Tuesday, August 19, 2014

More Gratuitious Attacks on School Teachers

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

A few weeks ago, Stephen Colbert interviewed someone named Campbell Brown.  I had never heard of Brown, but it turns out that she was formerly one of the interchangeable talking heads on those network morning shows before moving on briefly to host her own low-rated show on CNN (a network that airs nothing but low-rated shows).  Brown appeared on Colbert to promote her new union-busting group (the funders of which she insistently refuses to name), putting a happy face on an anti-teacher-tenure lawsuit that her group has filed in New York State.

Brown probably assumed that she would get an easy ride on Colbert, expecting him to play the clown while she recited her talking points and smiled demurely.  Instead, Colbert proved that he has actually become an excellent interviewer, asking pointed questions and making trenchant comments that left Brown flat-footed.  (For example, when she tried to hide behind feel-good assertions that everything she is doing is "for the children," and some people in the audience applauded, Colbert said, "They’re going to clap because you’re playing the 'good for child' card.")

In some ways, the most amazing thing about the interview was the end, when Brown said, "I respect that," in describing her funders' refusal to be named publicly.   Colbert visibly stopped himself from attacking Brown directly, and instead said, "Well, I respect … you. I was trying to figure out who I will respect at this table, and there was no one left but you."  Ouch.  He then smiled and ended the interview. It was fascinating TV, available here.

Of course, Brown is merely one cog in a machine that is trying to end tenure for school teachers.  The latest output from that machine was an op-ed in today's New York Times by Frank Bruni, "The Trouble With Tenure."  Bruni completely buys into the idea that teacher tenure's only role is to prevent teachers from being fired for incompetence, not even bothering to give lip service to the idea that tenure might have some positive effects, like, say, protecting teachers from being fired for expressing unpopular political views. (By contrast, here is Colbert: "What if there’s someplace where the parents don’t want certain things taught to the kids? ‘Cause I’d love my kids not to be taught evolution.")

Bruni builds his story around a Democrat who helped pass a "2010 law that essentially abolished tenure in Colorado."  Making the story about a Democrat is an important strategic choice for Bruni, who assures his readers that there are now "many Democrats defying teachers unions and joining the movement." Yes, jumping on a heavily-funded gravy train that attacks the beleaguered teachers union is now an act of grit and defiance as part of a "movement"!

On the substance, Bruni also accepts without question that principals and administrators are the heroes who could save the day, but that "traditional tenure deprived principals of the team-building discretion they needed."  Quoting the politician who sponsored the anti-tenure law in Colorado, Bruni writes: " 'Do you have people who all share the same vision and are willing to walk through the fire together?' he said. Principals with control over that coax better outcomes from students, he said."  This is beyond preposterous.  We knew that the Times op-ed page was filled with people who have no known expertise, but I thought that at least these guys were capable of committing journalism.  Maybe just a little bit of skepticism would have been in order.

Bruni allows that "[t]here are perils to the current tenure talk: that it fails to address the intense strains on many teachers; that it lays too much fault on their doorsteps, distracting people from other necessary reforms." But this stipulation only arrives after he allows his subject to re-frame the debate: "[I]t’s not the kids who are the problem! It’s the system."  So, when someone says that teachers are wrongly blamed for the effects of poverty, family breakdown, and so on, that apparently amounts to saying that "the kids are the problem."  And teachers thus do not deserve "job protections that most Americans can only fantasize about."  Right.  Why defend one of the few (and most important) job protections remaining in the U.S., given that we have allowed so many other people to become too easy to fire?

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the column, however, is Bruni's description of the actual Colorado law that he admires so much: "To earn what is now called 'non-probationary status,' a new teacher must demonstrate student progress three years in a row, and any teacher whose students show no progress for two consecutive years loses his or her job protection."  This means that a brand-new teacher's (minimal) job protection is determined by "student progress" (presumably meaning increasing scores on standardized tests), and even experienced teachers can be canned if their students' scores are unchanged for two years in a row.  Even if one thinks that there is some broad statistical connection between teacher "quality" and student "progress," that connection cannot possibly be so tight that even the best teachers could be confident that they would not be dealt a bad hand for two years in a row.

Yet Bruni wraps himself in the flag: "We need to pay good teachers much more. We need to wrap the great ones in the highest esteem. But we also need to separate the good and the great from the bad."  Okay.  How are we going to do that?  Once everyone is "defying" the teachers unions, where is the pressure to increase teachers' salaries going to come from?  And are the superman-principals who are getting people to "walk through fire together" never going to make decisions on illegitimate bases?

If we want to have a warts-and-all discussion about tenure, then we have to make the comparison meaningful, and think about the many imperfections in a system where teachers can be fired at will.  It is too easy to describe an Eden in which enlightened administrators gallantly lead their properly motivated troops into battle.  But if people were that virtuous, then they would not succumb to the supposed evils of tenure in the first place.  Bruni is essentially saying, "Real-life tenure leads to less than perfect results, but fantasy-world non-tenure can be wonderful."

No one has yet designed an alternative to tenure (and unionized teachers) that actually makes matters better, for teachers and students, in a way that could be applied generally.  Until then, all of this noise from people like Bruni is an excuse to sound concerned about children, while taking the easy way out and blaming the only group of people who are actually trying to deal with kids as they exist.  Teachers are not perfect, but continually attacking them only makes matters worse.