Visitors from Outer Space and Their Strange Ideas About Education Reform
There are those among us who think that teachers unions, collective bargaining and peer assistance review are the way to a better education for kids. They look like earthlings, but in fact are extraterrestrials.
As the year draws to a close, newspapers, magazines and blogs are filled with best of and worst of lists that deal with everything imaginable. The Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force got on the bandwagon early and posted Best and Worst in American Education, 2011 in November. All solid stuff. Can a reformer not be happy about the Parent Trigger being raked over the coals, yet surviving, or that many of Michelle Rhee’s reforms are still in place despite leaving her post as D.C. Schools Chancellor after a major push from the American Federation of Teachers? On the worst list, the Task Force includes the Atlanta teacher cheating scandal and the union-orchestrated overturn of Ohio’s recent anti-collective bargaining law.
Then lo and behold, we received a dispatch from Planet Ravitch on December 23rd. (Most people are not aware that shortly after astronomers ruled that Pluto was not a planet in 2006, a new planet would be identified. And it is inhabited!) The people who live on this celestial body (named after Diane Ravitch, a former reformer who turned into a champion of the failing status quo) are afflicted with a dyslexic-like condition: they have the entire education reform picture exactly backwards. The way to true reform is to hold their ideas up to a mirror with the resulting image revealing the best way to proceed.
Washington Post education “reporter” and blogger Valerie Strauss, whom Whitney Tilson rightfully refers to as Diane Ravitch’s mouthpiece, gave over her space last week to fellow Ravitchian Richard Kahlenberg. According to his bio, he is, among other things,
“…an authority on teachers’ unions, private school vouchers, charter schools, turnaround school efforts, and inequality in higher education.”
An authority on teachers unions? Maybe on Planet Ravitch, but he made a bad mistake when in Education Next he engaged especially wise earthling Jay Greene on unions and collective bargaining.
As you would expect, Kahlenberg gets everything backwards in his post. On his worst of list, he accused Terry Moe, author of Special Interest, a brilliant study of the teachers unions, of making “little sense.” (Kahlenberg apparently can’t tell the difference between a teacher and a teachers union.) Additionally, he is dismayed over the proliferation of charter schools because, according to his cherry picked data, most are mediocre. He fails to mention that charter schools have been the saving grace for many inner city kids who have escaped from the union dominated zip code schools they had been forced to attend. While proclaiming to have children’s best interests at heart, he is clearly more concerned that “some charter schools…save money by offering teachers no pensions whatsoever.”
On the plus side, Kahlenberg – surprise! – likes the teachers unions. For example, he writes,
“…the very positive role they can play on national policy was underlined in December, when the National Education Association announced an effort to establish 100 new peer assistance and review programs to better train and, if necessary, weed out ineffective teachers.”
The only problem is that peer assistance programs have been a flop wherever they have been tried. And NEA’s weeding process does not stand much of a chance of seeing the light of day because for it to work at all, it will have to be implemented by union locals. It’s hard to imagine local union bosses talking this one up to the rank and file.
Not surprisingly, Kahlenberg is a fan of collective bargaining, which may benefit mediocre and poor teachers but does very little for the good ones. Moreover, it has been damaging the education process (and therefore children) for about a half-century now. Collective bargaining agreements are nothing more than a top down, collectivist way to ensure that teachers have to do the least amount of work in idealized working conditions with no accountability for the most money. As Jay Greene states,
“Until the ability of teachers unions to engage in collective bargaining is restrained, we should expect unions to continue to use it to advance the interests of their adult members over those of children, their families, and taxpayers.”
In any event, the good news as we look toward 2012 is that for Kahlenberg, Strauss, Ravitch and their fellow aliens, their day has come and gone. We live in a time when change is happening. In July, due to major reform efforts in statehouses all over the country, the Wall Street Journal proclaimed 2011 The Year of School Choice. As Bob Bowdon, director of The Cartel so aptly put it,
“Large entrenched bureaucracies like public education have something in common with aircraft carriers: they never turn around quickly. What’s important is the direction they’re moving, and in this regard the education news is good. Of the 180 degree reversal that’s needed for public schools, we’ve only turned three or four degrees so far, but all the recent trends are taking us in a better direction. The turnaround has begun.”
Happy New Year everyone!!
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.