Sunday, July 20, 2014

Joe Klein's Non-comprehension

There are lots of things Joe Klein doesn't get, and many of them are related to education. In the process of railing last week about a de Blasio "giveback" of 150 minutes of special student tutoring time in New York schools, Klein managed to trot out a whole raft of misconceptions and complaints. Here he gets himself all lathered up.

He said that the program had been “inflexible” and “one size fits all.” That it was not “workable to the purpose.” Translation: it didn’t work. But how do we know that? No studies or evaluations were done. At his press conference announcing the new union deal, the mayor and his schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, gave several foggy reasons for the change: the time would be used for additional parent conferences and for “professional development” so the teachers could learn how to teach the new core curriculum. A lot of unspecific wiggle room was negotiated on both counts–part of the mayor’s drive toward “flexibility.”

I particularly like the sass-quotes around professional development. You know, teachers and their so-called professional development where they sit around pretending to learn stuff about their jobs when they're really getting foot massages and eating bon-bons. What possible benefit to students could there be in training teachers to better do their jobs?

And "flexibility"? Pshaw, says Klein. The AFT sucks at flexibility. And then he's off to the races.

The American Federation of Teachers, which Weingarten now heads, calls itself “a union of professionals,” but it negotiates as if it were a union of assembly-line workers. 

In fairness to Klein, teachers have been known to level this complaint about unionism. But something invariably happens to remind them that it's not just about how they act, but how they are treated.

I'm not going to take Klein to task for slamming assembly-line workers as if they are a bad thing. I know what he means-- teachers should act like salaried workers instead of workers paid by the hour. Of course, if he tried to get his doctor or his lawyer to put in extra unbilled hours and be "paid in professional satisfaction," I think he'd have another complaint to make. So I'm not sure exactly which profession he wants us to act like. Hell, even the oldest profession (I mean, of course, plumbing) charges by the hour.

It bothers Klein that the union negotiates things down to the half-minute, but he seems to forget that for every teacher union not saying, "We'll work long extra hours just out of professional pride," there's a school board not saying, "You know what? We'll just pay you what the work is worth and trust you to give us the hours needed." Teachers could easily put in every single hour of the week doing the work, and many districts would let them do it, for free. "Wow, you're working so hard and long we're going to pay you more. really, we insist," said no school district ever. Nor do they say, "We'll trust you to do what's right and never clock you in and out so we're sure we get every hour you owe us." A line has to be drawn somewhere; professionals also do not regularly give away their work for free. I agree that the half-minute is a little silly, but the line still has to be drawn.

Klein also throws into the pot his assertion that real professionals don't resist evaluation. This is partly almost true. Real professionals do not resist evaluation by qualified, knowledgeable fellow professionals who are using a fair and accurate measuring instrument. But if Klein's editor announced "the guys in the mailroom have decided that you will be evaluated on how thick your hair grows in and how much garbage is in your wastebasket," I don't think Klein's reply would be, "I'm a professional. That's fine."

Teachers and our unions are not opposed to evaluation. We are opposed to bad evaluations conducted unfairly using invalid methods developed by amateurs who don't know what the hell they're talking about.

Klein also asserts a bedrock principle for systems that are not working in schools-- you don't scrap them, but you fix them. I was going to hunt down a column in which Klein uses this same argument to vehemently oppose things like, say, letting Eva Moskowitz shove aside public schools to make room for charters. Because, if a public school is struggling, Joe Klein will apparently be there to argue fiercely that you don't close public schools-- you fix them. But my googler seems to be broken. Can somebody help me with that? Kthanks.

But Klein saves the worst for last. You see, there's a struggle going on in this country and it's time to pick sides-- either the unions or the students.

That's an interesting choice, particularly since these days many teachers are wishing that teacher unions would choose the side of teachers. But really-- is that it? The biggest obstacle standing in the path of educating students is teachers' unions? Teachers unions are out there saying, "We've got to smack down those damn students and get them out of our way"?

I think not. I think in many districts, particularly big messy urban districts, the only adults around to stand up for the interests of the students are the teachers (whose working conditions are the very same as the students' learning conditions), and the only hope the teachers have of being heard at all is to band together into a group, a union. Consequently, much of what good has happened for students is there not because of some school board largesse but because a teachers' union (or a group of parents, or both) stood up and demanded it.

It's ironic I'm writing this, because I have plenty of beefs with the union. But to assert that making the unions shut up and go away would usher in an era of student greatness and success is just silly.

Of course, I could be wrong. I would do a search for states that hamstrung or abolished teacher unions and which now lead the nation in school and student excellence. Perhaps there are such places. Unfortunately, my googler is busted.


  1. I am indeed tired of people who have no experience with teaching - say, like, political reporters - telling us what should be done. And I don't know why Joe Klein has such a high profile, given that he's been called out plenty of times for inaccurate reporting, and doesn't seem to care at all, which doesn't seem very professional of him. And he's bought into the whole reformy "All we need to do is get rid of teachers' unions and tenure." That said, on the face of it, it seems to me he has a point. I would be glad to meet with any parent any time, but in my experience, the times that are set up (and teachers are paid) for parents to come in, the ones that need to come rarely do, so it isn't that helpful. And any professional development I have ever had during school hours has been the "drive-by" type with no depth or follow through, so also of minimal use. The only kind of professional development that has been helpful to me has been actual college courses. Or reading professional literature on my own. On the other hand, tutoring situations I have been involved with has always been clearly effective for the students. So I don't know what the problem was with this program, and I can't find any information on it, but I would take being paid for working with small groups of needy students over parent-teacher conferences or professional development any day.

  2. With regard to your last question, I thought I would help out. My googler also appears to be broken, because I was sure my governor (Scott Walker, WI) has been saying that achievement among WI students was up since he demolished the union here, but I can't find any verification of that whatsoever.