Standing up for school reform

President Obama gives a great education speech, writes David Brooks in the New York Times.  And it’s not just words. He’s “standing up to the teachers’ unions and the other groups that have undermined nearly every other reform effort.”

Obama’s team failed to defend D.C.’s successful voucher program from congressional Democrats, Brooks concedes. (There’s so much pressure that vouchers may survive, after all.) But, over all, “the news is good.”

Over the past few days I’ve spoken to people ranging from Bill Gates to Jeb Bush and various education reformers. They are all impressed by how gritty and effective the Obama administration has been in holding the line and inciting real education reform.

Over the summer, the Department of Education indicated that most states would not qualify for Race to the Top money. Now states across the country are changing their laws: California, Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin and Tennessee, among others.

States are raising their caps on charter schools and moving to link teacher pay and retention to student performance.

The American Federation of Teachers recently announced innovation grants for performance pay ideas. The New Haven school district has just completed a new teacher contract, with union support, that includes many of the best reform ideas.

Education reform has many enemies, Brooks writes. But, so far, Obama hasn’t wavered.

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  1. Huh? I haven’t seen a single change. I think they’re pulling a Nobel here.

  2. Brooks is a dope or a shill.

    The reason for the existence of a union is to get the best possible deal for its membership come what may. Profits, quality, long-term planning? Those are all management’s worries. For the union there’s only one word that means anything and that word is “more”.

    That means that Brooks’ rosy view of union cooperation is either wishful thinking or a purely local phenomenon that’s not going to apply across the union universe.

    Among teachers for whom the public education system exists to make sure their paychecks don’t bounce the instantaneous reaction to union cooperation will be a more distinctly uncooperative element that’ll seek to turn out the current batch of union elective scoundrels replacing them with scoundrels more to the liking of unapologetically mercenary teachers. It won’t take too many such elections to convince that national organization that if they want to pursue their cooperative agenda they’ll do it with fewer affiliated locals.

    Obama’s made some substantive moves in the education arena, Brooks doesn’t mention it but even the loss on D.C. Opportunity Scholarships was mitigated by grandfathering in the currently-enrolled kids, but his greatest contribution would be to keep the pot boiling as vigorously as possible. The educational status quo is served by apathy and silence.

  3. Roger Sweeny says:

    The reason for the existence of a union is to get the best possible deal for its membership come what may. Profits, quality, long-term planning? Those are all management’s worries.

    Hardly. The union wants as much as it can get of the money that’s spent on schooling–but they know that the amount of money spent can vary. If they appear uncaring and mercenary, they risk wounding the goose that lays the golden eggs.

    Both the management and the players in the National Football League want the league to have a good image and want the games to be entertaining. Even the baseball players union, traditionally strong and militant, was willing to accept a fairly strict “performing enhancing drug” policy when it began to look like fans’ concerns about steroids would result in decreased revenue.

    Traditionally, the teachers unions have essentially said, “teachers should get a lot of money because we are professionals: we’re highly trained experts and we care. But the more the unions oppose competition and performance pay, the more they look like they don’t care and they’re not especially competent. Else, why would they fear competition and being judged?

    The interest of the union is to appear to support reform. If things go right, that would mean actual positive reform.

  4. California has already changed its education code to remove the provisions that prevent teacher evaluations being based on student performance. See here:

    This is one step to shifting the balance of power to parents at the district level.

    In the realm of education I’d call that change at light-speed.

  5. Obviously, the unions were willing to take the risk of appearing uncaring and mercenary because teacher’s strikes came to an end due to changes in the law setting forth penalties for doing so. Concerns about the goose were dealt with via the observation that public education is tax-supported meaning that the goose’ll continue to lay the golden eggs because it doesn’t have a choice.

    As for your use of the NFL as an example, the connection is tenuous at best. Franchises change hands and teams are shaken up from top to bottom. There’s no concept of tenure in the NFL. The only metric is winning and anyone who doesn’t materially contribute to that metric is at risk and probably gone in short order and there’s nothing the union can do about that.

    Within the context of the competitive nature of the industry the union tries to get what they can for the player which tells you something about public education. The context of public education is that there’s no notion of competition among professionals at any level at least with regard to their ability to impart education. Therefor the decision to continue to employ a particular professional can’t be on the basis of their professional skills. Those professional skills aren’t measured against any standard or against the skills of their fellows.

  6. Unions should go the way of the dinosaur. The only reason they exist, in my opinion, is because of greed and fear (on both sides of the table).

  7. ponderosa says:

    If only roughing up teachers and schools would lead to better results! Unfortunately, Brooks and Obama are barking up the wrong tree. What we need is content-specific standards and knowledge-rich curricula, not competition between teachers/schools using the same watered-down standards and curricula.

  8. Roger Sweeny says:

    Of course the goose has a choice. Local school committees and state legislators can spend less on K-12. Or they can hold the line on spending. No raises this year, and pay more for your health insurance, and we’re not hiring any more teachers to replace those who retired …

    Many union officials know that if they over-reach, they risk a backlash. So their most successful strategy may be to publicly support reform, while making sure it doesn’t do much to change the status quo.

  9. Don Bemont says:

    Allen, the problem here is that you are forgetting the wisdom that you expressed in the other thread, about technology. As you pointed out, “the public education system was the result of the confluence of interest of a number of constituencies some of which were bedfellows only due to that confluence of interest.” You are rightfully cynical because, in truth, there was never much consensus that public education existed to produce a broadly educated population. Groups signed on for reasons of their own.

    What you need to understand is that teachers (and their unions) feel exactly the same way about the current reforms. It is made up of many disparate groups who want contradictory things, but, for political reasons, find it convenient to scapegoat teachers. Reforms have been raining on teachers from above for several decades now, and most have turned out to be unmitigated disasters, often pushing in opposite directions from year to year. This practice has served administration well because management can always plausibly say “Something is being done.”

    Some want more rigorous academics; some want less demands placed on students; some want to change the traditional meaning of education; some see egalitarian goals as more important than academics; some see character education as more important than academics; and some are free market fundamentalists who are more interested in extending the market than in the specifics of education.

    I am far from sure as to the best direction for public education, but I find it annoying that skepticism over an educational reform proposal is considered prima facie evidence of selfish motives — especially from someone so adept at seeing through past political marriages of convenience.

  10. Roger, while theoretically school boards and state legislators could, at any time, pull the plug on spending increases the evidence is incontestable that for quite a long time that option has remained theoretical. However much money has been appropriated it’s never been enough and that’s due to the those political forces among which are the teacher’s unions.

    For the teacher’s unions the imperative is to get as much as possible assuming that any warnings about backlash or financial problems are nothing but tactics to deter the union from demanding even more and properly to be ignored. You might want to look into the Caterpillar Tractor strike for an example of the reality of union shortsightedness. Closer to home was the most recent Detroit newspaper strike. In both cases, and probably more then a few others, union shortsightedness resulted in the union damaging its own cause.

    Understand, I’m not so much blaming unions for being shortsighted as I am laying out the case for inevitability of union shortsightedness; the underlying factors of a union predispose them to shortsightedness. It’s not a moral defect, it’s a genetic defect.

    Don, I’m not cynical about the political deal that brought public education into existence. It just the proper context within which to view the current public education system. Politics to create the system, politics to maintain the system.

    There really isn’t any other mechanism for the creation of public institutions then the political process but the political process should never be mistaken for anything else as has routinely become the case with public education. Political expediency dictates that the emphasis be placed on education with the pretense being that politics is just an occasional, unpleasant intrusion. Yet much about public education makes no sense when the institution is viewed in that light.

    But when public education is viewed as a political institution for which education is just one, but not necessarily the most, important function much of what doesn’t make sense about public education becomes transparent.

    For instance, the “Reforms (that) have been raining on teachers” make perfect sense as long as no reform is required to demonstrate education efficacy. All any particular reform has to have going for it is that it satisfy some constituency of sufficient influence of the reform’s value *to*that*constituency* and the reform becomes a mandate.

    California’s experiment with whole word didn’t occur because all the various experts simultaneously came loose of their moorings and if educational efficacy were determinative the experiment never would have gone forward the history of whole language being one of uniform failure. So why would the legislature mandate whole language? Because the experts said is was the way to go. The constituency, in this case of whole word proponents, was sufficiently influential in the deliberations of the legislature to make their teaching method the law the assumption being that the experts must know what they’re talking about.

    Of course the experts didn’t know what they were talking about because they didn’t have to. Appealing to whatever it is that motivates elective officials is all that’s important. But education? Education doesn’t matter.

    As to the direction public education ought to go, once you appreciate the political nature of public education and what it implies the answer’s obvious. If it’s education you want to drive the public education system then the constituency that has the most credible claim on a concern with education above all other considerations is parents. The greater say each parent has over the education their child receives the better that education will be.

  11. Roger Sweeny says:

    … union officials[‘] … most successful strategy may be to publicly support reform, while making sure it doesn’t do much to change the status quo.

    See Joanne’s October 27 post “Unionized Reform.”


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