Education, Teachers Unions and Waiting for Superman

OK. For a pajama-clad citizen journalist on spring/winter break, I should just be kicking back and enjoying myself. But when you are up before 4 a.m. before Mr. Sol but not before the alligators here, well, better to stay put and fret about what is happening with teachers — and teachers unions — in Wisconsin and elsewhere around the country.

Wisconsin Gov. Walker is expected to outline his budget Tuesday, with deep cuts for public employees, including teachers and education in general. From the story on NPR:

Walker suggested Monday that he will propose cutting state funding for schools by $900 million — a 9 percent drop from this year’s allocation. Schools last week started putting teachers on notice that their contracts may not be renewed for next year given the budget uncertainty.

I get it. Most states — and the USA in general — are either bankrupt or heading down that road. So clearly we are going to have to make some tough decisions about spending — and priorities. But I don’t understand how we believe this country is going to survive in a global economy or sustain a representative democracy without a well-educated workforce and citizens in general.

Full disclosure: I spent the best years of my career teaching at Kent State. My wife recently retired from a 30-year career as a public school teacher in Akron. My son teaches at a high school in Colorado, and my daughter has been a classroom instructor in colleges and schools in this country and abroad.

Saying all that, I understand that during the course of the last 20 or 30 years we have devalued teaching and education in this country. Hey, it’s easy. All you have to do is get up in front of a class and talk. You only work nine months a year. Yada. Yada. Yada.

And that’s the view shared by both liberals and conservatives. So I’m not sure that I view what is happening in Wisconsin, Ohio, Texas and nationally as it relates to teachers and teachers unions as liberal versus conservative as much as I see it as a defining issue between people these days who have quality jobs, benefits and pensions versus those who don’t — or who figure they aren’t going to have them for long.

For instance, I watched part of the pathetically boring Academy Awards broadcast Sunday night, and missing from the documentary category was the film Waiting for Superman, the at least at one time well-heralded inside look at the problems with our education system.

Why no nomination? Well, I heard this several times while chasing the treadmill during the past few weeks — and not just on Fox News: Liberals in Hollywood couldn’t support Waiting for Superman because at its core it is anti-union. I report. You decide.

C’mon. Liberals — just like conservatives — have been undercutting teachers and teachers unions for years.  Here’s from a WaPo article, “Gov. Scott Walker can thank Michelle Rhee for making teachers unions the enemy“:

A half-century ago, Wisconsin became the first state in the nation to pass legislation allowing collective bargaining for public employees, including educators. At the time, teachers across the country, who make up a significant share of public employees, were often underpaid and mistreated by autocratic administrators. In the fight for greater dignity, union leaders such as Albert Shanker in New York City linked teacher unionization to the fledgling civil rights movement.

Today, Wisconsin is again at the forefront of a union battle – this time in Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s effort to cut his state’s budget deficit in part by curtailing collective bargaining for teachers and other public employees. How did it become okay, once more, to vilify public-sector workers, especially the ones who are educating and caring for our children?

On the most obvious level, teachers unions are taking a pounding because Republicans have gained power in recent state elections, and the GOP has a strong partisan interest in undermining public-employee unions, which provide troops and treasure to the Democratic Party. In Wisconsin, Walker’s campaign to restrict the collective bargaining rights of teachers and other groups to the issue of wages is transparently partisan. Exempt from his plan are two unions that supported him politically: those representing police and firefighters.

But Walker’s argument – that greedy teachers are putting their own interests over the interests of the public – resonates because in recent years, many Democrats have made that argument as well.

Exhibit A is former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. Under Democratic mayor Adrian Fenty, she repeatedly clashed with the Washington Teachers’ Union, which she said put the interests of adults over those of children. “Cooperation, collaboration, and consensus-building are way overrated,” Rhee said at the Aspen Institute’s education summit in 2008. She told journalist John Merrow it is imperative that teachers-union bargaining rights exclude issues such as devising a fair teacher-evaluation system.

Since resigning as chancellor last year, Rhee has launched a new organization, StudentsFirst, with the express goal of raising $1 billion to counter teachers unions. Her approach remains confrontational. In a profound sense, Democrats like Michelle Rhee have paved the way for Scott Walker.

But Rhee couldn’t have done it alone. Then-candidate Barack Obama endorsed Rhee in a 2008 debate as a “wonderful new superintendent” and later applauded the firing of every single unionized teacher at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island. (The teachers were later rehired.) Rhee’s agenda also received a big boost from liberal movie director Davis Guggenheim, whose film, “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ “ implies that teachers unions are to blame for the failures of urban education and that non-unionized charter schools are the solution. The movie includes no acknowledgment that the things teachers want for themselves – more resources devoted to education, smaller class sizes, policies that allow them to keep order in the classroom – are also good for kids.

OK. The education system in this country — particularly public education in communities where parents don’t have money and a compelling interest in seeing their kids succeed — essentially sucks. And that has some huge implications for the future of our economy, our communities and our nation.

But I have a tough time swallowing the idea that the blame for this mess extends only to teachers and teachers unions. And I get it. Unions protect bad teachers — just like they protect bad pipefitters. But I have yet to see an effective way to evaluate the performance and accomplishments of classroom teachers — given all the variables. Suppose you are an attorney and your client fails to show up for a third or more of the court dates. Should you be expected to win the case? Just askin.’

Anyway, teachers unions get this — and they get the point that the public, rightly or wrongly, wants change. Here’s from an informative NYT article, “Leader of Teachers’ Union Urges Dismissal Overhaul“:

Responding to criticism that tenure gives even poor teachers a job for life, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, announced a plan Thursday to overhaul how teachers are evaluated and dismissed.

It would give tenured teachers who are rated unsatisfactory by their principals a maximum of one school year to improve. If they did not, they could be fired within 100 days.

Teacher evaluations, long an obscure detail in an educator’s career, have moved front and center as school systems try to identify which teachers are best at improving student achievement, and to remove ineffective ones.

The issue has erupted recently, with many districts anticipating layoffs because of slashed budgets. Mayors including Michael R. Bloomberg of New York and Cory A. Booker of Newark have attacked seniority laws, which require that teacher dismissals be based on length of experience rather than on competency.

Ms. Weingarten has sought to play a major role in changing evaluations and tenure, lest the issue be used against unions to strip their influence over work life in schools — just as Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin and Ohio are trying to do this week.

Critics say that removing teachers is nearly impossible because of the obstructions that unions have put up. Administrators also bear some blame. Most evaluations are perfunctory — a drive-by classroom observation by a vice principal — and hearings to prove incompetence can be long and costly.

Improving education in this country — from top to bottom — should rank at the top of any list of this nation’s priorities.

But there ain’t no Superman.

And cutting education budgets and spending and laying off thousands of teachers ain’t going to make thing better.

Just sayin’.

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