Monday, November 19, 2007

Why is Randi going berserk?

A reasonable person might wonder why Randi is going berserk -- a candlelight vigil?! -- over the DOE having five lawyers to help principals remove the very worst teachers.  It's not like the union is going to lose any members -- if a teacher is removed, another one will be hired to take his/her place.  Nor does she truly fear that committed, effective teachers will wrongly lose their jobs -- the DOE is not trying to circumvent the onerous due process procedures.  And the teachers union is always calling for teachers to be viewed as respected professionals, like doctors and lawyers -- I'm not aware that the American Medical Association and American Bar Association fight to protect their very worst members.
So why the hysteria?  There are surely many reasons -- distrust of the DOE, overwhelming, long-standing paranoia and victimization mentality, etc. -- but I think there are two big ones:
A) This is posturing to maintain her position and support among a very powerful, highly motivated group with her union: ineffective teachers.  As I've noted in earlier emails, an alarmingly high percentage of teachers (I'd estimate 20-40% in inner-city schools, which probably translates into 10-20% of all NYC public school teachers) are not, and will never be, effective teachers and need to find other professions.  
(This is not to say they are bad people, by the way.  Motivating and imparting knowledge to young people, many of whom come from difficult circumstances, is really, really hard and only very special people can do it well.  That's why I have so much respect and admiration for great teachers, especially those in inner-city schools, and why I think such teachers should be paid much more and treated much better.)
But getting back to ineffective teachers: these teachers know who they are and are petrified of anything that could lead to their removal.  And rightly so -- these are not the teachers that are likely to find betters jobs elsewhere, either as teachers or in another line of work.  Statistically speaking, they are likely to have gotten very low grades and test scores in high school, gone to uncompetitive colleges, gotten low grades and scores there as well, failed the teachers basic skills test on the first attempt, etc.  Thus, being a NYC public school teacher, with its decent pay, golden benefits and ironclad job protections (which, in reality, still haven't changed much), is likely the best job by far these people can get.
So, if Randi doesn't engage in maximum posturing against this DOE initiative, these 10-20% of teachers (perhaps more) will surely turn on Randi in a big way.  And they're already not Randi fans to begin with -- they're really unhappy, for instance, with her embrace of Green Dot and its minimalist teacher contract, which has far fewer protections for ineffective teachers.
B) Randi also hates this because it changes the power dynamic in schools.  While principals have always technically had the power to remove the most ineffective teachers, the reality is that the process is so onerous that it's almost never done -- and if a principals even thinks of trying it, the union will threaten to grieve it endlessly and make the principal's life miserable in many ways.  Thus, teachers knew they could show up late, have a chronic absenteeism problem, barely attempt to teach, berate kids -- you name it, anything short of a major felony -- and there's nothing the principal could do other than maybe force the teacher to leave the school at the end of the year, which leads to the abhorent annual game called "Dance of the Lemons" or "Pass the Trash."
Now, principals have a significant new weapon that has real teeth -- and it won't only affect the bottom 1% of teachers that might actually lose their jobs, but also the bottom 10-20% who know they're on the list.  This, in turn, might lead them to try harder, not be absent so often, etc.
While some may blanch at motivation by fear, I think any effective system has to have both carrots and sticks.  If you work hard and do a good job, you get rewarded, but if you're lazy and/or ineffective, you risk losing your job.  Sadly, neither carrots nor sticks are present in our public schools -- and we can see the dreadful results.  This is really basic stuff -- so basic that I can't think of a single effective organization of any type in which this is not the case.

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