Monday, August 5, 2019

Ed Reform Was Supposed To Crush Unions

Every once in a while I stumble on an old article from back in the days when some reformsters would just say certain parts out loud instead of trying to be subtle or dog whistly.

Take this piece from April of 2014 by Terry M. Moe. It's an excerpt from his book What Lies Ahead for America's Children and Their Schools, and it's really, really clear what this Hoover Institute Fellow has in mind. Here's the subheading that pops up if you share a link to the article:

Real change won't come until we strip teachers unions of their power.

This frickin' guy
The arguments are familiar: Collective bargaining has forced schools to use inefficient organization. They block change in order to protect their vested interests (not, of course, because they are educational professionals who have some thoughts about what actually works in a classroom).

Moe talks about the "two great education reform movements" by which he means accountability and school choice. Choice progress has been slow, and Moe is very disappointed in accountability because even though students are taking the test, teachers aren't being fired or having their pay adjusted based on test results.

But Moe sees reason for hope, reason to believe that reformsters are going to turn it around thanks to two sets of factors.

One he calls endogenous change. These are politics within the education system, and he points to conservative gains in 2010 that helped lead to states gutting collective bargaining. It is hard to overstate just how positively Moe views any damage inflicted on teachers and their unions. He also points to the rise of reformy groups within the Democratic Party, like DFER and the network of activists rooted in TFA and Barrack Obama and Arne Duncan (who are "clearly in the reform wing of the party). These folks, he notes, are actually "serious about improving the nation's schools" and so think that unions must be made part of the solution. Yes, he missed a lot back then, from imagining that DFER includes actual democrats to the fact that union desire to collaborate with reformists spurred a noisy member pushback.  At any rate, he doesn't see these endogenous changes as sufficient to "bring about major change."

It propels the education system in the right direction. But it is inherently limited, because it does little to reduce the power of the teachers unions—and they will continue to use their power to prevent the schools from being effectively organized.

So what are the changes that can bust union power? Exogenous changes, originating from outside the education system-- specifically, those emerging from "the worldwide revolution in information technology."

Online curriculum can be created and customized. Give instant feedback and assessment. Allow students to learn at a personalized pace while giving access at any time or any place. Is Moe excited about these things because he thinks they'll make education better? Not exactly:

By strategically substituting technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive), moreover, schools can be far more cost-effective than they are now—which is crucial in a future of tight budgets.

Teaching staffs will be reduced and dispersed (because they can teach from anywhere). This will undermine the union membership, money and power. Woohoo!

Do we have to wait for this "tsunami" to come and wash those damn teachers away/ Well, Moe had some thoughts about things that could be done to hasten that joyous day. He wants researchers to dig up some information. Does collective bargaining increase the costs of public education? Are unions swinging board elections? How do unions use their power to block ed reform? Do right to work states successfully weaken the unions? Is the rising Democratic reformy tide yield real results? How have the unions dealt with ed tech-- do they control it, defeat it, or "support" it (scare quotes are his, because, you know, any teacher support for ed tech must be fake).

Now, five years later, some other questions occur, like how does the attempt to crush teachers and their unions result in an inability to find enough teachers who will take your crappy job at crappy pay? And how disappointed are you that a Trump administration sucked all the air out of the faux democrat support for reformy ideas? Do you think wealthy parents are really excited about having their children taught by computer screen?

It is striking the degree to which this article completely bypasses the question of whether his dreamed-of reforms will actually help students. "We've got to bust those damned unions" is the main focus, and the most desired outcome of everything from accountability to his nascent vision of personalized learning.

So who is this guy? Terry Moe is a Stanford professor and a Hoover Institution education task force guy. His degrees are in economics and political science. He has also been a fellow at the Brookings Institute, and Fordham Institute gave him an award for excellence in 2005. In 2011 he had published a book along much the same themes outlined above, and it was praised by Joel Klein and former DC Chancellor, She Who Will Not Be Named.

But perhaps his most telling work isn't about education at all-- consider his 2016 book Relic, which argues that the Constitution needs to be rewritten in order to push Congress aside so that a President has far more power and freedom to govern as he will. So, you know, more like a king. Or, in keeping with the corporate school of ed reform, more like a powerful visionary CEO.

You may be asking-- with Donald Trump as President, does Moe still think the President needs more power? The answer is yes. The argument is that Trump is awful, but he was elected because government has been sucky, which is Congress's fault, and if the President had more power, government would work better, and we wouldn't get a Trump in the White House. So there's that.

But we're digressing from the main feature here, which was our little trip back to 2014, when a reformster might just come out and say, "We need more Democrat reformsters and ed tech and personalized learning and students taught via computer because it will help us destroy the teachers union as a political force and so we can remake schools according to our amateur hour vision without anyone getting in our way. It's a nightmare vision of ed reform, but at least it's honest.

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