Monday, June 14, 2010

Meritocracy and teachers unions cannot coexist 

Glenn Reynolds links to a post by David Brooks on the Atlantic site, "Teachers are fair game." Read the whole thing -- it is short -- but here's where it lands:

It used to be that a few policy wonks would write essays assailing union rules that protected mediocre teachers; these pronouncements were greeted with skepticism in the media and produced no political movement. Now powerful political players, most notably President Obama, are making such arguments. The unions feel the sand eroding under their feet. They sense their lack of legitimacy, especially within the media and the political class. They still fight to preserve their interests, but they’ve lost their moral authority, as we’ve seen in New York City, Denver, Chicago, and even Washington, D.C.

Two cheers to President Obama for endorsing meritocracy for teachers, but not the full three. That would require intellectual honesty about this fundamental point: Meritocracy and unions are both philosophically and actually incompatible. Unions and rewards for better individual performance -- merit -- cannot coexist in the same place in the space-time continuum. Why? Because the only arbiter of merit is the employer. If the employer decides who gets paid more and who gets paid less, then the interests of individual employees and the employees as a group are no longer aligned, which violates the philosophy of unionism. As a practical matter, it gives employers much greater leverage over the union, because the high-performing (and therefore better paid) employees will support the employer rather than the union in moments of conflict.

So, for those few of you who still wonder why employers oppose unions, it is that unions drive meritocracy from the shop by design and organic imperative and that severely hurts the ability of the enterprise -- schools, businesses, whatever -- to compete. Of course, for most of the last century American public schools were effectively monopolies. Neither school boards nor unions were under any real pressure to perform from any political force that could actually do anything. All of that has changed with the charter school movement, because public charter schools compete with public monopoly schools. Not only do the charter schools (and small voucher programs) manufacture competition where there was none before, but they legitimize the political demands for the meritocracy that the legacy schools need to get back in the game.

At a basic level, this is all very obvious: Genuine meritocracy and authentic unionism are inherently incompatible. Everybody knows this, right? Well, not on the left, where you have a great many people who do not understand how enterprises function at a basic level. Sometimes I wonder whether Barack Obama is such a person. When he calls for merit pay for teachers, does he understand that he is calling for the functional (if not legal) abolition of teachers unions? Perhaps he does, but he knows that many of his allies in the (non-union) lefty chattering classes do not and he is trying to do the right thing (weaken teachers unions in advance of their neutering) without getting in trouble with his Volvo-driving base. Or perhaps he does not, which would not surprise me in the least. Either way, two cheers to President Obama for calling for meritocracy among teachers, but three cheers for following it through to its ineluctable conclusion.


By Blogger Don Cox, at Mon Jun 14, 01:13:00 PM:

Teachers need unions to protect them against incompetent or vindictive management, which is very common in education.
Your post assumes that the management are either able or willing to promote the best teachers and get rid of the weak ones. This is not what actually happens. In practice, poor teachers cozy up to the management and get promoted to better-paid management posts, where they can do less or no teaching.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Mon Jun 14, 01:34:00 PM:

I agree, but the solution is not unions. The solution is competition that drives out incompetent management that heretofore is protected by government monopoly.  

By Anonymous Mr. Ed, at Mon Jun 14, 02:46:00 PM:

By and large I agree with TH. I was surprised to learn a while back, though, that my brother in law, who is a union carpenter, was being paid more than the union wage. He is a custom millwork installer, a team leader, and very expert at what he does. The union wage was in essence a floor. If you were really good you could own more. So there was some incentive to excel and be productive.

His company is a private company and nothing like an educational bureaucracy. For example, they don't teach young people that a profit is evil.

So one might entertain the notion that say teachers base pay would be frozen and that there would be substantial incentive pay for exceptional performance. Then I imagine the administrative end of it and it starts to look like a big challenge.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Jun 14, 03:35:00 PM:

Merit pay will have no effect on unions, because it has nothing to do with merit when applied to teacher's unions. Remember that "merit" implies that a lack of it can negatively impact your employment. That is far from the truth, when teachers not getting "merit pay" make as much as they ever did, and are still impossible to fire. In a real merit system, the pay of the lowest performing teachers would go down. The actual purpose of "merit pay" for teachers is not to install real merit in the system, but to create an excuse to further increase municipal budgets and teacher compensation.  

By Blogger Escort81, at Mon Jun 14, 04:37:00 PM:

In larger, "real world" unions, I think the effect of union work rules does work strongly against the notion of a meritocracy. That's kind of a statement of the obvious, which even a brief amount of empirical observation would validate.

There are, perhaps, an small number of ironic exceptions. Huge disparities in pay can be found in entertainment-related unions -- SAG, and all four major sports unions -- and the disparity relates to the perceived ability and demand for particular stars. It's ironic in the sense that most high-earning SAG members would not give up the big bucks, yet would argue in defense of the role of other unions where the chance to stand out does not exisit.  

By Anonymous BFein, at Mon Jun 14, 08:26:00 PM:

One hurdle to adopting a meritocracy is that if you were able to look at teacher performance reviews, they would all indicate "above average" performers. Just something I heard anyway.  

By Blogger Dan Kauffman, at Mon Jun 14, 09:23:00 PM:

There are some exceptions to that rule, years ago I worked in a UAW plant piece work, I could make 140% of my base pay if I produced 140% of the base work spec

Which I consistantly did, some workers only put out 8 hours of production in 8 hours I put out 11.2 hours of production and got paid extra,

Incentive pay for teachers CAN be part of a union scenerio.

Today I don't work piece work but if I wish to take advantage of all the voluntary overtime I can almost double my pay  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Jun 14, 10:35:00 PM:

You should read what investor (the late) Philip Fisher says about unions -- just the opposite, more or less, or what you say.

And he was the ultimate capitalist.

The book is something like Common stocks and Uncommon values....

Having been a member of a union now - something I never expected - in a workforce dominated by abusive managerial treatment and cronyism, I understand that there is another side to the story. Particularly in bureaucracies (including corporate bureaucracies), which aren't exactly paradigms of meritocracy.

The real problem with teaching is not unions, but the integration of women into the workforce. 50 years ago, women who wanted to earn a living did so as teachers, nurses, or secretaries. Now the brightest of those become MBAs, doctors, and office managers. That's the dirty little secret. Not surprisingly, low wages mean you get what you pay for, and any sort of "merit-based" system isn't going to change the fact that the average teacher isn't paid enough to bring in much real talent. That's capitalism 101.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Tue Jun 15, 08:54:00 AM:

The New Jersey teacher who was bitching about her pay to Gov. Christie the other week was compensated more than $80,000/year. In 2005, New Jersey teachers averaged $56,682, plus benefits.

That's not "low wages." Depending on the state, a teacher's benefits and retirement package can be quite enviable.

So just how much do we have to pay these people to attract the 'right amount of talent?' In New Jersey it only takes a BA to become a teacher; holding up the standard of compensation to MBAs and doctoral degrees is ridiculous.

And do you really want to throw that much money at people who have a fairly easy and low-risk job that anyone with a 4 year degree can qualify for? Is there something special about teachers that makes them more deserving than law enforcement (average yearly wages $52,810/year)? A 12 year Marine Corps gunnery sergeant ($44,388/year)? CIA operatives ($58,511/year)?

I think not.

Money is the wrong topic anyway. See California's forlorn educational data (49th out of 50, with the 2nd highest average teaching salary at more than $57,000), or DC's (with a graduation rate of only 49% despite spending more than $20,000 per student, per year). Contrast with low-spending Iowa's 81% grad rate or Idaho's 77%. California's grad rate is about on par with Alaska, despite extreme differences in spending.

Clearly, throwing money at teachers is not a solution. Extracting better results from the existing workforce is, and that requires systemic changes.

But I would posit that breaking unions and their seniority systems and ungodly benefits packages is merely part of the solution. Another part is consistent meddling in curricula and the sacrifice of educational standards to other priorities (like "diversity," California's #1 priority; it's literally more important to Californian bureaucrats that a class has black kids in it than the class is taught anything; I got an extraordinary earful about this issue when I lived in California...). Another asinine absurdity is the switch from teaching proper grammar to 'phonetic spelling.' Censorship of history into politically correct (and boring, and untrue) rubbish is another.

There is a LOT wrong with public education in this country, and throwing larger and larger piles of money at teachers and 'experts' is not going to fix it.  

By Blogger Georg Felis, at Tue Jun 15, 11:22:00 AM:

As somebody with a part-time teacher for a full-time spouse, I can chime in here with a small degree of relevancy.
1. Teachers unions are not incompatible with quality education for a reasonable price, *provided* the union leaders have their primary priority being the education of the students, not the protection of their jobs. It is very rare, but when it happens, it gives amazing results.
2. A teacher’s degree (and certification for a particular state) is fairly easy to get, but the states are cranking up their requirements (Kansas Community colleges now require a Masters degree to teach, and K-State now only allows full-time instructors to teach their online courses as an example).
3. The Theory of Teaching in the US is not carved in stone, it is written in skywriting during a thunderstorm. Every four years the whole “How iz our kidz learnt” curricula changes as a new crop of PHD candidates write new and exciting theories (and textbooks) about how the last theories are a bunch of hokum, and this is now The Way We Do Things. Until four more years pass and they do it again. And again. Normally this does not bother experienced teachers very much, they have a working system that they can sprinkle a little “New and Improved Theory” over the top and keep going just like last year.

How do we improve it? Heck if I know. The absolute best support a school can have is a collection of concerned parents who really care that their kids get a quality education. If you have a classroom of kids who *want* to learn, backed up by parents, and supported by the local administration (who are elected by these same parents, and see them at school board meetings, and some of which *are* these parents), then the problem becomes very small indeed.  

By Blogger Progressively Defensive, at Tue Jun 15, 12:45:00 PM:

The horror, taking a step back, is that the Republican Party has yet to make teacher's unions one of their top three issues and focus on it; it's a winner with independents. Why would things change when Republicans remain in some profligate, anti-Murphy Brown, immigration-wuss, run-from-war-justification twilight zone? As I type, I can't remember what McCain's campaign was except for proving he is a nut-job for picking the worst VP candidate, though a lovely and intelligent enough person, Sarah Palin.  

By Blogger Progressively Defensive, at Tue Jun 15, 12:52:00 PM:

Oh: teaching public elementary and high school is a 180 day per year quasi-supervised job and becomes rote (easier) very quickly. I'm pro-labor and pro-teacher up to a point, but when children suffer for the USA having over-done it to the extreme it's a disgrace upon us. Teacher's are professionals and ought to endure the difficulties of any profession ... the rigor of the marketplace and strict superivision. If they and the government can't handle that, it's time to out-source the whole industry via charters and vouchers leaving the government to manage the juvenile deliquent and variously handicapped segments as we already do.  

By Anonymous Boludo Tejano, at Tue Jun 15, 01:14:00 PM:

And do you really want to throw that much money at people who have a fairly easy and low-risk job that anyone with a 4 year degree can qualify for?

Try teaching at a high-poverty school and come back and tell me how “fairly easy and low-risk” teaching is. Please do. I am waiting with bated breath. Tell me how low risk it is when as a result of calling parents, you get a death threat message on your answering machine. Please do.

Your point about that $86k+ teacher is well-taken. Ditto your dissatisfaction with ed schools.

3. The Theory of Teaching in the US is not carved in stone, it is written in skywriting during a thunderstorm. Every four years the whole “How iz our kidz learnt” curricula changes as a new crop of PHD candidates write new and exciting theories (and textbooks) about how the last theories are a bunch of hokum, and this is now The Way We Do Things. Until four more years pass and they do it again. And again. Normally this does not bother experienced teachers very much, they have a working system that they can sprinkle a little “New and Improved Theory” over the top and keep going just like last year.
Nails it. Always the next best ed fad, soon discarded for the next best ed fad. Agreed that “this does not bother experienced teachers much.” Unfortunately, it harms prospective teachers very much by not teaching them what works in classrooms. Prospective teachers learn in the ed schools the next best educational theory or the latest slant on political correctness, and very little about what actually works in classrooms. Conclusion: most of what ed schools teach prospective teachers is a total waste of time.

There is a need for pedagogy, as it is not always intuitively obvious how to teach a given subject to a given age group, not is it always intuitively obvious how to manage a classroom. A recent NYT article, Building a Better Teacher, chronicles the efforts of Douglas Lemov to find out what constitutes effective teaching. Lemov doesn’t come from a traditional teaching background. He has an MBA from Harvard, and was part of a company that set up charter school. He researched outstanding teachers by searching for teachers who got outstanding results in poor schools. His book Teach Like a Champion is a taxonomy of effective teaching practices.  

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