Teachers Unions, Mayors, And Trends

Today’s Washington Post front pager on some realignment among urban mayors, teachers unions, and ed reform is the kind of article (and situation) that a decade or 15 years ago just a few were saying was on the horizon.  But still a long way to go.  Politically the big problems that I see are twofold.  First, this is a hard conversation for union leaders to have.  For every sensible statement like Randi Weingarten’s in today’s article:

“We have made mistakes,” [AFT President Randi Weingarten] said. “You have to really focus to make sure you’re doing everything you can so that kids are first. Tenure, for example. Make sure tenure is about fairness and make sure it’s not a shield for incompetence.”

There is another example of her, or someone else, denying these issues and calling the whole thing a right-wing plot, “so called reformers” etc…That speaks to the challenge of moving large organizations along – especially in a contentious time.  But, second, it also speaks to how polarized our national debate about education (and most things) is.  There are very few places you can go and have a conversation that allows for the political space to acknowledge two things that are true today and fuel these politics. First the unions need to mend their ways and change some key policy positions. Second, there are people who just want to do unions in and for whom this isn’t fundamentally about policy.

Along the same lines, from today’s story there is this:

“We don’t want to have honest conversations about poverty and segregation and race and class, all those other sorts of ills,” said Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union. “Those are really tough issues. So this gives them an excuse to focus on something else.”

Her union fought Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s effort to add 90 minutes to the school day in Chicago, which has the shortest school day of any major city. Emanuel, the former chief of staff to President Obama, got the Illinois legislature to pass a law that will allow him to impose a longer school day starting in September. It also makes it harder for the union to strike, among other things.

Karen Lewis’ statement here is hardly wrong, but it’s completely undermined by the very next paragraph, exactly the sort of political mousetraps the unions frequently walk into.  Politically they’d be on much firmer ground and enjoy more support if that conversation was one of “yes, and” rather than “no, but.” Getting to “yes, and” is how to pick the political lock but very difficult in practice at any scale.  Impossible, actually, if you don’t take Weingarten’s point above seriously and “make sure you’re doing everything you can so that kids are first…”

10 Replies to “Teachers Unions, Mayors, And Trends”

  1. The unions say many of the “fixes” embraced by the mayors are trendy ideas without evidence that they help children learn.
    As we have seen in DCPS.

  2. This comment from a regular reader deserves highlighting:

    10:27 AM EDT
    The implied message here is that, if the Democratic mayors are challenging the teachers unions, then the teachers unions must be wrong/selfish/ignorant.

    However, regarding most school reform issues, its the Democratic mayors who are wrong/selfish/ignorant.

    There are three major school reforms that the politicians are pushing and the unions are resisting: 1) teacher discharge based on high-stakes-testing; 2) eliminating the just-cause discharge requirement (tenure); and 3) charter schools. There is little/no research demonstrating that any of these reforms has a significant positive impact on student learning; there is a lot of research demonstrating that, at best, these reforms have a break-even impact on student learning and that these reforms will probably, in the long run, harm student learning.

    The politicians are pushing these reforms because they are inexpensive, because the reforms superficially make sense, and because the politicians are under intense pressure to “do something” about student test scores in inner-city schools.

    The teachers unions are opposing these reforms because the reforms adversely impact teachers — not because teachers unions are wonderful altruistic institutions fighting for the public good. But — just because the unions are acting out of self-interest, it does not follow that the teachers are wrong and the politicians are right regarding the merits of the politicians’ school reforms.

    The media, rather than examining the mayors-vs.-unions fight, should be critically examining the arguments made by the politicians and by the unions regarding the merits of the school reforms — What is the evidence supporting these reforms? What were the results when these reforms were tried in pilot programs? What are the unions’ arguments against the reforms? Do these arguments make sense? And — what are disinterested education experts (long-time school superintendents, retired teachers, ed school professors) saying about the reforms? The reforms will not significantly impact these folk; they don’t have a dog in the fight — to the extent they’ve spoken out, they generally oppose the reforms and they certainly are not leading the fight in support of the reforms.

    Finally, the media should be asking the reform opponents (and the disinterested education experts) what they think should be done to improve student learning in inner-city schools. Empirical evidence strongly suggests that the current reforms are at best ineffective and probably harmful. Therefore, the media’s approach should be: OK — these reforms are not working; what reforms are likely to work in the inner-city schools?
    RecommendRecommended by 4 readers

  3. I believe that some of the legislation aimed at helping schools is actually hurting schools. I fully understand that tweaks need to be made along he way but not legislation from politicians that have no real classroom experience. In Michigan, all unions are under attack from union busting legislation.

  4. I have little confidence in our medical system since doctors are NOT doing everything all of the time for all patients. With their high pay and loads of luxuries one would think they could do what Schweitzer did and take an oath of poverty and healing as their purpose in life.

    They live the by Hippocratic oath to do no harm. I think that shows LITTLE commitment. I would rather they lived by this oath: Always heal all people.

    And perhaps doctors and their union at the AMA need a full frontal assault on their profession, their way of life, and their views.

    And I have even less confidence in our manufacturing system that cranks out millions of defective parts without even considering the consumer. It is all about the shareholders.

    There now, Mr. R, stop the blather about “being there for the kids.” It is tiresome. It is old.

    An admiral is not “there for the sailors.”

    Go ahead and be there for your readers. Leave the rest alone.

  5. There are plenty of other unions to do in.

    According to the NBER, and that means you cannot argue because a bunch of furrow browed dudes with horn rimmed glasses built this list, and journalists are enthralled to these nincompoops:

    1. The AMA.
    2. The AHA (American Homebuilder’s Association).
    3. The CNA and all state nurse’s associations.
    4. The ARA (American Real Estate Agent Assocation.
    5. The ADA.

    The primary function of an association (code for union) is to set labor supply, and influence wage and working hours. The AMA has done this wonderfully as have all the others with a byzantine network of state and national certifications through licensing boards along with CONTROLLED education access requirements.

    Wonder why health care is so costly? Wonder why buying and selling homes will skin you alive? Wonder why that bed rotation cost so much?

    Associations are unions.

    And the NBER states in its article on state licensing that it is driving up the cost of basic services at stratospheric rates. It also states that union influence has declined to record lows, even when considering the public sector.

    So, there is significant misdirection here in the entire teacher union debate.

    With few exceptions, in the most dilapidated cities and under the most indescribable and arduous working conditions, unions are toothless organization that pump money into Democratic coffers.

    And that is ENOUGH for the right wing to go to the mat. This is entirely a political war and it has little to do with “the kids.”

  6. According to economists it is RATIONAL to act in one’s own best interest, or in their ridiculously tortured vocabulary, “to move to the point of optimization on their indifference curves. This happens where the slope of the budget constraint or the tangent line (derivative at that point on the indifference curve), just equals the slope of the indifference curve at that point. The ratio of prices just equals the marginal rate of substitution for the individual.

    I know. I know. What a entirely contrived attempt from the economics field to sound like physics.

    So here is the education debate logic from Ms. Lewis and the army of reformers.

    + If a person is rational then they should act in their own best interest.

    Sounds good so far.

    According to Karen and the entire edu-reform movement:

    If a person is a teacher, then they should NOT be allowed to act in their own best interest.

    Yep. Mr. R and the legion of “father knows best reformers” have talked incessantly about “putting kids first”, even though parents fail each and every day at that task.

    So by the rectangle of logic in which if a statement is true its contrapositive is automatically true we have:

    If a teacher is forbidden from acting in their own best interest, then they must act irrationally.

    That means according to most of the edu-reform movement that teachers must be STUPID.

    Teachers have lost this ridiculous debate. If they insist on acting rationally, then they are NOT “for the kids”. And if do lie down and bare their throats to the public demands then they will be kicked for being stupid.

    Should they be irrational heroes (sort of), or rational selfish people?

    They should pick the latter. Doctors and nurses certainly have.

  7. Now what we will get in way of response to my syllogism and its contraposition is a tortured treatise on the alignment of incentives so that teacher rational self interest meshes with student achievement.

    Well, I will wait for that long, clever, tortured, clear as mud, explanation.

    Economics is NOT physics. It is opinion masquerading as fact. Please show me in the field of economics something that is not trivial and intuitive.

  8. Adverse Selection.

    I do not have time to give the perfectly tortured economic explanation. It is stupid.

    Here is the smart person’s take on that concept. If an industry treats people in a rotten way, it will only attract rotten employees.

    So let’s hold an intimate thought experiment. Here is John, a recent graduate of UC Berkeley in microbiology. He has several job offers for independent research that will pay for his graduate degree. He gets to work around other smart people, make necessary professional connections, live in a high quality community, get benefits befitting his position, enjoy privacy for his financial and private life, and get the kind of flexible time and decision making that he earned through academic excellence in college. In other words, he is NO journalist.

    Now John is exactly what the teaching profession needs to the high school. Our nation simply CANNOT compete with his high powered intellect and capabilities in the classroom.

    What does John have to say about his potential conscription into the teaching force?

    John would say in his own young vernacular:

    1. The pay is too low.
    2. The working conditions seriously stink
    3. How about my professional future.
    4. Yeah, I get lots of time off, but what would I do with it.
    5. Why do I work for people who never took a science course.
    6. Why am I treated like a child at best, or a thug at worst.
    7. Why did that idiot parent yell at me.
    8. Why would I let my job performance go in the paper.
    9. The pay is low, the job risk is high. This job sucks.

    So, there you have it.

    The adverse selection problem in a nutshell.

    Now, digest it, turn it over, and think for 10 seconds about how we can get John to do this rotten task? WHAT WILL IT TAKE?

    Do not bother asking the think tank economists. They are NOT scientists. They are ideologues with physics envy.

    Unless we talk seriously about this problem we are going nowhere in this “pro-life” debate.

  9. Parents DEMAND outstanding teachers to order around and abuse.

    They want superhero, super intellectual, people that they can abuse at will along with their children.

    Everyone wants a housekeeper, but few can afford them.

    And fewer have enough dough to hire them, abuse them, and fire them.

    But politicians are pandering this issue and telling parents they can have it all.

    It is a big lie.

    Rational people respond to incentives.

    Teachers are rational.

    They are RIGHT NOW responding to those incentives.

    Are they reacting in a positive way.

    Time will tell.

  10. Bill Jones: You make some good points: Teachers are people (like all other people) who respond to incentives, good and bad. Teachers will respond to the negative push to vilify educators, publish their rankings in public newspapers, fire them at will, and reduce their retirement benefits like many other people will do: They’ll leave the ranks of educators and get a better job.

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