Tag Archives: politics

Interests of Teachers Or Interests of Kids?

When I first heard about the teacher strike in Chicago, my thoughts turned to the students. Besides the lost instructional time, I know from teaching in Philly how much students in cities need the structure, safety, and positive atmosphere of school. I shudder at the thought of my own students getting locked out of the school building for a week without anywhere else to go.

Yet as I’ve read perspectives on the strike from both sides, I still can’t wrap my head around the CTU talking point that the strike is somehow in the interests of the kids. To put it bluntly: How could you say with a straight face that locking 400,000 kids out of school for a week is in the interests of students? As I see it, the strike is finally knocking down the illogical but widely-held view that teachers’ unions should be trusted with determining what is best for students. Unions should still exist, but let’s dispense with the farcical idea that what is best for them is best for students.

Amidst the present ubiquity of education reform in the news and on pundits’ tongues, it’s easy to forget that education only recently became a real public policy issue. Indeed, prior to No Child Left Behind and its precursors, education was pretty much a local concern, handled by the only people viewed as qualified to do so: teachers and administrators. Teachers’ unions, then, were given the power to define and pursue the interests of students as well as teachers. Pretty sweet deal. (N.B. I wrote in much greater depth about the history of the unions in chapter 2 of my undergraduate thesis.)

But with the emergence of data showing the flaws of public education in this country, unions are having trouble proving that they still represent the interests of students.  Clinging to structural anachronisms while opposing logical reforms like evaluations linked to performance, substantive tenure reform, and expansion of high-quality school choices in cities is hard to square with claims that the unions speak for anyone but teachers.

The strike in Chicago is bringing that disconnect to light even more.  Teachers are banishing nearly half a million kids to the Chicago streets over getting a less than 30% raise in a recession and  because they don’t want to toughen an evaluation system that laughably rates 99.7% of teachers satisfactory. It takes serious cojones for the CTU to say that those demands are in anyone’s interests but their own.

News reports suggest that the sides are getting closer and students will be back in school on Monday–by all accounts, a great development. But the whole ordeal should serve as a reminder that any organization that keeps kids out of school for a week does not represent the best interests of students. We ought to reconsider where objective educational expertise actually resides.

 

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StudentsFirst is Right to De-Emphasize Poverty

Michelle Rhee and her organization, StudentsFirst,created controversy this past week after Rhee articulated her education reform vision in a Meet the Press appearance and related TV ad. One common complaint about her argument, as discussed by Diane Ravitch among others, is that it doesn’t acknowledge the connection between poverty and struggling schools.

I’m not going to comment on why there is a correlation between poverty and low achievement–that is best handled by a sociologist. But I think that StudentsFirst and its allies are right to de-emphasize the role of poverty in the achievement gap, for the simple reason that it is more likely to help kids. The urban education crisis demands viable policies that will help kids, not “silver bullets” and trumpeted ideals.

It’s no secret that the U.S. has disturbingly high poverty levels, particularly among children. And it would be ridiculous to argue that this does not have an impact on education. A massive nationwide wealth redistribution, or at least redistribution of school funding, would likely fix a lot of the problems in our schools.

But here’s the thing: that’s not going to happen anytime soon. The continuing outrage over Obama’s healthcare reform bill–which is relatively moderate, of course– is perfect evidence that our country is not ready for radical progressivism. As I’ve written previously, we cannot depend on people to vote against their direct interests. To put it bluntly, in the current political climate “fixing” poverty is a pipe dream.

Now, do advocates of those radical reforms have good intentions? Of course. But good intentions do nothing for kids currently forced to attend ineffective, unsafe schools. Talk of systemic social problems as the cause of low achievement serves as little more than a convenient justification for inaction; it masks and ignores the urgency of the problem. Instead of maligning wealth distribution to little effect, let’s figure out what we can do tomorrow to help kids that are being failed by the system. Every day we do nothing is a moral failure. Imagine that you or your child had to go to a terrible school. Would you be willing to wait for a radical economic reorganization? I bet not.

Rhee understands this. It’s not that poverty is irrelevant, just that it is not useful or practical to emphasize it in discussions of education reform. She rightly supports school choice, tenure reform and other policies because they are realistic to implement, and so can  actually help kids. All education reformers ought to use that same logic. If we’re serious about improving the welfare of our nation’s children, we should pocket our ideals and acknowledge that we need feasible policies, not progressive grandstanding.