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Frank Bruni wrote a pretty good column today about a new, anti-teacher's union movie coming out, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal called "Won't Back Down," about a mother who stands up to the entrenched interests who run her failing local school district. Bruni also writes about the growing rift between Democrats and teachers unions and the growing public upset at unionized teachers. Bruni doesn't wind up anti-union, but his sympathies are definitely strained.
It's understandable. We'd be asking too much from luck for the interests of public school teachers to be magically aligned with public school students. There will always be conflicts in that relationship.
This is, of course, inherent in any working relationship. It's great for Apple that Foxconn can keep its workers in dormitories, to be roused at a moment's notice to make a new touch screen. In some ways, I'm sure parents would love it if teachers don't get to go home until Johnny can pass AP calculus. But that's a cruddy way to expect professionals to work, isn't it?
The big knock on teacher's unions is that they don't put the kids first. This is a ridiculous request to make. They are teacher's unions. They should darned well be putting the interests of teachers first. That's why they exist. These unions have to put the interests of teachers first because nobody else will.
But, say the critics, the teachers insulate themselves from being judged by results. And what are the results? The measurable abilities of their students. Accepting that there are good and bad teachers out there, we should also accept that this isn't so easy to measure and that there's a lot outside of the teacher's control. Family life and the ambitions of the student count for a lot. You can't look at my high school transcripts and say that my English teachers in high school were not better than my math teachers based on my grades. I liked English more and I worked at it. That's totally outside of the teacher's control. When teachers say that you'll have to find some other way to judge them, I sympathize.
Seniority and tenure issues are most criticized. The notion here is that bright, young teachers with great new ideas are being kept out by entrenched laggards who have managed to not get fired. To the extent that happens, it should be curbed. But I think that people forget that seniority and tenure rules do exist from some good reasons. One is that it protects honest teachers from being blamed by influential when children fail. There are other related issues of academic freedom. Tenure gives a longtime teacher some cover to say, "No, I'm not going to teach 'Intelligent Design,' as science."
Finally, not all, or even most, long-time teachers are mediocre people who can't do anything else for a living. People who stick with jobs for decades tend to do it because they are good at their jobs. It's years of positive reinforcement that keeps them on the job. Seniority rules help insure that these people are fairly paid and rewarded for a job they do well. The young firebrand with new ideas who shakes up the system and makes it better provides for a gripping fable. But it ignores the more mundane story of professionals who devote their lives to a craft and get better at it all of the time. I'd say that both stories and their opposites are probably to be found in nature.
There's a kind of goofy notion out there that people who go into teaching, along with other public sector workers, are not supposed to look out for their financial interests. If I go and work for a bank, nobody will bat an eye if I say that my goal is to make as much money as possible and that if I spend the next year pulling late nights on various deals that I expect it to be recognized at bonus time. If I go teach high school English instead, I'll also be expected to coach a sports team and be the faculty advisor on the student paper and I'm supposed to do this not for money but because I love kids.
In short, what the public wants from its teachers (and firefighters, and police officers, by the way) is a high level of idealism that we can exploit in order to get services on the cheap. I hope it's not unfair to evoke 9/11 here, but it seems to me that the City of New York and the country at large was quite grateful to those police and firefighters who had the courage and devotion to mission that they ran into the collapsing towers to rescue people. What we did not show them was the foresight and pre-crisis generosity of supplying them with the very best communications equipment.
These unions exist because the public, like any employers, wants to get its services for the least amount of money possible. Somebody has to represent the other side of that deal.
Blaming teachers for the intellectual failures of the American public is just too easy. Nobody wants to blame their own kid or themselves. At 37, I've been struggling to learn math and pre-calculus that I should have mastered by now, and would have mastered if I'd paid more attention 20 years ago. No teacher is at fault there. No teenager is a perfect judge of what to prioritize.
We should also not lose sight of the reality that most teachers face, which is that it isn't exactly a high paying profession.