Wednesday, April 21, 2010

On Unions and Standards-Based Education

A friend said:
Look, teachers' unions are probably even less popular than auto workers' unions in this country. I get that, and it's tough to defend them on some fronts -- except to recall, ohbytheway, that fighting for its members is the sole job of a union. To me, criticizing teachers' unions for demanding cushy contracts is like criticizing a defense lawyer for doing her job even when the suspect isn't provably innocent. (And frankly, folks need to remember that we're talking about teachers -- they don't get cushy contracts, except perhaps in a few districts in wealthy liberal states like NY and CT.) Teachers get kicked around quite a lot; it's an often miserable and thankless job that forces you to put up with dumb administrators, dumb students, AND dumb/angry parents; and when students screw up, it's somehow always their teachers' fault. I don't understand the vitriol against teachers' unions, except that everyone's looking for someone to blame and the blame never goes home.
I also don't understand the teacher-centric focus on education, i.e. the Duncan-Rhee-etc liberal technocracy, that says that teacher performance is the determining factor in educational improvement. I especially don't understand the logic behind the standards-based reform policies. (Note: "standards-based" is a term with very particular meaning in the industry: i.e., the district or state or whatever lays out very specific standards for how the classroom will function and what the teacher will cover. The California system puts out all kinds of these standards, massive PDF docs with standards for the curriculum, social development, discipline, whatever. Most of it is bureaucratic bullshit. I've read them.) If teacher performance is what matters -- and a really great teacher can advance students beyond their "potential" by whatever means -- why the hell does it make sense to implement standards-driven curricula and standardized-testing-to-death measurements? That chops off the top end of the distribution just as much as it (might, maybe, possibly) chop off the lower end! Hamstringing the great teachers -- like my AP Lit teacher, who ignored the curriculum entirely and just taught us well -- by forcing them to adhere to bureaucratically-mandated policies developed by career administrators who haven't spent any time inside a classroom. It's bullshit.
And don't get me started on standardized testing. In NC, which has drunk less of the KoolAid than most states, elementary school students lose a full 24 days a year to standardized testing -- that's almost 14% of their time in class! They get "benchmark tests," which ruin the educational day, once per quarter of each semester (i.e., 8 times a year), and there are 3 tests (reading, math, science/other stuff) per round of benchmarks. That's FOURTEEN FRIGGING PERCENT of their school days dedicated to standardized testing!
And most of all, it isn't clear to me that school policies, or schools as institutions, or even really great teachers, can ever be a one-size-fits-all corrective to every social problem. I've said this a million times in a million different education arguments: schools feed a much bigger social and economic system, and the demands of that system will condition how schools perform and how students are motivated to succeed within them. I think most people have the causal arrow pointing in the wrong direction.
The thing that baffles me the absolute most is this.  How many of us do you think would have chosen this new liberal technocratic way to educate ourselves? Our siblings? Our future children? (lord forbid some of us reproduce...) When I teach my baby sister, I don't hand her a standardized test and reach for what a California bureaucrat thinks she should learn. I tell her to read books and write down her thoughts and learn to love learning. It's not about digesting specific quanta of information, it's about figuring out how to engage with material you don't yet understand. Small-group education, hyper-focusing on reading and writing skills (not comprehension and multiple choice questions!), figuring out what's interesting to the student and using that as a case study to teach bigger things -- that's how you teach effectively. That's how my mother taught me, that's how my good teachers taught me, and that's how I teach whenever I have the opportunity. And I think everyone on this list would say the same damned thing. But why is it different for everyone else? Why do people think that moving forward with a system based on lists of specific tasks and standardized testing is a good idea?
Riddle me that, homies.
BTW, I think TFA and KIP and the charter school movement and others are all tied up in this too. I'm not a huge fan of them either."
My response:
I agree with you more on the standards-based education/teacher-centric education than I do on the union characterization, so I'm going to start with the unions.
So, there's an issue with the union characterization. Yes, a union's job is to fight for its members. The issues are twofold: 1) does it really benefit union members in the long run to turn labor, who should be the backbone of an industry, into the leech that slowly kills the industry? It benefits union leadership, and it benefits older (more influential) workers who won't be around when the check comes due, but it's not obvious that it'll help the rest of the members. Seriously, if you look across the private sector (I exclude the public sector only because they don't have a reasonable comparable, not because they're better - if anything they're worse cuz nobody cares enough to negotiate hard with them), firms that rely heavily on union labor stop innovating and die slowly because they have a) less money to reinvest, b) less incentive to grow because so much of any marginal growth is going to the unions anyway and c) less management attention on things other than negotiating with unions. You think anyone other than the oldest autoworkers are particularly happy their predecessors ran the big 3 into the ground?
2) Should they even have a union? A union is a great thing when a) supply of labor far exceeds demand, b) labor is relatively unskilled and thus workers are fast to train and fast to replace, and c) when safety regulations are a concern. In these conditions, companies can quite easily just cut costs on wages and working conditions, so unions prevent companies from exploiting workers' need for tonight's dinner by ruining their health or safety down the road. When any one of those three situations is not present, unions end up making the whole process very unbalanced for the short-term benefit of the older members of the union and at the expense of the younger members and the rest of the American people. Teaching probably doesn't meet a single one of those characteristics - it's hard to treat a teacher unfairly from a workplace-environment point of view because a school can't just replace teachers easily.
Thus, my issue with teacher's unions is not that they fight for cushy jobs for teachers, it's that they are even allowed to exist. If firms colluded to extract as much as possible from labor, they'd have their faces sued off. Why should labor be allowed to collude, especially when it's harmful to everyone else?
Public sector unions are even worse than private, because largely, a public sector union cares more about winning for their members than the people they're negotiating with care about winning for their superiors. This goes beyond just working wage stuff... these union benefits include things like "we are only allowed to do this particular work, and if you want us to do anything else you have to hire more people".  A friend of mine works for the DoT and says they get nothing done, ever, because every department is jockeying for their own special role. How is that a beneficial thing? Same goes for the treatment of incompetent teachers. It'd be a lot easier to move away from teacher-centric education if it weren't so damn hard to get bad teachers out of the classroom. Why, exactly, should teachers have tenure? I understand why it's useful for academic researchers - you don't want them fired for what they're researching - but while there's a case to be made for academic freedom in the classroom, it's a far weaker reason for tenure when you could just deal with that with some sort of fast-process third-party arbitration. Similarly, why should a union dictate the maximum number of students that can be in a classroom? I'm all for smaller class sizes if it helps you learn, but the fight between the "stand and deliver" guy and his teacher's union because he wanted to take more than the maximum 35 students into his epic calculus class was absolutely ridiculous.
I'm a little torn on standards-based education and teacher-centrism. It's definitely counterproductive for good teachers to teach to tests. It's definitely productive for awful teachers to teach to tests - it's like the test pulls teaching towards an average or slightly below level. I agree - it's probably not good enough.
There's something valid about the idea that it's not just the teacher's fault. Organizational theory tells you that organizations with a plus leader can do amazingly well, but for the organization to be really sustained, it needs to be sustained by a culture and a structure that doesn't require an amazing leader. That probably goes double for something like teaching, which a) probably attracts a less managerial subset of educated people and b) in which you'll definitely have a wide distribution of natural ability for the simple reason that you're hiring so many people.
That means that hiring the right people is critical, training them appropriately is critical, but also that the way in which they teach - the structure, as much as the material -  is critical. I think standards-based education is ultimately meant to reduce the importance of the teacher on the classroom - just not implemented very well.
The strange problem with education is that everything we know about organizational theory says to hire only people who will be happy and motivated and work hard, and then decentralize and let them largely manage themselves. In the absence of that as a possibility, have a central mastermind committee (preferably with the ability to ensure it remains a mastermind by finding good replacements) and have them set very streamlined visions. You can't really do either of those with education because you a) can't just "fire" the bad apples from school and b) it's way too big and diverse to have a streamlined vision.
I'm way out of my element here, but I guess this is how I'd take [your comments and extend them].
I've always been a fan in the workplace of the "10% or 20% of your time is your own" principle, and continue to believe that students should be allowed to study anything they're interested in, at all, as long as they can make some sort of semi-regular presentation about it to educate the rest of the class.
Elementary schoolers should probably not be tested as heavily as they are - maybe a couple days to see where they're at to make improvements (it's hard to know where you stand with no data) but the level of testing in elementary and even middle school is probably out of hand. You also don't want to just hand out degrees to people who aren't capable of thinking in an educated way, so testing for graduation makes more sense.
It's tough. The Fryer paper is really interesting - when you pay kids to do things in their control, they do them, to good results (for example, paying them for attendance, or especially paying them for reading and reporting on books). It'd be interesting to see if you could have "student centered learning", where teachers set the boundaries of what they're allowed to study, they choose something, build it with the help of the teacher, and then present it, with the teacher grading on effort and accuracy and handling the disciplinary stuff. At some point you'd have to start teaching a more structured curriculum - 98% of high schoolers would choose the absolute least effort way to do a math presentation, for example - but at least at the younger ages, it's not a terrible way to get kids engaged with learning.
Then again, my teaching experience is limited to first grade sunday school, and first graders love everything, so perhaps I overstate the ability to get older kids motivated enough to work on anything. Again, I'm out of my element here, just musing.

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