disapproving kitty

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Teachers, Unions and other Thoughts

So I'm cleaning out some stuff from FB and found this.  It's from about 2 years ago, when the debate was running hot with regards to unions in general and teacher union's in specific.  The debate will rage again, I am sure, even though it's quieter now.
This piece would probably be better with citations, rather than my vague recollection of facts once read about in Time or Newsweek or heaven knows where, but I can't be bothered at the moment.  So, should something I mention be outdated or even fairly wrong, go ahead and let me know.  The errors, if there are any, aren't there to tick you off.  They're there because when I wrote this I was dead tired, overworked, and outraged all at the same time.


Yes, it's late again and I'm up writing responses to things said on Facebook days ago.  I'm writing it now because I've spent every extra hour I had working on Progress Reports.  60 of them.  And some written education plans and lesson plans and plans for a large field trip in May.  Most of this btw, not on official school time.  Just so you know.  And the fact is, I spend less personal time doing schoolwork than most teachers I know.  And it still adds up.

But, here are my responses to the arguments put forth about why Teachers' Unions have to go -- 

The Union protects bad workers:  As a teacher and union member, I DON’T want “Bad” teachers as my colleagues.  People love to throw this phrase around.  But there doesn’t seem to be any agreement at all on “Bad Teacher.”  A teacher who is abusive, on drugs, or otherwise blatantly unprofessional I’m sure we can all agree upon would qualify.  I’ve never met such a teacher.  I’m sure they exist, and if my union were to protect one, and keep that person in the classroom, then that is a horrible breach of trust. Let us all shake hands and agree on this one, shall we?

But what about the more grey areas – the teacher who works to contract, comes in and leaves on time and doesn’t seem to do any work outside the classroom either.  I’ve never met this teacher, either, but I’m sure they exist.  Is this person a “Bad Teacher?” 

The teacher who is burnt out – this teacher I think I’ve met, but mostly when I was a student and knew everything in the world.  Is this person truly worse than the first-year teacher who would replace him? First-year teachers are universally pretty lousy.  They make up for it, usually, with energy and verve and excitement, but they’re still pretty lousy.  I certainly was.  So should all first-year teachers just be fired?  And replaced with….? 

I am actually all FOR helping poor teachers improve or helping them out the door if they choose not to improve.  What I'm NOT FOR is someone with no teaching experience whatsoever trying to determine which teacher is which based on a single test score.  Sorta like judging a Seurat based on the quality of a single dot.

There are too many unproductive and unnecessary workers:  Just how many students do you think can be crammed into a classroom and still have it be productive?  Unions prevent schools from saving money by just upping the classroom size to completely unmanageable levels.  Anybody who thinks that it’s easy teaching 30 children with a wide range of abilities and talents, disabilities, and behavioral problems has NEVER BEEN A TEACHER.  If you haven’t been there, and don’t know what it is like, firsthand, then you do not get to say what is do-able and what is not.  
This type of thinking is typical of someone who is applying a business model to something that is NOT a business.  Our raw materials are children.  We take all comers.  We cannot send back the ones that aren’t up to standard like you can in business.  We have our raw materials for 7 hours out of the day, then we return them to their homes or other environments over which we have no control.   For a more fleshed out example, google "the blueberry story."  
In states with no unions and really lousy pay and working conditions, they have had to reduce the requirements for being a teacher.  In some cases, there is no requirement for certification or training as a teacher at all.   They can't find people willing to make that kind of educational investment for the return the district is willing to pay.  Usually there is a requirement for having a college degree, but if things are bad enough, I'm sure that's been waived, too.  Do you really, truly believe that someone with no teacher training at all is going to be better than a certificated teachers?  This is not a method for RAISING the quality of education in America.  The states that ban teacher unions are the ones at the very BOTTOM of the state rankings.  They are embarrassingly bad.  
Unions protect teachers and they protect the quality of education, too.

Public Schools should be privatized:  And with that, the law requiring that children from ages 5 – 18 attend school would naturally be abolished, because a government should not be allowed to compel a citizen to pay for a service he or she may not want, correct? And if they can compel it, then what about those who can't afford it?  A tiered system?  Separate-but-equal schools for those with money and those without?
I think the end result of that is obvious to pretty much anyone:  those with an extra 8k a year, per child, would send their child to school.  The rest would try to care for them at home and provide what education they could.   Or parents just let the kids run wild while they (the parents) were off trying to make a living.  A “government-subsidy” method (as was suggested) would be enormously cumbersome and probably unfathomable to someone with a poor education, or who spoke/read English as a second language, or, in general, was impoverished.  The gap between the haves and have-nots would be enormous.  And without an educated populace, the country would suffer tremendously.  I have been in a country where they do not bother to educate a large section of the population.  Squalor is too nice a word to describe their conditions.  I, for one, do not want to condemn anyone to that sort of life.  Public education can prevent it.
And that doesn't even begin to address the needs of those kids who fall outside the "typical" range.  The kids who need speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, a full - time aide, or a classroom where there are only four other children and three adults at all times.  Where would those kids go?  Right now, the cost of caring and educating them to the best of their and our ability is spread out over all of society.  It has to be.  It's enormously expensive.   What will happen when the burden falls solely on the parents of those children?  Will we head back to the dark ages where the mentally different were chained in basements and backyards because no one could afford to do any better?  Private schools do not have to take these children.  Public schools do.  Privatizing would leave the very least among us with nowhere to go.  Having a child with a severe disability would ensure that you would be impoverished for as long as your child lived.  Most Americans living now do not recall the utter inhumanity of how people with disabilities were treated 100 years ago.  Privatizing would all but ensure a return to that.
By spreading out the cost of educating the all the young among all people and businesses, society as a whole benefits.  But we have become a society that is so short term in its thinking that we have lost sight of that.  We can only see that "x dollars a year are going towards property taxes and I don't even have a kid in school yet!"  or "I don't have a kid at all!"  
Private schools run at least 6k to over 20K a year.  My property taxes are cheap by comparison.  And even if I didn't have children, I need a society with an educated population to work in it, live in it, be part of my society's economy.  How many businesses really want to hire employees who can't read?  Can't write?  Can't use a computer?  Can't add?  Can't get along with others?  Would you hire someone with no education, or want to pay for remedial training?  That's that taxes pay for, not just for your own personal child to go to school.

Teachers should have “Merit Pay”:  This has been tried a few times, and the result is – no effect on test scores.  None.  Zip. Zero.  But then, test scores are a piss-poor measure of a teacher.  Even if you take Child A, test him and test him again with a similar test one year later and compare that to how he did the previous year it’s STILL a piss-poor measure.  Why?  Because kids do not grow evenly and even if they did, paper-pencil test don’t accurately judge what a child can do or understand.  Or what about the gifted kid who took the test last year, got a 99th%ile score on it and next year, missed one question and got the 98th%ile instead.  He went down a point!  Does that mean the teacher is a failure? Not hardly. It means he maxed out the test BOTH years, bonked his head on the test ceiling and the test makers haven’t got the faintest idea of what he can do.  Or what about the kid who got a new baby brother 10 days before the test and is being woken up 4 times a night now by a colickly newborn?  What about the kids whose parents got divorced this year, or lost their jobs, or moved or 1000 other things – should we penalize the teacher for a child’s lousy life situation? 
Now, one could argue that we should take the information, over several years, in aggregate, and we should see some trends. Like Teacher X always has kids that perform worse than Teacher Y who teaches the same things at the same grade level.  If that’s the case, then maybe Teacher X needs support, mentoring, professional development and assistance to improve his teaching skills.  There ARE districts that have tried this, and used other teachers, who know and understand teaching, as part of a team to evaluate teachers’ performance and recommend for rehire or not.   It’s done with respect and support and these pilot programs may work, though the jury is still out, to my knowledge.  Pay, as far as I am aware, isn’t a part of it.
The whole “merit pay system” has such a nice ring to it.  But all those who use it haven’t the faintest idea of how to go about devising it.  So unless you have something tested, accurate, valid and reliable to use, then quit saying it’s the way to go.  
I have had experience working in the private sector, albeit briefly, and one thing I know is that salaries are kept 100% private.  They are highly privileged information.  When something gets out about how much person X is paid versus person Y, intense anger/rage/jealousy/annoyance/dissatisfaction ensues.  Teacher salaries are public.  They have to be.  A “merit pay” system as devised by those who know only the business world would inevitably result in teachers being demoralized, angry, and outraged at one another.  That’s hardly going to result in improved teaching.  

If you have not had experience in the world of teaching, only in business, then you need to either spend significant time in a classroom before making your judgments and pronouncements, or you need to SHUT UP.