Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Bill Bennett: Teachers, Know Your Place

EdWeek ruffled some feathers and reaped some clickbaity hate read traffic this week with a piece of concern trolling from Bill Bennett and Karen Nussle. Bennett was Reagan's USED secretary, and Nussle is the chairman of Conservative Leaders for Education, a group that Bennett launched two years ago and still serves as-- well, actually the website says that Nussle is president and Bennett is chairman. Nussle's actual background is running a "boutique" PR firm.

CL4E lives up to its name by favoring school choice and not being fans of unions, so nothing in the EdWeek piece is exactly surprising. But it is a fine example of the kind of baloney that gets served every time teachers strike.

There is a fundamental problem in education that has been on vivid display recently: confusion about whom our schools exist to serve. Our public school system exists to give our children a foundation in literacy and numeracy and to help them become informed citizens. It is not the purpose of the public schools to use children as leverage for the gains of others.

Yes, it's the old Think of the Children argument, which plays better than the real argument here, which is that teachers should know their roles and shut their holes. This paragraph also captures the belief in really low expectations for school (just teach 'em readin' and 'rithmetic). And the special hypocrisy of charter fans arguing that schools should not use children as a way to make money.

This guy has had it with uppity teachers.
But see-- only such confusion would "drive mass school closures and disruptions right in the midst of a critical time in a school year." One wonders when a better, unimportant time in the school year might come; one also enjoys the irony of choice fans decrying "disruption," which is usually one of their favorite things. I thought disruption was supposed to be a good way to break moribund institutions out of their terrible rut.

No concern trolling would be complete without a disclaimer:

We strongly believe in the importance and honor of great teaching and teachers. We believe policymakers should set budgets so that the best teachers are attracted and retained. Those decisions must be made at each state and district level.

Again, teachers-- know your place. These decisions should be made by people more important than you. But this point begs a question-- what are teachers supposed to do when policymakers don't make those decisions? What are teachers supposed to do if policymakers let schools decay and teacher pay drop so that nobody is attracted or retained?

This is a question that Bennett and his flak aren't going to answer, but consider this interview with Corey Robin, who is arguing that the central tenet of conservatism is the fight to make sure that the people who have the power keep it, and the people who don't never, ever take it. In Robin's view, Bennett's statement is its own answer-- decisions about teacher pay and school funding should be made at state and district level period end sentence. There is no what if. The policymakers decide and they are the ones with the deciding power and nothing is more important than preserving that power-- including crumbling buildings and evaporating teacher pools.

Bennett's point, of course, is that teachers shouldn't strike or walk out ever, and he offers several reasons.

First, abrupt school closures interrupt and damage student progress. "Teaching time does matter, and we should be very reluctant to interrupt it." Boy, that line makes great reading as I sit here in the middle of Pennsylvania's two-week testing window, during which my classes are suspended and interrupted so that we can give the BS Test. I might also direct Bennett to the problem of charters that close without warning during the year.

Bennett and Flak try to hit a quotable line here: "When coal miners strike they lay down their equipment. When teachers strike, they lay down their students' minds." So, in this analogy, my students have pickaxes for brains? My students are my tools? No, this is not a winner.

Second, the old "if you want to be treated like a professional, act like it." Which is a crappy argument, because you know what professionals do? They set a fee for their services, and if you want to hire them, you pay it. My plumber and my mechanic and my doctor and my lawyer do not charge me based on what I feel like paying them-- they set their fees, and if I want my pipes fixed, I fork over the money.

Bennett will add the old "teachers get summers off" argument for good measure. Fine. If you think we should have year-round school, do that. But don't diss me and my professional brethren because you're too cheap to pay for a full year's worth of services. Yes, teachers can use the summer to "pursue their financial goals or other endeavors," and I'm not sure what your point is. If you want more money, go get a job at the Tastee-Freeze?

And also (this second point turns out to be several points that seem to add up to "teachers are a bunch of lazy unprofessional money-grubbers anyway") Bennett wants to play blunt straight-shooter, saying "let's be honest" and admit these strikes have been about "pursuing financial ends." Which is unprofessional and unseemly.

There is a time, place and manner for these fiscal discussion. Strikes during the school year are not it.

Oh, bullshit. The teachers of Arizona and West Virginia and Oklahoma and Kentucky and Colorado and North Carolina have had all the discussions so very many times in a wide variety of places in every imaginable manner, and for their trouble they have gotten bupkus. Worse than bupkus-- they've gotten disrespect and abuse and in the meantime they've gone back to their moldy classrooms to do their professional best to work in a crumbling environment without enough resources. Bennett doesn't list the times and places and manners that would be more appropriate because he knows damn well whatever circumstances he describes, those teachers have already tried.

Third, Bennett argues that some of these strikes have been about misdirected anger or invalid complaints, but teachers just want to "maneuver a sweeter deal." Yes, those damn scam artists, striking on a lark just to make a buck.

I give Bennett credit for just one thing-- usually when folks start flinging these arguments around they try to cushion them by saying that teachers by themselves are just swell-- it's those damned unions. But no-- Bennett and Flak go straight for the classroom teacher jugular.

There are several things he either doesn't understand or finds it expedient to pretend he doesn't understand.

First, teachers hate to strike. Striking is their second favorite choice; their first favorite choice is anything and everything else.

That means to get teachers to strike, particular in large numbers, you have to convince them that nothing else will work. You have to convince them that there's no hope of negotiating with you, that you don't take any of their concerns seriously, that you don't value their work, that you have no sincere desire to safeguard the future of public education and their profession. You have to convince them that trying to talk to you is hopeless and pointless.

In short, you have to sound a lot like Bill Bennett in this piece.

Of course, Bennett tips his hand at the end:

Perhaps they should examine how their own actions are eroding public trust in an institution so vital to our nation and our future. In doing so, they are driving people to be against public schools.

Why not drive teachers to strike if, like Bill Bennett, you are invested in driving students out of public schools and into charter/choice schools?

Think of the children? Bennett is thinking of the children and all the money they can drive to charter/choice schools. And he is guilty of exactly what he accuses teachers of doing. He says that teachers are using students as leverage for financial purposes; those purposes are, of course, preserving public education and the teaching profession in their states. Bennett would also like to use the students as leverage against teachers, so that the financial interests of those who are invested in keeping teachers underpaid and schools underfinanced can be preserved.

Who's the guiltier party in that comparison? Well, I figure this way- students depend on schools for education. If we listen to the striking teachers, the schools get better and better, with current books, and a high quality teaching staff recruited and retained. If we listen to guys like Bennett, the slow-motion walkout of teachers from the profession continues, the buildings continue to lose resources, and the schools that those children depend on just get worse and worse. I know which side I plan to back.


  1. Part of the process of minimizing the interminable mental drudgery of assembly line work involved promotion of employee ideas and mixing things up so that stasis was not achieved. It does not sound as if the school board is that well run.
    Does it not behoove people ostensibly promoting intelligent utilization of resources to utilize available resources ?

  2. Hell is going to be a very crowded space soon.

  3. We know it is about the children. We work with them. We don't get our talking points from one percent run think tanks

  4. Why would anyone with scruples heed advice from Bill Bennett? He makes $50,000/speech crowing about immoral behaviors (from which he is exempt) yet conceals his secret gambling problem. Shameless.

    " over the last decade Bennett has made dozens of trips to casinos in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, where he is a 'preferred customer' at several of them, and sources and documents provided to The Washington Monthly put his total losses at more than $8 million."
    Bennett "earns $50,000 for each appearance in speaking fees on the lecture circuit, where he inveighs against various sins, weaknesses and vices of modern culture." Gambling is exempt from his lectures.

  5. The failing grades of the current generation needs to land where it belongs - at home. When children have parents that fight, use their money for their own entertainment, and expect their children to learn self discipline on their own, you will end up with children who fail in school. I know that my school has good teachers because even children who drop out of school are able to acquire their GED within 6 months.