Brown Out

Everyone is abuzz about what the Scott Brown victory in the MA special election might mean for education.   The answer is not much.   The politics of education in the Senate are complicated enough that it’s unlikely to be a one or two vote issue.    To the extent the outcome in MA further bolsters Republican strategists who believe that a strategy of “saving” the country from President Obama’s proposals is a political winner, then it’s that much less likely anything happens.  Worth nothing, after the very untimely death of his chief of staff who was an education veteran, House Republican Leader Boehner brought on one of the architects of the Contract for America in her place. Hard to see something big happening on education if Boehner doesn’t want to seriously play ball as he did in 2001.

But the bigger news that has largely flown under the eduradar is that yesterday’s SCOTUS ruling in the Citizens United v. FCC  (pdf) case has some big eduimplications as teachers’ unions were among the winners in terms of having more latitude to spend and influence political races than they already do.  That’s a far-reaching decision. 

Petrilli thinks a big flexibility bargain is in the works and the Administration is trial ballooning the idea, but absent real accountability hard to see that being a winner either.  And considering how under-used the existing flexibility the law allows now is, it’s unclear if that’s the real problem here at all.

15 Replies to “Brown Out”

  1. Since teachers’ unions represent the people who actually teach our children, I’d say that our students will be the winners to the extent that their interests overlap with their teachers’. To the extent that they don’t, they will be left out in the cold like everyone else.

    Teachers deserve our respect and our admiration and should play an important role in developing education policy. But let’s stop pretending that just because they’re “in the trenches,” they always know or pursue the best interests of students.

  2. Jesse, of course you are correct; not all teachers know or pursue the best interests of students. But, like parents, they are the people who are THERE. Just as it is in the best interests of children to do everything possible to work with the parents, so it is in their best interests to work with their teachers. To see teachers as the opposition, as we are presently doing, is to the detriment of the children in their care.

    Here are some questions for you and others who care about education: Why is it that few of our “reformers” would ever teach children themselves? Why do they discourage their children from doing so (except for a year or two during a recession)? How do you think this cultural oddity (strangely common in English-speaking countries) affects our educational system? Thank you.

  3. Why is it that few of our “reformers” would ever teach children themselves?
    Linda, it is because they are oh so much smarter than us and can see the forest and not just the trees.
    They want to bring their “knowledge” down to us.

    PS. Did you see where Michelle Rhee claimed that she allowed teachers who had sex with students and hit studnets continue in their jobs.
    She also admitted that she didn’t bring in the police, kinda like what she did for Kevin Johnson a few years ago at St. Hope.
    Read it at

  4. Linda, to answer your questions: I can’t speak for all “reformers.” I only speak for myself in saying that I would absolutely encourage my children to be teachers. My wife is a teacher. I have some experience working with students and would love to be a teacher, too, but I don’t think I have the right skill set for it, so I’m choosing to pursue other endeavors. I have nothing but respect for the teaching profession.

    I think you’re absolutely right about working with teachers being key to any change in education. My concern — or at least the one I was referencing above — is that teachers’ unions, because of their political power, distort the legislative process. This is, of course, true of any monied interest, but at least with Big Tobacco or Agribusiness, there’s no pretense about what’s going on: an interest group using its power to obtain benefits.

    Teachers have a powerful lobbying voice in their unions. Poor minority students don’t have a lobbying voice. In some instances, the things teachers lobby for will help those students. In other instances, they will have no effect. In still other instances, they will hurt students. And their ability to pour more money into the legislative process will only exacerbate all of these effects, both good and bad.

    I’m not naive. I get that that’s how American democracy works, and that the unions are just doing their job. Let’s just stop pretending there’s something more noble going on.

  5. Jesse, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. You sound like a sincere person who wants the best for all children, not just your own. I’d like to tell you how I see things after teaching for 42 years in mainly poor schools:

    Unions do not hire or fire teachers. District administrators hire and fire. If a teacher is dismissed, the union provides a lawyer if the teacher chooses to fight. After that the courts take over. In many cases the courts find in favor of the teacher. In my state it has taken seven years to get rid of a teacher who appears to be incompetent. A state commission keeps overturning a judge’s order to allow the dismissal to take place. So, in this case, and many others, the situation is complex, involving courts and government agences. The bottom line is that states have very strict laws protecting teachers. You may not agree with this, but it is a legislative situation and not a union one. In Georgia, when one governor got rid of tenure a few years ago, the next governor quickly brought it back. Basically “the people” support strict due process and other protections for teachers. Citizens often witness the work that teachers do and mostly support these protections. Yes, the unions lobby for these protections, but do you know any professional who does not have an organization lobbying for him or her? Read about the history of teaching in America and you’ll find out what it was like when teachers worked without these protections.

    It is a matter of record that most administrators give the majority of teachers “excellent” evaluations. This is probably the main reason why it is difficult to dismiss an ineffective instructor. It has nothing to do with unions, except in the sense that they provide the teacher with legal representation. Would you want less for our teachers?

    Traditionally the poorest districts have hired the least qualified and experienced teachers. This is still going on today where big cities hire novice teachers with “emergency” or “alternative” credentials. These teachers are rarely, if ever, hired by affluent suburban schools. I was one of these inexperienced teachers when I was hired by Cleveland in 1966 and believe me when I say I didn’t know what I was doing. This had nothing to do with the union, and everything to do with a society that did not care about “those kids.”

    A recent report showed that the average teacher spends more money on her students than the federal government. I believe this because I spent over $4000 a year on my classroom during my final years of teaching and I know many of my colleagues did the same. Please visit an inner-city school. While you will find some instances of incompetence, you’ll discover that the vast majority of these teachers are parent surrogates who often provide the children with books, materials, clothing, food, holiday gifts and field trip money. Like me, the teachers frequently use their own funds to attend yearly conferences.

    If you read about the two major teachers’ unions, you will discover that they espouse benefits for children that TEACHERS believe are important for the students’ educational welfare: health care, preschool, small classes, extended day and year, research-based instruction, multiple measures of evaluation for children and teachers, fully qualified teachers, social workers, librarians, time for teachers to plan and collaborate etc. These are changes that will make a profound difference for children, but they are expensive, and therein lies the problem. It’s many times cheaper to scapegoat the teacher and that is exactly what is happening in this recession.

    Teachers generally do not support the charter movement because we see it as a way to privatize the public schools and “make a killing” from school tax money. (Google “Imagine Schools Sell Five Schools” on Schools Matter, January 22, 2010.) In other countries that have privatized their schools, the very poor and disabled become marginalized. I DO support charter schools, but only if they are managed by highly qualified teachers with no one making a profit or a huge salary.

    The issue that hurts our schools more than any other factor is the common disregard for teaching as a profession. It is disdained by the middle and upper classes and shunned by the majority of men from every class. (e.g. “I didn’t pay for Cornell so you could teach second grade.”) When the majority of our citizens see teaching as the noble and challenging profession that it is, we’ll be able to attract “the best and the brightest” (as we do at the college level) and retain these people. If you read this blog regularly, you will get a feel for the contempt that many “reformers” have for our teachers. Nothing is more harmful to public education than this attitude.

    Thank you, Jesse, for caring. Please visit some schools in the poorest section of town, and see for yourself how hard most teachers are working. They and their students need your support.

    Phillip, yes, I saw the article about Michelle Rhee. This woman represents everything I’ve just said. She claims to want good teachers in the classroom and yet hires inexperienced novices and insults the teachers she has.

  6. There’s a difference between the interests of teachers and those of students, just the same as there can be generally said of employers and employees. While the latter may have some similarities, what’s good for the laborer isn’t always in the best interest of management

    And Linda, if you keep harping on how this blog shows “contempt” for teachers, why do you keep coming back? There are blogs that I fundamentally disagree with, and I show my disagreement by not frequenting them

  7. Yes I have, but I didn’t condemn the book/others in the conversation under my breath every other time I spoke about it. It seems in poor form to continually castigate Eduwonk for something (“contempt for teachers”) you honestly must know isn’t true.

  8. I honestly DO believe it’s true and I want others to know about it. That’s why I comment. I believe a negative attitude towards teachers hurts education more than any other factor because it discourages our most talented people from entering the profession and staying in it. The truth hurts.

  9. I’m glad Linda/Retired Teacher castigates arrogance. I would say that his contempt is not limited to teachers but to those who, you know, don’t get it. The “it” in this case is the 20,000 ft view, the big picture, the vision, the policy view, those who in his view only see things in black and white and want to talk about things like curriculum and content.

  10. That’s the trollish part, though: you’ve not ever showed how Eduwonk has a negative attitude toward teachers or education. That his viewpoints differ from yours doesn’t mean he’s hurting education or hates teachers by espousing them. It’s akin to a politician that counters his opponent’s arguments by asking him why he hates America. That kind of tripe doesn’t belong here.

  11. To return to our conversation from earlier, Linda, I appreciate your reply and would just like a few points.

    First, I have spent a lot of time in schools in the “poorest section of town.” My wife teaches in one, I used to work in one and I volunteer as much as possible. I’ve seen a mixed bag — some great teachers, some solid ones and some terrible ones. It’s just like with any other profession.

    Second, I think it’s a little simplistic to argue that “‘the people’ support strict due process and other protections for teachers” just because such laws are passed by legislatures. Again, this goes back to my point about the legislative process (which goes back to Andy’s point in the post). Legislatures are often captured by organized interests — corporations, unions, etc. This is not evil; it’s just how our system works. But from a policy perspective, there are reasons to be concerned because the interests of certain constituencies get left out (students, parents, etc.). I don’t blame teachers for organizing and pushing their views. I just don’t think that we as a society always benefit as a result. (Of course other professions do the same thing — and the results are similar. Do you really think the public is against tort reform? Or against regulating banks better? But the public is diffuse and disorganized, while the trial lawyers and the bankers have money, organizational capability and access).

    Lastly, on your points about disrespect of teachers, I couldn’t agree more. I think it’s a huge problem in attracting and keeping top talent in the teaching profession. So are salaries, which are far too low. But there’s another component that I think you ignore.

    When an attorney goes to work at a law firm, she is evaluated on her work by her boss. If she doesn’t do a good job, she is fired. Though she may be paid based on years of experience for her first few years (depending on the firm), over the majority of her career, her salary and position will be determined by her ability to do good work. Yes, she may be fired unfairly — perhaps her boss will fire her based on a less-than-perfect metric, such as billable hours — but she enters the profession with the understanding that that is possible.

    Part of why certain professions command more respect is that their members subject themselves to being judged on merit, even when there is room to disagree about what standards should be used. That needs to happen with teachers, too.

    Anyway, I appreciate this dialogue, and I’m glad you contribute here. It’s important to have these debates.

  12. Jesse, thank you for your gracious and thoughtful response to my post. You might be surprised to find out that I agree with all your points, but I disagree with the reasons for them. Before I express a few more of my ideas, I’d like to tell two true stories that shed light on my point of view:

    “Larry” is a young man who was my son’s roommate at Harvard. He admired his father who was a much respected high school teacher in Spain before coming to the United States. Larry wanted to be a teacher like dad and so entered the teacher preparation course of study at Harvard. I kept my questions to myself until the boys were in their junior year and then I asked, “Larry, are you experiencing a lot of pressure to choose another profession?”

    “Yes,” he responded, “but I’ve always wanted to be a high school teacher and that’s what I’ll be.”

    Well, Larry is not a teacher. He heeded the advice of his professors and others and received his doctorate in “international education” at Stanford. He and his wife are now serving in the Peace Corps, surely an honorable occupation, but so is teaching. IT IS MY OPINION THAT THE MAIN CAUSE OF POOR TEACHER QUALITY IN OUR COUNTRY IS THE ATTITUDE THAT TEACHING IS NOT A WORTHY PROFESSION FOR TALENTED STUDENTS. This is not a problem caused by the teachers who do accept these jobs, nor of the unions who represent them. It is a societal problem.

    My second story:

    “Mrs. Smith” is a teacher at the school where I taught for many years. She is the stereotypical “bad” teacher who screams at the kids constantly and even cries frequently in front of her class. All the teachers know how bad she is and they wish she’d be promoted to a district office post where she could apply for grants. You see, Mrs. Smith is a nice person (with adults) who was once an accountant. She is an organized woman who loves to assist the principals with paperwork and so they are generally grateful to her. One principal even gave her the “best new teacher” award twenty years ago. Each principal since that time has given her a satisfactory evaluation! No one has even thought of dismissing her. MOST INEFFECTIVE TEACHERS ARE KEPT IN THEIR POSITIONS BECAUSE MOST ADMINISTRATORS GIVE THEM SATISFACTORY RATINGS. This is a matter of record.

    So, now I’d like to respond to your points:

    Yes, there are definitely some terrible teachers. But in all my years of teaching I have never once seen a district try and fail to dismiss an ineffective teacher. This is what I HAVE seen:

    Teachers accused of crimes are placed on immediate leave; most are fired.

    Ineffective new teachers are dismissed without cause during the first two years of employment. About half resign before their fifth year. Many know they’re in the wrong profession and others are asked to leave. They are listed as “resignations.”

    Ineffective veterans are sometimes pressured to resign. They are listed as “resignations,” not “terminations.” Teachers are on contract so they are rarely fired during the year. They are asked to resign at the end of the term and many do resign. Many more are given “satisfactory” evaluations and are kept on for years. Again, this is a failure of administration.

    Yes, I know about the “rubber room” teachers in the big cities, but there is no such thing in smaller districts that can manage their problems. Places like Los Angeles and New York are simply too big to deal with their ineffective teachers. This is basically an administrative, not a union problem. The union only supplies legal protection; that’s all they CAN do. As I said before, the courts and commissions are involved also. It’s complicated. I will concede that changes need to be made here. Administrators need to do their jobs.

    “The people” support due process. Yes, I agree with your points about this also, but as we saw this past week, “the people” will make decisions that are contrary to tremendous pressure from lobbyists when they wish to do so. This is democracy and sometimes it’s messy and misguided. Several years ago, a CA poll showed that teachers were respected second only to clergy and ahead of physicians; so it’s not just a case of “the unions” spending a lot of money to get support. Hell will freeze over before the American people turn against schoolteachers.

    My son is a lawyer who made twice as much money in his first year as I made in my final year of teaching. Yes, he could be summarily fired whereas I had “due process.” I believe this is society’s way of saying “Teach for us for a modest salary and in return we’ll give you job security and a good pension.” Isn’t this the way with almost all government jobs? It’s a trade-off, especially during flush economic times when not too many people want to teach in inner-city schools. During most of my career big cities were absolutely desperate for teachers and often hired anyone who had the minimal requirements. We’re only having this conversation now because of the recession.

    I totally agree with your last point. I’d like to see teaching become a full profession where its members decide who enters the profession, who gets tenure and what the standards should be. I’d like to see teachers judged by their peers. (They’d get rid of the incompetents in a hurry!) I’d like to see teachers (and parents) decide the curriculum and and make all decisions regarding their school. Only then will k-12 teaching be attractive to our most talented men and women. Intelligent people want to be decision-makers. Until we can do that, we’ll never achieve excellence.

    In conclusion I want to say that morale among teachers, young and old, is very low right now. Many are joining other Americans in counseling their children to go into other professions. If we want to improve education, we need to treat our teachers better. It’s as simple as that. “When the largest stakeholders are seen as the opposition, you will fail.”

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