Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Dregs of Society....

My sentiment toward the stimulus bill has been what I might call optimistically credulous. That is, I'm pretending that the goal here is to actually stimulate the economy. Thus, my reaction to the inclusion (or removal) of sensible public policy proposals has been to ask, "How well does this fit with the purpose of a stimulus bill?" Sure, this involves overlooking some of the compromise that has already been made to put together a bill that's expected to pass. Sure, if you look closely at the bill, you can find other similar provisions that arguably should be eliminated on the same grounds, but don't happen to be controversial. Because thanks to the nature of our political system, with any sort of spending bill (massive or minor), you're not likely to get more than 2/3 of the way to ideological purity. But shouldn't you try?

Not according to Richard Cohen. To Cohen, it is a great sin to put forth a stimulus bill that doesn't attempt to reform... things. The idea that a stimulus bill should focus on short-term spending, "shovel-ready" projects, and programs that don't require sustained, increased government spending? The idea that this should be a bill that passes quickly rather than getting bogged down in endless debate and controversies? Lost on him. But okay... there are lots of issues that need reform. Perhaps you're thinking, "Cohen wants to restore funding for birth control." Or "Cohen wants to use the stimulus bill to lay a foundation for further reforms, such as a national health care program, a cleaner environment, sustainable energy...." nope. Cohen wants to tackle education reform.

The funny part, if you want to call it that: Cohen doesn't know anything about education reform. Thus, instead of concrete proposals, we get platitudinous statements like this:
But if the money is going to be offered, why not couple it with demands for reform? After all, without the extra cash, the likelihood is that teachers across the country will be laid off. That gives the president some leverage: Take my money, take my reforms. Maybe a deal could not be done. We won't know. We do know, though, that the teachers unions have an understandable aversion to some reforms. We also know that the unions supported Obama in his campaign.
You see? The most obvious reason that a federal stimulus bill doesn't micromanage education, something traditionally though of as a state issue, is that "unions supported Obama." It must be nice to live in a world that... simple.
Do your reading on education and you will find an emerging consensus. Abolish tenure.
That's right... stretching from the WSJ editorial page to its op/ed page, the emerging consensus is right there for you to see. I've spoken about this before, but I guess it bears repeating: If tenure were the real issue, the problems attributed to tenure would be seen in every school district. Getting legislatures to act against tenure wouldn't be an issue, because everybody with kids in public schools would be screaming for reform. The problem in schools like DC's is that between an unpleasant work environment and incompetent administrators, classrooms were filled with available applicants, steps weren't taken to weed out bad teachers before they got tenure, and the environment for teacher burnout is exceptional. As a consequence, no doubt, you have a lot of kids being taught by teachers who should never have obtained tenure or who are counting the days until they can retire. That happens in other school districts as well, but at nowhere near the same levels. Also, the good teachers from a district like DC? They can seek jobs in other districts where they will again get tenure - but without the controversy.
There are other ways to ensure that teachers are fairly treated without guaranteeing the jobs of the inept. (Cops don't have tenure, and neither do columnists.)
That's almost funny. Columnists don't have tenure, meaning they could be fired at will? No, as Cohen knows, name brand columnists work under contract. Now I'll grant, they don't have a CBA that will get them their job back if they're wrongfully terminated, but they will seek full compensation under their contracts.

Police officers? Come now, Richard. Tenure is a form of job protection that follows your probationary period. It doesn't mean "we can't fire you", and it certainly doesn't mean "we can't fire you for cause". It means that once you complete your probationary period you can (normally) only be fired for cause, and you may have to offer an employee improvement plan or follow an incremental disciplinary process. It could be said that any union employee past the probationary period has "tenure". And yes, that includes officers in unionized police departments (which is to say, most of them). Believe it or not, there's nothing talismanic about the term - you can find state legislation describing police officer tenure, and police disciplinary hearings may be described as "tenure hearings".

Let's look at Cohen's version of a "solution" - how do we "ensure that teachers are fairly treated without guaranteeing the jobs of the inept"?
Ensure that the best teachers teach at the most challenging schools and ensure also that they get paid lavishly for doing so.
It's one of the problems with the simple-minded union busting mantra, that somehow unions are to blame for everything that's wrong in the schools. Even giving due respect to Michelle Rhee's apparently unsustainable plan to provide teacher raises, the fact is that there's no popular will to give teachers more money. Cohen just got through telling us that things are so bad that states are looking at laying off needed teachers. Either Cohen's looking at the stimulus bill as the magic federal money tree - a gift that keeps on giving - or he's not considered that if you increase teacher pay, once funding levels return to normal you have to lay off even more needed teachers. Actually, it's probably both.

If Cohen were to venture out of his office and stop by some inner city private schools and religious schools, he would likely find that there are good teachers in many of those schools who have chosen to make less money in order to teach in a school environment that they find to be more secure, stable, and supported. That's an issue Rhee likes to sidestep, and people like Cohen don't even seem to know exists - there's more to a job than money. The focus of making individual classroom teachers responsible for the failures of parents, schools and school administrators kind of misses the point. Or perhaps it is the point - by placing the focus there, Rhee creates instant insulation against the failures of her own, substantive reforms (or lack thereof). Rhee, for example, favors mainstreaming - something that saves the school district money and... it's the teachers' fault if they can't deal with high numbers of emotionally disturbed or learning disabled kids mainstreamed into their classrooms, right?

Cohen likes solutions that "sound good" (to him), even if he has no concept of what they would mean:
How about extending the school day, maybe for an hour or so? How about extending the school year? How about tinkering with the No Child Left Behind law but insisting that testing - accountability - be maintained?
Because it's free to keep schools open for extra hours or days, we'll have already busted the teachers unions so they won't be able to object to an increased work day or year, and surely more classroom hours will automatically translate into more learning, right? That's why when you go to college you spend more time in classrooms than ever before. Personally, I do think that we should revisit the school year, the paring away of school days to save money, the structure of the school year around an agricultural calendar, etc. But I don't see it as a magic cure, as something that should be imposed on school districts as part of a stimulus bill, or as a legislative priority for preempting teachers' collective bargaining rights.

You want specifics, Cohen's got them - he's thought long and hard about "No Child Left Behind" and came up with the insightful solution that it can be improved by "tinkering". Um... Thanks. But it gets better:
How about doing something about the sad fact that teachers aren't what they used to be? Now that women and minorities have more opportunities in almost every field, the best of them have abandoned teaching.
Ah, the good old days when women and minorities didn't have good job opportunities other than teaching. Now everybody with a brain has moved on to better professions, and those that are left.... (Is it just me, or is Cohen's statement oh... just a wee bit sexist and racist? What does he have to say about white men who teach?) Mix that sentiment with the idea that the best way to keep the best of the remaining dregs happy is to force them to work in inner city schools, increase their workday and work year, and take away their job protections and... what more needs to be said?

One of these days, somebody will need to explain to Cohen that you can have a teacher who works wonders with suburban fifth grade students, but who would be stretched to (or beyond) the limits of her capacity trying to maintain order in an inner city fifth grade classroom. A teacher who is able to handle the most difficult classrooms is likely to be able to handle an easier classroom, but the opposite isn't always true. But to Cohen, teachers are apparently all dregs who can't get real jobs, so perhaps he sees 'em all as fungible.


  1. I have mixed feelings about extending the school day/year. I think extending the day might be okay, but there are so many awesome summer programs that I'd hate to see the kids miss out on those. And I'm not going to lie to you--I like having my summer relatively free :) Since the costs of energy are going up, I can't fathom my district having the $ to light, cool and maintain the buildings or provide transportation all year round. Given that, I actually think we should consider a longer day, but 4 days per week. But I know what a pain that would be to working parents re: day care and such.

  2. Extending the school day, of course, would require revisiting teacher contracts, the contracts for maintenance personnel, longer office hours at the school board office, reworking the busing schedule (and extending bus drivers' workdays), etc. - it's no small feat.

    It is the sort of experiment that states (or individual school districts) should be able to initiate, and the results should be examined to see what (if any) impact they have on education. But I don't see it as a matter for a federal mandate, let alone one that should be tacked on to a stimulus bill. To me, education reform is something that should be approached with the best available social science, not something that should be federally mandated based on knee-jerk assumptions (costly or otherwise).

  3. Goodness, gracious me, states as laboratories and Uncle Sam not being in a position to mandate "one size fits all answers" . . . we'll make a Federalist out of you yet. : )


  4. My criticism of "states as laboratories" has nothing to do with federalism. It has to do with the fact that states rarely experiment, even more rarely apply any sense of scientific methodology to their experimentation, and usually follow each other's lead in reproachable ways ("State X just passed a 'carjacking law' and tripled the penalty for cocaine possession. That sounds really tough on crime - let's do that too") rather than considering public policy, wise use of public funds... what actually might work....


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