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

Monday, October 13, 2014

Another Myth: Secretly Reformy Teachers

I've been having these surprisingly pleasant and civil back-and-forths on Twitter with Dmitri Mehlhorn, a very likable but very reformy lawyer and investor. It's people like Melhorm who convince me that the vast majority of reformy types aren't greedy or stupid.

They're just wrong. About nearly everything. And stubborn. Exasperatingly stubborn. For example...

Mehlhorn invited me to critique a piece he wrote over at Dropout Nation, a favorite one-stop-shop for reformies to pick up their latest teachers union-bashing scripts. The basic thesis of this post is that AFT and NEA aren't serving their members very well; if they were, they'd be putting students first by promoting a bunch of "reforms."
3) Unions are structurally biased against student interests
To see why, start with the truisms that union defenders will themselves admit. Some teachers are great, many are middling, and some are terrible. Some work very long hours, some work very few. And although money isn’t everything, it matters.
Now consider two different teacher profiles to see how incentives skew average union engagement. Imagine a fifth year teacher named Pat, who has outstanding skills and works long hours. At $50,000 per year in compensation, Pat would likely see hourly compensation go up if fired and forced to obtain a different job. Pat has very little near-term financial reason to get involved in union politics. Now imagine a veteran teacher named Ronni, who has a weaker skill set and works contract-minimum hours. Close to a generous retirement and earning six figures or more, Ronni would likely see a significant drop in hourly compensation if fired. Ronni has an immediate and strong personal financial stake in making sure that the local union takes a strong stance against accountability and choice. As a result, Ronni votes a lot more often than Pat, especially if a district considers reform.
You'll notice that, to make his point, Mehlhorn fabricates a comparison between two make-believe teachers. He presents no evidence that senior teachers are considerably worse than their younger counterparts, because such evidence does not exist. He conjectures that the senior teacher is worried about being found out as ineffective, as if this is a serious concern that drives unions to eschew all manner of accountability, leaving hordes of withered, horrible teachers free to roam the halls of America's schools and destroy the dreams of our nation's children.

But Mehlhorn's full argument is even sillier than that. Allegedly, this small minority of bad, senior teachers -- who have somehow infiltrated our unions and sapped the majority of good, reformy teachers' precious bodily fluids -- have managed to turn the AFT and the NEA into militant organizations hellbent on denying students the "reforms" they crave:
Second, as we learned in the cases of leaded gasoline and cigarette toxicity, evidence can overcome well-funded adversaries. As bad charter schools have closed and good ones have expanded, evidence has accumulated that new schooling models can deliver better results for students in poverty, black students, Hispanic students, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities. As a result, we see the rapid growth of high-performing nonprofit charter school operators such as Success Academy, along with high public approval of charter schools.With great charter schools proving how much all children can learn, public deliberation is also making progress on improving traditional schools. 
Consider the recent Vergara v. California case, in which a neutral state judge rejected a well-funded union legal team and ruled that California’s teacher work rules violated the rights of students. The unions launched a full PR fusillade, endeavoring to make support for Vergara into a litmus test for whether someone was anti-teacher. Despite this, the decision was endorsed by virtually every major editorial board in the country, including the New York Times, and the Washington Post. And longstanding union allies such as House Education and the Workforce Committee Ranking Member George Miller agreed.
Dmitri, you seem like a decent guy on Twitter, and I don't doubt you are sincere. But you are being ridiculous. Your augment is absurd, for at least three reasons:

1) Teachers unions don't stand in opposition to reformy ideas because they diminish union power; they stand in opposition to reformy ideas because there is no evidence to support those ideas.

Let's take charter schools. Maybe you missed the meeting, but I thought the evidence was so overwhelming at this point that charters do not serve the same students as neighboring district schools that reformies had all agreed to stop making absurd claims to the contrary.

Success Academy is the quintessential example of this reality: they shed students faster than my cat sheds hair, they serve few children who are ELL or have more significant special education needs, and they spend considerably more per pupil, even though they don't teach the students who are the most expensive to educate.

You link to the updated CREDO study as proof that charters "deliver better results," incredibly comparing this "evidence" to the undisputed scientific evidence about the health effects of cigarettes and lead. Dmitri, if cigarettes increased the risk of cancer at the puny amount of 0.01 standard deviations, and leaded gas increased IQ by 0.005 SDs -- which is the effect of charter schools versus publics reported in the CREDO study you cited on language and math test outcomes -- we'd all be driving around in Ford Fairlanes and puffing on unfiltered Lucky Strikes.

It's the same with all the other reformy things you want teachers unions to get behind: there isn't any evidence to back them up. "Meaningful" teacher evaluations are based on an ideological belief that teaching quality can be measured quite precisely, even though that notion flies in the face of logic and mathematics. Merit pay is a scam that has never worked. Vouchers are a joke. There's no evidence seniority is a significant drag on teacher quality; there's no evidence tenure is either. And the expansion of standardized testing is unwarranted when it's increasingly clear the tests are largely measures of student socioeconomic characteristics.

Judging the unions' commitment to students on the basis of whether they support these reformy schemes is absurd when there is no evidence they will help kids, and increasing evidence they may be doing real damage.

2) The unions are resisting reforminess because that is precisely what teachers want them to do.

Dmitri, you cite a bunch of polls to make the case that teachers and their unions are not aligned in their thinking about reforminess:
Teachers also share my mom’s specific frustrations. Teachers hold wide-ranging views on reform. The majority believe that tenure is automatic, not dependent upon quality. A plurality believes that unions should focus more on teaching quality and student achievement. On average, teachers believe that about 10 percent of their colleagues are ineffective. Three quarters of all teachers and an even higher percentage of highly recognized teachers believe it needs to be easier to dismiss ineffective teachers. Unfortunately, teachers feel that they have no voice outside their classrooms.
Let's take each of these links individually [all emphases mine]:

"Wide-ranging views": "Three in four teachers either “completely” or “somewhat” opposes basing salary, in part, on student testing growth, while only one in ten supports it, none “completely” (but note that this question, unlike the one above, provides respondents with the opportunity to say they ‘neither favor nor oppose,’ which may influence the results somewhat)."

"Tenure is automatic": OK, but... (p.3)

4 in 5 teachers think unions provide them with important protections.

The next link on the word "plurality" is from the same report. Overall, it is correct to say that teachers want unions to be more involved in promoting efforts to reform schools; those reforms, however, are not the "reforms" Mehlhorn touts:
Class size is another issue in which teachers indicate their union could be serving them better. Just over half of teachers (52 percent) say their union works on their behalf “to keep class size down,” but among these only about half (51 percent) say the union is doing an excellent or good job. Among the 32 percent of teachers who say that their union doesn’t currently negotiate class size, the vast majority – 83 percent – would strongly or somewhat favor it doing so, suggesting that many teachers view class size as an issue ripe for union intercession. There’s been virtually no change in these numbers between 2007 and 2011. (See Figure 8.)
"Teachers believe that about 10 percent of their colleagues are ineffective": I'm not a big fan of how they asked this question, but OK, I agree it's likely teachers believe that their effectiveness is normally distributed. But that same report says this:
Teachers, meanwhile, are far more generous in their assessment of their unions’ influence and appear to have become less critical of the unions over the past year. Fifty-nine percent of teachers now report that teachers unions have a positive effect on schools. The share of teachers saying that teachers unions have a negative effect fell from 31% to 23% between 2013 and 2014, widening the gap between the public as a whole and teachers over the role of unions in American public education.
Teachers and the public also remain sharply divided on the issue of merit pay. Fifty-seven percent of the public supports “basing part of the salaries of teachers on how much their students learn,” while 31% opposes this idea. Among teachers, however, just 21% support merit pay and fully 73% are opposed. This 36-point gap in support between teachers and the public is the largest observed for any item on our survey.
"Believe it needs to be easier to dismiss ineffective teachers": As I've pointed out before, even the unions believe this; they only want to make sure due process is involved for teachers who have already demonstrated their effectiveness.

The Public Agenda poll Mehlhorn cites does say teachers believe it should be easier to dismiss poorly performing colleagues. It also says a solid majority believe eliminating tenure and instituting merit pay won't do much of anything to improve student achievement, and that increasing salaries and decreasing class sizes would help students (more argue for this than for making it easier to fire colleagues). They also don't want increased testing.

The TNTP methodology is so awful I stopped reading their report after I saw how they got their sample.

Remember: I am using Mehlhorn's own sources here. And the picture is clear: teachers don't want expanded testing, they don't want merit pay, and they don't want test-based accountability measures. Teachers want to retain tenure rights, they want small classes, and they want their unions to negotiate better salaries.

Does this sound like the unions are completely out of step with their members, or like the unions are taking positions teachers support? The answer is obvious to all but the intractable.

3) If there is a criticism of teachers unions from their members, it's that they aren't fighting back hard enough against the stuff Mehlhorn calls "reform."

Even Mehlhorn acknowledges this:
No matter the personal sincerity of leaders like Weingarten and García, they remain subject to the politics of their unions. When a fast-growing splinter group pushed unions to militantly oppose reform, the AFT spent millions on a “national day of action” to that end. As Stanford University Professor of Political Science Terry Moe concluded in a comprehensive 2011 study, “union leaders are never going to [reform, because] their incentives are heavily front-loaded and short-term.”
Well, if these militants are "fast-growing," and "most teachers are pro-children," what does this tell us, Dmitri? That the union leadership is in thrall to many of its "pro-child" teachers? If so -- isn't that precisely how it's supposed to work?

Mehlhorn appears to believe that AFT and NEA have been taken over by a small minority of "anti-child" members. He cites a few union elections where turnout has been low, but conveniently omits the Chicago Teachers Union election, where an over 60 percent turnout propelled Karen Lewis to a landslide victory.

Lewis is perhaps the most ardent "real reform" unionist in the country; if she stands opposite of her members' views, why did she get so many of them to vote to go on strike? Compare these members and their activism to their fellow unionized teachers in Newark, where a merit pay contract was greeted by leadership with open arms, leading to the near-ouster of the long-time president of the NTU.

The low turnouts in New York and LA may well be fueled by the perception of members that there is little to be done to stop the onslaught of reforminess brought on by mayoral control in the major cities. It doesn't follow, however, that the teachers who aren't going to the polls in union elections must want more charter schools and vouchers and testing and merit pay and the gutting of tenure.

I'm far more inclined to believe the very evidence Mehlhorn cites in this piece: teachers don't want these policies, and the "militants" are "fast-growing" because they want their union leaders to stand up more forcefully against them. In this case, the simplest explanation is probably the most accurate: Randi Weingarten and Lily Eskelsen García are standing up against reforminess because that's just what their members want them to do.

I know this reality is painful for reformy types like Dmirtri Mehlhorn to hear, because he, like the rest of the reformy movement, want to have it both ways: they want to profess their love for teachers while simultaneously blaming us for problems we didn't create and can't be expected to fix on our own. The conceit that teachers and their unions are largely opposed to each other is a lame attempt to do just that.

But there's no evidence to support the theory, and only the most stubborn reformy type would ever claim otherwise. We don't want more charters and merit pay and the end of tenure. What we want is more education funding so we can reduce class sizes and make our job conditions -- which are student learning conditions -- better (and we wouldn't say no to making a bit more, either). We want the testing to be pulled back to reasonable levels. We want to be treated like professionals.

And we want a voice in policy making. That voice may not always be perfectly in tune with our union leaders, but it's certainly closer in pitch to them than to the Bill Gateses, Campbell Browns, and Dmitri Mehlhorns of the world. Pretending otherwise is just silly.

See you on Twitter, Dmitri.


Robert D. Skeels * rdsathene said...

On Mehlhorn. Credibility doesn't begin, and probably ends, with writing for self-colonized reactionaries like Biddle: http://www.indianapolisrecorder.com/opinion/article_408a73ce-f758-59c7-a00a-4f4c8d70dc84.html

Ken Derstine said...

The problem is not unions, it's union leaders who collaborate with corporate education reformers. http://goo.gl/N7qEET

Anonymous said...

Mehlhorn tried the compensation argument out on me in the summer:


You are far more charitable than I am. Yes, he portrays himself as affable, but he won't ever look at his arguments and when presented with counter arguments he Gish Gallops over to something vaguely related but entirely off the point.

I can take affable and wrong if it is accompanied by a willingness to actually discuss. That doesn't happen with him and others. At least Biddle is upfront about his hostility.