Tag Archives: Teacher Unions

HOW MANY INEFFECTIVE TEACHERS ARE THERE?

teachingmistakes

This is a question we hear being asked with greater frequency. The structure of the question is telling about the climate of teacher bashing in which we currently live. It assumes that there is some sort of numerical answer, either in a percentage or an absolute value. It assumes that we can reliably arrive at this answer. Most importantly, the existence of the question itself assumes that the “ineffective teacher” is a problem, one that presumably has a solution.

Let us say that we can arrive at a numerical answer. What do you do with that information? Do you identify the “ineffective” ones so they can be better trained? Do you merely fire them? A bit of both perhaps?

Assuming there is a core of intractably awful teachers who should be fired, what do you do next? From whence is the next generation of superstar teachers coming? This is the problem. The question of how many ineffective teachers exist is part of a wider discourse that has been inhospitable to teachers. Teacher unions are breaking, if not totally broken. We have a proliferation of new standards, uniform exams and other measures designed to hold teachers “accountable”. And make no mistake about that word “accountable”. It is not being used as a promise to better inform our practice or the quality of service we deliver to our communities. Instead, it is being brandished like a noose by a lynch mob, a mob that has been stirred into an anti-teacher frenzy by a well-funded media campaign orchestrated by so-called “reformers”. We will be held “accountable” right up until the moment our necks snap.

In an environment like this, who in their right mind would want to be a teacher? What kind of person with a 4.0 GPA would want to dedicate their life to a profession accorded so little respect? Where are these great teachers for whom the way will be cleared once we fire all the ineffective ones?

Those today who ask the question “how many ineffective teachers are there” automatically disqualify any plausible solution. It is born out of a teacher-hating environment  that discourages the potentially “effective” teachers of tomorrow from entering the profession. Add to this the rising cost of college and the raising of the bar of entry into the teaching profession (including a teacher “bar exam” here in New York State, an idea that has been supported by Randi Weingarten) and you have an environment perfectly suited towards driving anyone in their right minds away from the profession.

The foregoing assumes that there is a way to identify ineffective teachers to begin with. Reformers like Secretary of Education Arne Duncan assume they have found a way: teacher evaluation schemes that rely on student growth on test scores. Despite the fact that this has been tried in major cities like Washington, D.C. with disastrous consequences, Duncan has been scaling up the standardized testing regime with his Race to the Top program. States like New York will now judge their teachers’ effectiveness with “value added” data that have such wide margins of error as to make them useless.

The consequences of this are predictable. Teachers will merely “teach to the test”. Those who dare teach students with learning disabilities will be at greater risk of being rated “ineffective”. Teachers in Long Island will be held to the same standard as teachers in the South Bronx, despite the fact that they receive generally less funding and have more “externalities” to overcome. There will be an exodus of teachers to school districts with lower rates of poverty, crime and learning disabilities.

So why the narrative of the ineffective teacher? If we don’t even have reliable ways of identifying ineffective teachers, how do we know there are any in the system, let alone an amount that warrants wholesale reform of teacher evaluations?

It has currency with the general public because most people have been to school at some point. This fact alone seems to cause people to believe that they are some sort of authority on matters of education. Moreover, everybody is a taxpayer and, therefore, the boss of every public school teacher out there, or at least the teachers in their district.

Sadly, most of these people in the general public seem not to remember their teachers with fondness. They probably did not learn a whole heck of a lot in school, or only did so despite their teachers. I can say that, throughout my public school career, I did not learn much myself. In these instances it is easy to blame the teachers. People brandish the accountability noose in revenge for all of the crappy teachers they had when they were in school.

However, just because we did not learn much in school does not mean our teachers were ineffective. First off, I have been a student in many schools and I do not really recall any teachers who did not try to teach. There are people who seem to think that teachers drink coffee and sleep at their desks all day, even though this clearly runs counter to even their own experiences. Therefore, our not learning anything certainly was not due to our teachers not trying. So if they tried to teach us, why did we not learn? Sure, it is easy to say that they were boring. Their methods did not capture our attentions. They did not seem to care about us as people. Maybe this is true to an extent but it leaves out one thing: our own complicity in not learning.

I did not learn in school because I did not pay attention most of the time. I did not pay attention most of the time because there were other, more exciting things in the world to think about other than grammar and algebra. My mind was swirling with so many disorganized thoughts and so many fleeting desires. After all, I was a kid. Furthermore, I was a kid growing up at the end of the 20th century. There were all types of toys, commercials, television shows, popular music songs and technology out there geared specifically towards me. These were usually the images and the sounds that were dancing in my head while the teacher was talking about stuff like the Declaration of Independence. It is no wonder I did not learn anything.

Yet, here I am typing away using vocabulary, sentence structure and organized paragraphs. If I did not learn anything, how did I learn how to communicate in the English language at all? I know that it was at some point in kindergarten that I was introduced to the alphabet and how to use it. I will be damned if I remember how it was taught to me. But something stuck. Many things apparently stuck because I somehow ended up knowing stuff by the time I graduated high school. Sure, maybe I did not learn the type of detail that some of the gifted students learned but there was and still is stuff in my head. I learned and I did so despite myself.

It would be easy to chalk up my ignorance to my teachers. They did not “get” me. They were “lame”. Maybe there is some truth to that. Maybe there is also truth in the idea that I was a spoiled brat who took for granted an education that children in other nations would die to have. Alas, it is uncomfortable for people to actually believe that they once were, or still are, a bunch of brats. Politicians and education reformers certainly are not going to tell them that. So blaming teachers is easier. It lets us off the hook for our own shortcomings.

The other part to the teacher -bashing has to do with unions. Apparently, most Americans are miserable at their jobs and have the fear of being fired dangling precariously over their heads. They believe that teachers, these lazy and ineffective bums that did not “get” them when they were in school, are not miserable or insecure enough. Coming from a school of thought that holds the specter of poverty and homelessness makes workers better, people have had an obsession with eliminating “tenure” under the false impression that it means a job for life. Somehow, if teachers do not have the protections that allow them to advocate for their children and are held to accountability standards that measure how many bubbles their students fill in “correctly” over the course of 3 hours, schools will “improve”.

It is a sign of a selfish, petty and downright fearful society when one group of workers does not feel that another group of workers is suffering sufficiently. Apparently, they see no connection between stripping one group of workers of its due process rights and the deterioration of their own working conditions. It used to be that teachers were pitied because they pulled in long hours without making much money. Now they are envied because they make too much money and have some tepid job protections. Rather than attempting to get “tenure” for their own lines of work, they would rather engage in a race to the bottom where nobody has any job protections anywhere.

And this is supposed to keep the “effective” teachers while attracting more “effective” teachers in the future? I hope that people eventually think about the implications of what they are saying and realize the reformers are prescribing educational poison. You think schools sucked when you were a kid? Just wait until every teacher in America has to turn their classroom into a 180-day test-prep session.

ARGUING WITH IDIOTS

Sadly, I think I might need to join Bart.

Sadly, I think I might need to join Bart.

A few days ago I broke one of my own cardinal rules of internet usage: never argue with people.

It was around 10pm. Being the lazy, overpaid, union bum of a public school teacher that I am, I decided to grade piles of homework after an evening of writing lessons.

To maintain my sanity, I decided to visit Youtube to play The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman in the background. After an hour or so of grading homework I scratched what has become a common itch for me: I read the comments section.

Whether it is a story on a popular news site or a Youtube video, I always make sure to read through as many comments as I can. The ignorance can be quite funny if not thoroughly scary. But I never comment myself. There is no discussion to be had with ignorami, especially ignorami protected by computer screens.

However, I expected the comments under The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman to be informed and/or enlightened. After all, it is a very well-done piece of independent journalism, the type of journalism thinking people seek out and watch.

Unfortunately this was not the case. All of the comments on the first page were either bashing teachers or bashing the movie or both. Maybe it was the fact that I know personally many of the people featured in the movie that was being bashed, but I felt a need to respond.

The following is a rough recreation from memory of what it was like for one public school teacher and edu-blogger to take on a gaggle of very stupid people. Enjoy:

Idiot 1: This movie runs the same old line of needing more money for public schools.

Assailed Teacher: That’s not what the movie says at all. Did you even bother to watch the movie before commenting?

Idiot 1: You’re a teacher so of course you would say that we need more money for schools. Why don’t we do what Europe does and allow students to choose their schools? It’s because the UNIONS are stopping it.

AT: Neither me nor the movie said anything about more money. You want a European system? Well, guess what they have in Europe? That’s right: teacher unions.

Idiot 1: How come so many American students are failing then? We are behind China! (Notice this has nothing to do with his original point.)

AT: Failing based on what? Test scores? Guess what else America has that most of the countries we’re “behind” don’t have: childhood poverty. When you compare middle  class and wealthy American students to their foreign counterparts, they actually do quite well.

Idiot 1: The United States spends more money per student than any other country and that’s a fact! (Again, is he defending any point here? Has this person ever had a discussion before?)

I keep indulging him by addressing and dissecting the points he brings up, only to have him skip to other, unrelated points. Then he crosses into this territory:

Idiot 1: Why are so many teachers having sex with their students? It is rampant in the schools! (Yes, he used the word “rampant”.)

AT: Why are you asking me? Do you even know what the word rampant means?

Idiot 1: Everyday there is another story of a teacher being arrested. Most teachers are having sex with their students.

AT: Do you know the difference between anecdotal and empirical evidence? Do you know what the words “rampant” and “most” mean?

Idiot 1: *posts a news story about a teacher being arrested*

AT: and?

Idiot 1: *posts another story*

AT: Ok, so you obviously don’t know the difference between anecdotal and empirical evidence.

Idiot 1: *this comment has been flagged as spam*

Idiot 2: Waiting for Superman proved (yes, they said “proved”) teacher unions are destroying education and all this movie does is say “give unions more power”.

AT: You didn’t watch this movie and I highly doubt you even watched WFS.

Idiot 2: That’s right, I didn’t watch this movie (lol?) I’m one of the millions who watched WFS compared to the hundreds that watched this piece of crap.

AT: Yeah, because the true measure of something’s value is based on how many people consume it. That’s sound reasoning right there.

Idiot 2: Look, you’re a teacher so you’re blinded by your position in the system. You’re obviously not open to alternative viewpoints like WFS.

AT: Have you seen/read anything else about public school besides WFS? Have you seen any “alternative viewpoints”?

Idiot 2: I don’t need to. It’s all there in WFS. We need to get rid of teacher unions so parents have a choice of where to send their kids.

AT: Did you know that the highest-performing countries like Finland have strong teacher unions? Did you know that the states with no teacher unions have the worst schools in the country?

Idiot 2: Like I said, you’re not open to alternative views because you’re blinded by your position in the system.

AT: Check my comments here. Check my blog by the same name. Does it bother you at all that I have forgotten more about education policy than you can ever hope to know in your entire life?

Idiot 2: I saw your blog and you’re not as smart as you think. You know very little and you’re part of the system. People like me on the outside bring a fresh perspective and see things you can’t see.

AT:  I guess that settles it then. I can’t be trusted because I’m too deep in the system. You therefore have the luxury of writing off everything I say without an iota of thought or refutation. There is no arguing with someone who believes ignorance is a virtue.

Idiot 2: That is typical of people on your side of the debate. You demand proof from the other side without providing any yourself.

AT: I actually never demanded any proof from you. I don’t care if you provide proof of anything or not. My comments to you and others here, as well as my website, shows that I am informed. I have taken the time and courtesy to provide you with facts as well as direct you to places you did not know about so you can learn more facts. Meanwhile, all of your beliefs and talking points come from one movie. Plus, what is my “side of the debate” anyway? What debate?

Idiot 2: Like I said, you know very little. Outsiders bring fresh perspectives to the system. Now, if you will excuse me, I have to go to a job tomorrow where I actually have to perform, unlike you union teachers.

Idiot 3: Government monopoly on schools needs to be replaced by giving parents choices. Right now, parents have no choices. Make every school a charter school and have them compete. (Does this have anything to do with the movie?)

AT: Whether you have public schools or charter schools, there is no “choice”. All children must go to school. Replacing public schools with charters puts you right back in the same boat from which you claim you want to escape. Instead of forcing children into public schools you want to force them into charters. Where is the choice in that? You want to eliminate a civic institution that, for all of its faults, has to serve all students for the greater good. In its place you want a corporatized model that can do with children as it sees fit, even it means denying them any education or needed services at all, without any accountability to the greater good because they serve their own bottom line only.

Idiot 3: Nice try but you still did not convince me. Choice is better than having the White House control the system.

AT: Don’t flatter yourself. I am not out to “convince” the all high and mighty Idiot 3 who doesn’t even understand that the White House doesn’t “control” schools or even fund them or even set education policy, since those things are mostly done by state governments. You claim to want to get the White House out of schools and yet the “choice” model you want is being pushed by the very same White House who is using the limited influence it has over ed policy to force “choice” on everyone. You don’t want schools being controlled by the “White House”? Then you are against the “choice” for which you speak. Now do you see why I don’t care whether or not you’re convinced? You don’t even know what you’re talking about.

Yes, these are the types of people commenting under TITBWFS. These are the types of people commenting around the internet on education policy. Those of us mired in the education world are so busy talking to each other because we have a common frame of reference and background knowledge about public schools. Yet, it is easy for us to forget how incredibly stupid, ignorant and uninformed people are about education in this country. What is even sadder is that they wear their ignorance as a badge of honor and hold the knowledge and experience we have against us as if it is some sort of liability.

You can’t make this type of stuff up. Ignorance is considered knowledge and knowledge is considered ignorance.

Maybe they are right about the school system being crappy. They are certainly Exhibits A, B and C for how badly schools have failed to teach people how to think, research and reason.

God help us.

The Death and Birth of Teacher Unions

USA Today claims that the nation’s largest teacher’s union, the National Education Association, has lost nearly 100,000 members since 2010. That is a decrease of 16%.

The blogosphere is awash with postmortems of the NEA. The explosion of online learning, the rise of non-unionized charter schools, the passage of right-to-work laws in many NEA states, the general disregard for the rights of collective bargaining and the transience of many newcomers to the teaching profession have all been proffered as reasons for the decline of the NEA.

And if the NEA is undergoing such bloodletting, one can only infer that something similar is happening to the other major union: Randi Weingarten’s American Federation of Teachers.

Fewer members means less dues collected, which means less money for PACS, which means a decline in their political power. This year, instead of President Obama showing up to the annual NEA convention in order to court their votes, Joe Biden went in his place. Many people interpret this a result of their waning influence.

The destruction of teacher unions has been a major goal of education reform. It now seems that goal is coming true.

The most perplexing question I have about this situation was prompted by the statement Randi Weingarten made recently about instituting a sort of bar exam for teachers. At every turn, Randi has shown herself to be utterly beholden to the education reformers, the people whose goal is the destruction of the union she represents. The same thing goes for UFT president Michael Mulgrew, who sits on the board of New Visions, an organization that seeks to destroy public schools and build charters upon their carcasses.

Why are our union leaders collaborating with the people who are out to destroy our union?

It is an old question for sure. The strategy of our union leaders has been to collaborate on many points of education reform in order to prevent the image of a stodgy, mossback outfit with no interest in educational innovation from sticking. Yet, despite these efforts (their efforts at collaboration, that is), the image still sticks.

In 2005, when Randi was still the president of the UFT, she agreed to a contract with Pharaoh Bloomberg that gave most of our rights away. Her defenders said that this was the best deal that could have been worked out at the time. The winds were blowing in the direction of ed reform and Randi was shrewd to co-opt some of that wind in order to get something for the teachers she represented. After all, it was better to sway with the wind than to stand against it and get blown over.

And yes, even I subscribed to this notion when that contract was first negotiated.

Seven years later and the statistics have made it apparent: teachers unions are literally dying.

Why did the unions do all of this collaborating if, in the end, they were going to die anyway? The whole point of swaying with the wind was to prevent getting blown over by those winds. Yet, we swayed and got blown over anyway.

It does not make any sense to me. Many say that Randi collaborated because she has her eye on public office. The UFT and AFT positions were merely stepping stones to a cabinet post or some sort of national position. Her decisions were self-serving in that she was totally willing to throw her members under the bus for the advancement of her own career. This might be true, but the historian in me says that Randi has a snowball’s chance in hell of getting any sort of national office. Despite her efforts, she is still perceived as a shrill union hack. The fact that the union she represents is dying (and I am assuming that the statistics about the NEA’s dwindling membership is analogous to what is happening to the AFT) certainly does not recommend her in any way as a competent public administrator. All of this collaboration just so her union and her career can die in the end anyway.

It is maddening. And the question in my mind still stands as to why.

In my mind, it seems we live in a very non-confrontational age. Unions were forged in the crucible of confrontation, oftentimes violent confrontation, which helped win its members some rights. In order to preserve those rights, the threat of confrontation must always exist. For unions, confrontation usually takes the form of protest or a work stoppage. While a good union need not resort to these things the vast majority of the time, the only thing that gives a union real traction is the threat of confrontation.

However, with legislation like New York’s Taylor Law, with Albert Shanker’s refusal to support a teacher strike in the 1970s, with Ronald Reagan’s breaking of the PATCO workers in the 1980s and the general rise of corporatocracy throughout the 1990s and the new millennium, the threat of union confrontation has become non-existent. The street march, the picket line and the work stoppage have become unthinkable for most workers in the United States, whether they are union or not. (Kudos to the MORE Caucus for picketing with the Con Edison workers yesterday.)

Our union leaders were perfectly happy to acquiesce in this state of affairs. We were assured that our collective union dues garnered enough financial muscle to make politicians consider our demands. It was not through confrontation that we would secure our rights, but through lobbying.

And yet, when the millennium changed, the politicians and the reformers attacked us anyway, despite our mighty union dues. So now it is 2012 and the big bad teacher unions that people vilify as corrupt political behemoths are dying.

The brass of both the NEA and AFT will one day have to answer as to why they believed being Quislings was going to help anyone in the end, themselves included. They may not answer to us, the rank-and-file who they have sold out, but they will have to answer to history, and they will not be able to hem and haw like they do with us. The long eye of history will give them no quarter.

The thing is that our union leaders have always coasted by on the excuse that they had to travel in the direction in which the winds of change were blowing. It is a course of action that most groups, most leaders and, I would even say, most Americans have lived by in our day and age. As a civilization, the last 35 years has been defined by an ethos of being ahead of the curve, of getting in at the ground floor of things. We value the skill of setting our course after testing the breeze. After all, it was always the 80s or the 90s or the new millennium or the digital age or the era of globalization. There was a constant demand on us to not only keep up, but to adapt, to constantly discard and take on new values and ways of doing things because that is what society demanded of us. It was always fly with the wind or get blown over.

Therefore, what the teacher unions have been doing is reflecting the value of the times.

This constant imperative to keep up, to be in tune with the future before it happens, has something of authoritarianism within it. Whether it has been changing our fashion sense, or getting on board with the latest technology, or adapting to a new type of job market or, in our case, bringing education into the 21st century, we are constantly being exhorted to use things and ideas not of our own creation. Our choices have already been made for us, usually by a wealthy organization with the media savvy to market its wares as the latest in sleek efficiency. Something is the future because someone else says it is. Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to follow and obey.

The public life of Randi Weingarten reflects this state of constant reorientation. She has no values aside from how far she can ride the current tide. The result for her will be nothing but an underwhelming and sad legacy in American labor history. The result for the rest of us can be seen in the moribund state of our national teacher unions.

For those who wish to save public education, there is no easy fix. Education is about transmitting values between generations. Educators have a duty to transmit these values in a critical way, meaning one that demonstrates to the pupil the underpinnings of those values, their elegance and contradictions. The end goal is not to transmit, but to challenge the next generation to improve upon those values. It is the work of cultural evolution. A teacher union that passively accepts the self-interested values of those in power in hopes of some sort of gain is a teacher union that sells out its mission as teachers, not to mention as union leaders.

Instead of trying to be ahead of the curve, of getting in at the ground floor, of constantly testing the winds, of allowing the rich and powerful to set the terms of education discourse, teacher unions need to be both teachers and unions. We need to teach in that we formulate our own values based upon what we know to be beneficial for the students we teach and the civilization that charges us with doing that teaching. Those values need to be communicated, refined, discussed and debated publicly as a means to educate. It is a not a matter of testing the winds. It is a matter of helping determine where those winds blow from the start.

And we will only be successful in this if we act as a union. Unions were forged in the crucible of activism and confrontation. They must be forged again in the same manner. Only now our society is too authoritarian and atomized to sustain a union strictly of workers. For teachers, our activism must involve not only the teaching work force, but the entire teaching community, which entails parents and students. It means not a union, but a movement. Only a movement can shape the course of the winds, much like labor started as a movement in the late 1800s.

Education reform in its current incarnation is a movement brought about by money, wealth and propaganda. We strive for a movement brought about by community, dialogue and social justice.

This is exactly what the Caucus of Rank and File Educators have started to do in Chicago. It is exactly what the Movement of Rank and File Educators are starting to do here in New York City. These are the eyes of the storm of the next education movement. Around them have been coalescing all of the seething opposition to corporate education reform, and to corporatism in general. It means not only a reclamation of the teaching profession, but a redemption of the entire education system.

Michael Mulgrew sits on the board of New Visions because the winds now say there is profit to be had in education. Yet, the next movement will totally reject the notion of private profit in education.

Randi Weingarten wants bar exams for teachers because the winds now say that teachers need to be held to higher standards. Yet, the next movement will question those who think they are qualified to determine those standards.

Standardized testing is in vogue because it is a boon to testing companies and chimerically measures “learning”. The next movement cares not for testing companies and asserts that learning is a dynamic state of the human mind, not a pile of data.

Online schooling is popular because it is cheap. The next movement cares not for educating on the cheap, because you usually get what you pay for.

Teach for America is powerful because their alumni come from prestigious universities. The next movement believes that the college or suburb from which you came has nothing to do with being a good teacher. Instead, it is where your passion for teaching comes from and how likely it is to sustain you for a lifetime.

Education reformers claim that poverty, community and family life are not factors in the learning process. The next movement will assert far and wide that this is the stuff of the learning process. We will not allow the suffering of millions of children and female-headed households to remain invisible any longer.

It is not about educating for the 21st century. It is about making the 21st century better for all humankind. The future does not happen to us, we happen to the future. The winds of change only blow to where we determine as a people, not to where the rich and powerful tell us it blows.

The next teacher union will be equal parts teacher and union. In that, it will be the next great movement.