Friday, September 14, 2012

A feminist case for teachers' unions


The Internet is split over whether liberals/progressives should support the Chicago teachers’ strike. The pro-strike side has the more obvious case – you know, labor organizing. But the anti- has a clear-enough-seeming case as well: teachers in Chicago make on average over $70k, while their students come from poor or working-class families, and it’s those very students – Think of the Children! – who suffer when there’s no school. A lot seems to come down to whether you view teachers as entitled members of a cushy profession, or as underpaid-considering-their-education do-gooders who know better than our nation’s best-looking mayor what’s best for our schools.

To weigh in on this issue, one is expected to provide one’s own biographical position with respect to education. So: my father’s mother and mother’s father were both NYC public-school teachers. I myself have been known to teach a class from time to time, but as a grad-student adjunct, which both does and doesn’t tell me what it’s like for teacher-teachers. The public high school I went to was on the one hand an exaggerated version of a teacher-tenure disaster (teachers arrived, as I recall, based on seniority, so we got the very old, who were not always the very competent. What they’d won was, in effect, a chance to teach kids without discipline issues), and on the other, a place where it hardly mattered that the AP economics teacher conducted class by copying the textbook word for word onto the board. Most students would go to college – many to top ones – regardless. There were some great teachers, but no one was under the impression that what made the school special was overall teacher quality. Maybe that's since changed, maybe I'm far off, maybe the other economics teacher wasn't so hopeless, but that's how I remember it. Oh, and I was at private school for nine years, but my memory of 5-13 is spotty, and focused more on social interactions with peers than Miss or Mrs. Whomever.

With that out of the way, why "a feminist case for teachers' unions"? Teaching, as I've said before, and as Nicholas Kristof gives me reason to say again, is a profession with certain... particularities, ones specific, I think, to primary and secondary ed, and that dwindle once we're talking about educating the 18-and-up. For one, we consider it unacceptable that any child - remember to think of them, those children - would be in a classroom with any teacher not in the top X% of teachers. Logically, it ought to be clear why, no matter which reforms are enacted, some teachers will always be the worst, within each school, within each school system, but never mind that - it's truly horrible that there would be children - sweet, innocent children - forced to contend with less than the best. 

For another, our (popularly-accepted, not talking social science) scale for measuring good and bad teachers is matched only, I think, by how we assess open-heart surgeons. As in, mediocrity is tragedy. So on the one hand, we talk of the "bad" teachers who are just bad, who conduct class as an exercise in autobiographical monologue, who offer a final course grade of "B+" without any explanation of where that came from (no feedback throughout the semester), or, of course, who break whichever of the legal and ethical rules governing the job, and get written up in the Daily Mail Online accordingly.

For yet another - and these are all connected - we imagine that teachers do what they do out of love. Love not of the material, or conveying the material, but of The Children. That teaching - and this really doesn't carry over to university teaching - is a thin, ambiguous line away from parenting. The study Kristof likes to cite, about how a bad teacher means that students are more likely to get pregnant during high school, to not earn much at 28 (does grad school count???), etc., reinforces this notion that a teacher is more than a teacher, but basically a parent. And "parent" is a commonly-used euphemism for "mother." A bad teacher, a mediocre teacher, is, in some primal sense, a mother who's failed.

Teachers' unions - separate from the pros and cons of unionization in general - exist to remind us that teaching is a job. Without this reminder, the feminine, nurturing image of the work (which presumably impacts male teachers as well) would allow it to readily slip into that nebulous world of tasks for which it would be greedy to expect something so crude as monetary compensation. And this is a real danger especially in this day and age, when increasingly everything is an unpaid internship. If no structure were in place to make sure teaching didn't go that route, who's to say that wouldn't happen? What, you want rent money? That must mean you don't care about children, you cold-hearted you-get-the-idea. 

A reminder that teaching is a job is also a reminder that as with any other job, there will be top performers, weak ones, average ones, incompetent ones, and so on. It's great, I think, to have a conversation about job security, about whether the incompetent have too much of it, and about whether a so-so teacher ought to be fired or retrained. But unionization helps us remember that this is a job done by real human beings, and that however selective the profession becomes, there will always be some teachers who are not Robin Williams in "Dead Poets Society" crossed with the sweetest mom that ever there was. That rather than thinking only of the children, we should think of the teachers as well. 

27 comments:

Miss Self-Important said...

I'm not sure any labor union exists to remind us that X is a job, or for any other merely symbolic purpose. But if your main point is that we should treat teachers like members of any ol' profession, then I don't see why that would mitigate against the city's position on what's at issue in the contract - performance evaluations, tenure reform and job termination, etc. These, in addition to other school reform ideas not being discussed in Chicago like merit pay, are professional measures imported from precisely the manly world of business, where everyone also can't be the best, but the worst can still make less money and even get fired. It is the union, not the city, that's arguing something along the lines of teaching being a special kind of job whose outcomes are unquantifiable and whose practitioners needs special protections like tenure in the performance of their delicate tasks. I'm not sure anyone is making the teacher=mother claim, but if you think you see it in the subtext, then it's in the subtext of the union's text, not the city's. So why does the feminist side with the union in this case?

Phoebe said...

I suppose I saw this more as an argument for why teachers should have unions than one for why in this case, the Chicago teachers' demands should win out.

But the mother subtext comes from arguments like Kristof's, and from the broader conversation we have about education. If, in the business world, someone screws up, yes, they may get fired, although obviously not everyone outside the top 0.001% of performers will, or else no business would function. (Or so goes my minimal understanding of the business world.) Arguments against teachers' unions frame this as, look at these greedy teachers who not only defend poor performance (not unique to teaching) but also, in doing so, hurt the children. And really, shouldn't teachers love children enough not to demand pay? This isn't an explicit teacher=mother claim, as far as I know, just a subtext. The need for tenure and such, then, comes from the fact that absent this, there'd be a move to make the work incredibly low-paid, and to fire any teacher who anyone felt wasn't the absolute best.

Phoebe said...

Sorry, am half-asleep:

If, in the business world, someone screws up, yes, they may get fired, although obviously not everyone outside the top 0.001% of performers will, or else no business would function. But no one thinks a mediocre performance is tragic.

The short version: teaching is a line of work especially susceptible to be thought of as not real work, as work done out of love, and as work where mediocre-but-not-poor performance is tragic. These are all reasons why this particular type of labor might want to organize.

caryatis said...

Teachers are underpaid and CEOs are overpaid. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we paid CEOs a teacher's salary and vice versa?

I've often heard and been infuriated by statements like these. I couldn't figure out what possible connection there was between such different people doing different jobs, but it makes much more sense when you bring gender in. After all, 97% of CEOs are male. So the teachers deserve more than CEOs trope is the equivalent of saying that Ann Romney's job is more important than Mitt's --no one's really expected to believe it, but it's a symbolic expression of our idealization of mother figures.

Miss Self-Important said...

The need for tenure and such, then, comes from the fact that absent this, there'd be a move to make the work incredibly low-paid, and to fire any teacher who anyone felt wasn't the absolute best.

The city is not proposing to fire everyone outside the top .01% of teachers. They're just applying a business model that's now very common in ed reform. At, say, an investment bank, pay is pegged to performance, and the lowest performers annually get fired. There is no tragedy rhetoric involved, except insofar as the worst i-bankers might do reckless or stupid things with money, which causes problems for private and public institutions, just as poor teaching does. Competitiveness measures like performance evaluations and merit pay are not about weeding out everyone but "the absolute best" (who'd be left to staff the schools?), but rather about incentivizing performance from workers who otherwise don't really face normal market incentives like employees in the private sector. If, once you're tenured (which is typically after three years of teaching), you are on a set salary ladder (that is, your pay increases automatically with each additional year you work and each degree you earn), and practically nothing short of committing a felony will result in your termination, then teaching well becomes optional. So I don't think this whole way of thinking conflates benevolent mothering and schoolteaching; it does the opposite, and assumes that teachers are simply generic rational actors who respond to incentives in the workplace, primarily in the form of pay.

I do think teaching, because it's public sector work, generates some non-business forms of rhetoric. For example, the indignant taxpayer posturing of the "the government is wasting my money!" sort. In addition, because teaching deals with a group of people who aren't competent to speak for themselves, there is some indignation over their potential maltreatment, as there when negligence is uncovered in the medical care of the sick or old or disabled, etc. But I don't see the city calling mediocrity a special tragedy here. They are saying that poor performance negatively impacts the clients (in this case, children), but this whole way of thinking about ed reform is technocracy applied to education, so the issue is inefficiency. The city does say that "strikes harm the children", but I'm not sure that's really so different than any anti-strike rhetoric. If doctors go on strike, strikes harm the sick. If postal workers go on strike, strikes harm the economy. Strikes harm things; that's why they're effective. The "we are self-effacing heroes" stuff is more vigorous from the union perspective, as in the above commenter's point about how teachers should be paid more than CEOs b/c their work is so socially important while CEOs are just greedbags. There is also this stuff about how how teaching is a job that's simply immune to evaluation; one union spokesman told the Chicago Trib something like, "It's impossible to measure how effective a teacher is" and then talked about all the extenuating circumstances teachers face. Well, why is that? If teaching is just a job like other jobs, there are usually some indicators of quality. But if it's like parenting, and there are all these individual considerations to deal with b/c each child is a unique flower in the process of blooming, then I see why you can't really do annual evaluations. But, that's the line you want them NOT to take.

Miss Self-Important said...

On the broader questions of union purpose: Tenure for schoolteachers was never intended to protect salaries; they're not related. The salary schedule is set by the union and agreed to by school boards, but tenure was instituted to protect the "academic freedom" of teachers, on the model of university faculty, which makes little sense since schoolteachers don't do research or write anything. Maybe it's sad that a school board would demand the dismissal of a teacher for sympathizing with communists or whatever, but I don't see why teachers merit special protections in this realm that other professionals don't receive. Whether teaching would be "incredibly low-paid" without a union is hard to say. Economically, teaching is an activity that has benefited from hardly any productivity gain in the past 50 years. While doctors and engineers, etc., have become much more productive with help from technology, teachers are still doing the same thing they've always done: stand in front of 30 kids and talk. There isn't really much they can do to double or triple the number of students they teach, nor to double and triple the amount of material they cover. The job has big structural limitations. This is one reason why teacher pay has not grown at the same rate as pay in other fields requiring comparable education, and it's possible that without unions to inflate salaries, they would be lower than they are. On the other hand, is the way that unions work to inflate salaries just?

Which brings us to the original charge against the teachers' unions, made long before anyone thought of measuring teacher performance, and that is that public sector unionization is illegitimate. In principle, unions defend the collective interests of workers against the collective interests of employers, and the government is neutral moderator of last resort for labor disputes. Ergo, the government itself cannot form a union, because its employer is the American people, and striking against the people would jeopardize public safety (not so relevant to teachers per se), and the more relevant issue for teachers' unions: the people is a very weak "employer" since it rarely speaks in one voice. So public sector unions become inordinately powerful b/c they have no real opponents. Until the recent ed reform turn w/in parts of the Left against the AFT and NEA, the unions controlled school boards in many communities, and you could only win a school board election with a union endorsement, often simply because the union is the only local interest in school politics sufficiently organized to support campaigns and get voters to the polls. Everyone else is just dispersed "taxpayers." But obviously if the union helps you win your seat, you're very disinclined to use your powers against them. And if the union represents the teachers and also has the board in its pocket, who is left to oppose its will, whether or not its will is really benevolent? So, democratic politics leads to undemocratic result.

Britta said...

This is not a comment on this particular situation, or even teacher's unions in general (obviously, I'm in the abstract pro-union, but not always wedded to that position, nor do I think all unions are automatically good), but more some general ideas on why teachers unions are resisting as much as they are to certain changes. I think part of the idea with teacher's benefits is that, as a tradeoff for a higher salary, teachers would receive other benefits, such as extended vacation during the summer, decent healthcare and retirement funds, relative freedom in certain ways (though obviously what this means is in part empirical). One reason why teachers who've been teaching for awhile are resisting many of the current changes is that they feel like they accepted a deal and stuck with it, but now the terms are getting changed, and it's too late to go back and recoup 20 years of lower salary, and lost compound interest, investments, and whatnot. Teachers are 'highly paid' compared to Walmart employees, but not compared to people with similar levels of education, which is why the comparison comes up (though obviously CEOs are different, and I agree that CEO remuneration is an issue that really doesn't have bearing on public sector employees). Someone with a master's in chemistry can easily make close to 6 figures if not more in the private sector, but might choose teaching for exactly the reasons cited: more fewer working hours, or at least a somewhat more flexible schedule (since class prep and grading makes a 6 hour day an 8-10 hour day), etc.

I haven't followed this case very well, and it may very well be the case of grandstanding union leaders, or at least a case of not picking one's battles. I think the pushback from the left is more the idea, getting back to YPIS, that people shouldn't be ashamed to fight for middle class benefits. From the small bit I have followed, I've seen statements like, "teachers earn an average of $76,000, and their students are all on welfare," as though people not making poverty wages have no right to complain about wage freezes or sub-inflation cost of living raises. It's hard in times of recession because obviously there has to be genuine belt tightening, but there's also a sense that certain sectors use the recession as an excuse to undermine much of working benefits and especially to eliminate the public sector as home to middle class security for hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Some of the rhetoric is very poor and oversimplified, but I think there is getting to be a question of the larger system of finance capitalism, its functioning and reward structures, which I think are legitimate questions.

Britta said...

This is not a comment on this particular situation, or even teacher's unions in general (obviously, I'm in the abstract pro-union, but not always wedded to that position, nor do I think all unions are automatically good), but more some general ideas on why teachers unions are resisting as much as they are to certain changes. I think part of the idea with teacher's benefits is that, as a tradeoff for a higher salary, teachers would receive other benefits, such as extended vacation during the summer, decent healthcare and retirement funds, relative freedom in certain ways (though obviously what this means is in part empirical). One reason why teachers who've been teaching for awhile are resisting many of the current changes is that they feel like they accepted a deal and stuck with it, but now the terms are getting changed, and it's too late to go back and recoup 20 years of lower salary, and lost compound interest, investments, and whatnot. Teachers are 'highly paid' compared to Walmart employees, but not compared to people with similar levels of education, which is why the comparison comes up (though obviously CEOs are different, and I agree that CEO remuneration is an issue that really doesn't have bearing on public sector employees). Someone with a master's in chemistry can easily make close to 6 figures if not more in the private sector, but might choose teaching for exactly the reasons cited: more fewer working hours, or at least a somewhat more flexible schedule (since class prep and grading makes a 6 hour day an 8-10 hour day), etc.

I haven't followed this case very well, and it may very well be the case of grandstanding union leaders, or at least a case of not picking one's battles. I think the pushback from the left is more the idea, getting back to YPIS, that people shouldn't be ashamed to fight for middle class benefits. From the small bit I have followed, I've seen statements like, "teachers earn an average of $76,000, and their students are all on welfare," as though people not making poverty wages have no right to complain about wage freezes or sub-inflation cost of living raises. It's hard in times of recession because obviously there has to be genuine belt tightening, but there's also a sense that certain sectors use the recession as an excuse to undermine much of working benefits and especially to eliminate the public sector as home to middle class security for hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Some of the rhetoric is very poor and oversimplified, but I think there is getting to be a question of the larger system of finance capitalism, its functioning and reward structures, which I think are legitimate questions.

Britta said...

oh! sorry for double posting. I'm in the Cologne airport using their free internet. I wanted to try their famous eiskaffee, but a weird mild stomach ailment struck me down when the opportunity to wander around Cologne unattended arose. I think they have Eiskaffee at the cafe in the town in Italy where I'm staying, so I'll have to try it then.

Phoebe said...

Britta,

Sorry you're not able to wander around Cologne! It's a great city, esp. the Belgian quarter (which has nothing much to do with Belgium, just the street names). It's more a place for beer than Eiskaffee, though, and has the worst coffee (everywhere I went - only Starbucks was drinkable) of any locale I've ever been to. Not a Germany thing, a Cologne one.

"One reason why teachers who've been teaching for awhile are resisting many of the current changes is that they feel like they accepted a deal and stuck with it, but now the terms are getting changed, and it's too late [...]"

Good point.

Also, agreed with you and Caryatis that the teacher-CEO comparison doesn't quite work; agreed with you that the income disparity between students' families and teachers isn't somehow definitive of anything, and also that we need to take into account that teachers are highly-educated and thus making what they do in part to keep them away from better-compensated jobs in the private sector.

Britta, MSI, anyone else reading this:

I suppose the bigger point I was looking to make here, although I'm finding myself not so articulate, was that there needs to be some kind of counterweight to the "Think of the Children" impulse that governs our conversation about the teaching profession.

Miss Self-Important said...

Very few public school teachers have competitive private-sector options and the vast majority are not sacrificing lucrative salaries elsewhere. Britta's example - someone with an MS in chemistry - is exceedingly rare. Most teachers have either BAs in their subject areas and MAs in education, or simply BAs and/or MAs in education. While MAs in education are graduate degrees (supposedly...), they're not really transferable to non-education employment. You can't go from being a chemistry teacher to being a plant chemist b/c you have an MA in education. You can go from being a public to a private school teacher, but that usually means being paid less than in the public sector. So no, teachers' salaries aren't "keeping them away" from better-compensated jobs elsewhere, unless I'm misunderstanding you.

I'm not sure how you're going to get away from thinking of the children in education any more than you're going to get away from thinking of the sick in medicine. Education is about children. Why is this a problem? Contemporary ed reform is probably your best bet for getting away from thinking of the children as vulnerable little cuddle-balls or something, rather than as business clients, but you seem to want to reject that approach as well because(?) it's anti-union.

Phoebe said...

MSI,

"Contemporary ed reform is probably your best bet for getting away from thinking of the children as vulnerable little cuddle-balls or something, rather than as business clients, but you seem to want to reject that approach as well because(?) it's anti-union."

No, like Britta, I'm not by default for unions, or for this particular union, or - least of all - for these particular union demands. See my "counterweight" summing-up point.

Britta said...

MSI (and Phoebe),

There's been a decade or so long attack on teaching as a profession, with attendent loss of respect, autonomy, and benefits, and I think that might be reflected in the sort of person who goes into teaching (to the extent GRE scores and predict good teaching). In some sense, you do 'get what you pay for,' and if most people think teachers ought to be paid like Walmart employees and fired at whim, then the quality of teachers will match, which then leads into a negative cycle. In terms of teachers who are long term though, I think many of them chose teaching when it was a pretty respected, reasonably well-paid (inc. benefits) white collar job, and very likely did have other options at some point. I also think there's a big difference between teaching in an affluent suburban community, where teachers are paid highly AND have the benefit of good students, and, say, having to teach in the Chicago inner city, where your job is probably kind of terrible and on top of it pay and benefits are probably worse, and that's an issue that's very hard to deal with because neighborhoods and tax bases and bigger structural issues. (Or teaching could become a two-tiered profession, with one track being highly skilled & credentialed and well-paid and the other poorly paid and staffed by low-skilled workers.)

I do think there's been a slight turn around with the recession in that a lot more of the 'best and the brightest' are wanting to teach in public schools in lieu of other options for liberal arts majors, and they're finding it hard to find jobs. This is where I do think conversations on seniority and school structures are helpful to make sure that schools are run to the benefit of teachers and students.

Britta said...

*Oh, in terms of the two-tier teaching, it seems there's a little bit of that going on in very elite some private schools who are willing to pay more and offer quite good working conditions and attract PhDs and people who might otherwise pick a career more traditionally 'high-powered.'

CW said...

In my city, the teacher's union sits on both sides of the table when the contract is being negotiated. An endorsement from the teacher's union is very important to candidates and those endorsed by the union make a majority of the board.

Over the years, this arrangement has resulted in some policies that make life easier for veteran teachers but make it difficult to improve outcomes in poorer neighborhoods. The teachers with seniority bid into certain schools in the good neighborhoods (like the school that my kid attends) and the schools in the poorer neighborhoods have less experienced teachers and a much higher employee turnover.

Although I favor unions in the private sector, I've developed some real hostility to public sector unions after a couple decades of watching local education politics. A reaction on the left has shamed the unions into giving up some of the worst policies, but I wish the schools had more ability to fire the worst teachers and more flexibility in assigning teachers to schools. I see the union as one of the barriers to improving the quality of the schools in my city.

As for graduate degrees in education, my take is that they are something of a joke. My wife went through one and found most of it repetitive, academically easy, and poorly taught (the poor quality of the professors is one indication that having an advanced degree in education isn't highly highly correlated with being a skilled teacher). There was some good, practical material on how to manage a classroom or teach certain topics, but much of her time was spent on half-assed sociology. The point of much of the material was to acquaint middle-class students from the suburbs with some of the issues and challenges they might face in an urban environment, but it was not particularly well done. She found the student teaching time in the classroom with a veteran teacher much more valuable than most of the classroom material.

Miss Self-Important said...

There's been a decade or so long attack on teaching as a profession, with attendent loss of respect, autonomy, and benefits, and I think that might be reflected in the sort of person who goes into teaching (to the extent GRE scores and predict good teaching).

This is not exactly true either. There are two long-term structural issues here: the first is the productivity plateau I mentioned in an earlier comment, which has contributed to the stagnation of teacher salaries (the value of benefits included). This is not a "loss of respect" unless you think that economic forces can personally disrespect you.

The second broad structural issue is the possible change in the quality of the teaching workforce over the postwar period. I haven't seen any empirical research on this (so if you know of any, I'd be grateful for it) so this is merely my speculative historical reconstruction, but school-teaching was one of the few professions regularly open to educated women (semi-educated by our standards: a normal school degree was not quite a BA, though it evolved over the 20th Century, but it was still more education than average at the time) and so could attract better candidates than an economy in which the smarter or more competent women are siphoned off by more competitive and remunerative fields like business, law, and medicine. So now we get worse teachers on average because better women have more professional options (and better men too, obviously).

However, this inversion would not have occurred in the past 10 years, but rather over the last 40. Within the past 20 years, there has actually been a reversal for teaching's allure via the aggressive efforts of TFA and the "social justice" ethic of elite schools. So long as teaching can be seen as a route to something more prestigious, the best college students are willing to do it, at least for short intervals. I'd imagine most college-educated people under 40 see teaching in the inner city as a noble job and know someone who's done it, so in that sense, the respect is there, so long as it appears that the teachers are making an effort. (On the other hand, teaching at a rich suburban school is seen by the same people as a job for weak people who can't handle a challenge and just want a cushy pillow to land on.)

These two structural shifts have nothing to do with "getting what you pay for" in the sense that paying current teachers more now would improve them now. You'd have to make teaching financially competitive over the long term with being a biglaw associate or a heart surgeon to win back the kinds of job candidates you're looking for. And I'd think there would be some question as to whether that's really worth it, both from the economic standpoint (where would we find the money? we're already paying most teachers more than they're "worth" by market standards), but also from the standpoint of utility. Do we really need would-be heart surgeons to teach third graders long division? Is describing the solar system a task that really requires someone with top GREs? If that's what that person wants to do with his academic talents, no problem. But should we try to induce someone otherwise disinclined? I don't really see the problem with average minds who like children becoming teachers.

The tiered system you describe is only relevant to a very small number of private schools, and I'd be surprised if there were more than a dozen teachers with academic PhDs in the entire CPS system (and any at all outside the magnet schools). The union salary ladder doesn't really reward PhDs commensurate to the work required to get one, and (ironically) hiring someone with a PhD can be cost-prohibitive for schools.

Phoebe said...

CW,

I'd thought the problem with seniority was that it doesn't equate to excellence, so you end up having so-so teachers promoted? This was, at any rate, how it went when I was in high school. I was at the school most every teacher wanted to age into teaching, and so many of these teachers were excited about their job maybe 30 years prior.

Re: education classes, I agree with you and MSI that these grad degrees are probably not so transferrable (although if you did TFA, maybe law schools/consulting firms like this?). I do sometimes wonder, as someone who teaches my very own class, despite not having had much in the way of formal instruction, whether I'd have benefitted from more of that. But it does also become clear that this isn't essential.

MSI's most recent comment,

I remember you'd mentioned before, like years before, that you didn't see the point in having the greatest minds of each generation becoming schoolteachers. This I definitely agree with. The question is how, based on grades, etc., anyone would ever know who's best at teaching until they start teaching, which would, I suppose, be an argument for an apprenticeship model for teachers, rather than trying to lure people who want to work at Goldman Sachs away from that path.

Totally unrelated, but you'd be proud: I succumbed to the blazer thing. Zara Kids, so it was even a cheapness success. Teaching (and having gone into town yesterday in an actual sweatsuit) will do this to a person.

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, so I don't think that requiring an MA in education is a good baseline for teacher qualification, b/c the investment required to get to that point makes it prohibitive to jump ship when you realize that you're actually not really cut out to wipe snotty noses and sing the alphabet all day. In general, I think lower barriers to entry combined with self-selection into the field works pretty well. And also, toning down the crisis rhetoric. We're not in a crisis. "The system" is not broken, and most schools are fine. I do think that the union and teachers are right to say that many of the discipline and social problems they face in schools come from outside the schools, although it's possible that schools faced with such problems do need to become more disciplinarian to counter them.

So I'm only partly sympathetic to the technocratic ed reform package I described earlier. I do think the unions are obstructing entry to people who would be good teachers but have a reasonable aversion to investing in the certification process, so their power to set hiring and retention rules should be diminished.

And while I think that it's possible to quantify some general measure of teacher effectiveness, I'm not very excited about the idea, and I don't think these proposed annual test score evals will be needed if we removed the institutional protections like tenure and automatic raises that protect utter crappiness. As long as it's possible to fire the worst teachers, and to actually fear being fired for poor performance, that's good enough. Maybe I'm naive, but it's not my sense that you really need sophisticated quantitative measures to figure out who the worst teacher is. I would bet that eight year-olds can even manage relative consensus on that question. That this will leave in place many mediocre and even pretty bad teachers whom someone likes well enough to defend is fine with me. I can't think of more than one teacher from my 12 years of public schooling that I'd consider firing for poor performance, even though most of them average to downright stupid. There is a lot of natural sympathy for teachers on the part of parents and those directly involved in schools built into our understanding of education that mitigates against arbitrary firing (although I think this sympathy is based on precisely the conceptions of children that you want to avoid). One of the funnier examples is the study that found that a vast majority of Americans think that the nation's schools are abysmal but their own local school is great.

I don't think education courses would help us teach better. I'm a pretty sucky teacher, but I've never had a problem with what is called "classroom management" at the college level, and I don't think that learning about Maslow's hierarchy of needs would help me convey Plato better. On the other hand, one of the most popular TAs in my department is a former TFA third grade teacher, so maybe some previous experience with small people helps.

Zara has excellent blazers. I am proud. I think the cheap stores like H&M and F21 do a better job than higher end places of cutting them for short women - shorter lengths, narrower shoulders - so they make you look less like a linebacker. Although Zara Kids might outdo all. However, the best blazer there ever was (um, in my opinion) is the J.Crew schoolboy blazer. Perfectly cut, wool, lined, a million colors to choose from, and all for a mere $200-800! Sigh.

Miss Self-Important said...

One final thing about knowing who would be a good teacher in advance: I don't think "we" need to do that in education any more than "we" do it in any other field. People self-select and then leave if they find they mistook themselves and their strengths. However, I've always thought that you could tell who'd make a good teacher early - it's the kids who, when someone throws up in the hall at school and everyone is expressing their revulsion at this act and its perpetrator, step in and point out to the revolted that throwing up is natural and they've all done it too. I was never that person, but I think that at least half the people I knew who were did end up becoming primary school teachers.

Phoebe said...

Too busy for union profundity, but re: blazers, this is my new acquisition, well worth the $40, I think. It has that great quality of being something that can be stuffed in a backpack/thrown in the laundry, yet comes across as effort-was-made. The platonic ideal was at Uniqlo, but a size small - all that was left - was for a tall person. (I think it's evidence that girls these days are growing up faster than they used to if someone with my proportions can fit comfortably into their tailored jackets, but I'll let the anti-hormones-in-milk lobby handle this.)

The J.Crew one has the look of an investment, which is generally not my style. But when this one starts pilling from my backpack, maybe I'll reconsider.

PG said...

tenure was instituted to protect the "academic freedom" of teachers, on the model of university faculty, which makes little sense since schoolteachers don't do research or write anything. Maybe it's sad that a school board would demand the dismissal of a teacher for sympathizing with communists or whatever, but I don't see why teachers merit special protections in this realm that other professionals don't receive.

I had one truly fantastic teacher in K-12, and I am very glad that he had tenure. He had regular battles with school principals and school boards because he wanted to teach Huckleberry Finn (which has the n-word!); because he demanded that athletes actually earn their passing grades, even if it meant that our school didn't go to the state championship; because he was a Democrat in a politically conservative area.

Schoolteachers need special protections from being fired for the sin of disagreeing with their bosses; because they do need to be able to exercise academic freedom in what they teach students despite the cowedness and terror of controversy to which principals are prone; and because they work under elected bodies like school boards that otherwise may disfavor political minorities.

I'd reserve tenure for teachers who have accumulated plenty of experience and demonstrated themselves to be more than merely competent, because concededly it's not worth crying about the incompetents getting unjustly fired for their politics instead of deservedly for their incompetence. But it's worth having, at least in the little fiefdoms of small-town public education.

Regarding public sector unions, I think my position is similar to FDR's:

"The desire of Government employees for fair and adequate pay, reasonable hours of work, safe and suitable working conditions, development of opportunities for advancement, facilities for fair and impartial consideration and review of grievances, and other objectives of a proper employee relations policy, is basically no different from that of employees in private industry."

To summarize the rest: therefore it is natural and logical that public employees should organize to obtain these things. However, public employees differ from the private sector in that there are limitations on what they can bargain for due to limitations set by statute, and also in that "a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable."

FDR was not so helpful as to explain how a union is to obtain what it wants without the threat of a strike, but since there are several public sector unions that seem to get along without strikes (e.g. public safety unions like police and fire often are legally forbidden to strike), I assume there are ways and means and abide by the position: public unions, yes; strikes against the public, no.

Miss Self-Important said...

Phoebe: I am also a fan of the sweatshirt blazer. The JCrew blazer is merely a wanty item that I am putting on your radar for the distant future.

PG: Schoolteachers need special protections from being fired for the sin of disagreeing with their bosses; because they do need to be able to exercise academic freedom in what they teach students despite the cowedness and terror of controversy to which principals are prone; and because they work under elected bodies like school boards that otherwise may disfavor political minorities.

So wouldn't that logic apply to all public sector jobs then? They all answer to elected bodies. Should we tenure postal workers and police officers too?

I'm not sure that your example demonstrates that the utility of protecting a small handful of political dissenters merits a nationwide policy of job protection, even one that kicks in later than three years. From what I've seen of the stats on teacher mobility (though these were somewhat dated, to the '80s, I think), only a small minority of teachers are employed outside of the region they grew up. Most teachers aren't very mobile in the sense that they're New Yorkers going out to teach in Arkansas, or Arkansans teaching in New York (the highest movement was rural-to-urban within the same state or region, for seemingly obvious labor market size reasons), so the mismatch b/w teacher and district politics you describe is generally rare.

But I'm sure it does happen. So, if you hadn't read Huck Finn in grade school, would your entire education really have been impaired? I mean, it's a great book, but is it an essential one? I'm not even sure that learning Darwinian evolution is essential to education, though it's certainly more essential to understanding the AP bio curriculum than Huck Finn is for understanding American lit or history. (Well, maybe. Hard to quantify, and if one assumes the extremely unlikely scenario that all the students really understand Huck Finn then maybe they're comparable.)

Even setting aside the question about how many total incompetents tenure protects for every good but controversial teacher, how many controversial teachers does it protect? When controversies start to receive widespread attention, school admins and boards intent on getting rid of it can find ways around tenure protections. I vaguely recall that in the background of Zykan v. Warsaw, the school librarian was fired b/c she and the teachers favoring the textbooks were up against an unusually united community and board.

So what is tenure as a contractual requirement really providing that our political norms about free speech even in one-party towns don't provide? What you're describing isn't really academic freedom per se, which involves funding and support for research and ensuring that findings are not suppressed, but simply freedom of speech, expressing common but perhaps locally unpopular political views. Academic freedom relates to something like whether Mark Regnerus's study on children of same-sex couples gets published and he keeps his job for it, not whether Mark Regnerus tells his students he supports or opposes gay marriage. So it's misleading to call freedom of speech for schoolteachers a matter of academic freedom. If you want to heighten First Amendment protections in the workplace for teachers, you can frame a policy around that without creating a system of tenure, but I think the obvious objection would still be, why single out teachers, and not extend it to, say, journalists, lawyers, various public servants, etc.? All these people's jobs intersect with politics.

Britta said...

MSI,
Ha. I had lots to write after reading your first comment, but reading your others, I think we actually agree more than disagree, and disagreements on historical analyses aren't really that important (though I think your gender thing is right). I really do agree that the fundamental premise--that most teachers are bad, and getting worse than they used to be--needs to be investigated before we can really worry about finding a 'cure' to a problem that very likely doesn't exist. I also agree that most problems schools face are ones not of education but societal ills reflected in schools, and a quick scan of the lit on google scholar shows that teacher performance along with teacher satisfaction correlates very strongly to student population. In this sense, I think we're using schools as a magic cure all to fix inequality in society, and within them assuming that teachers are the magic link within schools. This is both unfair to poor people whose lives are supposed to be magically improved by the right 1st grade teacher and to the teachers who are supposed to work miracles. I also think this is why unions are right to push back against some of these performance pay plans.

I went to an 'against all odds' nationally recognized elementary school which had 70% poor kids but about 60-70% of kids passing grade level standardized tests, and it took fucking *work* to run. The level of personal investment of the principal would be impossible to replicate or demand on any sort of basis (e.g. 18 hour work days), nor could her personal qualities be replicated. The strategy also involved culling proven top teachers, mathematically impossible for all schools to do. Finally, it also took incredible social engineering--mandatory floride, free semi-mandatory parenting classes for the parents, on site daycare for younger siblings, free dental care (organized with the local dental school), and so forth. The level of 'nanny-state' type control would be hardly tolerated wide scale. Maybe I had another point but I have to run and can't remember.

On to non school things:
Back in Italy from Cologne, but really liked the city even with stomach problems, and would love to go back for bretzels and eiskaffe and to explore more of the neighborhoods. My godmother lives outside of Cologne, so I'll probably try to get back there in the next couple of years.

Blazers: I splurged on a black wool blazer from BR (40% off), and it's one of my best purchases. I wear it teaching, to academic conferences, and the jean/blazer look is instant academic-chic. I've never figured out how to wear the sweatshirt blazer, or found one that looked good on me, but I have a friend who swears by them and they seem like a good concept.

Britta said...

Oh! In 30 seconds, I have more to say about teacher quality taken from conversations with friends researching this at Harvard ed school--it's true that bad teachers are easy to weed out, but what makes someone a mediocre vs. good teacher is almost impossible to isolate, measure, quantify, and more importantly, standardize or replicate.

PG said...

So wouldn't that logic apply to all public sector jobs then? They all answer to elected bodies. Should we tenure postal workers and police officers too?

Postal workers are federal employees and have been part of a non-political civil service system for about a century. They're forbidden by the Hatch Act of 1939 from engaging in partisan political activities. Moreover, their jobs (and those of police officers) don't intrinsically involve speech. You've asserted that teaching is mostly standing up and talking for several hours a day. Almost any subject except math can become politicized and controversial -- should an English teacher have students read Toni Morrison in a district that has existing racial tensions? should an economics teacher discuss Keynesian theory in a Tea Party district? etc. These things don't really come up in delivering mail or writing traffic tickets.

Moreover, cops generally have pretty strong unions, partly due to conservatives' wanting to keep on the good side of the forces of law and order. Even Walker in Wisconsin, in his proposal to cripple the public employee unions, exempted law enforcement and firefighters.

Even if teachers don't travel far from where they grew up, politics in an area can change over time. My favorite teacher grew up in Corpus Christi and spent half of his life teaching in a town 350 miles away (this might sound far but in Texas it's really not). The political difference between South and East Texas is meaningful, but more to the point, Texas as a whole went from LBJ Democratic to Bush Republican after he'd gotten his first Ed degree.

When controversies start to receive widespread attention, school admins and boards intent on getting rid of it can find ways around tenure protections.

I don't recall Zykan involving the firing of a librarian, just the removal of books and the failure to rehire two teachers. And at least the 7th Circuit opinion asserts that the teachers didn't have tenure.

Miss Self-Important said...

But other public sector unions don't offer job protection for contested speech. It may be that this is because the job doesn't require employees to speak politically, but couldn't the case be made for police tenure on similar grounds - police sometimes have to do politically-charged and controversial things, like arresting minorities or containing protests. Mis-steps in these realms can get them fired. Why not protect them? Why not tenure government lawyers, whose jobs clearly involve politics and who may object to the aims of the administration which employs them (especially if they're career bureaucrats)?

I don't really see a limiting principle in the idea that anyone accountable to an elected body who is involved in things that "can become controversial and politicized" should have tenure protection in order to be more able to engage in politics and controversy. Is it a specific public responsibility of teachers to create political controversy such that their right or avenue to it should be protected, whereas these other employments should require that employees refrain from politics?

PG said...

but couldn't the case be made for police tenure on similar grounds - police sometimes have to do politically-charged and controversial things, like arresting minorities or containing protests. Mis-steps in these realms can get them fired.

I would be fine with firing teachers for actual politically-charged mis-steps rather than good-faith political disagreements. A teacher who has students read David Irving's books in the name of "teaching the controversy" regarding whether the Holocaust actually happened, for example, seems an acceptable person to fire because a teacher shouldn't promote factual falsehoods. Similarly, a police officer who admits to engaging in racial profiling in violation of federal/state laws will not be defended by his union. One merely accused of doing so, however, receives union support and protection, including a union-funded attorney to defend him from being fired.

Why not tenure government lawyers, whose jobs clearly involve politics and who may object to the aims of the administration which employs them (especially if they're career bureaucrats)?

If those aims are objectionable to the point of being unlawful, then government lawyers are protected via whistle-blowing laws from being fired for calling out the unlawfulness. If it's just that one guy thinks the DOJ shouldn't have brought a case against Google for selling ads to illegal pharmacies because the infraction was so minor, but the case was a lawful one to bring, then that's one of the times when you disagree with your boss and keep your mouth shut.

Unlike DOJ career lawyers, teachers are supposed to have some degree of independence in how they do their jobs, selecting which areas to emphasize, what methods of instruction to use, etc. So far as I know, the people at DOJ who have some independence generally are political appointees. Otherwise, government lawyers like other career government employees are supposed to do what they're told and maintain confidentiality. Someone who's a press officer at an embassy clearly has speech as a core part of her job, but it's not *her* speech; it's speech that will be regarded as the position of the embassy, and possibly the United States in its entirety. (See e.g. that one guy in the Cairo embassy who decided to post a press release and Tweets decrying anti-Islamic speech as an abuse of free speech rights, and then had that regarded as the official statement of the Obama Administration/ U.S. government.)

Agency employees are supposed to speak only with the single voice of the head of the agency (a political appointee). Their statements normally are vetted by several people before being released to the public. Hence the enormous difference between embassy press releases and what we saw in the Wikileaked cables.

The speech intrinsic to teaching doesn't really happen that way. Inasmuch as the students are "the public," teachers traditionally have created their own lesson plans, assignments, comments on graded materials, etc., with minimal review by principals, much less school boards. Two different English teachers in the same school may have diametrically opposed views on the Oxford comma, Shakespeare's anti-Semitism, and whether Toni Morrison merited a Nobel, and they can express those differing views through their teaching (within the bounds of a non-discriminatory classroom environment). An eighth grade English teacher at my middle school was famous for penalizing students who just said "ain't," because she was determined to have us hicks speak standardized English in her classroom. (She had a peculiar bias against "ain't" that to my knowledge did not extent to other grammatically-questionable phrases like "fixin' to.")