realize to win you have to appeal to the independents and not the base and this is a winner.  

By Anonymous The Truth is Out There, at Sun May 23, 08:56:00 PM:

Re: public school education: Here's two shibboleths:

1) "We need to put more money into our schools."

Leftists still believe this, despite evidence to the contrary.

e.g., Early in his career Obama was put in charge of the Annenberg Challenge in Chicago which was meant to show how increased elementary school spending would improve outcomes. This was a quasi-scientific effort. Half the schools were left alone to be a control.

"An August 2003 final technical report of the Chicago Annenberg Research Project by the Consortium on Chicago School Research said that ... the Challenge had little impact on school improvement and student outcomes, with no statistically significant differences between Annenberg and non-Annenberg schools in rates of achievement gain, classroom behavior, student self-efficacy, and social competence."

2) We need to evaluate teachers by measuring how their students do on tests.

Rightists want to believe this is the answer.

Kids with decent home lives will almost always do OK. Kids with bad home lives don't have such good odds. I could detail this with lots of personal anecdotes.

Give me a group of the former, even I could show good student test scores. Give a good teacher the latter, it ain't happening. Even a few bad apples can screw up a class.

Children born out of wedlock are more likely to be a problem -- sad but true. We have more of them now than ever. I'd bet that if you did basic statistical analysis on the percentage of kids born out of a wedlock for different schools, that you could predict which schools would "fail" on test scores.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon May 24, 12:54:00 AM:

The importance of home life to success at school highlights the dilemma: the problem with education is simply a problem that government cannot solve. No government can force bad parents to be good parents, and the family is crucial to a child's education. Reforming the unions and/or dealing with financial issues are in the end tinkering at the margins of the problem.

The left did much to destroy the family, but I don't know how to close Pandora's box.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon May 24, 06:46:00 AM:

Anon at 12:54 - I disagree that reforming the unions is tinkering at the margins. When my daughter had problems we went to the school to see what we could do at home. We asked for additional material and wanted her tests in order to concentrate on the areas in which she was weak. The response-we're the teachers, we'll take care of it. They did not. We continued to try at home, but with no help from the school and the current climate today, we did not succeed.

There is a growing culture to just pass our kids along. Now that my daughter is in college she has realized that she was allowed to be lazy and given good grades for being a good kid. This is one of the top 10 public schools in the state.

50% of kids now fail out of their Freshman year in college. Our daughter's school talked about the 90% plus college acceptance of their graduates. The real question is what percentage make it to Sophomore year.

If you can, take your kids out of public schools to a private school where the school supports teaching your child. Public schools have the wrong incentives. Frankly, that's the first mark of a good parent. I wasn't and I'm sorry. I thought saving the money for college was the smarter thing, it was not.

My daughter did make it to her Sophomore after 2 years. I do appreciate the integrity of her college.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon May 24, 07:31:00 AM:


My two are in a NYC suburban public school. It's a great school. It'd match most prep schools. It's union label. It's a hard grader, too.  

By Anonymous Robert Arvanitis, at Mon May 24, 09:16:00 AM:


Completely wrong.

You have clearly voted with your feet, gotten yourself to an expensive neighborhood, where schools are supported by high real estate taxes; in effect your own “private academy.” And while unionized, the highly paid suburban teachers are eager to please activist parents.

That alternative does not exist for inner city parents, no matter how commited they are. And you insist on depriving them of any leverage at all, through vouchers.

Shame on you.  

By Anonymous Boludo Tejano, at Mon May 24, 09:28:00 AM:

Yes, teacher unions are too powerful in some states, making it difficult to get rid of deadbeat teachers. As others have pointed out, there are many good school systems with strong teacher unions, so the answer isn’t clear-cut. TX has weak teacher unions, so the issue of getting rid of deadbeat teachers is not there to the extent it is in states w strong teacher unions. You still see in TX the other issues which school systems have to deal with, independent of teacher unions. My conclusion re the unions and the schools: while weaker teacher unions may be necessary in solving education problems, weaker teacher unions are not sufficient in solving education problems. Here is a partial list of issues which are still in TX, even with the alleged panacea of weaker teacher unions.

1) Dealing with parents who see their job is not to make sure their child toes the line in school, but to be their child’s friend and advocate, which results in the parent defending the child when the school has an issue with the child.
2) The greatly reduced incidence of two parent families in the last 40 years, which means that the child has less parental support, and which has also resulted in the school system assuming greater roles in areas in which the parent previously had greater responsibility, such as breakfast and motivating the student. (1 and 2 are separate: there are upper middle class parents with intact marriages who will defend their child at all costs and in spite of all evidence.)
3) Political correctness which results in both too lax and too harsh discipline of students. Too harsh: the student who was kicked out of school for wearing rosary beads. Too lax: need I give examples?
4) Dysfunctional Ed schools who instead of teaching prospective teachers what works, waste time on politically correct nonsense and absurd new philosophies of education, trying to re-invent the educational wheel in the face of over two thousand years of formal classrooms. There is a place for training teachers. It is not intuitively obvious how to present material to a given age group. Unfortunately, most Ed school classes are of little assistance in helping a new teacher learn how to teach.
5) For all the brouhaha about firing older teachers who are not effective, the reality at least in TX is that teachers who have taught over 30 years are increasingly difficult to find. They get out as soon as they can, no longer willing or able to put up with the 60 hour workweek that most teachers work. See 2). For all the brouhaha about getting new teachers into the profession, the fact remains that almost half of all new teachers have left the profession in their first five years. Some leave because they are not competent, but most who leave are competent teachers who have decided that teaching isn’t worth it. Ex: school discipline today compared to what it was 40 years ago.

The NYT had an excellent article several months ago on Building a Better Teacher. Doug Lemov was a Harvard MBA and a charter school founder who investigated how teachers teach. He focused on teachers who achieved good results in otherwise bad schools. The result is his book Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College. This book would be of much more assistance to prospective teachers than most Ed school courses, as it has researched WHAT WORKS in classrooms. Note that Lemov does not come from the traditional teaching background.  

By Anonymous Boludo Tejano, at Mon May 24, 09:46:00 AM:

The Truth is Out There: the Annenberg Challenge was not about increased spending per se, but about spending money on educational research. The assumption was that spending ~$100 million dollars on research projects on schools would result in discoveries on improved educational outcomes. Which makes it even worse than just throwing money. This was supposed to be FOCUSED throwing money. Does the NSF have a track record of 100% failure on the research projects it funds? ∅bama did in his chairing the Annenberg Challenge. The Just One Minute blog had a number of good posts on the Annenberg Challenge.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon May 24, 01:17:00 PM:

Amplifying Boludo Tejano's nice comment above:

Perhaps it would be helpful to separate the tactic of unionization from the educational philosophies espoused by the individual teachers and the system that creates them.

Given the right philosophical approach to teaching, even unionized teachers can be extraordinarily effective. Unfortunately, neither unionization nor its lack will, by themselves, create a potent educational philosophy that is both strategically and pragmatically coherent with liberty and sustainability (i.e., not PC).

Re-articulating this philosophy in the face of its decades-long systemic (and occasionally well-meaning) perversion by leftists has to be the first step in rallying the energy of the frustrated legions of citizens.

In addition, people who are interested in attracting quality teachers who _aren't_ indoctrinaire leftists must then do at least two things at the tactical level: 1) wrest control of teacher certification from the entrenched leftists, and 2) detoxify the legal/political/regulatory teaching environment enough to be able to attract those same potential teachers.

De-unionization may be a necessary step in the process, but it will not be sufficient without also meeting the precondition of pushing back on the philosophical front. That additional inspirational energy will be needed—going up against established power centers is tough, especially when those entrenched have everything to lose, and a potent articulation will help tap the swing votes of the peripherally aware.

The good news is that this push is already building potential energy from the bottom up, from places where it has never been forgotten, but the bad news is that this nascent movement may need more time to assemble itself and go kinetic (politically speaking) than we have before everything falls apart.

Interesting times!


By Anonymous The Truth is Out There, at Mon May 24, 01:30:00 PM:

"That alternative does not exist for inner city parents, no matter how committed they are. And you insist on depriving them of any leverage at all, through vouchers.
Shame on you"

YMMV=Truth is Out There Meant to sign.

I'm not insisting on anything. I was responding to the prior post that dumped on public schools per se. All I said was that my kids were in a public school -- and that it was a good one. For that I'm branded an uncaring elitist. Sheeeeeeet.

If the question is "why are some schools failing" ... I am saying that "spending per pupil" isn't that big a factor. On this metric, my school district is roughly in line with NYC public schools.

I'm also saying that it isn't because unionized teachers suck per se, although some may. I've gone to five very different schools in my life -- the quality of teachers varied a lot at all of them. It's a hard thing to measure. I'm also saying that assessing teacher quality by student test scores doesn't work well, especially if the student base is significantly troubled.

"That alternative does not exist for inner city parents"

Yes it does ... some are Catholic grammar schools. I went to one.

NYC has a lot of good specialized public high schools, a few of them are outstanding. Elena Kagan went to one; Ruth Ginsburg went to another. Sonia Sotomayor went to the same Bronx Catholic high school as did my sister. Scalia shlepped from Queens on the E subway to a Manhattan Jesuit high school.

You just don't want to be in GenPop. But someone has to be, wherein lies the problem.  

By Blogger Kurt, at Mon May 24, 01:33:00 PM:

I work in higher education, but my impression of most faculty members is that they go into education because they value certain ideals and/or they like the idea of pursuing their own research agenda. The problem is that although higher education has a better track record of accountability than public k-12 education, most faculty members still bristle at the idea of being accountable to anyone but the colleagues in their fields who they believe are best qualified to judge their work. When university regents tell them that they need to think more about how to make the case for their work with the public at large, they complain that that regent is out of touch, or that that is what the regent should be doing. What's more, with the exception of tenure decisions, there is a very strong resistance on the part of most faculty members to making the tough decisions that need to be made to make higher education more accountable.

Now while it seems like I'm comparing apples and oranges, my reason for doing so is that I believe people who go into teaching at the K-12 level do so for similar reasons and have some of the same character traits. Many of them believe in the same knee-jerk, feel-good, politically-correct version of liberalism, and they see themselves only in positive terms as doing the hard job that no one else wants to do. Most are absolutely unable or unwilling to make the hard decisions needed to to make schools more accountable or to reform them in any but the most ridiculously counterproductive politically-correct ways. The unions and their allies in the Democrat party only serve to enable this intransigence. I can't imagine the unions or the Democrats enacting any sort of significant kinds of school-reforms without letting them get watered down by loopholes that allow more feel-good liberalism to pass as reform. I am, however, still curious about the efforts of Washington DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee who is courageously taking on the teachers and the unions in one of the most dysfunctional school systems in the country. If she can make headway, maybe there is hope for reform, but don't expect any of the Democrats or the unions to embrace it.  

By Anonymous Mad as Hell, at Mon May 24, 02:58:00 PM:

If we're serious about reforming education we also need to address the "problem with boys."

We also need more trade schools -- an academic college path isn't for everyone.  

By Blogger Progressively Defensive, at Mon May 24, 10:33:00 PM:

But tenure is contractual in higher education (as in law firms and other private corporations and not the product of monopolistic collective bargaining by labor. And public teachers go into education as much for the lifestyle (180 work days, summer off, ease of workload with each passing year, automatic raises, near impossibility of being fired ... and some less mentioned reasons, proximity to children you may have sexual relations with the day after graduation legally if not before practically speaking) as much as the altruistic reasons.

Why not do exactly what we do in higher education, vouchers (aid even if to a Jesuit college), public (state schools, all excellent fundamentally), and charter schools (private higher education generally, e.g., Harvard) without unionization? We have the best, cheapest, and most meritocratic higher education system this earth has ever seen without even close comparison.

GOP three: education reform, employment reform including a reducation in the minimum wage, immigration law enforcement; and all under the auspices of campaigning against the Democrats who have had primary fiscal power since January 1, 2007 after the 2006 elections.

We deserve better represenation from both parties, right?  

By Blogger Gary Rosen, at Tue May 25, 02:15:00 AM:

"and some less mentioned reasons, proximity to children you may have sexual relations with the day after graduation legally if not before practically speaking"

What a perverted mind you have. Why am I not surprised.  

By Blogger Noumenon, at Tue May 25, 04:09:00 AM:

In the last 30 years, the teachers’ unions have contributed nearly $57.4 million to federal campaigns, an amount that is about 30 percent higher than any single corporation or other union.

Why are they comparing a bushel of apples to each orange in the barrel? Surely the relevant comparison for all teachers' unions would be groups of unions or corporations, like all autoworkers' unions or all oil companies.

I had the enormous advantage of having two parents with Ivy League degrees who emphasized school work above all else

That's weird, I would have thought Ivy League parents would emphasize stuff like making political connections and finding opportunities. School work is for grinds.  

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