Wednesday, July 07, 2010

When School Systems Stopped Doing Their Jobs

Good articles at Slate today.

When Did It Get So Hard to Fire Teachers? today's Explainer asks. They give the long-form answer. The short-form answer is the title of this post.

I'll continue with my cultural explanation:

Back in the "good ole days" that Libertairans and Republicans like to mythologize, the reality of our nation was blatantly feudalistic and racist. Teachers had to unionize and fight, and fight hard, for the right to be fired for cause.

Because before then, they could be fired because for any reason, from not doing their jobs to not doing the principal when he demanded it.

When laws forced school system administrators to actually state reasons for terminating employment, it kinda sucked to be a school system administrator. There is, after all, no fun in actually educating children when compared to handing out political favors and yelling "off with their heads."

Since then, every problem with schools has been blamed on the teachers, because somehow, requiring a legitimate reason to fire a teacher eliminated all system administrator ability to "improve schools."

So, instead of working with teachers to create better teacher training, support them in the classroom, and reward good teachers (who show results) with tenure, the politicians and administrators decided an adversarial relationship with teachers was more appropriate.

With a robust adversarial relationship developed, teachers' unions concerned themselves mainly with opposing school system administrators and vice versa. Each political side had a stake and a narrative. And we all know how institutionally effective our systems work when politics and narrative are at stake.

You'll notice that actually improving schools and education becomes a secondary or tertiary concern, if it is a concern at all.

This is why test scores are so important from a policymaking standpoint these days - they are the only "legitimate reason" most incompetent school system administrators can employ to fire teachers. Otherwise, they might have to prove their own competency by actually evaluating the employees and systems they are responsible for.



Dante said...

I can be fired for any reason at any time. Most businesses in the state of Georgia can fire anyone at any time for almost any reason. We somehow get by. I don't have to unionize over it and I sure as hell don't have to turn the hand that feeds me into my adversary over it.

You want to talk "mythology?" You're spinning your own right here with our evil feudalistic past and those oh so noble unions that changed all of that. But even unions are a red herring.

Our biggest problem in education right now is over-reaction. By and large, education in our country works for students (and parents) who value it. It could work better and that's something we should absolutely strive for, but if a school or even a district isn't churning out scholars because the kids and parents don't give a shit, there's not a whole lot you can do about it other than focus on the ones who want that education and try to convince the others that there is value in having an education.

Sure, you can fire teachers and administrators but that's just a big show. The same people end up getting hired back because even if you happen to find someone more qualified than whoever is already there, nobody else wants to risk their career by working in a craphole. And the students and their parents don't even care that it's a craphole in the first place. The limited failure in our education system is a group effort and only a group solution will fix it. Placing the blame on any one party ignores how the others contribute to the problem.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

Most businesses in the state of Georgia can fire anyone at any time for almost any reason.

Yes. Businesses. Public Schools are government. Different animal. I'm not a stakeholder in your business. I am a stakeholder in my local public school system.

And I didn't say anything about "evil" or "noble." There is a historical stimulus and a historical response. If you trust your employer not to unreasonably terminate your employment and are comfortable with your position in that heirarchy, more power to you. But at some time in the past, teachers were made to distrust their employers for a host of reasons and were compelled to act upon that distrust.

On the macro, I don't see it as limited failure, I see it as massive failure. A lot of the parents who "don't care" aren't educated enough to enunciate their grievances, and many systems are set up to be gamed by certain parents. Because while the majority of our feudal and racist legacy lies in the past, systems and attitudes built on their foundations die slowly.

As far as the "blame," I agree that there have to be "group" solutions, but I refuse to excuse the specific group tasked with administering the system from shirking the responsibilities taxpayers pay them to address.

Yes, there is a lot of positive change that teachers can affect by getting involved and turning around their ignoble, ineffective and overpoliticized unions; but there are already people being paid to make positive changes.

And all those people seem able to do is complain about unions and test scores.

DADvocate said...

Back in the "good ole days" that Libertairans and Republicans like to mythologize,...

Please provide me some examples of Libertarians mythologizing the "good old days." Nice how you stick in a little straw man lie. I consider myself a libertarian. Please search my blog for mythologizing the good ole days.

Since then, every problem with schools has been blamed on the teachers,...

Really? I frequently read about zero tolerance policies and other stupid stuff by administrators and school boards.

actually improving schools and education becomes a secondary or tertiary concern, if it is a concern at all.

Probably. This goes with your point about the tests. The test is being taught more than anything. In my kids' schools, teaching virtually stops after the tests are administered in late spring and the days become full of field trips, extended recesses and such.

In my experience, few teachers perform at a level expected in most white collar private business jobs. Many, especially in social sciences and the sciences, don't have a good grasp on their subject matter. Math teachers tend to be poor communicators of the subject.

(My kids are honor students, so I'm not complaining because of their failures. I'm complaining because the schools give them much less than they could and should.)

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

@ DADvocate:

You're absolutely right about teaching the test and subject matter issues. Many of those decisions are made on a school or system level, however. Responsibility for teachers who aren't performing at high levels also fall on their supervisors, who should either be evaluating and developing their human resources more effectively or hiring more selectively. This should happen before it becomes impossible to get rid of a bad teacher.

In a perfect system, the union would also help evaluating and developing the teacher pool, and the first people calling for a bad teacher's ouster are usually other teachers.

And yeah, you got me on the "every problem blamed on the teachers." You've actually raked a lot of admins over the coals in the past years for the no tolerance/lunacy stuff. Maybe that's just my geography creeping in, as teachers recieve a lion's share of the blame for all kinds of problems south of the Tennessee River.

As for the "good ole days" mythology: there are plenty of chucklehead Libertarians and Republicans out there who pine for a lost utopia that never existed, just like a lot of chucklehead Democrats and Liberals pine for a lost utopia that cannot realistically be acheived.

Defending my position, I like to start with David Boaz. Even as those he criticizes defend themselves, it does not change the fact that a strong subtext of both Libertarian and Republican branding nationwide celebrates a mythological oversimplification of America's shared history.

While I'm not one to throw the historical baby out with the bath water, there are more individuals selling that mythological view of the past than applying libertarian ideas to present and future scenarios. I have a big problem with that.

That is why I have great respect (if policy disagreement) for individuals like Ron Paul, who demonstrate the application of libertarian thought to our current crises. You tend to do the same thing. It seperates both of you from the more mainstream libertarians who make their money by appealing to individuals who also believe in some idealized past that is being lost.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...
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Cousin Pat from Georgia said...
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Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

Stupid multiple comment uploads.

DADvocate said...

Here's an example of what's wrong with schools that doesn't blame teachers. Rather it blames liberal racism.

From the same state that gave us This liberal racist incident.

Ah, the good ole days, being kept alive by liberals, only the color of the skin of those being discriminated against has changed.