Correction to Myth of the Evil Teacher Union

Back in March and April, I wrote a six part series on the Myth of the Evil Teacher Union (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI), and in the sixth part I tried to explain that the reason the Democratic party gets money from the dues of teacher unions is simply because the Dems court the teacher unions with policies that are friendlier to public schools. If you'll forgive me for quoting myself, I wrote "That’s not because the NEA, or our state branch, the OEA, or our local branch, the CEA, is in bed with the Democratic Party. It’s because the party wants our votes more and is willing to side with us in order to garner those votes. We’re not in bed together. The union is single and dating, and the Dems keep asking us out." I stand by that part of the argument.

But my initial premise was flawed. It seems I, too, had been duped by those peddling this particular myth about teacher unions. My teacher union doesn't give any of my dues money to support political candidates, Democrat, Republican, or otherwise. As the past-president of my local chapter, Carol Phillips, pointed out to me, money that supports candidates only comes out of the OEA-PIE, a separate political action committee. If teachers want to make donations to that fund, they can. If not, it does not affect their union membership. That contribution is above and beyond the dues we pay. So union members concerned about the political leaders who tend to be favored by the majority of the union can see to it that not a single red cent of their money goes to a candidate they don't like. They can prevent that by simply not making that contribution (and the contribution is opt-in rather than opt-out, to minimize any pressure to donate). Personally, I do make the contribution. I trust the delegates who run the political action committee (Carol Phillips is one of them) to choose to support candidates who advocate its stated goals. They seek to:

» Support recommended candidates and issues that are critical to children and public education.

» Work for adequate and stable school funding.

» Give [members] a voice in the future of education.

» Allow [members] active involvement in education decision making.

Those things are all important to me. To return to my original point, I don't think any of those goals should be particularly partisan. If a Republican candidate shows they will work harder for stable school funding, or for making sure that educators are involved in crafting education policy, they will get the support of the OEA-PIE. I expect most teachers would not only be satisfied with that, but would be pleased to have both parties trying to one-up one another to claim the mantle of the most pro-public education. If the myth persists that the Democratic Party receives too much support from the teacher unions, that's not the fault of the Democratic Party, or of the teacher unions, but of the individual Republican candidates who haven't been vocal enough in their support of public schools to steal some of that support away. If, on the other hand, the myth is that the financial support comes from member's dues, then some of the fault for that misconception belongs to me for repeating the lie. I acknowledge my error.

The Myth of the Evil Teacher Union, Part VI

6. Teachers unions are in bed with the Democratic Party.

As myths about teachers unions go, in my experience this one is the most likely to be accepted by teachers themselves. My colleagues who are loyal Republicans resent the fact that a portion of their check is taken out every month just so that a portion of that can be given to Democratic candidates (or used is ads supporting them). I get that. If I’d had some of my check taken out to support politicians whose policies I don’t approve of, I would resent it. Oh, wait. I did. That portion is called taxes, and some of my money goes to support policies I don’t approve of. I would resent it even more if a second line item went to one political party, and that party wasn’t the one I (often reluctantly, while holding my nose) support.

But here’s the rub: The national umbrella of the teachers unions, the NEA, tends to support Democratic candidates precisely because those candidates court the teacher’s unions. Similarly, each election cycle our state branch asks candidates of both parties to come and speak to the membership of the union, and make their case. Sometimes we support the Republican candidates, though generally we end up supporting the Democratic ones. That’s not because the NEA, or our state branch, the OEA, or our local branch, the CEA, is in bed with the Democratic Party. It’s because the party wants our votes more and is willing to side with us in order to garner those votes. We’re not in bed together. The union is single and dating, and he Dems keep asking us out.

If Republicans (or Green Party Members, or Libertarians, or members of any other party) resent the fact that teachers unions tend to support candidates from the Democratic Party, there are two questions they should be asking themselves. One: Why are the Dems willing to offer more concessions to woo teachers? And Two: Why isn’t my party more actively courting this constituency?

There are approximately 6.8 million teachers in the United States. Beyond that, there are support staff, the spouses of educators, the parents and children of educators, etc. For comparison purposes, there are 4 million members of the NRA, and about 5 million Jews. I choose those groups because they are of similar size, and because, like teachers, NRA members and people who are either ethnically Jewish or of the Jewish faith do not vote homogeneously. However, consider the lengths political parties go to court those two groups. Democratic candidates make fools of themselves trying to convince gun owners that they are not opposed to 2nd amendment rights, and both parties try to one-up one another in their vocal support of Israel (as though that alone will bring the Jewish-American vote). Republican candidates do not make the same kind of noise about supporting public school teachers.

This partisanship does not benefit teachers. We would be better off if both parties were courting our votes, just as gun owners have a huge advantage over anti-gun advocates, and the pro-Israel lobby has a huge advantage over, for example, the pro-Palestinian lobby. One noteworthy downside of this one party voting is that, much like African Americans on the left or conservative Evangelicals on the right, teachers’ concerns are often taken for granted by politicians who consider them a reliable voting block. So why won’t the parties fight for so many votes?

I am not a senior Republican strategist, so I can’t give the answer definitively. Perhaps they think we’re a lost cause; that so many of us are registered Democrats that we can’t be swayed. I find that unpersuasive, though. Other groups which are almost uniformly affiliated with one party or the other, like African Americans, Jews, or gun owners, are still courted by both parties. If I were a Republican teacher who resented the way my union dues were being spent, I’d want to examine this question a little further.

Appealing to gun owners or people of specific ethnic or religious backgrounds who traditionally vote for the other party has very little down-side. A politician might peal off a few votes, but no one in the base will resent the effort. This hasn’t always been the case. You didn’t find a lot of Dixiecrats in the South trying to reach out and garner the Jewish vote or the African American vote during segregation, or many Republicans doing it during the active use of Nixon and Reagan’s “Southern Strategy”. Why not? Because there was a numerical down-side. For every vote a politician might have peeled off by offering concessions to Jews or African Americans in the South, that politician would lose an even greater number of racist, anti-Semitic white voters. Every time I see a white, Christian, conservative politician actively courting the black vote in Alabama or the Jewish vote in Florida, I feel a little bit more proud of my country; it’s one thing for a party to reach out to a disenfranchised group. That could be ideological, or it could be a political calculation (for different Democrats it’s been both). But when the other side does it, it’s very real measure that racism and anti-Semitism, though still with us, have been properly relegated to the lunatic fringe and are shameful to the general public. Though there have always been Republicans who opposed racism on ideological and moral grounds (the party began in Wisconsin as an anti-slavery party in 1854, after all), this shift from the infamous “Southern Strategy” means the calculation has changed on this issue.

And that brings us back to education. Though some Republican candidates show up to court the teachers unions on the local level, the fact that it’s not part of the strategy of the national candidates signals to me that the political calculus doesn’t support it, in the same way that addressing the concerns of African American voters wouldn’t have helped a Republican or a Dixiecrat in the South once upon a time, and supporting anti-gun legislation wouldn’t help a Democrat now. Someone at the Republican National Committee headquarters has run the numbers, and they don’t work. For every teacher vote garnered by appealing to the teachers unions, more votes would be lost in the base. And it behooves a Republican teacher, and any American concerned about our education system specifically and the state of education generally, to ask, “Why?”

Why has one of the major political parties in the country decided that supporting public school teachers is a losing bet for them? Part of this is ideological. Died-in-the-wool libertarians who want to limit the scope of government, as much as possible, to national defense are philosophically consistent if they believe that the government has no place providing public education. No politician would speak this aloud (except maybe Ron Paul. Can anybody tell me if he came out specifically on this issue?) but in order to keep libertarians in the big tent, Republicans have to stand against the “public” part of public education in some way. For religious conservatives, the hitch with public education relates the its inherently secular nature; public schools don’t advocate for any specific religious belief system. Worse, since they are not obligated to promote a religious belief system, if they teach content deemed to be religiously neutral, like science or history, but which actually posits truth-claims that contradict certain religious teachings, they can actually run counter to the interests of various religious sects. Want to keep religious conservatives in your big tent? Run against public schools. Republicans, going back all the way to their anti-slavery days, have been the party of private businesses. Want to support for-profit schools? Run against public schools. Worst of all, want to appeal to the “working class” through offensive and condescending displays of your folksiness? Use language that implies you are uneducated, and then when someone in the media calls you on it, run against the media as part of the intellectual elite. This is a mechanism to tie intellectualism to education in an effort to run against both.

This brings us to a chicken-or-egg dilemma. Why has higher academia generally leaned left? Is it because the ideology that would support academic freedom and the benefits of knowledge for all coincides with other leftist beliefs about utopianism, communalism, and social equality? Or is it because those who have benefited most from public education (i.e. those raised out of poverty through education) are loyal to the institution that made their social mobility possible, and thus choose the ideology that reinforces those values? It’s probably a bit of both. Regardless, the highest echelons of academia are predominated by liberals. That’s not to say that Republicans don’t attend Harvard or earn Ph.Ds. In fact, the conservative revolution of William F. Buckley Jr. centered around an intellectual flourishing through the establishment of conservative think tanks and the support of conservative intellectuals. But that intellectual underpinning has been intentionally hidden. Those very think tanks full of Ivy League grads with Ph.Ds put out talking points on Fox News decrying Democratic candidates as “Ivy League Elites”. Just as the chicken-or-egg problem emerges when trying to explain why intellectuals tend to be on the Left, a similar problem develops on the Right. Is anti-intellectualism a position Republicans have taken for political reasons, which then breeds a resentment of education, or do enough Republicans resent education and thus gin up anti-intellectual rhetoric? Again, it’s probably a bit of both, and the longer it remains politically expedient, the harder it will be to trace the origin of that anti-intellectualism.

So the party has decided to keep these disparate elements in one tent: The anti-intellectuals, the intellectual anti-government libertarians, the religious anti-secularists, and the pro-business anti-public sector crowd. So, where does this leave the Republican public school teacher? Resentful of their own union. Beyond that, I can’t say with any authority, because it’s something I genuinely don’t understand. Are Republican teachers working against their own political self-interest by working in the public schools and financially supporting a union that generally favors the other party, or are they working against their own professional self-interest by supporting an institution, through their labor, the very existence of which is in conflict with the platform of the party they support? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I hope that any Republican teacher has given it some serious thought and has an answer handy. For many, I expect that they are issue voters, who might not like the anti-education path their party has chosen but vote on some other issue. I think that’s defensible. I hold my nose on certain Democratic positions, too. But I would hope that any Republican teacher really wrestles with the question, and I would encourage them to push back within their own party. Get your candidate to vie for the support of teachers. Make them publicly state their support for public education. And if your candidate won’t, ask yourself, if this person doesn’t believe in what you do, either because it’s a government funded school, a secular school, or a stepping stone toward elite academia, do you really believe in public schools, and, if so, why associate with a party that doesn’t?

Any other myths about teachers unions that I should rant about? Leave them in the comments below.

The Myth of the Evil Teacher Union, Part V

5. Teachers unions prevent effective merit pay systems from being put in place.

This one is half true, which makes it completely false. Teachers unions have actively worked to prevent merit pay systems from being put in place. That’s because merit pay systems, at least all the ones I’ve ever read about, will not be effective at improving teacher performance or student performance. Worse than that, I don’t honestly believe they are designed to do so.

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As pointed out above, merit pay systems complicate the dynamic between teachers and students. Unless students have a reason to try hard on standardized tests, merit pay sytems offer them a vehicle to punish their teachers without consequences. We saw this dynamic play itself out when there was no perverse incentive for the students at all; for years our state tests were used only to measure teachers and schools, but had no bearing on a student's grades, gradation, or acceptance to colleges. Consequently, students just didn't care. This year has been the first year when passing the tests has become a graduation requirement. Suddenly (suprise!) student effort on the tests has increased dramatically. To tie teacher pay to student performance might undermine this effort in a way: Students who have "met" could graduate without trying to "exceed", thereby hurting specific teachers they don't like. Also, students who do like their teachers and want to please them would face even more guilt if they failed. I prefer to have my students doing their best for their own benefit, not trying to hurt me or feeling bad if they take money out of my pocket.

[Lest I forget to mention it, let’s not forget what was pointed out in the book Freakonomics: Merit pay systems encourage teachers to cheat.]

There are different models for merit pay, but most rely on test scores. Ignoring the fact that No Child Left Behind leaves testing up to states, which has encouraged states to create easier and easier tests each year in order to show fictional improvement, the tests are still shoddy measures of teacher performance. In most states (Oregon included) students are not tested against their own previous performance, but at specific grade levels, with their scores compared to previous students taking similar tests, or against other students in the state taking the same test. In other words, as we norm the test we hold the students up against other kids. That’s not a means to test a student. It’s a means to test a school. Even then, it’s a poor measure because the school has no control over who comes through the door. We are not factories trying to make machines out of identical widgets. Regardless of the condition our “widgets” come in, we are not allowed to turn them away. Nor are our students like customers, who can be enticed by better products or lower prices. The idea that schools should be run like businesses doesn’t apply, which is why charter schools keep under-performing on state tests when compared to public schools. They are private businesses, which inclines them to want to import business models onto education. And that causes them to fail.

Despite this knowledge or the limits of their utility (and tests are NOT all bad. Despite what some critics might tell you, they do have a place) merit pay systems use test scores, generally as the be all and end all. They either grade teachers based on the improvement of different students within the district, year after year, or based on over-all passing rates in the state. From there, they do one of two things. Either they identify the “best” teachers and pay them more, or identify the “best” schools and pay all their teachers a bonus.

I’m not sure which model is worse. The first, in my opinion, is a blatant union busting move. To use a sports analogy, it’s locker-room poison. If teachers were rewarded based on the over-all passing rates of their students, some teachers would get a bonus every year, while the teachers (like those who teach our special ed populations) would never get one. How long before that would cause dissension within the ranks? On the other hand, if we measured by student improvement, high performers would be missed. The tests only identify students as meeting standards or exceeding them. I’d love to take all the credit for my kids’ successes, but in my honors classes the kids have been exceeding every year since they were in elementary school. There is no room for improvement, according to the state tests. So I would never get a bonus check based on my honors classes, while those working with what we call the “bubble kids”, those right on the cusp, would see the most dramatic gains every year. And again, those working with our developmentally disabled children would be penalized every year. I also work with second language learners. They often show the most dramatic improvement, but because they are so many years behind their peers in English language acquisition, they almost never meet the state standards. How would we account for that?

I can’t see a way of making an individual merit pay system fair without completely un-doing the system of specialization we have in place, which is one of the things our schools do really well. We should be reinforcing the fact that some teachers have special training and ability when it comes to teaching special populations, like special ed. students, second language learners, and gifted students. To give every teacher an equal chance at a yearly merit bonus, we’d have to give every teacher and equal distribution of students. That would rob the kids of the teachers best bale to serve their specialized needs.

The model of rewarding entire schools rather than individual students seems to be an appealing work-around for this problem. Its advantage is that it encourages teachers to collaborate to bring test scores up school wide. That’s good. But it can’t account for the fact that schools serve different populations, so schools that are behind will have less incentive with which to acquire and retain good teachers, thus falling further behind. In that system whole schools would face the challenge faced by individual teachers in the first model: Schools with disproportionately advantaged students (i.e. schools in wealthy areas) would either succeed every year in meeting benchmarks, or fail every year to show dramatic growth. Schools serving disproportionately challenged populations (high poverty, high non-English speaking populations, etc.) would also be winners or losers depending on whether we measure meeting state standards or measure improvement. In both cases, the success would be largely out of teacher’s control, thus eliminating the chief aim of merit pay, which is to motivate teachers.

At its heart, the problem of merit pay systems is that they are based on an incorrect assumption; that students are failing in school because their teachers are unmotivated. If teachers were primarily motivated by pay …THEY WOULDN’T BE TEACHERS! We don’t do this to get rich. We would like fair pay. I think that any merit pay system that doesn’t recognize this will read like a slap in the face, because that’s exactly what it is. If a pay scheme were to be devised which attempted to deal with all the variables mentioned above, it should still be preceded by a general pay increase. That would show teachers that the scheme isn’t based, first and foremost, on an insulting presupposition, but really is a means to reward the best performers among a group of already respected professionals.

Tomorrow, Myth #6: The Teachers Unions are in bed with the Democratic Party.

The Myth of the Evil Teacher Union, Part IV

4. Teachers stand in the way of school reform.

Bunk. You tell me there’s a book I can read that will make me a better teacher; I’ll read it. You tell me there’s a conference (during my summer “vacation”) and you’ll send me there, without paying me, because it will make me a better teacher? I’ll go. I want school reform. I’m desperate for it. Just one caveat: You have to be as serious about improving the education of my students as I am, because your kids are precious, their time is precious, and my time is… well, you buy my time cheap, but the point stands.

So far, most efforts labeled “school reform” simply aren’t serious.

If we really wanted to improve student performance, we wouldn’t give kids three months to forget what they’ve learned followed by a month to review what they’d forgotten in each calendar year.

We wouldn’t delude ourselves that measuring one tenth grader’s test score against another tenth grader’s test score tells us anything of value about an individual tenth grader. Testing would measure improvement of an individual student over time, and the students would have access not just to a numeric score, but to the answers they got right and wrong, so they could actually learn from the testing experience. If we’re more concerned about protecting the property rights of the multi-million dollar test making corporations than we are about kids’ learning, we aren’t serious about school reform.

We would stop using A,B,C,D, and F as measures of student performance. They are ridiculous. They’re arbitrary, inconsistent, and subject to inflation. Worse, a D means a student has not mastered the content to a satisfactory level, but we’re sending him on to the next grade anyway. Today’s D is tomorrow’s F. Why do we use this terrible, cruel system? Because when a school tries to switch, two things happen: Parents want any description of their child’s performance translated back into a letter grade they can understand, and colleges want a GPA for admissions purposes. If we’re more interested in satisfying parents with meaningless letters and with providing colleges with fuzzy data than we are in accurately describing what an individual kid can accomplish, we aren’t really serious.

We would stop funding school by localities. It’s absolutely backwards. The kids who live in the largest houses, with the best educated parents, get to go to schools with the largest budgets. The kids who don’t have enough food to eat and may not have a single book in their home go to schools with the least means to support them. School reform initiatives that don’t address this aren’t serious.

We would give up on the stupid idea of local control. I have yet to hear a single good argument for the benefit of local control of schools. Sure, there’s the hysterical paranoid notion that the evil federal government is going to make all our kids into communist robots. Um, that falls squarely in the “not serious” column. Let’s look at the reality: Local control means a school board of elected officials who may not know a thing about education are chosen from a given community to determine what kids should learn. Despite all their good intentions, they have to spend a massive amount of their time and energy trying to keep their schools in good standing with state and federal law, and with the requirements of universities, who don’t care about what small town their students come from. In exchange for all this work, school boards can’t possibly identify a single bit of knowledge that students from our small town need in order to be successful in the working work which isn’t also essential for kids from the next small town, or the nearest metropolis. Can you imagine a major chain retailer designing itself with a CEO, a CFO, a complete board of directors, a human resources department, and an independent product line in every town where it intended to compete? I want my small town restaurants to have a unique flavor, and my small town bookstore to have a proprietor who really loves books rather than a Walmart stock-boy working on his GED, but my school does not need to provide students with different facts than any other school in this country. Can somebody please explain the merits of “local control” to me, beyond paranoid dystopic fantasy? Please?

I could go on and on about the ways our reform efforts have been piecemeal, cosmetic, political posturing, or blatant union busting maneuvers, but the one thing they haven’t been is serious, comprehensive efforts to make our schools truly competitive with our international competitors. I remind my kids every year that India has a billion people, and that their kids work harder in school, study more at night, have a longer school year, and read and write better in English than we do. Oh, and they’re multilingual. Then I ask my students, if they owned a company and could choose between an employee from India who would work for half as much, or the kid sitting next to them in my class, who would they hire? Without fail, they say they would hire the Indian student. But we continue to complain about jobs going overseas. We aren’t serious.

Education is investment. Teachers, underpaid and underutilized, have already proven themselves willing to make sacrifices for our children’s, and our nation’s, future. Complaining about unions is a means to avoid talking about the realities of the challenges we face. It’s a pathetic blame-game, and that’s a posture for people and nations who lose.

Tomorrow, Myth #5: Teachers unions prevent effective merit pay systems from being put in place.

The Myth of the Evil Teacher Union, Part III

3. Teachers get lots and lots of vacation.

If you had a friend who lost his job at a factory, would you tell him he’s lucky because he now has lots and lots of vacation? If so, you’re a jerk.

“Vacation” implies that one has a period of time in which they are not working, but are being paid by their employer. Teachers may have extended times during the year when they are not working, but we are not paid during those periods.

Do you know how many days I can choose to take off and still get paid? Two. Do you know what I would do if I chose to take those “personal days” off? I would grade the piles of essays sitting on my desk. Now, I do get bank holidays. I have no complaint about those. And I love my Winter, Spring, and Summer breaks. But I don’t get paid during those breaks, so they aren’t “vacation”. They are regular periods of unemployment. In fact, we are given contracts in the Spring so that we cannot file for unemployment compensation in the summer. We have jobs, just without pay. Your pal who got laid off from the factory might get unemployment. So who’s getting “vacation”? Personally, I would love shorter summers. They would make our students more competitive with their peers over seas, who have shorter summer breaks (or none at all), and they would mean I could work a lot more of the year. I think many parents would love it, as they wouldn’t have to pay for so much childcare during the summer. In all the talk of school reform, how much do you hear about lengthening the school year, one of the guaranteed and proven ways to improve student performance? Not much. Because you’d have to pay teachers. Reformers don’t want to do that. So quit saying I get lots of vacation, and worse, that the union is to blame, when I’m asking you to let me work more.

Tomorrow, Myth #4: Teachers stand in the way of school reform.

The Myth of the Evil Teacher Union, Part I

Last night, as I lay in bed, I found myself itemizing some of the most pernicious lies people accept about the teaching profession and the teacher’s unions in particular. Then, when I came into work, I received this great cartoon from a colleague (and my former student teacher) and felt compelled to put it all down on paper (so to speak).

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We'll get to merit pay in a few days. As I began to hammer out this list, it quickly became too long for a single post, so I'll put them up in serial form. Here's lie #1:

1. Teachers unions are responsible for keeping bad teachers in the classroom.

I can’t speak for every school district nationwide, but if my district is any guide, this is flat-out wrong. I’m not saying we don’t have any bad teachers teaching in our district. But the union does not protect them. Our contract, like many, creates a three year window at the beginning of a teacher’s time in the district (regardless of how many years he/she has taught elsewhere) in which a teacher can be fired for no reason whatsoever. The union does not prevent these people from being fired, but in my years as a teacher, the district has not exercised this ability once. Not once. Teachers have been let go due to budget cutbacks (Reductions in Force, or RIFs), and a couple of teachers have been let go because of inappropriate behavior which came to the attention of the state’s Teachers and Standards Commission (TSPC), but new teachers, even if they are really struggling, aren’t fired. That’s not the union’s fault. In fact, the representatives who serve on union committees are all teachers, and we don’t like it when a bad teacher makes us look bad. But getting teachers fired isn’t our job. We play our role, trying to fight for fair and consistent working conditions, and we privately wish that administrators would do their jobs and take care of certain teachers.

Now, once a teacher has survived that three year probationary period, they CAN still be fired. At that point, it gets a bit more difficult because the school district would have to find a reason. But they have a lot of discretion in this area. They would simply have to do some classroom observations, put someone on a dreaded “plan of assistance” (the threat of which can often send a teacher into early retirement or in search of another school), and then show that the teacher was not making adequate progress on that plan. The union does try to make sure that this is done fairly, that the school district isn’t running someone out for political reasons or creating some unfair and impossible plan of assistance as retaliation for union activity, but if a teacher is performing below par, they could certainly be let go and the union couldn’t do a thing about it.

Unions don’t keep bad teachers in the profession. School districts that are frightened of consequences, or loathe to do the extra legwork, allow those teachers to stay in the classroom. Or they try to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings by promoting the bad teachers into (sometimes made-up and completely unnecessary) administrative positions. Some administrators were great teachers. And some are great at their current jobs. But the Peter Principle is alive and well in public schools, and that's not the union's fault. We don't make hiring decisions for teachers or administrators.

So if your kid's teacher stinks, don't blame the union. Look up the chain of command. But don't be totally shocked if you find yourself talking with someone who wasn't all that hot as a teacher once upon a time.

Tomorrow, Myth #2: Teachers are overpaid.