I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Why Shouldn't Teachers Fight For Their Interests?

Michael Petrilli, head frat boy at the Fordham Institute's blog, Flypaper, decided that this headline for a recent post was in good taste:

What’s more powerful than Hurricane Sandy? Hurricane Randi!

Randi being, of course, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. Yeah, I'm finding that so super funny, especially after waiting two hours in line for a can of gas...

The post goes on to take a gratuitous swipe at Diane Ravitch for daring to point out that there is no correlation between union strength and student achievement. Petrilli's post is based on a new report from Fordham, funded by the reformy folks at Democrats For Education Reform, that "ranks" union strength around the country.

After a cursory look, I can confidently report that this study is rather silly. The love these people have for ordinal numbers is, frankly, bizarre: when they're not ranking states and countries, or cheering the ranking of teachers, they rank unions. It never seems to occur to them that ranking implies a precision that doesn't exist when looking at qualitative assessments; that saying, "You're #23 and you're #24," is unwarranted in judgments where there are no precise metrics available.

But the ability to live with uncertainty is not part of the wonk's character. And so this paper dresses up a host of subjective judgments in quantitative data and pretends it gained insight into the precise relative strength of state-wide unions. For example, the methodology assigns a weight of 6.7% to the "percentage of public school teachers in the state [that] are union members," and a weight of 6.7% to the "percentage of the state’s delegates to the Democratic and Republican conventions [that] were members of teacher unions." Of course, the notion that anyone could state with such exactitude that these two factors are absolutely equivalent is absurd... but such petty concerns don't bother the wonk very much.

So when Petrilli says:
But according to our metric, these state unions are not as powerful as some have presumed, at least relative to other state unions. They ranked nineteenth (Delaware), twenty-first (Massachusetts), and twenty-third (Maryland) in the nation, respectively, for union strength.
know that these rankings are rather arbitrary.

And, in any case, Ravitch is right. She makes her case in her response to Petrilli's post:
What I wrote in “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” is this: “No one, to my knowledge, has demonstrated a clear, indisputable correlation between teacher unionism and academic achievement, either negative or positive. The Southern states, where teachers’ unions have historically been either weak or nonexistent, have always had the poorest student performance on national examinations. Massachusetts, the state with the highest academic performance, has long had strong teachers’ unions. The difference in performance is probably due to economics, not to unionization. Where there are affluent communities, student performance tends to be higher, whether or not their teachers belong to unions.”
What the unions do is to give teachers a voice in decisions about the conditions of teaching and learning. They give them representation if they are treated unjustly. They guarantee due process. Further, they provide an advocate for public education when decisions are made about the budget. Had there been a strong union in Texas, the Legislature would not have cut $5.4 billion from the budget for public education. Had there been a strong union in Louisiana, the Legislature would not have authorized the creation of vouchers and charters that take money out of the minimum foundation budget for public schools.
And unions do something else that matters to our society: They create a middle class. It may not be a coincidence that income inequality has grown as union membership has declined. Norman Hill and Velma Hill, veteran civil rights and labor activists, pointed out in a recent post on the Shanker blog that “the wages of black union members are 31 percent higher than the wages of African Americans who are not union members. The union wage advantage for women workers is 34 percent; for Latino workers, it is a whopping 51 percent.” [emphasis mine]
This echoes what Matt DiCarlo wrote about unions and student achievement last year:
So, overall, it is remarkably difficult to isolate union effects or how they might arise. The evidence is mixed and inconclusive, especially for student achievement, and any strong, blanket statements – whether for or against unions – should be taken with a grain of salt. They make for good talking points, but their evidentiary basis is, in most cases, shaky. 
What is clear is that unions do accomplish other goals – giving teachers (and other workers) a voice in their profession, their compensation, and their working conditions. On this score, as the Wisconsin protests demonstrate, the evidence is rather compelling. [emphasis mine]
Look at the sentences of Ravitch's and DiCarlo's that I emphasized. Then look at the methodology for the study. Notice what's missing from the Fordham report? Any accounting of how well each state pays its teachers.

We now live in a time where every education policy decision is made with one, and only one, consideration in mind: how will it affect student achievement test scores? Certainly every teacher would agree that student learning comes first in creating any school policy. But is that all we should care about? Is that really the only thing that matters?

What I'm going to say now will undoubtedly be willfully misinterpreted by the reformy among us, but it's about time we stopped cowing to the mindset that "adult interests" and "student interests" are always opposite each other. It's time for teachers to stop apologizing for wanting better pay and better working conditions; not just because it's good for students, but because it's good for teachers.

There is nothing wrong with teachers insisting on better pay, working conditions, and benefits for themselves simply because they deserve it. Unless and until someone can demonstrate that a particular policy is bad for students - not that Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein think it's bad, but that there is real evidence that it is - it's perfectly fine for teachers to insist on implementing policies that benefit them and them alone.

I understand some will disagree with me on this for political reasons. After all, we're in a recession, and times are tough all over; asking for more while people are hurting is tone deaf at best. I agree to a point: I wouldn't say that going on strike for big raises right now is a smart strategy.

But we've been playing defense for so long that we've reached the point where we can't even advocate for ourselves anymore. We can't even say that unions exist to serve teachers without being derided for "not putting the students first." We are acquiescing to a reformy mindset that views union protections not in terms of what they do for teachers, but how they affect politics and policies.

Teachers shouldn't apologize for demanding good wages and working conditions; they have every right to do so. And the strength of unions is, at least in part, properly measured by how well unions help teachers get better compensation.

Yes, happy teachers means happy students. But happy teachers also means happy teachers. What's wrong with that?


Sabrina said...

Great point. The other thing that's ridiculous about this "study" is...this study. In its entirety. All of the variables they examine suffer from fundamental (and frankly, embarrassing for alleged college graduates) flaws in validity, especially the fifth-- "perceived influence" which basically translates to "we asked some of our rich-corporate-type friends how powerful they think unions are, and they told us what we wanted to hear."

Unknown said...

Until teachers make their first priority the correction of the catastrophic collapse of the quality of education that students are receiving, pleas for more money for themselves will fall on deaf ears.

Teachers whose interests are in opposition to the students, parents, and taxpayers need to reconsider whether this career is the right one for them.

After decades of throwing more and more and more money into education and receiving less and less and less out of it, it's time teachers made a priority out of something other than their own compensation.

Because quite frankly, today's teachers don't even deserve what they have now - forget about a raise. In the private sector, any professional who failed as thoroughly as teachers in the aggregate have would have long since been fired.

Duke said...

Perhaps, Alexis, you'd care to enlighten us as to how teachers "in the aggregate" have been such failures that they are currently overpaid. I'd really like to hear you make your case.

czarejs said...

Well I see that someone arrived here with their totally uninformed preconceived notions. Please Alexis...while we grovel on our knees please tell us what scraps are you willing to throw on the floor which you think we deserve?

Frank Daly said...

Alexis, is probably one of those bad teachers who lost her job and now she's upset at the profession.