Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Most education reformers are barking up the wrong tree.

Major elements of the current approach to education reform include redirecting more money to classrooms by cutting pensions and increasing employee contributions to healthcare, dis-empowering teachers unions, and focusing on hiring and firing policies. Human resources practices, budgeting, and union considerations are important factors in any education reform agenda, but they shouldn't be the crowning ones.

First of all, I support creating more portable retirement funds and health insurance, and separating them from employment. People shouldn't feel forced to stay in teaching (or in any job) just for the benefits. Likewise, people should keep benefits even if they lose (to no fault of their own) their jobs. That being said, the benefits that teachers receive are not lavish, especially when you consider their lower salaries, nor are such pensions and benefits responsible for our precarious fiscal state.

Furthermore, I have a hard time when some edu-pundits hammer pensions, but remain silent when it comes to the unheard of sums of money some reformers spend on expensive and unnecessary systems, on their own salaries, and on consultants and central office employees who don't work directly with children. Why only go after pensions and compensation when there are so many more damaging budgeting practices occurring in the name of reform? Such inconsistencies lead me to believe that those who yell about slashing teachers' benefits while approving truly wasteful spending are interested more in advancing their ideology than in smart fiscal policy.

As for reforming unions, to be honest when I taught in DCPS it didn't sit well with me that deductions were automatically taken out of my paycheck whether I joined the union or not (and I did join the union). I'm just not convinced that's a good system. I don't share Modern School blogger Michael Dunn's perspectives on all matters, but I do agree with some of his criticisms of unions, for example, that automatic dues deductions should be abolished and that unions should use their money to help workers and to advocate directly to management rather than use it to make contributions to political campaigns. And this is a place where perhaps more conservative edu-folks would agree; however, they should also then advocate for ending corporations' financial influence in political campaigns. Again, this is where inconsistency can betray ideological rather than practical motives.

Criticisms of unions aside, I find this path to school reform puzzling. First of all, the right of workers to organize is grounded in their First Amendment rights and hence a larger part of the American democratic system. Furthermore, I seriously doubt that disabling teachers unions will do much towards reforming education or towards improving teaching and learning, though it will certainly disable the Democratic Party. There are definitely teachers who get so involved with union politics, activities, and ideology that they neglect their jobs and their students--teachers who don't do their jobs shouldn't be allowed to keep them, but in my time teaching in public schools and being a public school parent, I have rarely encountered any educator who talked about much union activities or about their political views. I am very liberal and I have taught and lived in some very conservative places. I've worked alongside conservatives and I'm sure some very conservative people educate my children (I live in Eric Cantor's district), but their union membership and political views, conservative or liberal, almost never come up, nor should they have, and as far as how and what I teach or how my own children are educated, they don't really matter.

What does come up then? What should we be concerned with when talking about to how improve teaching and learning? Pedagogy and curriculum. How should I best engage and teach the students before me, and how should I advise my kids' teachers to best engage them? How can my co-workers and I help one another to best reach our shared students? More importantly, what should we teach our students? What as social studies and ESOL teachers do we want out students to know and be able to do? As a parent, what do I want my kids to know and be able to do? This is what good educators focus on and this is what any education reformer worth their salt should focus on. Same with teacher talent: where teachers went to college and their pedigree is much less important than what knowledge they have about pedagogy and about the content they teach--what they teach and how they practice. This is where evaluation needs to be much more rigorous and much more useful--as a means to improve teaching and learning, and not merely as an instrument to fire people.

If the existence of unions and fairly compensating teachers has not hurt the quality of teaching and learning, the high-stakes accountability and standardization movement has. It has severely limited what and how we teach and what and how students learn. I have not yet spoken to one parent or teacher in the liberal, moderate, and conservative communities where I've lived and taught who thought that high-stakes testing and standardization was improving teaching and learning, who wasn't concerned about its corrupting and harmful effects. I know many families in central Virginia who home school, not for religious reasons and not because they don't believe in public education, but because they abhor high-stakes testing and what it's doing to curriculum and pedagogy.

Meanwhile, leaders of education reform labs such as DCPS and NYCPS focus relentlessly on these relatively irrelevant criteria as well as on the pedigree of their practitioners, elite hiring (how about first focusing on making it a sane and stimulating place to work? On not driving good people out?) and draconian firing policies (accountability!), and student test scores. DC has had several years of education reform and they're just now (just now!) thinking about curriculum--and only in Language Arts for the moment. Meanwhile, DCPS is investing more in a expensive, large, and growing Office of Human Capital. What about investing more in quality instruction and rich and meaningful curriculum? There are eleven departments within the DCPS central administration and only one of them is focused on pedagogy and curriculum. What kind of an education system only focuses 9% of their efforts on pedagogy and curriculum, the heart of teaching and learning?

No work is entirely immune to the influences of ideology and politics. Furthermore, considerations of politics, economics, human resources, and management are important to any school or system. But if we truly want to improve education, we should do our best to check our ideology at the school house door. The craft of teaching and the quality of content we convey is where the real work of educating gets done. It's time we stopped wasting our precious resources and our students' time on petty and ideological matters, that we rolled up our sleeves and got down to educating.

11 comments:

  1. I agree.

    But before we can solve the education "problem," we have to come to some sort of a consensus on the goal of a K-12 education. At this point, it seems to me the only goals we know are trying to get higher test scores than the Finns or get every student into college.

    These are sad goals, in my mind, as they say nothing about what we hope people achieve in their lives or what individuals can help the country achieve. Of course, the problem with the type of goals I envision is that you can't measure them very well. What to do?

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  2. We definitely need to figure out what it means to be an educated American--agreed.

    I also think higher test scores is a sad goal. I think if we got away from this obsession with quantitatively measuring everything, we'd get the much saner and more holistic approach you suggest.

    Great comment!

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  3. "Furthermore, I have a hard time when some edu-pundits hammer pensions, but remain silent when it comes to the unheard of sums of money some reformers spend on expensive and unnecessary systems, on their own salaries"

    I'm confused by what "their own salaries" is supposed to mean. The link isn't to a story about edu-pundits' salaries, but to a story about pay raises for a few administrators in the Chicago public school system. So, for example, in the story you link to, Brizard was going to get a $20,000 pay raise.

    It doesn't surprise me at all, nor is it a sign of hypocrisy, that "reformers" and taxpayers in general might worry about the several hundred BILLION dollars by which teacher pension systems are underfunded, while not worrying about one guy's $20,000 pay raise.

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  4. Hi Stuart,

    Thanks for reading and commenting. I was wondering when my blog would earn a comment from you.

    My writing was definitely unclear in that sentence. I was not referring at all to the salaries of edu-pundits (about which I'm not concerned) but to the salaries of "reformer" central admin employees such as in DCPS and CPS, many of whom are grossly overpaid, especially in these times of economic retrenchment. How is not hypocritical to say we have to do more with less, but then do less with more by bloating the bureaucracy and paying the bloaters such relatively obscene salaries?

    Of course taxpayers should worry about how to pay for compensating public employees, including teachers, superintendents, and central office employees.

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  5. I'm just saying that the scale of the problems isn't equivalent at all. If you could reduce the salary of every superintendent in America by $20,000, you'd save about $280 million per year. That's a miniscule percentage of the amount by which teacher pension systems are underfunded.

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  6. You're right, in the big (US-wide) picture, the scale probably isn't equivalent. But when you're looking at cuts on a local/system level which get passed on to schools or passed on to cuts in teacher compensation against the number of central office employees (not to mention consultants) and their relatively high compensation, then the cuts & central office salaries (hello, income gap) become harder to swallow--at least they are for me.

    Look, the hug & growing income gap in America really bothers me as does hypocrisy of any magnitude--perhaps more so than they do many other people. For better or worse, they just do.

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  7. Ooops, I meant "huge" not "hug."

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  8. Well, I'm not sure how the costs could match up any differently on a national scale vs. on a local scale. The former is just the sum of the latter.

    So on a local scale, if you're upset that the supe makes $20,000 too much -- fine, cut his or her salary, and that would fund part of one teacher's pension for a year. But that wouldn't even come close to solving the problem of a hundred or a thousand or (in the case of Chicago) 20,000 teachers in the district whose pensions aren't being funded enough.

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  9. I know it was a secondary issue in your post, but I wanted to raise the issue of automatic dues check off nonetheless. I clicked the link to the Dunn post arguing against automatic dues deduction expecting to vehemently disagree with the argument, but I must say it was a very thoughtful and reasonable critique.

    I totally agree that unions ought to spend more resources servicing their members and less on political contributions; I totally agree that unions ought to emphasize internal organizing over political influence; and I totally agree that unions ought to be more responsive to their members. That said, I'm still not really persuaded by the argument that we ought to get rid of dues check off.

    If I thought that eliminating automatic dues check off, would actually result in those aforementioned things happening then I would wholeheartedly agree with the argument, but sadly I don't think those things would come as a result. Dunn offers an anecdote of one case, but I can say that as a former union organizer when I was in setting where there was no dues check off, it did not result in better servicing our members' needs. On the contrary, we spent the overwhelming majority of our time and resources collecting dues. Member servicing, grievances, worksite issues, and advocating to management all took a backseat. And the union in those areas where there was no check off was chronically underfunded.

    I agree that the rank and file need a bigger voice in their unions, but everything I've seen in my experience leads me to believe that eliminating dues check off would be an ineffective way to accomplish that. I'm open to anything that would do that, so I could be persuaded otherwise, but I think Dunn's argument sounds better in theory than in practice.

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  10. "What should we be concerned with when talking about to how improve teaching and learning? Pedagogy and curriculum. How should I best engage and teach the students before me, and how should I advise my kids' teachers to best engage them? How can my co-workers and I help one another to best reach our shared students? More importantly, what should we teach our students? What as social studies and ESOL teachers do we want out students to know and be able to do? As a parent, what do I want my kids to know and be able to do? This is what good educators focus on and this is what any education reformer worth their salt should focus on. Same with teacher talent: where teachers went to college and their pedigree is much less important than what knowledge they have about pedagogy and about the content they teach--what they teach and how they practice."

    Absolutely agree!

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