Tag Archives: Teacher Unions

Teachers are too valuable to be “Fair Game”: A Response to David Brooks

Cover of the Atlantic's 2010 "Ideas" Issue, from http://www.theatlantic.com

“Fair game – noun. Open to legitimate pursuit, attack or ridicule.” – Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictonary

In 18th Century England, animals that were legal to hunt, either with shotgun or pack of rabid dogs, were considered “fair game.”

In the frontier wilderness of northern New York, American rangers harassed John Burgoyne’s British army by doing the unthinkable—hunting officers as if they were animals, or “fair game.”

In 1917, the German navy declared open season on all Atlantic shipping.  Unarmed ocean liners and cargo ships were considered “fair game.”

So in the 21st Century, according to David Brooks, author, New York Times columnist and contributor to the Atlantic, teachers are also to be subject to the hunting dogs and shotguns, as we are now “fair game.”

The recent “Ideas” edition of the Atlantic had an interesting—albeit provocative—piece by Brooks, a liberal-turned-conservative who has recently joined the education reform crusade.  He has penned column after column of Times opinions lambasting teacher unions, exalting charter schools and school choice, and glorifying the current trend towards “data-driven” instruction.

To wit, Brooks breaks no real new ground in his article “Teachers are Fair Game.” He also says little that is new in terms of the changing reaction to teacher unions: anti-union bias has usually stood ascendant in times of economic distress i.e. the 1930s, and the immediate postwar recession.

Yet what sets this piece apart is its tone: not of someone willing to work with others, but that of a hunter stalking its prey.

That prey is us.  We are that game.

His arguments are hardly original: improving teacher quality, the cessation of tenure and other teacher protections and the perceived intransigence of the education establishment.  That establishment, according to Brooks,

“is both softhearted and hardheaded.  They put big emphasis on the teaching relationship, but are absolutely Patton-esque [interesting adjective there] when it comes to dismantling anything that interferes with that relationship…union rules that protect bad and mediocre teachers, teacher contracts that prevent us from determining which educators are good and which need help, and state and federal alws that either impede reform or dump money into the ancien regime.”

Yet Brooks errs on two huge factors.  First, he sees the unions in it of themselves as a problem, without leaving any opening for those union leaders willing to work with administrators to find real solutions.  This is where Brooks the rabid union-hunter aims for his kill.  He remarks with unrestrained glee about the shift in opinion amongst the media and political leaders against perceived union abuses.  “The unions feel the sand eroding under their feet.”  Brooks states. “They sense their lack of legitimacy, especially within the media and the political class.  They still fight to preserve their interest but they’ve lost their moral authority…”

Tally ho! Let's hunt an algebra teacher, boys!

Moral authority?  The authority a union has is to its membership, and the use of morality has all too often been used by administrators to abuse and harass such members.  It does education reformers absolutely no good to attack a union per se.  Unions are here, and unions will stay into the foreseeable future.  Even the vaunted charter schools have unionized to some extent, by consent of their faculty.

There is room for reforms that benefit instruction, and there are unions and union leaders who are willing to work together with school districts to reform education.  Putting unions in a corner with attacks, however, is not only fruitless, but counterproductive.  By placing unions on the defensive, without reaching out an olive branch of cooperation, nothing will get done.  Cooperation will get results: not all the results you want, but that is life.  Something is better than nothing.

Brook’s second error involves his argument about teacher quality.  He correctly states that a core issue of education is the relationship between teacher and student.  Like Brooks, I too have issues with teacher quality, particularly in teacher training.  In a post last year, I lamented the ease with which I earned my masters degree in education, stating that for teachers to gain respect their education should be of a competitive caliber.  My guess is Brooks and I are in full agreement on this.

Yet his solution involves more than just tweaking graduate education.  As if he released a pack of rabid lions on Christian martyrs, Brooks exalts that “aided by the realization that teacher quality is what matters most, a new cadre of reformers have come to the scene, many of them bred within the ranks of Teach for America [oh brother].  These are stubborn, data-driven types with a low tolerance for bullshit.”

I will not rehash my feelings on Teach for America, the institution.  Let’s just say it’s less than positive.

That last sentence, however, bears the obvious taint of hypocrisy.  “Data-driven” types with a “low tolerance for bullshit.”  In the past few years, I have been knee-deep in the use of standardized tests to guide instruction.  You can even say I’m the poster boy for “data-driven” instruction.

In my experience, the entire exercise of using data, as it is now, is bullshit.

If you look at standard assessments and practice assessments in many school districts, you may see a disturbing pattern.  The state exams tend to be much easier than the practice tests.  The practice tests, for the most part, exhibit an eerie upward trajectory in scores as test time gets closer.

A more naïve soul, an earnest “no-bullshit” TFA-er, for example, would see this as proof of instruction driven by data from the previous assessment, thus an upward sloping path.

Your veteran teacher, however, isn’t fooled so easily.  When a rookie teacher sees achievement, a veteran sees manipulation.  What is to stop states, school districts—and the test-prep companies in their pocket—to engineer a series of tests so that it seems that students are doing better?

The federal contest for Race to the Top funds doesn’t help in this regard at all.  In fact, it allows for more manipulation and outright fraud in student data than ever before.  Because of the need for increased test scores, school districts are more open to the temptation of test-rigging—with the often-tacit approval of state education departments.  After all, doesn’t everyone win in this scenario: teachers “look good,” administrators “look good,” feds see that the kids are “doing better” and reward states that “sustain student achievement”?

The students don’t win: not by a long shot.  Sometimes when I assess them, their scores fall, often far below other previous tests.  This is natural: new material and new concepts often make this happen, as well as normal student jitters about tests.  To me, it does the student little use to give them a false sense of achievement.  They may have stumbled, but at least I can get an authentic view of what they know and don’t know—at least as authentic as possible using a test.

What does Brooks really want?  “No-bullshit” types that really use data in a fruitful way, regardless of the results?  Or does he want teachers that make sure students do “well” on tests at all costs?  Higher education, for example, is only “data-driven” in the case of admissions: the SAT and AP scores, etc.  Colleges and universities require thinking, reasoning, and research skills that often cannot be quantified.

If students are only taught “to tests”, doesn’t this give them a disadvantage in higher education?  Do education “reformers” really even care about disadvantaged students if their methods effectively bar them from higher education, leaving it to better prepared, richer and “whiter” students?

[Oh dear, did I let the cat out of the bag?  Did it slip out that the current craze of education reform is simply a ruse to create a permanent underclass that is educated just enough to show that disadvantaged students “can learn” and “make academic progress.” Aren’t these “data driven” students still woefully ill-prepared for much-needed college and university education?…that’s for another post.]

Brooks may have the best of intentions, but his methods and ideologies do nothing but entrench established interests on both sides.  The TFA, data-driven method is flawed—in some cases dreadfully so.  Attacking unions as the ultimate problem alienates and immobilizes those teachers (like me) who still feel educational reform can still happen with a strong union and administration in partnership.

Lastly, what better way to make teachers—among the hardest working Americans out there—feel like subhuman carrion than by labeling them as prey for the hunters.  If Mr. Brooks wants to play that game, here’s my announcement for my fellow teachers:

Those TFA “data-driven” types with a “low tolerance for bullshit”?  They’re “fair game.”  Unleash the hounds.

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The Smart Kid’s Burden: The “Raj” of Teach for America

“Take up the White Man’s burden—
    Send forth the best ye breed—
Go, bind your sons to exile
    To serve your captives’ need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
    On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
    Half devil and half child.” – “White Man’s Burden”, 1st Stanza, Rudyard Kipling

Inner city children of America, “half-devil and half-child,” fear no more.  Dr. Livingston is here and he’s got a protractor.

The good folks at Teach for America are here to give you the education only privileged children can obtain.  Why, in only two years, your little urchin can rise to drink gin fizzes at the Porcellian Club at Harvard, hobnob at the eating clubs of Princeton, or stand around Yale looking morose.  All he/she needs to do is sit up straight, throw his/her cultural identity out the window and do exactly what these fresh-faced go-getters tell you to do.

Why does it work?  Because even though they have no certification, no teaching degree and a grand total of five weeks of training, they are better than your teacher.  They are better than your principal.  They are better than you–because their bachelor’s degree has more Latin scribble on it than other people.   

Utter nonsense.

I have had a huge stick in my craw about TFA for quite a while.  When I was undergoing summer training as a New York City Teaching Fellow, I’d run into these guys every once in a while.  They were all glassy-eyed and full of chants and whistles and sunbeams–as if Cat Stevens taught freshman English.  Many of them looked down on us because we were pursuing teaching seriously, as a profession, while they were enjoying their two-year safari among the natives teaching them stuff without making sure the kids are actually learning something. 

I often ran into these folks later in the year, at seminars and such.  They all have that look like Michael Caine at the end of Zulu.  One more massive attack by the Zulus and they’d be sprawling on the floor with spears in their bellies.  The look of horror in their eyes–I felt bad for them, but also kind of pleased.  Those preppie punks had it coming.

The Boston teacher’s union agrees.  Today’s Boston Globe has a story about a letter sent to TFA from the union in Boston, urging them to not send recruits into their school system, citing that their personnel unfairly take positions away from tenured faculty who have been excessed due to the financial situation.  Boston schools will have anywhere from 100-200 openings due to retirement and resignation, yet there is still the threat of layoffs because of the numbers of “surplus” faculty available.  According to the union, TFA would only make matters worse.

Many critics of the union say that this is simply a tactic to keep unqualified, failing teachers on the payroll and maintain union membership.  They also cite studies showing gains in performance in schools that hire TFA personnel.  The program got a huge boost from President Obama’s call for public service, as applications to the program rose 42%  this year.

Let me be clear: I am not in the business of defending the union blindly.  If the teachers proved to be substandard, or “failing”, then they probably should go, provided all avenues have been exhausted.  Even among veteran faculty, there are those who have survived in the system by doing just enough to not get hassled.  Obviously, these people do the profession no service.

However, if enhanced teacher quality and teacher retention are the goal, then Teach for America is the wrong way to go.  President Obama, I admire your zeal for improving education, but TFA is an antiquated “colonialist” relic.  It is simply a stopgap measure to fill vacancies where more qualified people do not want to go.  It is not designed to produce highly skilled or effective teachers, but rather intellectual missionaries sent to preach to the unwashed masses and hand out Norton’s Anthology of English Literature before going to an investment banking  job readying the next recession.

Teach For America is inherently flawed for a number of reasons.  Let’s begin with recruitment.  While the program attracts the best and brightest college seniors, it does not necessarily choose people who will be good teachers.  Education is not solely about knowing the material in a textbook–otherwise, we would just have students in massive rooms with headphones listening to James Earl Jones reading a trigonometry book (wouldn’t his voice lend weight to Pythagora’s theorem?).  Teachers wear many hats: lecturer, facilitator, disciplinarian, actor, storyteller, etc.  A good teacher understands his/her class and adapts to meet the needs of the students.  Not every brainiac or J. Crew-wearing co-ed can do this.

The two-year commitment is a joke.  I have been teaching for five years, and am considered a “master” teacher, according to the education establishment.  Yet I’m still clueless about lots of aspects of this vocation.  Ask me to schedule a field trip…I’ll guarantee something will go wrong.  And this after FIVE years of study and on-the-job experience.  These TFA guys are out the door before they even begin to realize what they entered in the first place.

Another fault lies in training.  TFA recruits go through an “intensive” program for five weeks in the summer.  This will prepare them for decorating their room, writing in their plan book, taking attendance and getting kids to and from lunch.  It does not prepare them for teaching.  Teaching is a craft that takes years of study and apprenticeship to master: you cannot take a crash course for this.  Not only will it make the TFA-er look like a fool, but it hurts the students by depriving them of quality teaching.

Many deride the program as “Teach for a While” for good reason.  There is no incentive to retain teachers in TFA after their commitment is done.  I’m lucky in that I entered a program where the city payed for my Masters Degree–a huge incentive to stay in education, plus a requirement of a certified teacher.  Furthermore, I’ve met people in different aspects of education that have helped foster lasting connections to improve instruction and programs for children.  The TFA’ers have no such thing to keep them here, hence their reputation as hired mercenaries who enter corporate America after their stint.  If the President was serious about education, he should be invested in programs that not only train teachers efficiently, but also provide benefits to stay in the profession.

Yet, the last is probably the worst flaw of all–and President Obama should be ashamed to back TFA because of it.  Harkening back to Kipling and the rest of the pith-helmet crowd, TFA is often a divisive influence in education because of its very culture.   For many years, Teach for America has instilled in recruits the sense that they are better than the teachers in their schools, who often have years of experience, simply because of their educational background.   If George W. Bush is any indicator, an Ivy League education can be obtained by both brainiacs and boneheads–depending on the trust fund.

This attitude trickles down to the students, as TFA recruits lord their knowledge over underprivileged students who couldn’t care less.  Why won’t Jose read the material?  Why can’t Johnny solve a simple algebra problem?  The answer is simple: TFA’s chauvinist mentality places an extreme disconnect between teacher and student.  These run-and-gun intellectual missionaries never bother to get to know the areas or the students they encounter every day.  Why should they?  They’ll be making six figures at Swindle & Embezzle, LLC or some other bloated bank soon, so why bother making sure these “savages” learn?

I’ve learned one immutable fact in my years in the classroom: You learn just as much from your students as they learn from you.  If you just listen to your kids, look at what they do and see what they see, they will tell you what they need to know.  Not only that, listening to students will tell you HOW to teach them–and not to lord over their ignorance. 

Lastly, this is like being a priest or a cop.  Teaching is a vocation–if you’re in it, you better be in it for the long haul.  If not, you’re of no use to anyone. If TFA’ers cannot make the commitment, they are no help. 

Maybe they should actually do something more constructive, like killing lions in Kenya wearing a monocle.


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