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Teachers Unions and Shifting Winds

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Since the theatrical release of The Cartel, I've hosted countless director Q & A's about public education policy and become quite familiar with the establishment's talking points. One of them is that there are thousands of great public schools and great teachers. I know that. I went to public schools, and my mother was one of those great public school teachers. But I also know that there are many cases of abject educational dysfunction, rarely acknowledged by the "throw more money at the problem" crowd.

How do the status quo defenders respond to calls for reform? With expositions on the great "concerns" posed by any particular reform. (To the establishment, even the worst failing schools never foster the same level of concern as the mildest of reforms.) Moreover, these expressions often represent a striking blend of two seemingly incompatible states: self-righteousness and failure.

I must admit a fascination for the cognitive dissonance involved. Can people really fail miserably at something while asserting superiority?

It turns out, yes. And the historical and cultural antecedents tend to be delicious. Consider:

  • George B. McClellan's reign as the worst general in the Civil War, before he was fired by Abraham Lincoln, was punctuated with observations like, "I almost think that were I to win some small success now I could become Dictator."
  • Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, Saddam Hussein's foreign information officer, aka "Baghdad Bob," said about foreign troops, "They hold no place in Iraq. This is an illusion." Of course at the time, U.S. forces had reached the outskirts of the Iraqi capital.
  • The Black Knight in The Holy Grail, after being rendered armless, declared, "It's just a flesh wound."

So hubris and failure, it seems, do occasionally make a joint appearance. And we can usually laugh it off. But there's a troubling difference when adults practice the education version of this combination: They pass it on to students. As a life lesson. Because it serves their interests.

This pernicious practice was first famously reported in Charles Sykes' 1996 book, Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves But Can't Read, Write, or Add. More recently, Davis Guggenheim's Waiting for 'Superman' reiterates the same idea. Today, U.S. kids rank 25th in the world in math, and first in confidence about test performance.

Like union, like student, eh?

So when I hear excuses from defenders of the establishment, I can't help thinking to myself, don't they know what the rest of us are thinking? Don't they know how we're finishing their sentences for them?

There will be the public part of their statement, then the other part they believe, but intentionally leave out.

  • We wanted to be treated like professionals, but we want job guarantees that no other professionals have.
  • We support teacher accountability, provided it virtually never results in actual dismissals for tenured teachers.
  • We should implement policies to prevent burnout of young, hard-working teachers, as long as the most talented, hardest-working teachers are never individually rewarded for the exceptional efforts.
  • We believe in developing fair methodologies of teacher evaluation, but in practice we'll declare that any particular evaluation plan is unfair.
  • We all want to reform public schools, provided reform is defined as "good for jobs."
  • Not enough money reaches the classroom, but we won't publicly criticize excess administration spending because one of those jobs might be ours some day.
  • We all want better schools, provided that "better for kids" and "better for adults" are never distinguished.

And if they do know how the rest of us have been completing these sentences, I've wondered, shouldn't they have been addressing the perceptions of these second halves of the sentences, rather than only repeating the first halves?

Between The Cartel, Waiting for 'Superman', A Right Denied, NBC's Education Nation, Mark Zuckerberg's appearance on Oprah!, and the announcement of National School Choice Week, the conversation has changed. And it has all happened in less than a year!

You see, I used to have to convince people that "it is near impossible to fire a teacher -- even one accused of a crime, drug addiction or flagrant misbehavior." But not anymore; now New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein says it for me.

Still, many of the establishment defenders have been running a couple of grade levels behind. Their anti-reform rhetoric has read like a tired old textbook, willfully ignoring the game-changing developments that I just listed.

Until now. News flash. They've come to a realization: Reform is the new black.

Teachers unions just announced that they're going to hold the first ever "Summit to Stifle Education Reform." Or the "Make it Look Like We're For Reform, While We Come Up With Ways To Kill Reform, Summit." Okay, I made those up. But they've actually acknowledged the need for a big national conference on education reform. Have they finally understood the shifting winds? Have they finally gotten a clue? Or is it a publicity stunt? For more information you can read the announcement.

Excuse my cynicism. But teachers unions have had many years to reform themselves and their approach to education, and they never have. Now we're supposed to believe they're on board? Right. I think it's more likely they'll pass something like a "Teacher Accountability Plan" that contains 50 new ways to prevent teachers from being held accountable. We'll see.

One thing's for sure. There will be people in that room fighting for the status quo. Hard.

I hope their ideas suffer the fate of the Black Knight.