Posts

Corporate Screed

American Federation of Teachers led “National Day of Action” is a clear indicator that teachers unions are losing clout.

On December 9th, we will be treated to the “National Day of Action,” a day cooked up by the American Federation of Teachers and supported by the National Education Association and various fellow travelers. After reading through some of AFT’s pointed literature, the union’s bête noire becomes obvious. Its manifesto, “The Principles That Unite Us,” includes numerous references to corporate reform, the corporate agenda, corporate interests, etc.

But of course it can’t be that all corporations are evil. After all, teachers unions are corporations. In fact, according to their latest tax returns, the two national teachers unions brought in over $550,000,000 in revenue in 2011. (Unlike conventional corporations that are taxed at the world’s highest rate, union corporations don’t have to pay one cent in taxes … but I digress.)

So what it comes down to is market share. You see, the teachers unions’ emphasis on collective bargaining, seniority, tenure, endless dismissal statutes, etc., are in a death battle with reformers – parents, privatizers, charter schools and taxpayers and the unions are losing the fight. But unlike other enterprises, they don’t bother trying to come up with a better education product. Instead, they just demonize the competition – in this case, other corporations.

One of their sillier arguments is that corporate interests are involved in reform for the money.  Really? Bill Gates, one of the chief corporate entrepreneurs of our time, has so much money he can’t give it away fast enough. Actually, Gates, the Walton Foundation, Eli Broad, etc. are not pushing education reform to get wealthy; they are doing it to ameliorate what has become a very troubled education system that is dominated in most states – and greatly damaged – by the teachers unions. (Interestingly, the teachers unions are biting the corporate hand that feeds them: Gates has given the NEA and AFT over $20.7 million in grants since 2008.) 

Perhaps the most outspoken of the anti-corporate crowd is writer David Sirota, an avowed leftist who at one time was an aide to the socialist congressman from Vermont (now socialist senator) Bernie Sanders. Sirota declares that school reformers “are full of it.”

And the more education “reformers” try to distract from it, the more they will expose the fact that they aren’t driven by concern for kids but by the ugliest kind of greed – the kind that feigns concerns for kids in order to pad the corporate bottom line.

In a 2011 Salon.com screed, Sirota spells out his abject hatred for all things corporate, claiming that these entities are in it for “self-interest” and mentions why in three bullet points.

Self-Interest No. 1: Pure Profit – First and foremost, there’s a ton of money to be made in the education “reforms” that Big Money interests are advocating.

Yes, there is some money to be made by online academies, test publishers, etc. But as mentioned above, the vast majority of “Big Money interests” don’t need education reforms to become rich.

Self-Interest No. 2: Changing the Subject From Poverty and Inequality – Inconvenient as it is to corporate education “reformers,” the well-proven fact is that poverty — not teacher quality, union density or school structure — is the primary driver of student achievement.

Wrong again. It has been repeatedly proven that poverty doesn’t cause an inferior education. However, a bad education can certainly lead to poverty. In response to a post by former teacher Anthony Cody, education pundit RiShawn Biddle eloquently lays waste to the poverty-trumps-all argument. Several examples of Biddle’s wisdom on the subject:

As with so many traditionalists, Cody would rather ignore the fact that reformers actually do talk plenty about addressing poverty, just not in the manner that fits his impoverished worldview on the role education plays in addressing those issues. He also ignores the reality that the education spending has continued to increase for the past five decades, and that much of the troubles with American public education has little to do with money than with the fact that so much school funding is trapped by practices such as degree- and seniority-based pay scales for teachers that have no correlation with improving student achievement. But those are matters for a later day. Why? Because Cody’s puts on full displays the problems of the poverty mythmaking in which he and other traditionalists engage.

… the biggest problem with Cody’s piece lies with its rather unjustified contention that anti-poverty programs are the long-term solutions for fighting poverty. One only needs to look at the history of government-run anti-poverty efforts, and pay attention to today’s knowledge-based economy, to understand why this version of the Poverty Myth of Education has no standing.

If anything, many of the anti-poverty programs (including welfare) has helped foster what Leon Dash would call the pestilences of gang warfare, drug dealing and unwed motherhood that have plagued Black America and Latino communities. Federal welfare rules barring married women from receiving benefits, for example, is one reason why marriage among poor blacks has gone from being the norm to being extraordinarily rare since the 1950s — and why 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock.

anti-poverty programs and quality-of-life efforts aren’t going to address the reality that 1.4 million fourth-graders who are functionally illiterate are likely to drop out in eight years. More importantly, we cannot ignore the consequences of American public education’s failures on the very communities at which its schools are the center of the lives of the children who live in them. This can only be addressed by overhauling how (we) educate all children — especially our poorest. They deserve better than last-class schools.

Self-interest No. 3: New Front in the War on Unions – Today, unions are one of the last — and, unfortunately, weakening — obstacles to corporations’ having complete control of the American political system.

Weakening? Yes, he is on to something here, but this is happening mostly where teachers have a choice whether or not to join, and many are choosing the latter.

Sirota ends his essay with the following:

Teachers unions’ self-interest means advocating for better teacher salaries and job security — an agenda item that would, among other things, allow the teaching profession (as in other nations) to financially compete for society’s “best and brightest” and in the process help kids. The unions’ self-interest also means advocating for decent workplace facilities, which undeniably benefits not only the teacher, but also students….

Corporate education “reformers’” self-interest, by contrast, means advocating for policies that help private corporations profit off of public schools, diverting public attention from an anti-poverty economic agenda, and busting unions that prevent total oligarchical control of America’s political system. In short, it’s about the profit, stupid.

Neither side’s self-interest is perfectly aligned with the goal of bettering our education system. But one side is clearly far more aligned with that goal than the other.

Interesting that Sirota would end on an Ayn Randian note, pointing out the reality and morality of self-interest. But his ideas about the “anti-poverty economic agenda” and the unions preventing “oligarchical control of America’s political system” are dead wrong.  His last sentence is true, but he has picked the wrong side. “Corporate reformers” cannot possibly do any more damage to public education than the unions have. And thankfully – not a moment too soon – the public is finally waking up to that fact.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

Publishing Teacher Value Added Rankings: Shame on Whom?

The release of teachers’ VA rankings should not be viewed as an attack on teachers, but as a wake-up call for the rest of us.

The recent release of teachers’ value added (VA) rankings by the New York Times reignited a controversy which began when the Los Angeles Times did the same thing in 2010. The value added technique of rating teachers is “based on their students’ progress on standardized tests year after year. The difference between a student’s expected growth and actual performance is the ‘value’ a teacher adds or subtracts during the year.”

The imbroglio has two facets – the first being whether or not teachers can be accurately evaluated by how well their students do on a standardized test. As I wrote in January,

In perhaps the most in-depth study on the subject to date, three Ivy League economists studied how much the quality of individual teachers matters to their students over the long term. The paper, by Raj Chetty and John N. Friedman of Harvard and Jonah E. Rockoff of Columbia, tracked 2.5 million students over 20 years, and using a value added approach, found that teachers who help students raise their standardized test scores have a lasting positive effect on those students’ lives beyond academics, including lower teenage-pregnancy rates, greater college matriculation and higher adult earnings. (The authors of the study define “value added” as the average test-score gain for a teacher’s students “…adjusted for differences across classrooms in student characteristics such as prior scores.”)

The second and more contentious element of VA concerns itself with who should get to see the teacher’s ranking. Some think it should be just the principal who can use the data to help low performing teachers. Others think that parents should also be allowed to learn about the effectiveness of their child’s teacher. And finally there are those who demand that all people — especially taxpayers — should have access to them. The reasoning, of course, is that since taxpayers are shelling out for the teachers’ salaries, they have a right to know what they are getting for their money.

Unsurprisingly, the anti-VA charge has been led by the teachers unions which constantly demonize the whole process as unreliable and unfair. But that is just a front; their “philosophy” is that there is no such thing as a bad teacher, just one that needs more training to become a good one. The reality is that unions despise it when any teacher – good or incompetent – loses a job, because it means one less dues payer. In California, for example, one less teacher means $647 fewer dollars for the California Teachers Association. And the national and local union affiliates also lose money. So keeping every body in the classroom is imperative for them.

Even concerned reformers like Bill Gates and Teach For America’s Wendy Kopp are antipathetic toward the release of test scores to the public, using phrases like “a capricious exercise in public shaming.”

My take is that, while not a perfect measure, VA still should be used and made public. But at the same time, it should be stressed that other factors need to be taken into consideration when measuring a teacher’s effectiveness. Both the NY and LA Times, to their credit, acknowledged this and also allowed teachers to post comments with their scores.

However, there is a part of this story which has not been examined. Publishing a teachers VA rank is no more “public shaming” than publishing a baseball player’s batting average in the daily newspaper. It is what it is. But as any knowledgeable 5th grader knows, there is more to a baseball player than his batting average. Is the player a good base stealer? Can he field? Does he draw a lot of walks? Is he a team leader? Anyone who is interested in baseball knows this. The take-away then is not to hide test scores from the public, but for parents and taxpayers to become as interested and knowledgeable about education as they are about baseball and demand more from the educational establishment.

So if there is any shame to be identified, it is that, as a country, we are more informed about the intricacies of baseball than about how best to assess the people who are educating the next generation of Americans.

If nothing else, the posting of teachers’ VA scores has opened a Pandora’s Box which the American public must deal with sooner rather than later.

About the author: Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Union Wind Blows

Twenty years of schooling in Los Angeles and you’re lucky if you can get any job, let alone one on the day shift.

Bob Dylan penned the words in the headline (sans the union part) almost a half century ago but having been quoted by many, they live on. The latest example of the lyrics’ relevance can be applied to a new 58 page report commissioned by United Way and several civil rights’ groups, produced by the National Council on Teacher Quality and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation…and the reactions of a teachers union boss.

Teacher Quality Roadmap: Improving Policies and Practices in LAUSD was published last week, and there were no major surprises in it. Education reformers have been aggressively campaigning for similar changes for many years, and various recommendations from this report are already in force in other states. (While dealing specifically with Los Angeles, its findings could be readily applied to the rest of California. Local school districts do have some power, but education policy decisions are typically made at the state level.)

Among other things, the report, which included interviews with over 1,500 teachers and principals, recommended changes to the current union contract and to state laws regulating staffing, evaluations, tenure, compensation and work schedules. Some of the prescriptions include using criteria other than seniority if layoffs are necessary and utilizing standardized test scores as part of a teacher’s evaluation and when making staffing decisions. Additionally, it was suggested that teachers be denied permanent status until they have been in the classroom for four years instead of the current two.

The report also suggested giving principals considerably more power, stating they should be able to hire any teacher of their choosing, and at the same time make it easier for them to get rid of incompetents. As things stand now, perverse incentives may lead principals to overlook the failings of poorly performing teachers which, over time, make it difficult to get rid of them: “The online evaluation system includes a pop-up warning telling principals who have selected ‘needs improvement’ for 3 or more of the 27 indicators to contact Staff Relations and present documentation to reinforce the ratings.”

The report was particularly tough on seniority, claiming that California is one of only 12 states that mandates layoffs be conducted in order of reverse seniority. In other words, under the existing system, layoffs are made by last hired, first let go, regardless of the quality of the teacher.
Since many of the recommendations are in place elsewhere, why not California?

Other states either have weaker state teachers unions than the California Teachers Association, or they have governors and state legislators who refuse to cave to unreasonable union demands. Conversely, we have the most powerful state teachers’ union in the country, as well as a governor and legislature that for the most part regularly kowtow to the organization that helped put them into office.

While CTA has not formally responded to the report yet, United Teachers of Los Angeles President A.J. Duffy did, and his wind blew in a very predictable direction. Here are just a few of his reactions with my comments following in parenthesis:

• He criticized the study, calling it misguided and performed by non-educators. (What he means is that the union wasn’t consulted and therefore the study is bogus.)

• He sniffed, “Many must-place teachers are fine teachers,” (These are teachers that no principal wants but nevertheless must be given a teaching job as per the union contract.)

• He thinks that teachers should be encouraged to go back to school to “improve the quality of education for our kids.” As such, he faulted the study’s finding that too much money ($500,000,000) is wasted giving raises to teachers who take post-graduate coursework. (Studies have shown that teachers who take post-graduate courses are not more successful after taking these classes, but get salary increases anyway.)

• He charged that it is wrong to talk about reforming the evaluation and tenure systems without talking about how teachers are trained. (Yes, many of our schools of education are atrocious, but this has nothing to do with tenure – two years in the classroom should not guarantee a teacher a job for life.)

• He called the salary recommendations ludicrous. (Performance pay is a bête noire for the union crowd. Any deviation of the current salary schedule whereby teachers get an automatic yearly raise, essentially rewarding a teacher for not dying over the summer, is off-limits.)

• “Educational equity and teacher quality are important and we should all be talking about them,” he said. “But it should not be about an attack upon teachers unions.” (The teachers unions are the biggest obstacle to any meaningful education reform. Should we just get together, sing Kumbaya, blow kisses at each other and ignore the 500 lb. gorilla in the corner?)

• He said, “The people that put this report together are non-educators who believe that a market-driven approach is the only way to improve public education and we believe that is absolutely the death and destruction of public education.” (Since private school teachers are not organized, privatization is particularly irksome to unionistas.)

• He insisted that UTLA leaders are willing to agree to some changes, including revamping the evaluation system, but still vehemently opposes any use of student test scores to determine which teachers are the most qualified. (Reformers want to use standardized test scores as a part of teachers’ evaluations because they are an objective measure.)

Less than three weeks from being termed out as UTLA boss, A.J. Duffy is going out in a windstorm of union predictability. Incoming president Warren Fletcher has been very quiet throughout all this, giving some optimists hope that a new regime will be more accommodating to badly needed change. I would alert those folks to another song which came out 40 years ago this month. The Who’s “We Won’t Get Fooled Again” included the lyric, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

Yup, you still won’t need a weatherman; an unfavorable, unified wind will still be blowing in an all too predictable direction.

About the author: Larry Sand is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.