Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Why Rhee Wants To Break the Teacher's Union

CWD comments,
Clearly, Rhee is trying to sell the teachers a pig in a poke. On the other hand, these are the same teachers who have had union president's steal millions from them and who readily admit that they wouldn't want their children to attend the schools where they teach . . . and are surprised that anyone would expect them too . . .

I'm not sure that busting the Union is a necessary step in the process, but blowing the whole system up and starting over has some theoretical merit . . .
I'll admit, Rhee's professed goal - giving teachers a big raise and merit pay - is not the traditional opening gambit of a union buster. I do think it's a "pig in a poke" - that the proposed pay structure is unsustainable. But for now, let's assume otherwise. Obviously the goal here isn't to coerce the union into letting its members be paid more. Nobody's talking about expanding the school year. So what's left... oh, yeah....


Even when they offer wages comparable to other school districts, or above what other districts pay, school districts like D.C. have a hard time attracting quality job applicants for teaching positions. Why? Because teaching in an inner city school is considered to be a miserable experience. Teaching in a school where, despite your best efforts, you wouldn't send your own child? Where your best efforts, applied every single day, will do nothing to improve the status quo? Where your day is consumed with disciplinary problems and you struggle to maintain classroom order? I have admiration for teachers who can work like that, day after day, without burning out or quitting. But there aren't many of them.

So weak administrators hire weak applicants in order to fill positions, aren't diligent enough (or don't care enough) to ferret out those who don't have an adequate skill set before they get tenure, and the district ends up with large numbers of teachers who really aren't equipped to teach. Rhee supposedly will offer remedial programs for these teachers as part of her secret plan, so that they can in theory avoid being fired, but nothing is stopping her from offering remedial training right now. What she clearly wants to do is to break the tenure system so she can clean house.

I can't say that I blame her. I'm sure she can identify a lot of teachers who should never have been hired, and a larger group that may become highly motivated to improve their skills and performance if they can be threatened with termination. I have sympathy for an administrator who inherits a broken system. But let's be blunt: if teacher's unions were the cause of this problem, D.C.'s system should be typical of the nation's schools as opposed to being among the dregs. The roots of the problem lie in incompetent, unmotivated administration crossed with, in much of the system, what many teachers would find to be an unrewarding, often unpleasant, teaching environment.

Rhee was hoping that the offer of big money would be a sufficient enticement to get the union to voluntarily give up tenure, or allow teachers to opt into the merit system (possibly with the longer-term goal of trying to get the teachers who opted for the merit pay system to vote to decertify the union). But it's difficult to see why a union would regard a promise of an apparently unsustainable pay raise for some as grounds to surrender the largest benefit it has historically provided to its members - job security. And even if you're a good teacher, you have to have some concern about whether you would get merit pay, or have the bad luck of having a particularly bad class and be deemed to be underperforming despite strong efforts.


  1. First of all, thanks for your kind words re: inner city teachers. You know I work in the (now-superintendent-less) DPS, right?
    Next, yes, tenure is a lovely thing. So is the union. When I worked in law, I knew that I could and would be fired on any given day for any given reason or no reason. I once had a boss (the one who looked at porn in his office and, uh, scratched himself) threaten to fire me for a typo in a letter. It is WONDERFUL to know that while I might get laid off, I don't have to worry about walking in and finding my boss fussing and the find myself out on the street. Unless you've had this, it's hard to describe.
    Now, some teachers see this as the Golden Ticket and an excuse to slack off. I don't because, well, I would feel guilty (I am 50% Jew, 50% Irish Catholic, so guilt is 100% part of me :)) because I'd be letting down my kids. I'm not saying I'm better than anyone else--I'm not--but some can see this as a reason to slack.
    Is the answer to get rid of tenure? I don't think so. Maybe we could make it easier to get rid of someone who blatantly breaks the law or who fails three reviews in a row or something...I don't know.
    One of the hard things about teaching is...what makes a good teacher? Is it someone the kids like? Maybe they just like her because she's easy on them. Is it someone whose kids pass the MEAP? That lets me out--my kids are special ed. Is it someone who can kiss administration ass? Oops. That lets me out again.
    Because it is so hard to judge a "good teacher", it makes it hard to figure out how to reform tenure.
    PS: I didn't realize that the union stole money! Sheesh...with friends like those....

  2. Re: Aaron's initial post

    "if teacher's unions were the cause of this problem . . . " I don't think anyone claims that the union is the "cause" of the problem. The issue is whether or not it is preventing the implementation of a solution.

    "The roots of the problem lie in incompetent, unmotivated administration crossed with, in much of the system, what many teachers would find to be an unrewarding, often unpleasant, teaching environment."

    As long as we are going to get all theoretical about it, in Detroit and DC the "roots" of the problem you describe lie in inner city decay.

    It's not just the schools, the city Government in general is incompetent and unmotivated. While we are at it, the fact that so many of the parents are poorly educated and do a lousy job of raising their children doesn't make things any easier for the teachers . . . which feeds into the problems you cited, which feeds into the morale and retention problem, etc. etc.

    Now DC currently has a pretty (so far) effective Mayor who appears to be trying to follow his predecessor's footsteps re: "professionalizing" the city government. Detroit on the other hand . . .

    Ditto, a solution that works in DC due to the ability to generate millions of dollars in donations/grants and the ability to lure in motivated volunteers to the nation's capital may not work in Detroit . . .


  3. Re: Teacher Patti's comments:

    1) My hat is off to you. Both my parents were DPS teachers for years (both retired now). Although I plan on continuing to mock and belittle the majority of your peers, I'm prepared to acknowledge the existence of exceptions.

    2) To be fair, it wasn't the "union" that stole the money. It was the Union President, still there are problems . . . As the Washington Post reports:

    "The Washington Teachers' Union is facing a management crisis involving infighting between the president and vice president, an intervention by its parent organization and a recall drive targeting all the officers.

    Five years after being placed in receivership by the American Federation of Teachers, after the embezzlement of millions of dollars in teachers' dues by then-President Barbara Bullock, the union is grappling with a host of internal and external pressures that threaten the viability of the organization, leaders say. . . . , at the request of the union's board, the national union dispatched a representative to work full time in the office to assess the operation and then devise and help implement a plan for fixing the problems."

    3) In terms of merit pay, you hit the nail on the head. Whether you are trying to implement it with lawyers, teachers, or generic DoD employees, the issue is how do you measure performance. If you try to apply a hard and fast rule structure (i.e. percentage of students who pass standardize test) you run into problems with people teaching the test or being penalized because they started out with poorer performing students. If you try to go the other direction and give the supervisors discretion (my preferred scenario, but hey, I'm a supervisor) to apply their own judgement . . . you run into the same problems you described from your preious employment i.e. arbitrary ratings or ones driven by favortism.

    4) In some regards I'd probably merge the "merit" system with Aaron's and give the administrators more control over their schools, but hold them accountable if they don't use that power effectively . . . of course that begs the question of how we measure their performance . . .


  4. Or we could somehow roll the clock back to "Old Man F----r's" day (no, that's not an expletive, but I don't want to name somebody who hasn't agreed to be named; a few readers here know exactly who I mean, and for the rest, "A lawyer who started out as a teacher:) when teaching wasn't seen as a end, or the dead end, of a career, but was something that you might do for a few years before (if it wasn't for you) moving on to business or a profession.

    This is a lot different from TFA, although it envisions a similar caliber of students entering teaching, as (a) those who enter would, at some level, want to teach, (b) they would complete full teacher training and certification, and (c) some, perhaps many or most, would remain in the teaching field as teachers or school administrators, as opposed to that being a serendipitous outcome involving a relative few.

  5. I don't necessarly disagree, although I'm not sure how one would implement that change.

    I would, however, foresee the teacher's unions being against the idea. It reinforces the idea that teachers are not "full time dedicated professionals in need of career tracks and lifetime employment" which is the basis of pretty much there and every other union's reason to exist. (I give you this area of the country where supermaket employees are unionized, have benefits, and retirement packages, career tracks, etc. . . . and as a result we have much better service, but much more expensive groceries . . .


  6. It's been around for a long time now, I think going on 20 years, and I've not heard anything about teacher's unions opposing TFA. What I have heard is, at the policy level, TFA and its alums attacking teaching unions and people they see as allied with teaching unions or as critical of TFA.

    I suspect that there's no significant opposition to TFA at the teacher level because (a) participants are paid on par with beginning teachers, (b) they actually help teachers avoid being assigned to the worst schools and classrooms, and (c) they have no apparent chance of reaching beyond the inner city, where I suspect that it would actually be parents who would be most "up in arms" about the introduction of such a program to their schools.

  7. The "idea" I was referring to was your proposal to "roll the clock back to Old Man F's day . . ." Not to the TFA.


  8. I think it requires more of a rollback in the thinking of companies to the pre-MBA days, than to any perceptions by teachers themselves.

  9. Quoting CWD: "Although I plan on continuing to mock and belittle the majority of your peers, I'm prepared to acknowledge the existence of exceptions."

    You and me both. I'm the first to get irritated when I walk by a teacher's room and see her, day after day after day, sitting behind her desk while the kids just sit there. After spending most of my day on my feet or in the face of my kiddos, I can get a little...irked.

    Your parents are lucky, btw--they get that nice teacher pension. I hope it's around when I retire in 25 or so years, but I'm not holding my breath. Kudos to them for making it through that long :)


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