Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The school reform deniers

STOP THE PRESSES!  This is an absolutely BRILLIANT article by Brill, in which he introduces the word "deniers" (he also used it in his debate with Ravitch) to describe The Blob/unions, and compares them to those who once denied that smoking causes cancer.

These knowable facts produce five simple questions that, I think, have obvious answers:

1. Given that, other than retail sales clerks and cashiers, K-12 teachers are the largest work force – 3.2 million – of any single occupation in the United States, and that theirs is arguably the most important occupation, can there really be a debate about whether their performance should be measured and acted on so that what they do best can be studied and taught to others, so that the best ones can be encouraged and advanced to become mentors, and so that the worst ones can be retrained or ushered out of the classroom?

2. Can we really accept the teachers' unions' argument that because tests to measure a student's progress aren't perfect, or because the supervisor observations that are also part of any good teacher evaluation process are subjective, that we just shouldn't try, especially when our public schools are failing us so miserably?

To an outsider like me, that seems completely, undeniably insane – which was exactly Bill Gates's reaction when an education expert from Harvard first explained it to him in a 2007 meeting, after which Bill and Melinda Gates channeled much of the Gates Foundation's resources into encouraging school systems to measure and reward teacher performance.

3. In what other workplace would the most important workers be laid off only on the basis of how long they had been on the job, with the last in being the first out (a system called LIFO)?
The union's argument — which much of the press dutifully reports as if it is another of those on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand issues — is that if LIFO wasn't there to protect teachers, the most senior teachers would be fired first so that the principals could save money. Apart from the fact that this underscores the insanity of paying people based only on how long they have been on the job, it also ignores the obvious fact that while that discriminatory strategy may have been used in the first half of the last century, when these LIFO restrictions were put in place, it plainly isn't possible since the passage of the federal age discrimination act in 1967. Not only would that kind of discrimination be illegal, it is also the easiest discrimination claim to sue an employer for. If an employer lays off 100 people and they are disproportionally old, it's an open and shut case, with the simple age data as Exhibit A. It's not anything like the difficulty of proving discrimination in hiring.

4. Isn't it obvious that union leaders have a basic conflict of interest with their own members in this debate? If the most important factor in a teacher's professional life became promotions or salary bumps based on his or her individual performance, then the union contract – whose core provision is lockstep compensation, based only on how long a teacher has been on the job – would become that much less important. So union membership and union dues would become that much less important.

That's why so many dedicated, high-performing teachers I met felt alienated from their union (and why turnout in union elections is so relatively low).

In fact, I found that by taking apart and re-doing the typical contract that union leaders fight so hard to protect we could spend the same overall amount on public school teachers yet afford to pay teachers $65,000 to $165,000, instead of the $30,000-$110,000 we generally pay, thereby offering the compensation and merit-based environment necessary to attract and keep dedicated professionals. Among the ways to do that: 1) substitute standard 401 (k) pension plans for the costly back-loaded pensions that benefit the senior teachers who are most likely to vote in the low-turnout teachers' union elections (and that now costs major urban school systems $10,000-$20,000 per teacher); 2) allow for slightly larger class size (which would free up $7,000-$20,000 per teacher across the country); eliminate the 10-15 sick or personal days in a 34-38 week work year prevalent across the country (and stop allowing teachers to cash in the days they don't use); 3) stop paying automatic salary increases (now amounting to $5 billion a year nationally) just because a teacher gets some advanced degree, when all the research now shows zero correlation between those degrees and teacher effectiveness; 4) stop paying automatic seniority-based increases above what would now be the higher starting salaries and use that money to pay the top third or top quarter of performers the highest salaries; 5) stop paying teachers for doing union work or for the two or three years that they remain idle pending tenure-required disciplinary or removal hearings; and 6) allow for distance learning that allows more students to take advanced courses and implement other technology-enabled efficiencies that the unions have resisted.

With the saving generated from this "grand bargain" to revitalize public school teaching – in essence by swapping performance for protection — we could give teachers the kind of status, career paths and compensation that countries with the best public education results offer. It would be great for kids. And it would be great for the majority of teachers who are dedicated professionals, and who in various polls and recent union contract votes have consistently demonstrated a disdain for civil service-like tenure protection and a yearning to be treated and rewarded like professionals. But it would be an unsettling departure for traditional union leaders who still see the old lockstep contract as the key to preserving their power.

5. Can we regard the opposition of Democrats to reforms that would eliminate the unions' stranglehold on public education, including even LIFO, as anything other than obedience to the teachers' union leaders who are their patrons – especially in the face of a growing cadre of Democrats, including the Democratic president, who now favor these reforms because they have come to believe that school reform is the civil rights issue of our time?

…That's why my prescription for how we turn around public schools — not by abolishing the unions but by persuading or forcing them to engage in real reforms so that they can help move those 3.2 million teachers in the right direction – might surprise some reformers, as well as Weingarten (who I think could become a "Nixon to China" figure in that effort). In other words, once you get into the weeds of reporting about our schools, the solution becomes more complicated than either side would have you believe.

That said, the issue of whether we need to throw out a system in which we allow unaccountable, unmeasured civil servants to produce failure when our nation's economy, security, and core values depend on success is not complicated at all. It doesn't take Woodward and Bernstein to see that the deniers are running on empty. It reminds me of the old debates over whether cigarette smoking is bad for your health. Curing lung cancer is complicated. Identifying a leading cause wasn't. It only seemed complicated for as long as it did because those with an interest in denying the obvious spent so much for so long to keep the debate going.


The school reform deniers

Aug 21, 2011 19:37 EDT


By Steven Brill
All opinions expressed are his own.

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