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LAUSD's Dance of the Lemons
July 15, 2010 9:30 AM   Subscribe

Want to fire a teacher in the LA Unified School District? Be prepared to spend several years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to do so.

For discussion of a similar situation in New York City, please see this post.
posted by reenum (139 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
I get a print window pop up.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 9:32 AM on July 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oh good, another article on how all the faults of America lie at the feet of unions. If only we'd let rich capitalists tell us what to do, everything would be all right for rich capitalists.
posted by DU at 9:35 AM on July 15, 2010 [82 favorites]


The article begins by telling us that the system will now take a closer look at granting tenure to inexperienced teachers. But tenure, I thought, was given only after a teacher had shown over a period of years that he or she was ok--and if so, then that teacher would not be inexperienced, right?
posted by Postroad at 9:35 AM on July 15, 2010


I just spoke with my sister yesterday, who is a teacher in a good school district in Ohio. She stated that the school district in which she works has put a ban on hiring teachers with more than two years experience. Because of union pay scales, those teachers are too expensive to hire and the school districts are not able to negotiate their own contracts. Every new teacher they hire is a truly new teacher with either no or very little experience, and certainly no track record to prove they are and will continue to be a good teacher.

So essentially the teacher unions have succeeded in preventing bad teachers from getting fired and good teachers from getting hired. Bra-freaking-vo.

Not to say that the union doesn't also provide valuable services - but I don't know very many people who believe that teachers unions are an absolute net positive. Either they view them negatively or they're ambivalent.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 9:38 AM on July 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


If you cancel it, the article appears.

Fascinating topic though, Bill Maher is constantly going on about this, but not being from the US my understanding of the unions is a little impaired.
posted by shinybaum at 9:38 AM on July 15, 2010


H&O: script-blocking prevents that (at least for me). Here's the original web version.

That said, I don't know if the phrasing of this post and the fact that this feels like it's simply treading old ground for MeFi will lead this anywhere new.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:41 AM on July 15, 2010


DU, you're defending the teachers unions against capitalists? You know they're paid by those sociamalist State and Local Gub'mints, right? One of the problems with the teachers unions of today is that they are so powerful as compared to local governments and school boards, who just constantly and consistently get their asses handed to them by the teachers unions.

Unions good, capitalists bad is fine in theory, I guess, but I think a better mantra would be "Unchecked power in the hands of one group of people BAD, a balance of power and a spectrum of voices being heard GOOD."
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 9:43 AM on July 15, 2010 [27 favorites]


Key info: this wasn't an inexperienced teacher. It was a veteran teacher going through burnout.
Loftis had taught at the school for 23 years, and administrators had shown bias in pursuing her while not taking enough steps to do something about her burnout. District officials embarked on a long Superior Court appeals process, but the judge agreed with the arbitration panel that Loftis could perform another LAUSD job — like training teachers.

After five years, district lawyers decided to stop their costly fight and agreed to settle, paying Loftis' attorneys' fees of $195,000 on top of $300,000 that Loftis earned during the dispute to work away from children — in a job in the administration.
So, withholding tenure from inexperienced teachers has absolutely nothing to do with this case.

Instead, what is needed is a systemic way to address and resolve burnout cases. It seems that it was the Principal who was rather inexperienced at handling this kind of situation, and instead of helping the teacher with ways to address the burnout, the Principal tried to just stigmatize the teacher and fire her.

If anything, this is an article on how incompetent admin/management can take a bad situation and make it much, much worse.
posted by darkstar at 9:44 AM on July 15, 2010 [23 favorites]


Oh good, another article on how all the faults of America lie at the feet of unions. If only we'd let rich capitalists tell us what to do, everything would be all right for rich capitalists.

But if (teacher's) unions stopped defending demonstrably crappy teachers, we wouldn't have to assign blame to them.

It kind of reminds me of the thin blue line, analogous to situations where crappy police officers are defended. Both are bad systems that need to be reformed, the problem is that it's the rich capitalists that are attempting to reform it.

I'd like to see the change come from within the system, but anyone attempting to champion such changes will likely be aligned (or, rather, maligned) with rich capitalists.
posted by jabberjaw at 9:48 AM on July 15, 2010 [6 favorites]


So essentially the teacher unions have succeeded in preventing bad teachers from getting fired and good teachers from getting hired. Bra-freaking-vo.

It really depends on what salary the schools are balking at, though. There's a lot of morons who believe that teachers are supposed to be martyrs and that they only work for 2/3rds of the year, anyway, so it's ok not to pay them a living wage.
posted by stavrogin at 9:49 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you cancel it, the article appears.
Not on Chrome 6.0.458.1 dev. It's all crashy.
posted by sanko at 9:49 AM on July 15, 2010


Something else the article shows is that a way for accurately measuring teacher performance is very, very hard to come up with. If you go by testing, then you get the problems of "teaching to the test" that has arisen from NCLB. If you use the "people just know" method that usually used, you get accusations of personality conflicts, witch hunts and political games. If you judge by the success or failure of the students, it doesn't take into account the real possibility of nightmare classrooms (and they do happen, even in good school districts). As the union says in the article, it is all very subjective. The problem is that administrators have to make decisions somehow, and I don't know if there is any way to go about it that won't end in tears for someone.
posted by charred husk at 9:52 AM on July 15, 2010


I love how everyone thinks its terrible that people have the right to contest their own dismissal until they get dismissed. I do employment law for a living. I see lots of good, decent people get fired in the private sector for doing the right thing. They are aghast when they find out that they have essentially no rights to contest their dismissal, and that whatever rights they do have will cost them thousands upon thousands of dollars to contest.

The situation would be far worse in the public sector were there no protections. Becasue the public sector does things which should not and cannot be assigned to the private sector, there is no profit pressure to keep people on who are productive or doing the right thing. On the contrary, there is a huge pressure to hire cronies of the elected officials who are in control of the public sector. In schools, its even worse--just imagine what would happen if people who wanted to simply teach To Kill a Mockingbird could be fired at will. That's why tenure exists. That's why the battles on the curriculum and what will be in the library are fought out in the open, in the school boards, where they should be.

This is why they had civil service reform and why it is right for public employees to have protections from arbitrary dismissal. They need unions because its no skin off the manager's back to fire anyone if he doesn't have a bottom line to meet.

And if you ask me, the problem with the schools is the parents. Plain and simple. They are the single best indicators of future success by students. But no voter wants to hear it is their responsiblity or their fault. They want someone easily blamed. Of course they are shocked, shocked, I tell you when the 100th "school reform" doesn't magically educate their children with no effort from themselves.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:53 AM on July 15, 2010 [102 favorites]


DU: "Oh good, another article on how all the faults of America lie at the feet of unions."

When the alternative is passing on blame to poor black and Latino kids, this begins to look a lot less like a clear-cut progressive case.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 9:54 AM on July 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


> It seems that it was the Principal who was rather inexperienced at handling this kind of situation, and instead of helping the teacher with ways to address the burnout, the Principal tried to just stigmatize the teacher and fire her.

I don't think the article says that either.
The principal at Dominguez, Irene Hinojosa, recalls how she spent three years documenting Loftis' poor teaching skills and inability to control 10-year-olds. "From the minute I observed her, she basically didn't seem to have the knowledge of the standards and how to deliver them," Hinojosa tells L.A. Weekly. "I had her do lessons on the same standard over and over again, and children did not get it. On simple math concepts [such as determining perimeters and area] — over and over, she didn't know how to deliver."
posted by foggy out there now at 9:55 AM on July 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


"So essentially the teacher unions have succeeded in preventing bad teachers from getting fired and good teachers from getting hired. Bra-freaking-vo."

No. The union is preventing the employer from paying experienced personnel the same scale as employees fresh off the boat. The employer is the one doing the foot shooting by pursuing short term gains at the expense of long term benefit.
posted by Mitheral at 9:56 AM on July 15, 2010 [13 favorites]


The union has prevented teachers from opting out of the pay scale and negotiating new contracts with school districts. Where are experienced teachers who have moved to a new district with a spouse supposed to get jobs? Mind you, this is one of the best funded school districts in the state of Ohio.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 9:58 AM on July 15, 2010


In Los Angeles, which is what the article is about, it's more than just unions, it's a whole mess of bureaucracy that is the problem.
posted by infinitywaltz at 9:59 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also, I must say, that government people continually overestimate the actual difficulty in getting people fired. If they only documented and tried to fire people for actual cause, it would cost a lot less, because they wouldn't be involved in fights to terminate decent workers on flimsy evidence. The structure of law requires that the government lawyer basically do whatever his settlement authority says, even if it is ridiculous.

A lot of firings in the public sector are essentially personality clashes, where a manger protects cronies and goes after those he doesn't like. This means you have a lot of weak cases which have to be fought out. The managers who get to make the decisions on whether to go forward or settle, are emotionally invested in seeing those they don't like punished and won't settle or transfer a person. So you see these huge investments in cases that have no business going before an Administrative Judge. Then management turns around and screams that it costs so much to fight the cases.

This is my everyday existence. If the agencies would just get smart and control the bosses more, there would be a lot less problems in the system.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:00 AM on July 15, 2010 [18 favorites]


She stated that the school district in which she works has put a ban on hiring teachers with more than two years experience.

So essentially the teacher unions have succeeded in preventing bad teachers from getting fired and good teachers from getting hired.

Ah yes, blaming the victim.

DU, you're defending the teachers unions against capitalists? You know they're paid by those sociamalist State and Local Gub'mints, right?

State and Local Gub'mints that are being "starved" (in the words of one of those doing the starving) by round after round after round after round of taxcuts called for by whom? The rich capitalists I mentioned.
posted by DU at 10:00 AM on July 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


If things were ideal, we would value teachers significantly more than we do, and would pay significantly more than we do, for well-trained, competent individuals who had undergone an extended apprenticeship and proven themselves. Only solid teachers would make it through the training programs, and those people who qualified would have reached that point (with the wannabes pruned) because of the high salaries and respect that awaited them (like doctors.) During the summer months, corporations would jump at the chance to hire available teachers to hold training classes for their staff.

Obviously, things are not ideal; the people paying the teachers in public schools (government) are beholden to those who pay taxes, and those who pay taxes don't want to pay any more than they have to. The lack of funding leads to a low-paid market for teachers, ensuring those who have the capacity to earn higher salaries will go elsewhere. Since the job is low-paying, they get little respect from those who work in other fields, and since the cream of the crop go elsewhere for higher salaries, the competency rate is lower. Parents who value a good education, meanwhile, either fight against this situation directly (trying to improve their local public school), indirectly (through charter schools) or pay through the nose to educate their children privately, which isn't necessarily better unless you have a lot of money, crazy money.

The union isn't the cause of this; the union is the result of this, but they also help perpetuate it in their current form. It's a hell of a mess, and as a parent whose kids' public schooling would be LAUSD it pisses me off. Then again, I'm part of the problem too, because until I had kids about to go to school I didn't give a fuck either, and didn't want to pay more taxes for education than I had to. So I can't really complain, can I?

well, I *can*, this is MetaFilter, but still.
posted by davejay at 10:00 AM on July 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


In other fun news from Los Angeles, the city of Bell, a small city of 37,000 people adjacent to L.A., pays its city manager about $800,000 per year.

But no, this teacher thing couldn't be about unions brow-beating the incompetent or paying off the corrupt.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:00 AM on July 15, 2010


But if (teacher's) unions stopped defending demonstrably crappy teachers, we wouldn't have to assign blame to them.

And if defense attorneys would just say "yeah, my client is guilty, let's save the costs of a trial", then we'd all have a much more efficient justice system.

You're assuming exactly what the unions and the administration shouldn't assume: That a particular teacher is a bad teacher who should be fired. There are bad teachers, there are teachers getting burned out, there are teachers unfairly accused, there are teachers who just rub the admin the wrong way. You have a process just in order to sort out the difference between those cases and make sure that a teacher has a chance to do a good job.
posted by fatbird at 10:02 AM on July 15, 2010 [13 favorites]


AJ Duffy's assessment at the end of the article that teachers are inherently in the occupation for the right reasons and principals are almost inevitably corrupt is curious, to say the least.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 10:02 AM on July 15, 2010


DU: "Oh good, another article on how all the faults of America lie at the feet of unions."

When the alternative is passing on blame to poor black and Latino kids, this begins to look a lot less like a clear-cut progressive case.


God forbid we state the obvious--that our system itself discriminates against poor black and latino kids and the fact that we didn't educate or give their parents a chance in this society is the number one reason that these kids fail. "Progressive" orthodoxy be damned. this is going to take money and social change to work, pure and simple. But nobody wants to do that because that involves taking responsibility ourselves.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:03 AM on July 15, 2010 [16 favorites]


quick clarification: "ensuring those who have the capacity to earn higher salaries on average will go elsewhere" -- obviously some excellent teachers are out there, and are massively underpaid for their skillset, yet stick with it anyway, driven by a moral imperative. Sadly, counting on the availability of such people willing to make that sacrifice isn't going to solve our problem, any more than we can solve the high cost of medical care by relying on good doctors to make almost nothing at all -- in the short term, even if we found people like that who were already doctors, the pipeline for new doctors of the same caliber would dry up instantly, and health care would be like the public school system is today.
posted by davejay at 10:06 AM on July 15, 2010


And I'm not trying to open an entire can of worms here, but another possible problem in California is that administrators are also part of the teachers' union, which means that whenever there are cutbacks, teachers are the first to go, and then administrators go back to teaching. I've got teachers' backs; they've got a hard job. However, I'm not sure that the union actually does that great a job of protecting teachers who actually teach in the classroom; to use a military analogy, it seems like the union protects the top brass but at the expense of the actual troops on the ground, and I think that needs to change to some degree, or no one's going to want to teach. If you're a teacher and you want to move up through the administrative ranks, with all the priveleges and promotions and increased pay that such a promotion entails, maybe you don't need the same level of protection as the people in the classroom who are already getting hit from three sides (administration, parents and the kids themselves).
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:06 AM on July 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


The problem is that unions take a broad brush approach to supporting their members. They defend the truly incompetent with the same vigor that they defend those who may be victims of an incompetent or vindictive administrator.

They shouldn't do that. However, the difference between the two can be harder to discern than you'd think, for people who are not intimately familiar with each individual case.

Unions have done a great deal of good for their members. They have also done a great deal of bad. Unions aren't any better or worse than "greedy, faceless, corporate, capitalist bastards". They serve a purpose.

Perhaps if human beings weren't generally a bunch of fucktard win-at-any-cost assholes, this world would be a better place.

And Cool Papa Bell, the City Manager of Bell getting paid that much? I've been to Bell. I'm not certain he's getting paid enough!
posted by Xoebe at 10:12 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


> And if you ask me, the problem with the schools is the parents. Plain and simple. They are the single best indicators of future success by students.

If only those parents could have been taught the value of a good education when they were children. Wouldn't it be great for a society to take the responsibility of educating future parents when they were were young. That would be awesome.

And then their children's children would have the benefit of growing up in a home that values an education. Then it wouldn't matter that the schools are ineffectual. Because all parent would have gone to a good school.

Damn you baby boomers for not teaching everyone the value of a good education when you had the chance. Now we're all screwed.
posted by foggy out there now at 10:13 AM on July 15, 2010


l33tpolicywonk: "AJ Duffy's assessment at the end of the article that teachers are inherently in the occupation for the right reasons and principals are almost inevitably corrupt is curious, to say the least."

Many teachers view administrators as an educator who just couldn't cut it in the classroom. My fiance, who just began teaching, really wants to go into curriculum planning but doesn't want to be one of "those administrators". People often are at odds with their bosses - for teachers it seems to be a way of life.
posted by charred husk at 10:17 AM on July 15, 2010


Sometimes people refuse to see what's right in front of their eyes:

-100 years ago, robber barons owned the economy. There was no middle class, and workers were exploited unmercifully. FACT.

-80 years ago workers began to organize and rose up to demand better conditions. The government did not support the workers and many were killed in their efforts to get safe work and fair wages. FACT.

-70 years ago, the government gradually realized that workers needed help and worked to level the playing field. Until the 1970's this led to an explosion in our overall wealth and the creation of the largest, and most powerful, middle-class economic engine ever seen. The country benefitted along with the workers. And labor got a seat at the table when economic decisions were made. FACT.

- 40 years ago, we handed power and responsibility back to the robber barons and their cronies. Unions were decimated by aggressively anti-union legislation written by these whores. Labor lost their seat at the table. Our manufacturing industries were shipped wholesale to other more exploitable areas. Fuck you America and fuck you, too, American worker. FACT.

-Chart the state of our economy with the health of labor unions and you'll see that they go hand in hand. FACT.

Blaming unions is ridiculous on its face.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 10:19 AM on July 15, 2010 [55 favorites]


This debate is worthless until people are willing to state how they think things ought to be. The unions ought to do...what? The schools ought to do...what?

And it's no fair answering "fire bad teachers." Who decides who the bad teachers are? And how? And who watches the watchers?
posted by argybarg at 10:20 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


our system itself discriminates against poor black and latino kids and the fact that we didn't educate or give their parents a chance in this society is the number one reason that these kids fail

It is dangerous to assume that the misallocation of quality teachers isn't a big part af that system.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 10:21 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


But if (teacher's) unions stopped defending demonstrably crappy teachers, we wouldn't have to assign blame to them. It kind of reminds me of the thin blue line, analogous to situations where crappy police officers are defended.

Outside of cases of violence, absenteeism, or just shutting down in class, cases where police officers abuse authority are easier to identify (if harder to prosecute) than a poorly performing teacher.

It cost the district roughly $3.5 million to try to fire seven teachers because of the cost of hiring outside lawyers with special expertise, administrative overhead, paying ongoing salaries for each teacher during the lengthy legal battles, and other expenses.

Sounds like the district would do well to hire full-time salaried counsel.

I don't know. I do think there needs to be a transition from what many of the unions are like now to something more like a professional association, but particularly in the wake of the useless NCLB efforts and with the shallowness of a lot of the other solutions offered, I don't trust that we've arrived at the right place in the policy discussion -- right now, the discussion seems driven more by hostility towards teachers/unions rather than an interest in balancing their interests with the need for a strong corps of professionals.
posted by weston at 10:24 AM on July 15, 2010


-Chart the state of our economy with the health of labor unions and you'll see that they go hand in hand. FACT.

Do you have a macro that just posts this in any discussion where the word "union" is said enough times? Teacher's unions haven't lost an erg of power, despite the robber barons and cronies and whores and other highly FACTual words you throw around. Is it your view that the one last thing keeping the American public education system remotely above water is the collective teacher's unions?

Blaming unions is ridiculous on its face.

Then it's good that NO ONE IS DOING THAT. What a lot of people are doing is saying that teacher's unions often create problems, and most of them are saying that they do so while still providing a valuable service. Criticism of any action of any union anywhere is not the same thing as demanding that the Pinkertons bust Sally Field's head open.
posted by Etrigan at 10:33 AM on July 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


The union isn't the cause of this; the union is the result of this,

davejay wins the thread so far.

Seriously. If you don't get that unions have come to exist because workers have historically been horribly treated by greedy capitalists, you don't know your social history.

but, of course, it's not that simple. Because in unionizing, workers have found power that they didn't have before. And power corrupts. It's not just a turn of phrase. It's true. It corrupts in all kinds of weird and evil ways. I can't speak for the California situation but a little anecdote comes to mind from small town Northern British Columbia.

Young teacher moves up from the big city with his family, gets a job in a remote community, commits to the community big time, coaches sports teams, organizes Christmas hampers, etc, etc ... Ten years later, he's much loved by kids and parents alike. Then, some older teacher (with much more seniority) decides he want to finish out his career in said community. Guess who loses his position and has to take a job in a neighboring community (100 odd dirt road miles away)? Community complains (kids and parents). Union just shrugs its shoulders. Rules-is-Rules, they say.
posted by philip-random at 10:35 AM on July 15, 2010 [10 favorites]


Benny Andajetz, I think you left out one FACT in your timeline between 70 and 40 years ago - the part where the union bosses became as corrupt as the robber barons they sought to displace decades earlier.
posted by deadmessenger at 10:36 AM on July 15, 2010 [6 favorites]


This is very Swedish of me, but reading that a 74-year od teacher began slipping due to burnout my immediate through was, jeez why isn't she offered paid sick leave or full retirement already?
posted by dabitch at 10:42 AM on July 15, 2010 [16 favorites]


When the discussion is framed such that unions and corporations/robber barons have equivalent power, you pretty much know that the corporations/robber barons have won.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 10:43 AM on July 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


I just spoke with my sister yesterday, who is a teacher in a good school district in Ohio. She stated that the school district in which she works has put a ban on hiring teachers with more than two years experience. Because of union pay scales, those teachers are too expensive to hire and the school districts are not able to negotiate their own contracts. Every new teacher they hire is a truly new teacher with either no or very little experience, and certainly no track record to prove they are and will continue to be a good teacher.

So essentially the teacher unions have succeeded in preventing bad teachers from getting fired and good teachers from getting hired. Bra-freaking-vo.


Umm, no, that sounds like your sister's school district has merely made an decision on whether the quality of the education of their students is more or less important than the budget necessary to pay for them. "certainly no track record to prove they are and will continue to be a good teacher?" Wow, it sounds like it might be worth it to ensure a good teacher with a proven record. What's that? They want more money? How dare they offset our economic model like that!

What you just wrote was a very pretty and gentler version of every single person who whines that we hire illegal immigrants because "American laborers demand too much." Your argument is that they can't afford good teachers who have dared to establish the right to demand the best pay. That's not the teachers' fault, it's yours for thinking for some reason you are more entitled to their services than they are entitled to compensation for it.

"More than we want to pay" does not equal "they get paid too much." You would think the "most well funded school district in Ohio" would know that. Seriously, dude, good luck to your sister in what appears to be a school district run by Wal-mart.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 10:44 AM on July 15, 2010 [11 favorites]


For every outrageous union story there are 100 where some employer screwed a good employee over.
posted by humanfont at 10:44 AM on July 15, 2010 [9 favorites]


Benny Andajetz, I think you left out one FACT in your timeline between 70 and 40 years ago - the part where the union bosses became as corrupt as the robber barons they sought to displace decades earlier.

This is the argument that always gets me. Have there been corrupt union officials? Absolutely. Everyone knows Jimmy Hoffa, for example - but the vast majority of union-haters that I've ever met only know Jimmy Hoffa.

AND unions never held many of the power cards, anyway. At the peak of union power in this country, only a little over 30% of American workers were represented by unions.( You don't have to be a union member to benefit from unions.) Unions act as a brake on the greed and power of the business class that really runs the show.

Again, blaming the unions is blaming the wrong side.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 10:45 AM on July 15, 2010 [9 favorites]


Sorry, I'm not exactly sure where the "corporations/robber barons" are to be found in this article? I didn't see PepsiCo or anything quoted, you know? Just a bunch of asshole teachers and some slimy union leaders covering their backs.
posted by shii at 10:47 AM on July 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


Many teachers view administrators as an educator who just couldn't cut it in the classroom. My fiance, who just began teaching, really wants to go into curriculum planning but doesn't want to be one of "those administrators". People often are at odds with their bosses - for teachers it seems to be a way of life.

I sympathize with your fiance. I recently got accepted to an administrative credentialing program after 6 years of teaching, and becoming "that administrator" is a very real fear for me. However, if I want to change the system, I have to enter the system. (At least that's my strategy.)

I was a part of a WONDERFUL union that allowed me to feel safe enough and well-compensated enough to continue teaching at a school facing remarkable challenges - large transient populations, gangs, weapons on campus, racial tensions, etc. But I also saw them defend teachers who were acknowledged by the rest of the faculty to be pretty abysmal.

I now work at a union-free charter school, and the "drive to survive" really has created a talented teaching staff. Every year we can pick out who won't be coming back because they didn't have the skill or disposition. However, I've also seen our vocal parent base hound administration and faculty alike to get their way. No one's been fired yet,* but I know it's only a matter of time and persistence.

I still hold a soft spot in my heart for unions. But I'm a former Boy Scout and Catholic, so the feeling of an organization that has done great good being at the same time being profoundly flawed is one that I've been dealing with my whole life.

*as a result of parent lobbying.
posted by mdaugherty82 at 10:48 AM on July 15, 2010 [6 favorites]


Neither unions nor corporations are monoliths, and on top of that, teachers don't work for corporations. I mean, yeah, you can argue that the system that employs teachers is ultimately beholden to business interests given the cozy relationship between corporate and government interests, but there are some pretty obvious differences between manufacturing cars (or processing meat or driving trucks or whatever) and educating kids. There are parallels, yes, but they are vastly different systems, and ultimately the school system must answer to the taxpayer, not to a corporate bottom line or a demand for profit.
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:54 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


simple question: why did the tenure system come into being?
posted by Postroad at 10:54 AM on July 15, 2010


The problem is that unions take a broad brush approach to supporting their members. They defend the truly incompetent with the same vigor that they defend those who may be victims of an incompetent or vindictive administrator.

Uh, hate to break it to you, but they are legally required to defend each and every employee as hard as they can. If you are legally representing a party, you can't decide "this one isn't worth protecting." It is a violation of legal ethics, labor law and the law of agency to do it that way.

And it should be exactly that way. How could you have a system where the union gets to throw some workers to the wolves? How could you prevent the employer itself from colluding with such a union via bonuses to union leaders willing to toss the unwanted overboard?

No, such a system doesn't work with the Anglo-American system of law, for very good and important reasons.

It turns out that some things should be harder to do than others. And it is perfectly right that it is so.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:56 AM on July 15, 2010 [7 favorites]


I should also add that yes, these topics are something I take very personally. My mom, turning 62 this year, is an ESL teacher for a private adult education school. It's not part of the public school system. In other words, she works for a private company, and because of that she's not part of a teacher's union, or any union for that matter. She has no protection whatsoever. The administration doesn't have any of the pesky annoyances they lament in this FPP- they can just tell her to never show up for work again and that's it.

My mom loves her job. Her students love her. But right now she's scared to death. Because three people were fired at her office last month, who all happened to be the three most senior teachers (read: got paid the most) there. The senior teacher there now? Her. She has absolutely no recourse if she is laid off tomorrow other than collecting unemployment. In the current economy no one, no where, will hire a 62-year-old woman. That is what it means to not have any protection as an employee. And that is what it means to be a teacher whose teaching ability is completely irrelevant in the face of an administration that just wants to get what they think is their money's worth. Because to them, she "just wants too much money."
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 10:57 AM on July 15, 2010 [17 favorites]


I now work at a union-free charter school, and the "drive to survive" really has created a talented teaching staff

Nothing like the ease of selecting your own students and being able to eject them at will to raise test scores.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:57 AM on July 15, 2010 [16 favorites]


As a former teacher, while I believe teacher unions are absolutely essential (government bean counters cannot be trusted), I also became impatient with a system that stresses seniority over teaching quality. I have a teaching degree, and about ten years of teaching experience overseas, where I actually ran my own school and employed instructors. I also have professional experience in a variety of fields: copywriting, international business partnering, economic development, HR and skills development, and other stuff. The system values none of this experience (combined with my education credentials).

If I wanted to be a teacher I would have to start at the bottom. The teachers that are my age have generally done nothing but teach. Not a bad thing, but how do you know if you're a teacher when you're 23 and just out of teacher training school?
posted by KokuRyu at 11:01 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


There are parallels, yes, but they are vastly different systems, and ultimately the school system must answer to the taxpayer, not to a corporate bottom line or a demand for profit.

Agreed. I just get heated because union-hate is agressively used by one side in every teacher discussion. It muddies the water drastically; either we value a quality education for our kids, or we don't.

simple question: why did the tenure system come into being?

So teachers who have proven their quality and commitment could continue to teach without political pressure from above.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 11:01 AM on July 15, 2010


Benny Andajetz, Hoffa is of course the classic example, but I'd like it if you would Google DC37 and Stanley Hill. Stanley Hill was the executive director of one of the largest unions in the country, and he was as crooked as a question mark. Damn near everyone associated with him ended up in jail - except him. I was a member of DC37, and I saw the stink of corruption firsthand. I was in another union (UFCW local 1500) as well, and there were issues there - our shop steward was found to be on the take.

Also, I would like you to look at this, as well - why did it take 8 years to fire Peter Melzer, an admitted pedophile? (I attended the school he taught in, and had his class freshman year) We're not talking about someone who just stepped on the wrong toes here - we're talking about a NAMBLA member. If there has ever been a more clear case of someone that shouldn't have been allowed in the same zip code as a classroom, I'd love to hear about it, but the NYC teacher's union backed this guy to the hilt, ensuring that he sat in a "rubber room" drawing his full salary for 8 years.
posted by deadmessenger at 11:03 AM on July 15, 2010


Where are experienced teachers who have moved to a new district with a spouse supposed to get jobs?

The Chicago Suburbs!
posted by timsteil at 11:04 AM on July 15, 2010


Where are experienced teachers who have moved to a new district with a spouse supposed to get jobs?

The Chicago Suburbs!


I grew up in a bedroom community there. In 1986, when I graduated, the top teacher salary there was over $100,000. Not a typo.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:09 AM on July 15, 2010


deadmessenger:

I don't disagree with you. As in any organized structure, unions have had their share of unsavory people. (No matter what system you come up with, someone will figure out a way to game it.)

My point is that picking out bad union guys is like seeing the tree and not the forest - it would be fairly simple matter to point to hundreds of corrupt business leaders for every corrupt union official.

I don't apologize for any of them.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 11:13 AM on July 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


why did it take 8 years to fire Peter Melzer, an admitted pedophile?

Melzer is a self described pedophile and admits to being sexually attracted to young males up to the age of 16. Despite this proclivity, the record before us reveals no evidence that plaintiff engaged in any illegal or inappropriate conduct at Bronx Science

That's from the first paragraph of the case you cited.

but the NYC teacher's union backed this guy to the hilt, ensuring that he sat in a "rubber room" drawing his full salary for 8 years.

They are legally required to do so. There are no exceptions. That is the law of agency. How could they be the representative of the entire bargaining unit if they did not?

If they would have convicted this guy, he'd be out on his ass in half an hour. Why couldn't they catch him in the act?

Because the problem is that he has the right to free association under that pesky document, the Constitution. So you get these outliers, where a guy admits to being a pedophile, never molests anyone, and then claims his rights. Unless you can find a way to make NAMBLA membership a crime, it is quite difficult to fire him.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:14 AM on July 15, 2010 [12 favorites]


but the NYC teacher's union backed this guy to the hilt, ensuring that he sat in a "rubber room" drawing his full salary for 8 years.

The union's role is to back the members as far as labor disputes, not to help decide who gets fired. As has been mentioned by Ironmouth, the union doesn't pick and choose who it defends, and having it that way would be detrimental to the very idea of a labor union.
posted by krinklyfig at 11:16 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Agreed. I just get heated because union-hate is agressively used by one side in every teacher discussion.

I totally agree; I'm very much pro-union on a general basis, but I think that there need to be some serious looks at reforming (not eliminating, but reforming) the role of teachers' unions, at least in certain states, because at this point it really doesn't seem to me like they're doing what they were originally designed to do.
posted by infinitywaltz at 11:20 AM on July 15, 2010


Seriously. If you don't get that unions have come to exist because workers have historically been horribly treated by greedy capitalists, you don't know your social history.

This implies that teachers themselves are not also greedy capitalists. (as opposed to what?)
posted by blue_beetle at 11:22 AM on July 15, 2010


We are the unions. We are the capitalists. There is no OTHER.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:23 AM on July 15, 2010


That's clever, blue_beetle, but it doesn't hit home, not really. People who teach knowingly go into a profession that is difficult, rewarding in non-material ways, but not terribly rewarding in material terms. Unless you're saying that all humans are by definition greedy capitalists (in which case you've essentially erased any meaning the term might have), teachers demonstrate, by their choice of career, their non-status as "greedy capitalists."
posted by argybarg at 11:27 AM on July 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think the unions should be disbanded. After all, what have they done for us, ever? Aside from the living wages, 40-hour work week, paid overtime, weekends, health benefits, grievance arbitration...
posted by mullingitover at 11:29 AM on July 15, 2010 [9 favorites]


Seriously. If you don't get that unions have come to exist because workers have historically been horribly treated by greedy capitalists, you don't know your social history.

This implies that teachers themselves are not also greedy capitalists. (as opposed to what?)


Marx got the difference right. Employee's make money of their own labor. Capitalists make money off of other's labor. So, no, "we" aren't all capitalists.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:31 AM on July 15, 2010 [8 favorites]


From the article:

Allegations include that she failed to teach first-grade fundamentals like the difference between levers and wheels(...)

Uh... what? All else aside, who is taught the difference between levers and wheels in first grade? Was I taught it and just forgot it?
posted by Shepherd at 11:34 AM on July 15, 2010


Damn Education Queens with Cadillacs.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:39 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also, if you're really interested in this semi-issue, the L.A. Times had a big story a year or two ago about teachers being "housed" - paid to stay home. Of course it's still just an anecdote about a few special cases that has near-zero impact on anything overall, but if you want a "damn unions!!!1" story you might as well get it from a real paper and not a free weekly.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:43 AM on July 15, 2010


you might as well get it from a real paper and not a free weekly.

The L.A. Weekly is actually pretty respected.
posted by infinitywaltz at 11:45 AM on July 15, 2010


For discussion of a similar situation in New York City, please see this post.

Update | June 2010: ‘Rubber Room’ Doors Are Closed and Locked
posted by ericb at 11:53 AM on July 15, 2010


Jesus Christ on a Bike.

This might have to be my last thread on this topic.

Suggesting that this issue is capitalists versus teachers or teachers versus poor students of color is really a uselessly narrow reading of what's happening.

It's also really counterproductive to suggest that it is impossible to find a good way to measure teacher quality. No one has really tried in any systematic way, so how do we know if it is impossible? Here's my suggestion, literally off the top of my head.

1. Come up with, oh, let's say, five criteria. Here are mine:

a) test score growth

b) classroom management

c) relevance and innovation of curriculum taught

d) professional conduct (good with colleagues and parents, is reliable and punctual, etc)

e) ability to adress the needs of all learners (i.e. learning disabilities, gifted students, homeless kids)

2. Come up with at least two or three ways to measure each criteria. Tests can take a variety of forms, for example - standardized and teacher-created, multiple-choice and performance-based. Administrators should observe teachers as part of this. The key is that all measures should be verifiable by an outsider if need be so that schools can be held accountable and teachers can be protected from capricious administrators.

3. Assign a weighted score in each category. Determine cutoffs for each category and an overall cutoff. If a teacher fails in one category one year, offer targeted support.

Is that really so difficult?
posted by mai at 11:59 AM on July 15, 2010


Jesus Christ on a Bike.

This might have to be my last thread on this topic.

Suggesting that this issue is capitalists versus teachers or teachers versus poor students of color is really a uselessly narrow reading of what's happening.

It's also really counterproductive to suggest that it is impossible to find a good way to measure teacher quality. No one has really tried in any systematic way, so how do we know if it is impossible? Here's my suggestion, literally off the top of my head.

1. Come up with, oh, let's say, five criteria. Here are mine:

a) test score growth

b) classroom management

c) relevance and innovation of curriculum taught

d) professional conduct (good with colleagues and parents, is reliable and punctual, etc)

e) ability to adress the needs of all learners (i.e. learning disabilities, gifted students, homeless kids)

2. Come up with at least two or three ways to measure each criteria. Tests can take a variety of forms, for example - standardized and teacher-created, multiple-choice and performance-based. Administrators should observe teachers as part of this. The key is that all measures should be verifiable by an outsider if need be so that schools can be held accountable and teachers can be protected from capricious administrators.

3. Assign a weighted score in each category. Determine cutoffs for each category and an overall cutoff. If a teacher fails in one category one year, offer targeted support.

Is that really so difficult?


Yes. It is difficult, especially when the parents and their social standing are really the main driver of whether or not the children "succeed" in life, whatever that term means.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:04 PM on July 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


test score growth

...like all other growth cannot continue indefinitely.
posted by adamdschneider at 12:14 PM on July 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oh good, another article on how all the faults of America lie at the feet of unions. If only we'd let rich capitalists tell us what to do, everything would be all right for rich capitalists.

Oh good, another post on how all the faults of America lie at the feet of capitalists. If only we'd let progressives tell us what to do, everything would be all right for progressives.

(Two can play at this game.)
posted by ZenMasterThis at 12:27 PM on July 15, 2010


Oh good, another article on how all the faults of America lie at the feet of unions. If only we'd let rich capitalists tell us what to do, everything would be all right for rich capitalists.

Oh good, another post on how all the faults of America lie at the feet of capitalists. If only we'd let progressives tell us what to do, everything would be all right for progressives.

(Two can play at this game.)


the difference between self interest and the interest of the few. That's apples and oranges.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:30 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


For those who are interested, here are the articles from the 2009 LA Times story about teachers being housed.
posted by reenum at 12:33 PM on July 15, 2010


mai:

Just because you act all outraged and exclaim "Jesus popsicle" or whatever doesn't mean that this is an easy set of issues. I wish I could pull the same stunt with cold fusion and expect the result you believe in.

Anyone can come up with criteria. None of the shareholders in education would have a hard time with that. It's effectively measuring those criteria that fouls up the whole thing in a non-trivial and non-accidental way (i.e., this really is the heart of the problem, not some side issue).

You say: "Tests can take a variety of forms, for example - standardized and teacher-created, multiple-choice and performance-based."

I'll count "standardized" and "multiple-choice" as the same territory. But "teacher-created?" Who would accept that, especially as a point of comparison? "Performance-based?" Meaning what?

In all the other criteria you're accepting that "administrators observe teachers." How? I can tell you the twice-a-year half-hour visit is almost worthless; the action in teaching is over time, not in preplanned half-hour bursts. And this doesn't solve the problem of administrators with a beef against troublemakers — who may be true incompetents, or may be whistleblowers, or who may be the best teachers but the administrator is lousy.

So perhaps you envision some rigorously formatted rubric the administrator fills out. This works, perhaps, for workers on an assembly line. But could you craft a bulletproof rubric that captures what good teaching is about? Try.

And then you say we could bring "an outsider if need be." Whom? Paid by whom? Looking for what? Using what methods? You're getting awfully close to deus ex machina here.

My point is not that teacher evaluation cannot improve and become important. It's that you're for-crying-out-loud shtick is insulting and detached from reality.
posted by argybarg at 12:34 PM on July 15, 2010 [6 favorites]


Oh good, another article on how all the faults of America lie at the feet of unions. If only we'd let rich capitalists tell us what to do, everything would be all right for rich capitalists.

As long as issues like this are painted as a pro-union vs. anti-union, no solution will ever be found. Bad teachers keep their jobs, good teachers get shafted, and kids get nothing.

Congrats, DU - only the second comment and you've closed your mind not only to the actual issues at hand, but to any possible resolution to those issues (all while introducing a ridiculous strawman. Quite a coup.)
posted by coolguymichael at 12:36 PM on July 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


Is that really so difficult?

Can't speak for the primary grades (up to 6 or 7) but I can't help but feel that young humans age 12 or 13 up are actually pretty good judges of whether or not a teacher has what it takes. I base this on personal experience of a couple of genuinely incompetent teachers I crossed paths with in what would now be termed my middle school years. It wasn't that they were strict or unsmiling or unsympathetic or even assholes, they were simply awful teachers: out of their element, incapable of connecting with their students, NOT educating with any level of competency.

I raise this point because I'm feeling the same frustration with this thread that I so often feel when issues of teachers and unions get raised. That is, the very people who have the biggest stake in the discussion (the students) are precisely the ones who have no voice.
posted by philip-random at 12:37 PM on July 15, 2010


Unions make much more sense to me in the private for-profit sector--labor negotiates with owners, and each side has pretty obvious goals. If things go horribly wrong, the company fails and the union joins other creditors in reorganizing the company via bankruptcy procedures. Or if the owners have too much negotiating leverage, the government (presumably) enacts policy in an attempt to counter that.

But this dynamic seems totally inappropriate in the government sector. There's no easy measure like "profit" or "shareholder value" that reflects the balance of power between the parties. And what if elected officials sign a bad contract that results in a bloated expense structure and no accountability? Can a school district go through bankruptcy and renegotiate? I'd guess that the related municipality would perpetually bail out the school system until that municipality itself fails.
posted by mullacc at 12:47 PM on July 15, 2010


Whoops. Guess I should have googled "school district bankruptcy." Looks like a bunch are contemplating filing.
posted by mullacc at 12:50 PM on July 15, 2010


But this dynamic seems totally inappropriate in the government sector. There's no easy measure like "profit" or "shareholder value" that reflects the balance of power between the parties. And what if elected officials sign a bad contract that results in a bloated expense structure and no accountability? Can a school district go through bankruptcy and renegotiate? I'd guess that the related municipality would perpetually bail out the school system until that municipality itself fails.

Note that this is a complex issue. First, in most circumstances, (not including teachers), by law, government unions may not negotiate wages. Instead they can only negotiate certain, but not all, terms and conditions of employment. Other terms are "excluded" from negotiation by force of law.

The remedy to the taxpayers in terms of a bad contract is throw the bums out.

I don't know about bankruptcy, but given the salaries of teachers, I think the problem is that voters want something for nothing. And they complain when the get little for the pittance they are willing to pay.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:12 PM on July 15, 2010


There seems to be a nearly unquestioned assumption here that teachers should be very highly-trained, highly-paid professionals. While I can see why this might be optimal in the abstract, given unlimited funding, that's just not the environment that U.S. schools exist in, and much as we might want to make it so, it doesn't seem likely to happen -- people in the U.S. are not going to just wake up some morning and decide that they're really OK with paying significantly more in taxes in order to fund a better educational system. It's just not going to happen; if it was, it would have happened already, and we wouldn't be in the current Educational Death Spiral that we're currently in. If you're holding your breath for higher pay and better funding, you're going to die of asphyxiation before U.S. voters -- at least in most areas -- give it to you.

Insofar as anyone has been able to separate educational outcomes from things like parental education level and socioeconomic class, it seems as though class size plays a significant role. But hiring more teachers is prohibitively expensive. A school needs a certain number of truly professional educators, people with significant postgraduate education, internships, knowledge of educational and teaching theory, psychology, etc. But there are a lot of schools that are falling apart basically for lack of raw manpower; class sizes have gone up to the point where they're nearly unmanageable, and it's no surprise that test scores and outcomes, as far as we can measure them, have declined.

Maybe what we need is to rethink the structure of the classroom; instead of one teacher to 30-odd students, maybe we need one teacher and four or five people who are basically "student wranglers" / teachers assistants per fifty. The TAs wouldn't need to have the years of training that currently represent a huge barrier to entry to becoming an actual teacher, and they wouldn't do lesson creation or planning, but they could help break the class into smaller segments, help students with lessons, and basically keep the students engaged.

Trying to manage 20 or 30+ kids at once makes me vaguely ill just to think about, as I suspect it does to most people. But I suspect an average person could handle a small number of kids, say 2 or 3, and someone with a relatively minimal amount of training could probably handle 3-5. I'm not talking about doing the lesson plans or grading or performing assessments; I'm talking about just sitting down at a table with them, keeping them focused on the task at hand, etc. With comparatively minimal (compared to a formal, accredited teaching program) training, I suspect a lot of people could manage 6-10. Lots of people do in non-classroom contexts all the time -- camp counselors, youth leaders, etc.

I'm just not sure that every person needs to have a M.Ed. and a teaching certificate just to work in a classroom. Just like not every person working in a hospital has an MD -- you have a whole range of skillsets depending on the job, from surgeons who are actually cutting into people, to med techs who basically do one particular diagnostic test (like running an EKG) over and over again, with lots of professions in between -- nor would you really want them to. You don't need four years of medical school to take a 12-lead (interpret it? perhaps in some cases, but not to physically acquire it), and it wouldn't make sense to require that. But that strikes me as basically the situation that we have going on in public schools.

I'm all for paying teachers a competitive professional salary commensurate with the level of education and training that they've completed, but the $80-100k/year teacher probably ought to have a whole support staff of lower-entry-barrier professionals to execute their lesson plans and basically help them do the job and not burn out.

In some places, given a basically fixed budget, that might actually mean fewer professional, high-salaried teachers, but if the net result was more people working in classrooms and smaller effective class sizes (the concept of "class" might change, as you might have subgroups within one "class" if "class" is defined as a group of students under one teacher), it might be a worthwhile tradeoff.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:18 PM on July 15, 2010 [8 favorites]


I'm not sure how tenure makes much sense for grade school teachers who make virtually no curriculum decisions, Postroad. Academics are awarded tenure because their research, publications, and teaching are relatively likely to piss off politicians, priests, business interests, etc.

We usually envision tenure as protecting university professors engaging in serious but unpopular research, like Alfred Kinsey. Society isn't so forgiving about teachers teaching kids unpopular ideas however : Socrates was tried for corrupting the youth, John Scopes was tried for teaching evolution, and even university faculty like Kinsey may see politics obstruct teaching controversial research.

I think secondary school teachers in France who passed the agrégation are basically tenured, but these are extremely intelligent and well educated teachers by American standards, which makes them more likely to teach important controversial topics usefully.. and they're usually teaching smarter kids.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:19 PM on July 15, 2010


Why are people arguing about who should assess teachers? doesn't the US have some version of an external OFSTED?

OFSTED has issues and every teacher I know hates it, but they do have somewhat standardised matrices. I think the idea was to assess then refine the assessment procedure so that at least you were getting some idea about standards.

It isn't impossible to assess decent teaching, although I doubt any system would be totally fair to all teachers. At least it identifies consistent failure.

I'm not really understanding this whole seniority thing either but I'll google.
posted by shinybaum at 1:24 PM on July 15, 2010


I'm talking about just sitting down at a table with them, keeping them focused on the task at hand, etc.

At least in primary schools we've had classroom assistants for a while - sometimes they're fab, sometimes they're excuses to maintain massive class sizes and not pay a teacher's wage.
posted by shinybaum at 1:27 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Has anyone yet commented on increasing school budgets so more teachers can be hired, thus reducing burnout, or are we still talking about throwing out chronically stressed educators with the garbage?

Someone Me-Mail me when this thread has stopped scapegoating / defending scapegoats.
posted by clarknova at 1:27 PM on July 15, 2010


I'm not sure how tenure makes much sense for grade school teachers who make virtually no curriculum decisions, Postroad.

It makes a huge amount of sense, because without it teachers would be fired left and right for asking their students to read a book that a few nutbar conservatives object to, or for not being Christian enough, or for being too Catholic or too Jewish or (God help you) too Muslim or Sikh, or for being not white enough, or for being too gay, or for appearing to be too gay, or for being seen in line for a movie that's too racy, or for dating someone a busybody on the school board doesn't like, or for having sex outside of marriage, or for looking like a terrist.

As long as schools continue to be strongly locally controlled and school boards continue to be hotbeds of dim-witted, vindictive, small-minded busybodies, teachers will need strong protections from them.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:32 PM on July 15, 2010 [11 favorites]


Reading threads like this really makes me wonder why the US finds it so difficult to look at other nations and steal the bits that work there. Health care, environmental oversight, education, military spending, financial oversight, tax policies, there are *so fucking many* countries who do those things better that you'd think it be child's play to borrow and idea or two do a decent job of it...
posted by DreamerFi at 1:37 PM on July 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


Teachers are under a lot of pressure these days - for a lot of reasons. Our modern requirement of having to quantify everything is certainly one of the reasons. Numbers are important, of course, but they are rarely the whole story.

At the risk of fanning the flames even more, I think that part of the anxiety about teachers today is that we have made the decision to base our economy on work that requires higher academic achievement from our workers.( Unfortunately this, IMHO, goes back to our unhealthy support of business's wants over our need to have a healthy and functioning economy.)

Our manufacturing base is less than a quarter of what is was 50 years ago. There is simply not enough employment for un- or under-educated labor anymore. In a country of 300 million+, it's suicide to believe that every worker will need an education to survive. This is our own making. If we could still offer a basic and sound curriculum, with the reassurance that poor students could still go the vocational route (and become employed, and pay their taxes, and help the economy), then a lot of our educational "problems" would go away.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 1:43 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


philip-random:
Actually, young humans are very bad judges of whether or not teachers have what it takes.

Student evaluations correlate negatively with follow-on achievement (via Metafilter)
posted by yeolcoatl at 1:44 PM on July 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


Benny Andajetz, your passion is laudable and your rhetoric skillful, but your thesis about the balance of union and corporate power does not stand up to analysis:

[..robber barons...depression..] 70 years ago, the government gradually realized that workers needed help and worked to level the playing field. Until the 1970's this led to an explosion in our overall wealth and the creation of the largest, and most powerful, middle-class economic engine ever seen. [..robber barons..]

OK, you are pointing out a correlation between America doing well and unions doing well (in terms of membership, having a seat at the table and so on). That's fair enough, but it doesn't follow that that the former is a result of the latter. 70 years ago...that would be 1940. Europe, Russia and Japan were on a war footing and had reorganized all their industrial production accordingly. The US entered the war the following year. This had far more to do with the economic picture for the next 3 decades than anything else.

The US had 3 signal advantages. First, it had abundant resources - land, fuel, industrial capacity and so on. Secondly, it was geographically isolated, and notwithstanding Pearl harbor the continental US experienced no war damage to speak of. By war's end the economies and infrastructure of all the other developed countries were smashed. Furthermore, European nations and Japan experienced a far higher death toll as a proportion of population than the US did. Russia came out second best, thanks to its sheer size - and posed enough of a military threat to keep bomb, plane and tank factories busy for years to come. Third, the US had a more flexible social system. Modern industrial production methods had made it far easier for women to participate in the economy if required, and a post-war baby boom resulted in both demand for more housing (and luckily there was plenty of available land...still is, in fact) and a sizable and flexible labor force going into the 1960s.

So the US went into the war with a host of strategic advantages, and came out of the war with a host of economic advantages. Billions were spent on rebuilding Europe and Japan, but many of those billions came back to America in return for industrial equipment and consumer products - and in addition, much of the post-war funding was structured as loans, which were paid back to the US treasury over the ensuing decades. Now, this isn't to say that unions played no role in the ensuing 30 years of prosperity: but it's just facile to ignore the massive economic effects of the war. It's equally facile to attribute the problems which manifested in the 70s as nothing more than the depredations of 'robber barons'; that huge post-war industrial expansion (and the cars it built) consumed a lot of fuel, and when the relatively young governments in the Middle East banded together to constrict the supply of oil it hit America hard, like a pro athlete or bodybuilder that experiences at heart attack in early middle age.

Your whole Union v. Boss narrative depends on the idea of the US as a closed economic system. In reality the US solidified its economic and military domination during the 30 year following the outbreak of WW2, and two big external factors put the brakes on the in the 1970s - constricted oil supplies by OPEC right after the US had moved off the gold standard, and a constricted demand for steel, partly because of cost and partly because the re-industrialization of Europe and Japan were complete, war debts were mostly paid off, and their industrial policies shifted towards a more aggressive export strategy.

These are big historical forces we're talking about. Talking about the history of the US economy without even mentioning them really undermines your credibility.

I just get heated because union-hate is agressively used by one side in every teacher discussion. It muddies the water drastically; either we value a quality education for our kids, or we don't.

I can understand and even admire your strong feelings. However, you seem to me to be regarding any skepticism of unions' current policies as 'hate'; and having talked of muddying waters, you go on to present a false dilemma (of good education as a binary choice) which begs the question (of whether unions' economic interests are synonymous with the availability of good education).

(simple question: why did the tenure system come into being?)
So teachers who have proven their quality and commitment could continue to teach without political pressure from above.

I can easily understand tenure in higher education, insofar as it provides the freedom to conduct research on one's own terms without the workload of teaching or the need to participate in academic politics - whether the politics are defense of ideas, defense of education in general, defense of funding for the institution, or defense of one's department.

High school...not so much. Middle and elementary school, even less. Leadership and character formation are important elements of education, but the main part of the job is about the more mundane business of building literacy, numeracy, and general knowledge. Job security matters for work with such a long horizon, but it doesn't require academic tenure.
posted by anigbrowl at 1:51 PM on July 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


anigbrowl: scroll up a bit. ROU_Xenophobe answered your tenure question masterfully.
posted by yeolcoatl at 1:57 PM on July 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure how tenure makes much sense for grade school teachers who make virtually no curriculum decisions, Postroad.

Because some teachers are Gay, black, hindu, muslim, lesbian, white, democrat, republican, conservative.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:57 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


anigbrowl: scroll up a bit. ROU_Xenophobe answered your tenure question masterfully.

Doesn't tenure work both ways though, in that racist homophobic whatever teachers would also be secure? that's how some holocaust denier got to keep his college tenure I think. Surely standards would be a better way forward, although I can see that school boards have a lot of say, so that complicates things.

and sorry for asking questions above before googling, I googled and now everything looks even crazier than it did before. This is like when I found out how much people paid for their healthcare in th US.
posted by shinybaum at 2:01 PM on July 15, 2010


Doesn't tenure work both ways though, in that racist homophobic whatever teachers would also be secure? that's how some holocaust denier got to keep his college tenure I think.

That's exactly how it is supposed to work. If they can't tell you your way of thinking is wrong, then you can't tell them their way of thinking is wrong. That's how it works. How else could it, majority rules?
posted by Ironmouth at 2:07 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


It seems in this case that, while an over-protective union is part of the problem, the main problem is probably simply the size of the district itself.

Over 1000 schools and a million-plus students, that's a management nightmare. There's virtually no way meaningful reform of any sort is going to take place in an environment that size.
posted by madajb at 2:13 PM on July 15, 2010


Doesn't tenure work both ways though, in that racist homophobic whatever teachers would also be secure?

Yup. Teachers who are too Christian or too weirdo-fundamentalist or too white or variously insufficiently diverse or who are seen protesting at an abortion clinic are also protected.

AFAIK, it's not likely that a school board would be taken over by liberal zealots, though. Fundamentalist conservatives had/have a strategy of entering the political system in school boards, though, because in much the country the elections are low-profile enough and over a small enough constituency that good turnout from a few churches can swing the election, and they control issues that fundamentalist conservatives care about. Hence cases like Kitzmiller.

(I forgot to add "too scientific" or "insufficiently creationist" to the list before)
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:14 PM on July 15, 2010


This seems to turn a lot on burn out.

So what's the treatment/cure for burnout?
posted by IndigoJones at 2:17 PM on July 15, 2010


I googled and now everything looks even crazier than it did before. This is like when I found out how much people paid for their healthcare in th US.

The part that's really weird is the degree of local control and autonomy.

There is no US education system. There's not even 50 state systems. Instead, there are thousands of more or less independent education systems in the US, with the states providing a loose framework in which they operate, and providing some central services.

(does not apply in Hawaii, which has a single unitary school system)
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:19 PM on July 15, 2010


Also - when did tenure drift from higher education to lower?
posted by IndigoJones at 2:22 PM on July 15, 2010


The part that's really weird is the degree of local control and autonomy.

This is a feature, not a bug.
posted by madajb at 2:23 PM on July 15, 2010


I get the usefulness in higher education because they'd be researching stuff and producing new ideas or adding to the sum of human knowledge, but in this case I don't get the advantage of tenure over a more standardised curriculum where teachers have less choice in what they can teach and not more.

Be weirdly fundamentalist all you like, but surely you don't get to do it in class. So if I'm googling correctly, the school board decides and the school board is usually crazy and not over burdened with educational experts but political placements.

So the current choice is 'weirdo individual schoolteacher decides', or 'weirdo elected people nobody has heard of' decide. I'm genuinely confused so I'm just going to shut up until I've read more.
posted by shinybaum at 2:25 PM on July 15, 2010


The part that's really weird is the degree of local control and autonomy.

There is no US education system. There's not even 50 state systems. Instead, there are thousands of more or less independent education systems in the US, with the states providing a loose framework in which they operate, and providing some central services.


Yeah. That's the part I'm truly stuck on.
posted by shinybaum at 2:26 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm afraid I must disagree about the quality of the tenure answer.

As long as schools continue to be strongly locally controlled and school boards continue to be hotbeds of dim-witted, vindictive, small-minded busybodies, teachers will need strong protections from them.

I cannot help but observe that a) proposals in large cities for mayoral control over school districts has generally received a chilly response from unions (even though it might be easier to negotiate with a smaller executive); b) strong central control at the state or federal level could be just as deleterious as local control, if not more so - picture your least favorite governor or president at the controls; c) that's a pretty broad-brush characterization from where I'm sitting.

Are these multiply-flawed individuals the majority political force on all school boards, nationwide? Really? And even if we accept that such empty vessels make the most noise and dominate debate, portraying this as an inevitability requiring nothing less than the shield of academic tenure seems rather defeatist to me. We have a pretty robust court system where social inequities are contested and frequently overcome, not to mention an extremely devolved political system by international standards...ie, the kind in which someone who objects to ignorance or narrow-mindedness can run for office with relative ease. Exactly what proportion of school teachers come under attack from school boards? How are such attacks distributed between junior and tenured teaching faculty? If tenure grants virtual immunity from dismissal, isn't this an incentive for obnoxious school boards to aggressively filter out any junior teachers who diverge from their worldview, so as to attain a politically friendly faculty majority by attrition as older teachers retire and are replaced with newly tenured ones that share the school boards' odious views - and if so, how could we respond to such a strategy?
posted by anigbrowl at 2:31 PM on July 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


anigbrowl:

Excellent post. Your historical/sociological points are well taken. I am not a great typist, and don't want to get too long-winded in my posts, so I tend to get polemical.

My frustration is the one-step-forward, two-steps-back approach our country has taken with regard to the economy.( Forgive me if I take the simple approach again.) Before say, Teddy Roosevelt and his attacks on corporations, our government's approach to business was extremely laissez-faire. A lot of people came to the conclusion that merely kept our economy stratified, and the only way to remedy that was to empower the workers to get their share of the pie. In the 30's, the government got behind that idea and passed laws that made collective bargaining legal and safe(r). This certainly led to a downward flow in wealth, increased economic activity, and help create a middle class. WWII certainly help amplify the situation. Things were certainly better, even with all the social and economic issues of the 60's and 70's. But with the "Reagan Revolution", power shifted and the government not only became more business-fiendly, they became "militantly" laissez-faire. Labor,banking, and tax laws that had been forged in the 20's and 30's for good reasons were gutted and dismantled.

And look where we are today.We all know correlation doesn't imply causation, but my view is we're reaping the whirlwind. YMMV. Our economy is calling the shots instead of the other way around, and that affects everything - including education.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 2:41 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


...I think the problem is that voters want something for nothing. And they complain when the get little for the pittance they are willing to pay.

I think this is the problem with just about every facet of government, especially at the higher levels where a private sector job of equivalent authority would pay much more.
posted by mullacc at 2:44 PM on July 15, 2010


I cannot help but observe that a) proposals in large cities for mayoral control over school districts has generally received a chilly response from unions (even though it might be easier to negotiate with a smaller executive); b) strong central control at the state or federal level could be just as deleterious as local control, if not more so - picture your least favorite governor or president at the controls; c) that's a pretty broad-brush characterization from where I'm sitting.

That's a bit of a strawman, I think. Nobody would suggest that all decisions for every school in the country should be made in DC at the Department of Education. But I would strongly support all decisions for every school in the country be made by people answerable to the Department of Education. School boards shouldn't be separate entities decided by local elections, they should be local offices of the federal bureaucracy.

Of course, I also think private schools should be done away with entirely.
posted by kafziel at 2:49 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Benny Andajetz: "This is our own making. If we could still offer a basic and sound curriculum, with the reassurance that poor students could still go the vocational route (and become employed, and pay their taxes, and help the economy), then a lot of our educational "problems" would go away."

It's really, really unfortunate that you assume poor kids are less capable of assuming 21st century jobs than rich kids are. There are a variety of discriminatory factors built into the system - from differences in school funding, to differences in school choices, to differences in teacher quality, to differences in test design - that separate the performance of rich kids and poor kids. They have the right to pick their path in life just like anybody else, and that's why our "modern requirement to quantify" everything is so freaking important.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 3:00 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


krinklyfig: The union's role is to back the members as far as labor disputes, not to help decide who gets fired. As has been mentioned by Ironmouth, the union doesn't pick and choose who it defends, and having it that way would be detrimental to the very idea of a labor union.

I think we're looking at this from 2 different perspectives. You're looking at this as "yeah, that's what unions do, and we have to take the good with the bad". I'm looking at it as a totally fucked up situation that is RIPE for abuse and screams to be fixed ASAP.

ironmouth: Because the problem is that he has the right to free association under that pesky document, the Constitution. So you get these outliers, where a guy admits to being a pedophile, never molests anyone, and then claims his rights. Unless you can find a way to make NAMBLA membership a crime, it is quite difficult to fire him.

Here's the thing - he has the right to free association, and free speech, but he doesn't have the right to a job where his associations indicate that he's a credible threat. Government jobs do this all the time- people with a security clearance are assessed in part by the people or groups they are associated with. If it's determined that they're likely to act in a way detrimental to the United States, they lose their security clearance and their job if it required such a clearance. Why can't it be the same in this situation : we have a person who's associations and statements indicated that he was a credible threat to molest children under his care. It doesn't matter one whit whether he actually had or not - the threat is all that should have been required to get rid of him.
posted by deadmessenger at 3:00 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


It makes a huge amount of sense, because without it teachers would be fired left and right for asking their students to read a book that a few nutbar conservatives object to, or for not being Christian enough, or for being too Catholic or too Jewish or (God help you) too Muslim or Sikh, or for being not white enough, or for being too gay, or for appearing to be too gay, or for being seen in line for a movie that's too racy, or for dating someone a busybody on the school board doesn't like, or for having sex outside of marriage, or for looking like a terrist.

Yes this makes a ton of sense, except that we have anti-discrimination laws (especially here in California) that would not allow most of these scenarios.
posted by Big_B at 3:19 PM on July 15, 2010


It's really, really unfortunate that you assume poor kids are less capable of assuming 21st century jobs than rich kids are.

Please, please, please don't think I said poor kids. I wrote poor students, meaning not good academically.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 3:20 PM on July 15, 2010


I think we're looking at this from 2 different perspectives. You're looking at this as "yeah, that's what unions do, and we have to take the good with the bad". I'm looking at it as a totally fucked up situation that is RIPE for abuse and screams to be fixed ASAP.

No, it's what unions are designed to do. They're not guilds. They are labor organizations, full stop. What would work better than weakening the unions is working on building communities.

Here's the thing - he has the right to free association, and free speech, but he doesn't have the right to a job where his associations indicate that he's a credible threat.

Here's the thing - the union is not the organization you should be blaming for this.
posted by krinklyfig at 3:24 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I guess that was a poor choice of words, there. I can understand the misreading.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 3:24 PM on July 15, 2010


Yes this makes a ton of sense, except that we have anti-discrimination laws (especially here in California) that would not allow most of these scenarios.

You wanna bet? You want the school board tied up in lawsuits forever?
posted by krinklyfig at 3:25 PM on July 15, 2010


Your whole Union v. Boss narrative depends on the idea of the US as a closed economic system.

As economies advance, inevitably the local labor force demands better treatment and higher wages, and usually acts collectively. We've gone backwards a bit in the US in assuming there is something wrong with collective action by labor (while simultaneously championing collective action by corporation).
posted by krinklyfig at 3:33 PM on July 15, 2010


Benny Andajetz: "Please, please, please don't think I said poor kids. I wrote poor students, meaning not good academically.
"

Appreciate the clarification. That being said, the achievement gap is the most profound moral challenge in education today, and there's really no way to measure our ability to fight it without quantifying as much as we can.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 3:46 PM on July 15, 2010


shinybaum Surely standards would be a better way forward, although I can see that school boards have a lot of say

For better or worse, local control of primary and secondary schooling is a long-standing idealized tradition in American public education. These days, states set standards that are more detailed and extensive than they were in the past, but proposals that resemble attempts to set a national curriculum almost always trigger alarmed protests of "creeping socialism" or similar. A substantial minority of conservatives would like to see the United States Department of Education eliminated.

I mostly think that mass education has almost as many pitfalls as benefits, and that this is doubly true when you try to provide it to a socioeconomically and racially diverse population. My basic feeling is that very few kids under age 10-12 should be spending more than about 3 hours a day doing pencil-and-paper sedentary academic work and that there are huge problems with housing children en masse in a group of same-age peers for 6-10 hours a day, no matter what they're doing. The administrative problems of K-12 education are a secondary effect — teachers' unions and school boards in their present form wouldn't exist in my world.
posted by hat at 3:46 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I mostly think that mass education has almost as many pitfalls as benefits

The primary problem with local control is funding. Poor schools are badly underfunded on a more or less permanent basis, and then they're expected to fulfill a testing mandate with the threat of closure and no funds for improvement - well, that was Bush's No Child Left Behind, but that's what was real popular, too. It seems that conservatives are fine with federal government controls that weaken public schools but not those that strengthen them. Education to them is a football that gets tossed around for fundraising purposes, although I don't think their policies reflect a serious attempt at improvement but rather a cynical attempt at destroying federalized public education (and yet another union).
posted by krinklyfig at 4:00 PM on July 15, 2010


You're looking at this as "yeah, that's what unions do, and we have to take the good with the bad". I'm looking at it as a totally fucked up situation that is RIPE for abuse and screams to be fixed ASAP.

This is a fair point. The unions we have today aren't the only possibility. Someone needs to do what they do in general (both collective bargaining and individual defense), but the idea I have in my head is that of certain professional standards for those privileges, among others, as I'm given to understand are for Doctors and Attorneys. Though the devil is naturally in the details of what those standards are and who decides whether they're met.

Here's the thing - he has the right to free association, and free speech, but he doesn't have the right to a job where his associations indicate that he's a credible threat.

If I'm reading correctly and there's no indication that he ever acted on his particular attraction, how is he any more guilty of anything or a threat beyond many adults who think high school students can be attractive?
posted by weston at 4:05 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Actually, young humans are very bad judges of whether or not teachers have what it takes.

I guess my comment was a bit vague. I didn't mean to indicate that young humans should have any kind of definitive say in whether teachers have what it takes, just some say, and within a defined context. Because I do have acute memories of two particular teachers (one in Grade 8, one in Grade 9) who really were lost and pathetic in a classroom situation ... and there wasn't a single kid who couldn't see it.

And yet, they were allowed to keep on teaching.
posted by philip-random at 4:06 PM on July 15, 2010


I get the usefulness in higher education because they'd be researching stuff and producing new ideas or adding to the sum of human knowledge, but in this case I don't get the advantage of tenure over a more standardised curriculum where teachers have less choice in what they can teach and not more.

Well, teachers are considered to be educated professionals, not lackeys. The localization has a lot to do with that, but also autonomy is important. It's actually more difficult to design your own curriculum these days. My mom was able to do that when she started teaching humanities, although she became more and more rare in that regard as the years went by, and when she retired that was almost unheard of. It didn't really improve outcomes, if you're looking for results, although I think more federal control in general would be helpful. I think the system of the fed setting requirements and then the school boards working off that is alright, as long as we don't get into the inevitable religious debates about evolution and the like ... the standard for evolutionary biology shouldn't be watered down (we're becoming a joke to the rest of the world for these views).
posted by krinklyfig at 4:10 PM on July 15, 2010


Benny, I do agree that the resurgence of laissez-faire thinking under Reagan was a serious wrong step for the US economy over the long term, and has increased both economic inequality and risk, to the detriment of long-term stability. That said, I wouldn't want to end up like Japan either. But the overall shape of the economy and education policy are somewhat different things, although I agree good education lays the foundation for a better economy. It seems to me that to fix what's wrong with our education system we need to concentrate on the task at hand, rather than whether it's consistent with post-war economic growth or some other set of conditions that no longer apply. I think that means setting our horizon at the needs of students actually in schools right now and hoping that after they've left our educational system they'll vote, work and consume sensibly - but accepting that we can not and should not attempt to program those choices. to the extent that reactionaries try to politicize the educational agenda, the only sensible response, it seems to me, is not to play the game.

My basic problem with the current situation is economic. We spend a lot of money on education, and the best I can say is that we seem to have got stuck at a local minimum, receiving diminishing academic returns for the historical increases we have made, and (unsurprisingly) experiencing traumatic disruptions when funding is pulled because people have got used to it being there.

Until we have some kind of metric for the academic return on financial investment, we're just blundering about in the dark. One thing I've heard frequently is that college teachers are much less satisfied with the ability of incoming freshmen than high school teachers are confident of their graduating class. This is important: to get something working, we need to consistently feed back information from later grades to earlier ones.

Testing is one way to do that. No, we should not 'teach to the test' all the time. But nor should we be test-phobic. I am sick of hearing about special snowflakes: any kid who graduates high school without a basic command of geometry, algebra and arithmetic is being put at a lifelong economic disadvantage. I find this criminal. Things like math tests may be stressful, but mirror the demands of the real world to a sufficient extent that we need to employ them for measuring to some extent.

Objectors say that this means all the money will flow towards whatever schools manage to pick the best students, and disenfranchise poorer ones. Bullshit. that would be true if we relied solely on absolute scores, but if we measured students' relative improvement from year to year we could fairly easily anticipate outcomes and take measures to promote or restrain teachers and teaching methods which significantly moved the trend, not to mention spotting at-risk students who might otherwise be missed. To the complaint that this is not how testing is implemented in practice, I say the solution is to promote a better testing methodology, not to issue blanket condemnation of tests which is what I keep hearing now. When the general public hears someone speak up on behalf of teachers' unions and condemn testing, you know what they think? That teachers don't like having their work evaluated. Everyone else has their work evaluated, with varying degrees of fairness.

Teacher advocates need to accept testing as a fact of their job description and promote methodologies with the greatest predictive power. In order to do so they are going to have to spend some effort educating the public. They will need to know what they are talking about, and look like it. Which means that math teachers who have bad grammar should keep their mouths shut and consider their position, as should English teachers who have poor math skills. I have been in conversations where a tenured teacher made a complete ass of herself arguing about a simple matter of percentages and then demanded an exception because her job was about teaching creative writing. This has just got to stop, and the only way to achieve it is to create more peer pressure inside the profession. Teachers could substantially improve their negotiating position by promoting the idea of regular faculty testing. Extra pay for extra qualifications sounds good, but outside college people are not so interested in whether a middle-school teacher has been published in the Journal of Educational Psychology or the like. But high scores on a 5 or 10 year 'educator health check' similar to a SAT (for general ed) or college final (for a specialty) - that's something people can relate to, respect, and will be more inclined to pay taxes for. Although mercifully uncommon, on the occasions where a teacher is publicly shown to be incompetent in some basic area it undermines the entire profession. Measurable and demonstrably objective quality control of both peers and students is very much in the interest of teachers, because it defines the value that they are offering to justify their requests for pay, facilities and working conditions. I know it sounds hideously industrial and all that, but when it comes down to it, members of the profession need something to negotiate with - and numbers are far, far better bargaining chips than stirring personal narratives. Would you play poker with someone who proposed that you put up money and he'll gamble short works of poetry? You just might if he was a giant of literature, but in 99.9% of cases you'd suggest something a little more concrete.

I know times are very difficult for the profession right now, and teachers are being unfairly burdened with the cost of many external problems over which they have no control. That totally sucks. But a defensive position of victimhood is absolutely not a persuasive or effective strategy. It does not inspire confidence in the public, who assume both that it is masking a failing and that the same strategy is being taught to kids in school. The only way out of this for the long term is for the teaching profession to get proactive and set its own work targets, which exceed those imposed by regulation. It will take a decade or so for the perception of that to properly take root with the public, but when it finally does the profession will have the upper hand in negotiations for as long as it cares to maintain the quality of what it is selling to the public.


deadmessenger hits the nail on the head with the free speech analysis. One of the major problems in American society (on both right and left) is the conflation of rights and subsidies. People have a right to do business, but not to expect the government to pick up the tab for financial or environmental negligence. People have a right to self-regard and respect, but not to the point of being valued for goals set rather than met.
posted by anigbrowl at 4:19 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


What is so enjoyable about this discussion is that the focus is upon unions and teachers. . Elsewhere, there is a rage against the fact that the public sector workers now seem to make more than the private sector workers, to which I say, why not? get a job there then if you begrudge those salaries--or join unions.
posted by Postroad at 4:42 PM on July 15, 2010


krinklyfig, whether a political narrative is connected with reality or not has nothing to do with constraints on who is or isn't allowed to engage in collective economic bargaining.

Yes, unions are labor organizations. But stop saying that as a shorthand for all the important stuff you attach to the idea, and look at the actual proposition that is being made. Labor. Organizations. Demand, supply. Labor unions are basically worker-owned business entities that broker various kinds of labor in exchange for certain prices and conditions. The wrinkle with public education is that the unions are very heavily invested in the idea of monopsony because if there are multiple buyers there is inevitably going to be some price competition and some of their members are going to get upset.

You say 'they're not guilds' as if that were a good thing, and union members are above all that filthy business of money and commerce. There is not going to be a glorious revolution of the proletariat because Marx's economic ideas don't really make economic sense - it was Trotsky's public recognition of this fact which caused him to become persona non grata and eventually got him killed.

I'm not saying this to red bait you, I doubt you're a communist or even close. I'm saying this because 'revolution' is the only half-coherent answer I've ever received to the question of 'what are you organizing for?' We could talk about rights and conditions all day, but a union's purpose ultimately comes down to improving the economic wellbeing of its members (where economic is not just financial). That's a fine, noble purpose. There is nothing wrong with such a concept - as long as you recognize that the purchaser of labor also has a legitimate economic interest.

So look for the opportunity to achieve win-win transactions instead of zero-sum ones...and the outcome is likely to be a better deal for union members. Company or government employer complaining about the hideous complexity of a bargaining agreement and excessive cost of administrating the pay and benefits? OK....offer to handle the payroll and bring it inside the union. Law doesn't allow it? Make a showing of how changing it would yield better value for taxpayers. I would love to be part of a union that took an active interest in enhancing the careers and productivity of its members, to their mutual benefit.
posted by anigbrowl at 4:47 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


You say 'they're not guilds' as if that were a good thing, and union members are above all that filthy business of money and commerce.

No, I'm stating it as a matter of fact. As Ironmouth noted, as a matter of law unions have to represent their members. They're not set up to review performance or to make decisions about who is qualified to teach.

I believe you have mistaken what I said for advocacy. I am not advocating on behalf of anyone. However, labor unions in and of themselves are an easy target for critics of public education, and they're often a small aspect of a much bigger problem.

There is nothing wrong with such a concept - as long as you recognize that the purchaser of labor also has a legitimate economic interest.

Of course, but just because that purchaser is the government doesn't mean labor negotiations have no place. The whole point of labor negotiations is to hash out the interests of all parties involved. I think we'd do a lot better by concentrating on our approach to education in general rather than trying to put up a scapegoat of teacher's unions. The way things are right now, the unions are not our biggest nor most pressing problem with education, so all the angst about it strikes me as a little disingenuous ... I have a feeling that any solution which includes breaking up those unions will not be beneficial to teachers or students, but probably will make someone more of a profit somewhere and will be driven largely by libertarians who do not have an interest in improving education nor labor relations. Be careful what you wish for.
posted by krinklyfig at 5:16 PM on July 15, 2010


I'm looking at it as a totally fucked up situation that is RIPE for abuse and screams to be fixed ASAP.

But to fix this specific problem, you'd have to make the situation more fucked up and more ripe for abuse!

If it's determined that they're likely to act in a way detrimental to the United States, they lose their security clearance and their job if it required such a clearance.

If you're gay and closeted, and the clearance folks find out, you won't get your clearance, because you can be blackmailed over your orientation. If you're out, then no problem! I don't really see what's different here. People should be punished for what they do, not for what they might do.
posted by me & my monkey at 5:37 PM on July 15, 2010


Other than the availability of money, what do you think is the most pressing problem? I have no desire to break up unions or hang all the faults of pedagogy round their collective necks. But I would like to hear them articulate some concrete proposals involving things like numbers and so forth.

I mean, go to aft.org - I'm invited to stop cuts, avoid layoffs, protect jobs, fight something else and so on, and that students aren't little robots and teachers aren't assembly line workers. It all sounds terribly doomy, like it was written by someone who used to work at homeland Security. After half an hour most of what I'm finding about reform related issues is narrowly focused, vague, and frequently defined in negative terms, ie statements of what teachers don't want or refutations of positions they disagree with (which I have to say have a distinctly straw man quality to them). www.nea.org is fairly similar.

Now I know they have a lot of member stuff to address, but what I don't see is a prominent, inviting centerpiece saying something like 'Fixing American Education: Our Big Plan.' That people could feel positive and excited about, send copies to friends, and so on. It can start with something like 'NCLB was a great idea - without a solid plan to back it up. Since then, the USA has been hit with tough financial problems. But we still need to fix education. Money is only one part of the solution. Here's the other part: a smart graded plan that will get results you can measure every year. It's good for your kids, good for the economy, and good for America's future.'

This is a teachable moment. The teachers' unions really need to come out from under the desk and argue for a novel solution of some kind, rather than describing the the problem yet again. We know the basic problem: subpar academic performance and negative cashflow. Whose fault is it? We can discuss that in history class. Bound by legal rules? Then reconfigure or demand a change in those rules. It might be painful or controversial. But the basic challenge is this: innovate or go home.
posted by anigbrowl at 7:13 PM on July 15, 2010


I can't believe that no one has mentioned the documentary, The Lottery. I guess it is in a very limited release. I just happened to see it in the theatre tonight and it is precisely about education reform. I highly reccomend it.

And, yeah, for those of us working in education, and trying to improve education, unions are commonly considered to be one of the greatest barriers to improvement.

(not usually anti-unionist)
posted by fieldtrip at 10:19 PM on July 15, 2010


I just want to derail the discourse here a bit and get back to the actual article that was linked.

What we had in this case was a septuagenarian, veteran teacher of 23 years who was going through burnout. She was not an inexperienced teacher or a teacher that had, evidently, had any problems up until a few years previously.

On the other side of this, we had a fairly young principal who seemed to take pride in herself as having "what it takes" (energy, will, etc.) to get rid of the "deadwood" teachers.

Instead of finding ways to help the teacher address and overcome the burnout, say by taking an administrative job for a while or taking a leave of absence - you know, things that competent managers would do - what did the principal do? She documented over three years all the ways in which the teacher was failing to meet expectations/standards. Rather than offer any other solutions, she made the teacher repeat efforts to teach when the students weren't learning as they should.

Can you think of anything more tailor made to exacerbate burnout thatn having your principal document in detail your slipping effectiveness with an eye to getting rid of you as "deadwood", all the while offering no more constructive help than "do it over", do it over", "again", "again" "still not good enough"? I think you'd just be driven nuts by that kind of insensitivity and inimical response from your boss.

I see a toxic environment where the principal is trying to make her bones by firing this teacher instead of actually helping her deal with the burnout. The judge and panel that reviewed this also agreed that the teacher had been singled out for this treatment and had not been offered any constructive ways to address the burnout. They didn't award her a ton of money - they simply paid her the salary she would have gotten if she hadn't been inappropriately drummed out, plus legal expenses which she wouldn't have incurred had she not been inappropriately fired.

Seriously, I've managed people before and sometimes you do have to get rid of the deadwood, etc. But this whole situation stinks, STINKS of poor, PHB management at the principal level and poor oversight by the district superintendent.

And that this case is being used as some kind of data point for people to argue against teachers' unions is really weak tea.
posted by darkstar at 10:31 PM on July 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


Guys, why bother arguing? None of this will be fixed. There's no adult supervision any more - no one is going to spend an extra penny on the schools, the unions aren't going to help because they're full of terrified people wanting to keep their jobs so they don't, you know, die in the street as people more or less do in the US when their jobs go away.

When I was a kid, the US educational system was the envy of the world. Now it's the laughing stock. It's gone steadily downward for 40 years and no end is in sight.

And it isn't going to be fixed, in the same way that we aren't going to stop increasing the military budget, we aren't going fix our bridges and highways and power system, we aren't going to close our concentration camps nor give the prisoners fair trials, we aren't going to stop spying on Americans, we aren't going to turn the Bill of Rights back on again.

The issue is about a third of Americans are demonstrably mentally ill, having destructive beliefs that are obviously contrary to the fact - and that one third is simply enough to prevent any reasonable proposal from getting anywhere. And one of those things that the crazy one-in-three hate is education.

The fact that a war-loving Wall Street worshiper like Mr Obama is the very best we can do shows what an awful state things are in. And the people we get at lower levels are generally even worse. Don't waste time complaining - home school your kids, or move to Europe or Canada, places where they still value education. Really, your kids will thank you for it.

And if you think I'm defeatist, tell me what to do. Really. Voting clearly is pointless. The Democrats will never get a penny of my money again - they stand for nothing I do except "not liking Republicans."

I'm through with political action - I've been on the Left for decades and we've basically been right about everything, remember when we warned that e.g. the Iraq war might last past 2003 and cost more than $50 billion? And yet we don't even get a whisper in the media, today there isn't one major national political figure who even mentions ending the wars, and the same people who've been right every time for a decade are represented as crazy people and the same people who've led the United States into disaster for over a decade are the only people whose voice ever counts.

"I'm sorry, this ride is closed."
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:17 PM on July 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


lupus_yonderboy: "Guys, why bother arguing? None of this will be fixed. There's no adult supervision any more - no one is going to spend an extra penny on the schools, the unions aren't going to help because they're full of terrified people wanting to keep their jobs so they don't, you know, die in the street as people more or less do in the US when their jobs go away.

When I was a kid, the US educational system was the envy of the world. Now it's the laughing stock. It's gone steadily downward for 40 years and no end is in sight.

And it isn't going to be fixed, in the same way that we aren't going to stop increasing the military budget, we aren't going fix our bridges and highways and power system, we aren't going to close our concentration camps nor give the prisoners fair trials, we aren't going to stop spying on Americans, we aren't going to turn the Bill of Rights back on again.

The issue is about a third of Americans are demonstrably mentally ill, having destructive beliefs that are obviously contrary to the fact - and that one third is simply enough to prevent any reasonable proposal from getting anywhere. And one of those things that the crazy one-in-three hate is education.

The fact that a war-loving Wall Street worshiper like Mr Obama is the very best we can do shows what an awful state things are in. And the people we get at lower levels are generally even worse. Don't waste time complaining - home school your kids, or move to Europe or Canada, places where they still value education. Really, your kids will thank you for it.

And if you think I'm defeatist, tell me what to do. Really. Voting clearly is pointless. The Democrats will never get a penny of my money again - they stand for nothing I do except "not liking Republicans."

I'm through with political action - I've been on the Left for decades and we've basically been right about everything, remember when we warned that e.g. the Iraq war might last past 2003 and cost more than $50 billion? And yet we don't even get a whisper in the media, today there isn't one major national political figure who even mentions ending the wars, and the same people who've been right every time for a decade are represented as crazy people and the same people who've led the United States into disaster for over a decade are the only people whose voice ever counts.

"I'm sorry, this ride is closed."
"

Hello, Yoostabee!
posted by ShawnStruck at 12:30 AM on July 16, 2010


I see your point ROU : Academic tenure protects faculty who annoy powerful people while doing important things. Teacher tenure protects teachers from the randomness & stupidity of local school boards. I'll agree that's a noble goal, obviously nowhere near as important as academic tenure of course, which helps society progress, but nevertheless valid. And I'd imagine any schools that got themselves into trouble by awarding tenure to bad teachers simply didn't spend enough resources evaluating pre-tenure teachers.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:06 AM on July 16, 2010


Labor unions are basically worker-owned business entities that broker various kinds of labor in exchange for certain prices and conditions.

This is totally wrong, on every level. No they are not "worker-owned business entities." No they don't "broker labor." They are, under federal law, the free association of persons working at a bargaining unit. They merely allow the individuals to band together to negotiate en masse, to counter the business's vast powers when to allow collective negotiations.

I see business types talk this way all of the time. They can percieve no organization that isn't like theirs and they want all organizations to be exactly like business, including governments and businesses.

I suggest you read title 29 of the US Code:

Industrial strife which interferes with the normal flow of commerce and with the full production of articles and commodities for commerce, can be avoided or substantially minimized if employers, employees, and labor organizations each recognize under law one another's legitimate rights in their relations with each other, and above all recognize under law that neither party has any right in its relations with any other to engage in acts or practices which jeopardize the public health, safety, or interest.
It is the purpose and policy of this chapter, in order to promote the full flow of commerce, to prescribe the legitimate rights of both employees and employers in their relations affecting commerce, to provide orderly and peaceful procedures for preventing the interference by either with the legitimate rights of the other, to protect the rights of individual employees in their relations with labor organizations whose activities affect commerce, to define and proscribe practices on the part of labor and management which affect commerce and are inimical to the general welfare, and to protect the rights of the public in connection with labor disputes affecting commerce.


Unions are, by nature, chartered to assist individuals in obtaining better conditions and pay:

29 U.S.C. s 152:
(5) The term ``labor organization'' means any organization of any kind, or any agency or employee representation committee or plan, in which employees participate and which exists for the purpose, in whole or in part, of dealing with employers concerning grievances, labor disputes, wages, rates of pay, hours of employment, or conditions of work.


On the other hand, corporations have no such restriction--they are usually incorporated to engage in "any lawful business."

I just think people should read the law on this stuff. It gives you a much better perspective on what these things are and are not in our system. These aren't just lofty definitions, they define what the rights of these groups are. Knowing about the facts helps increase undestanding and sharpens debate.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:12 AM on July 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm not saying this to red bait you, I doubt you're a communist or even close. I'm saying this because 'revolution' is the only half-coherent answer I've ever received to the question of 'what are you organizing for?' We could talk about rights and conditions all day, but a union's purpose ultimately comes down to improving the economic wellbeing of its members (where economic is not just financial). That's a fine, noble purpose. There is nothing wrong with such a concept - as long as you recognize that the purchaser of labor also has a legitimate economic interest.

So look for the opportunity to achieve win-win transactions instead of zero-sum ones...and the outcome is likely to be a better deal for union members. Company or government employer complaining about the hideous complexity of a bargaining agreement and excessive cost of administrating the pay and benefits? OK....offer to handle the payroll and bring it inside the union. Law doesn't allow it? Make a showing of how changing it would yield better value for taxpayers. I would love to be part of a union that took an active interest in enhancing the careers and productivity of its members, to their mutual benefit.


Said like a person who has never negotiated an actual union contract.

First, it is a lot more than economics. Way more--in fact it is the unions that are bringing in non-economic factors, like quality of life and safety.

And in terms of "win-win" transactions, there are few of those in this area of the law. These are two parties on the opposite ends of a transaction--they cannot be true allies because their interests are generally opposed.

As for changing the law to "yield better value for the taxpayers," this isn't about that. This is about the Constitutional right of free association. The "value for the taxpayers" is not an important value when you are talking about the fundamental rights secured by the constitution.

Its as if Unions aren't allowed to get what they want but it is perfectly OK for business to grab everything they want. No. That is not right. It is the way to conflict, not win-win situations.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:18 AM on July 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


Damn Ironmouth, I can tell this is your field. In this thread you have shown you unquestionably have a strong and principled grip on the subject matter. I also see some passion shining through, and I like it.

Good show old chap.
posted by discountfortunecookie at 10:41 AM on July 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Its as if Unions aren't allowed to get what they want but it is perfectly OK for business to grab everything they want.

Yes, it's just like that, if your definition of "just like that" includes "not at all like that." That's not what the poster -- or anyone else -- is saying. Especially here in this thread, which again doesn't actually involve any businesses.

We get that you're an Awesome Union Guy, and you think that unions are awesome in every way and the sole bulwark against total takeover of everything by evil sneering mustache-twirling corporatists. But just like some of us on the pro-choice side are a little sick of hearing "We're only one Supreme Court justice away from Roe v. Wade being overturned!" maybe some of us on the pro-union side are getting sick in this particular discussion of hearing about how the only thing keeping the sky from falling is United Chicken Littles Local 104.
posted by Etrigan at 6:27 PM on July 16, 2010


I don't understand how being sick of a particular discussion changes anything. The price of liberty (freedom of choice, association etc.) is still eternal vigilance regardless of the length of any one person's attention span.
posted by jeffen at 7:10 AM on July 17, 2010


Check your prepositions. I sick in this particular discussion, alluding yet again to the fact that teacher's unions don't have to deal with businesses, which is the bugaboo that Ironmouth is cavilling against. In other words, it's a derail.
posted by Etrigan at 8:52 AM on July 17, 2010


I'm not seeing a meaningful distinction being offered, as a whole, Ironmouth's comments dealt specifically and accurately with this inflammatory article.
posted by jeffen at 10:43 AM on July 17, 2010


I went away for awhile and this discussion got a lot more interesting. I apologize for my earlier hotheadedness.

I still think the article is inflammatory. I still think the solution is easier than most people make it out to be - after all, we're not trying to give everyone an ironclad grade but simply to identify the worst teachers. Perhaps what is really lacking is not a good method to evaluate teachers but the political will and finesse to get everyone involved to buy in to such a system.
posted by mai at 3:57 PM on July 20, 2010


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