Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Blame the teachers- its good politics

The ‘Blame the Teacher’ Movement, and the Public-Sector Union Crisis

Friday June 11 12:51 pm

By Richard Greenwald

Will government workers join the race to the bottom?

I was stopped dead in my tracks and felt a cold chill run down my
spine while reading the current issue of The Atlantic. Its cover story
is “The 14 3/4 Most Powerful Ideas of the Year,” which is a Top 10
 that makes fun of Top 10 lists (hence the 3/4).

Idea number 13 is the one that got me. It was written by The New York
 David Brooks and titled “Teachers are Fair Game.” As Brooks
sees it, it is now open season for intellectually assaulting teachers.
To be honest, Brooks aims mostly for the teachers unions. The result
is yet one more mainstream media outlet joining the echo chamber
claiming that teachers and their organizations are at fault for the
poor state of education in America.

What I call the "blame the teacher" movement is smart politics for
those on the right. It shifts public debate away from funding and
economic equity issues to teachers on the frontline. In some ways it
is like a Fordist speedup without the $5 day. Newly proposed policy
would tie teacher salaries, merit pay, and even tenure to student test
scores. The pressure is up, but, with diminished funding, resources
are down.

Now, improving education is something everyone favors. It’s like
democracy. But how one gets there is the million-dollar question. Can
you improve education by putting increased pressure on teachers to
raise classroom test scores in a time of declining public funding for
education? We are about to see.

In my last Working ITT blog post, I bemoaned how we seem to hate
“career” teachers as a culture. We love the young, idealistic
missionary teachers. And we should: These recent college graduates are
energized, smart and dedicated. But they have a short shelve-life,
lasting a short time in the classroom before they are off to other
careers. One could argue that even this is good, as the experience of
a 2-3 years in a classroom changes them for the better.

Frankly, most teachers, it must be said, last only a short time in the
classroom. The challenges are so great, the emotional costs as well as
the salaries force many to rethink their career choices. Those that
stay in education (I mean in the classroom) do not typically do so
because they’re losers, or can’t find better jobs. They stay with it
because they care and believe they can make a difference despite the
hardships. It is precisely these teachers who have the nation’s eyes
focused on them. I can almost hear the collective buzz in their ears
from all this talk about them.

This public attention on teachers is part of a bigger public shift.
There seems to be a major reset (to use a phrase from geographer
Richard Florida) in the way we see public servants. It used to be that
those that worked in public service were seen as civic. They worked
hard, were valued and seemed to deserve their salaries and benefits.
Up until the 1970s, public-sector salaries lagged far behind
private-sector salaries. So state workers were working for less than
market value.

But as private salaries for blue-collar and clerical jobs dropped and
state salaries remained relatively stable, public-sector jobs looked
better. Now, there is an attempt to downsize state payrolls, and get
rid public servants. But rather than defending their service, we now
see public servants as having it easy. They simply had what most
American had, and lost.

What’s stopping many governors from this slash and burn are
public-sector unions. So we need to see the current push against
teachers as part of a larger push against public-sector unions. Rather
than let each union deal with this shift, the labor movement should
see the attack for what is, and coordinate a campaign to reverse this
cultural shift.

Returning to David Brooks and teachers, we learn

...that a new cadre of reformers have come on the scene, many of them
bred within the ranks of Teach for America. These are stubborn,
data-driven types with a low tolerance for bullshit. The reform
environment they find themselves in is both softhearted and
hardheaded. They put big emphasis on the teaching relationship, but
are absolutely Patton-esque when it comes to dismantling anything that
interferes with that relationship. This includes union rules.…

Put simply, teachers unions stand between teachers and the public for
better or for worse. Brooks points out some of the worse, but what of
the better?

I'm a historian, so it's important that I place this issue within its
larger historical frame. Teachers unions have only been around for a
little more than 100 years. They developed in large urban systems,
such as New York City and Chicago. These systems were totally
dysfunctional, patronage machines rife with politics. Professional
educators joined together to advance professionalism over politics and
patronage and to protect academic freedom.

These organizations were not like the trade unions of the day. They
were much more professional societies, part of a period drive toward
professionalization that historian Rober Weibe called “The Search for
Order.” One hundred years ago teachers could be fired for all sorts of
reasons, few related to the quality of teaching. Female teachers could
be fired if they married, for instance.

Teachers were respected culturally, but it was not a profession. These
early reformers demanded higher and better training for teachers as
well as licensing. They cared about their students and fought to find
ways to help them. But they also wanted decent wages and better
working conditions and as professionals, they demanded some limited
shared governance, or control over the educational mission (their
classrooms). They did not see these aims as being in conflict. This
professional focus has led to a more conservative style of unionism
for teachers that the public and the right seems to have forgotten.
They never felt fully comfortable as workers and their unions often
walked that fine line between professional association and labor

Jump forward to the 1980s, when these unions were firmly established.
As budgets were slashed and a call for accountability began to be
heard, it was the teachers unions who mounted a campaign to retore
public support for school funding and who also joined the reform
efforts. Now, yes funding for schools helps their members. But, it is
not just salaries. Stronger school budgets mean better support, newer
books, smaller class sizes etc.

But teachers unions are now in a tough place. They seem to have lost
their ability to claim they speak for “education” as they had in the
1980s. And if they can’t speak for public education, who can?

Today unions are at a crossroads. The majority of union members are
public-sector workers. And these are precisely the same workers on the
chopping block today. Unions need to find a better way to protect
these workers than simply hiding behind the contract. The contract
will protect workers in the short run, but in winning the battle they
will lose the war.

We are losing an important aspect that informed public policy since at
least the age of Herbert Hoover: The public should be held to higher
standards than the private sector. My grandfather always told me it
was a sad day when New Yorkers had to to pay to take public
transportation. I remember him telling me if you pay, it ain’t public.

He was smart enough to know that his taxes paid for the fare. But he
also understood that while income taxes were progressive, subway fare
weren’t. He also knew that eventually the fares would just keep
rising. He died some years ago, but I think he was right. What we need
is a better sense of the public. If there are fewer good-paying jobs
left, we all suffer.

Put simply: If federal, state and local government workers join the
race to the bottom, we may well be doomed.
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