Beyond Unions

Recently we had the Labor Roundtable and much interesting discussion on the nature and necessity of organized labor in America ensued. I’ve cooled on the idea of unions lately, at least in their current form, and have had a number of really good conversations in the past couple of days after writing this post, about unions and particularly teachers unions.

Certainly teachers unions represent a major obstacle to reform of our education system. In that sense, I both approve and disapprove of their influence. I approve of any efforts to curtail high-stakes testing, and unions certainly are avid opponents of such testing. But it’s also true that at least part of the reason we’ve come to this point in the first place is that unions have consistently opposed reforms across the board – not just high-stakes testing. Using tests as a metric for teachers is one way reformers are attempting to break the inertia created by unions. I think it’s an unfortunate way to go about it, but it’s not surprising that this – along with school choice efforts – have focused on curbing union power.

At some point, everything needs to be seen through the lens of special interests. Boiling things down to corporate reformers who want to end public education vs. teachers who only care about themselves is silly. The truth is more complicated, just like the truth about Medicare reforms is more complicated and involves special interests looking out for self-interest in ways that are not conspiratorial so much as pragmatic.

I find myself, lately, looking at both reformers and the unions/education-establishment and thinking everyone is wrong. We need a third way.

So let’s assume for a moment that teacher unions as they currently exist were to become extinct. This would open many reform doors not now available. The question I have is this: what replaces unions to give workers voice? Broadening the scope somewhat, what replaces unions in the economy as a whole in giving workers voice and agency?

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144 thoughts on “Beyond Unions

  1. I think the more precise question, which leads to the problem of finding an answer, is: What gives workers without a lot of education, prized skills and or significant privileges any voice or agency in the workplace? To many people who are critical of unions have , like myself, grad school educations, high literacy or high tech skills or social advantages so they don’t get how the other 75% lives.

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    • Teachers generally do have a lot of education. Do they have agency? I don’t know. Do we want them to? Just jump right to the obvious one: Should the biology teacher have agency to teach the controversy? Depends on where you stand on that issue. Prayer in school? Sex ed?

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      • The agency of workers revolves do they have any say in work rules, are they at the mercy of their bosses to keep them safe, do they have recourse if harassed or treated illegally, do they have any leverage in getting better wages or benefits. For teachers curriculum influenced by school boards but they should have some say since they are considered to have some expertise in what they are teaching and are the ones who have to figure out how to teach the material.

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  2. I think public sector unions are almost a completely different kettle of fish, the inherent conflict of interest between their political activism and that the government is their employer.

    As for private sector unions in the US, it seems to me that unlike the factory or business of the past where labor was more or less fungible, businesses now need trained employees, and the happiness of the employees is now of great importance, both for smooth function and retentention. The efficient and knowledgable employee is more valuable than in the past, and the employer has more invested in him re training. The smart business treats its people well.

    Employees in places like Microsoft don’t want unions because unionization tends to flatten out compensation between the best and the worst. Excellence is not rewarded as highly, sometimes not at all.

    As for places like WalMart, there’s certainly enough to legitimately complain about re wages and benefits. But the other hand I see is a) perhaps WalMart is the last refuge of the relatively unemployable and b) perhaps unionization would effectively kill a major competitive advantage—better prices via lower wages and bennies.

    Also, as was noted previously in the very good discussions here, some of the necessary functions and major virtues of unions have been subsumed by the government: safety regs, wrongful terminations, wage and hour laws. Pretty much, now all it comes down to is money, and protecting the occasional bad employee.

    Then there’s the service employees, janitors and the like, whose unskilled labor is completely fungible. These battles are purely Man vs. The Machine and most closely resemble the early union days. There’s definitely a price vs. value problem here once politics are involved.

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    • I’d argue that the difference between Wall-Mart and Microsoft has more to do with the difference between what it means to be a high quality software programmer (where you might be 10x as productive as an average programmer) and a high quality Wall-Mart employee (where really, you can’t check out customers 10x faster). Also, there’s a difference between a low quality software engineer (who can require as many as 10 engineers to their egregious blunder) and a low quality Wall-Mart employee (where really, it just means someone needs to redo the floors because Bob just can’t mop worth a damn).

      So the bad and the good variation have much higher local maximums and lower local minimums in the higher-skilled workplace.

      Unions work great for non-knowledge workers; they were originally designed more or less to make management treat workers like equal cogs in the manufacturing machine. That means you have to not abuse your workers, which was the whole point.

      The drawback was, *you’re treating all your workers like cogs in the manufacturing machine*. That don’t work so well when it comes to non-manufacturing jobs.

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      • Herein lies the problem as I see it with teachers.

        Teachers, to my mind, fall much closer to the Microsoft worker than the Walmart employee when considered in the “the bad and the good variation have much higher local maximums and lower local minimums” framework. From my experience through my kids’ schooling, exceptional teachers are rare and bad teachers are disastrous for the children in their classes.

        The government, however, doesn’t compensate like Microsoft, as the taxpayers are on the hook and no one likes to pay taxes.

        So the first question that comes to my mind when discussing the elimination of teachers unions is, how do you intend to attract and retain high quality teachers in the absence of unions, which can at least provide a some leverage with the government?

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        • I’m not sure. I think that’s a very good conversation to have.

          The union model does not appear to be working at all, though. Teachers of my acquaintance are generally paid too little to actually live in the communities in which they work (or they’re paid quite well, but they don’t want to live in the community in which they work). They have very little in the way of real job security, as they are perennially on the block when budget cuts come up.

          So although I grant unions might be better than nothing when it comes to leverage, it seems like that lever only pushes on outcomes that I think are really suboptimal (trying to protect teachers-as-an-industrial-workers-body, not teachers-as-a-professional-body).

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            • I don’t know that this is entirely accurate.

              I think the narrative is that taxpayers are paying for shit, isn’t it? True or not, that’s the narrative.

              I’m thinking a large quantity of the disaffection with the public school system comes from people who aren’t in the system and have no direct idea whether it is any good or not, and are told or “know” that it’s terrible.

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              • Polls repeatedly show people are happy with their own schools. Its the feeling that we are failing at education in general that start this conversation. Well that and the fact that people want to find money to cut from government so that look towards schools. The place where most people are unhappy about their schools are in areas of high poverty where just whining about teachers is so obviouly not the only problem or solution.

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          • “The union model does not appear to be working at all, though. ” An assertion with no real basis.

            “Teachers of my acquaintance are generally paid too little to actually live in the communities in which they work (or they’re paid quite well, but they don’t want to live in the community in which they work). They have very little in the way of real job security, as they are perennially on the block when budget cuts come up.”

            All of which would be aggravated by lack of unions.

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            • Barry

              > An assertion with no real basis.

              I did say, “appear”. Appearances are important.

              I see four major failures of the union.

              Number one, they have failed to provide a public narrative of success. Whether or not they’ve been successful or not is beside the point, here -> people, generally, are convinced that the unions aren’t doing their job properly.

              Failure number two: the union has failed to defend seniority as a policy. Arguments against the union on this stance are largely anecdotal and therefore not necessarily compelling *to me*, but again, if you’re going to lay off the Teacher of the Year because she’s new and retain older teachers on the basis of seniority, your political management skills suck. If your framework for managing your own members doesn’t enable you to be flexible in this case, your framework sucks.

              You’re Frank McCourt, saying security is fine at Dodger Stadium while some dude is in critical condition from getting his brains beat in. Security might be acceptable, but for Christ’s sake, learn how to do proper crisis management.

              Failure number three: the union has failed to provide a narrative of self-correction. When the public has a perception of troubled members of an organization, and the public has a direct influence on your organization, proper management of your troubled members is critically important. See Church, Roman Catholic for another example of ineptitude in this score. When a teacher is perceived as a problem, you need to be publicly proactive at censure. The teacher’s union may do this to an acceptable level. Nobody thinks that they do. Not even members of the teacher’s union think they do; I know lots of teachers and they *all* bitch about someone else in the union. That’s a failure.

              Failure number four: not allowing critics to crash and burn. If a local action group wants a charter school, and they have political willpower to get it done, fighting it and losing makes you look stupid. It also allows the charter school to fail at some indeterminate point in the future and that failure to be ignored in the narrative. If the local school reform movement has parental support, rather than fight it tooth and nail, write up a nice failure metric, go along with it because it’s what the parents want, and then publicize how you were correct. You can argue this as not a real failure, that’s fine, we can table it off the list if you like.

              Now, systemic failure of the union, across all states, *as an actual participant in the educational system*… that is something I’m not qualified to judge (nor, to be honest, is it a conversation I’m particularly interested in having). My kid(s) go (will go) to public school. I like the teachers and the principle at my neighborhood school, they’re all union. I think the school is great. The union is part of that success, I’m sure. I can’t judge the efficacy of the entire state of California. I’m not sure that measuring the efficacy of the educational department across that large of an area is even really meaningful, I expect a lot of the signal will be hidden among noise.

              But as a political entity, the union sucks. And the union, itself, is supposed to be a political entity. That’s an assertion I’m totally okay with giving :)

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              • “You’re Frank McCourt, saying security is fine at Dodger Stadium while some dude is in critical condition from getting his brains beat in. Security might be acceptable, but for Christ’s sake, learn how to do proper crisis management.”

                Well, no.

                And the rest of your comment (a) ignores the basic fact that public education works worst where everything else doesn’t work well, and (b) ignores that the fact that the right (by which I include CATO and the ‘libertarians’) have been on a crusade against public education for decades. You’re blaming people for not defending themselves adequately when the financial elites decided to trash the system.

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                • Barry, lest you think I’m an anti-public schooling person, I’m not. My kids are in public school.

                  I speak as someone who looks at political organizations as entities unto themselves. Whether or not I agree or disagree with public schooling isn’t really relevant.

                  Put another way: if I was a teacher I’d be hopping freaking mad about my union’s political ineptitude. Most *teachers* I know think their union does a bad job of making its message public. Since the union is, itself, supposed to be an advocacy group, this would seem to be a pretty major ding.

                  > You’re blaming people for not defending
                  > themselves adequately when the financial
                  > elites decided to trash the system.

                  No, I’m blaming the union for being bad at what is supposed to be its core competency.

                  From the Sacramento Bee:

                  “The $211.9 million spent by the CTA is nearly twice as much as the $107.5 million committed by the second-highest spender, the California State Council of Service Employees, but after those two union groups, the remaining 13 on the Top 15 list are all either business groups, such as No. 3 Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America ($104.9 million), individual corporations or casino-owning Indian tribes, which have three of the 15 top spots.”

                  Any way you slice it, the Teacher’s Union (in California, I can’t speak for other states) is a major freaking player in California politics. And they do far too much of their playing via political donations and not enough via organization and getting their *own* message out.

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        • “From my experience through my kids’ schooling, exceptional teachers are rare and bad teachers are disastrous for the children in their classes.”

          That’s interesting. My experience is the opposite. Nine times out of ten, even the most hard-working and inspirational teacher will struggle to get much out of a kid who’s not all that bright, or a kid whose family is a disaster. On the other hand, a really motivated or really wealthy parent can work or spend their way around a really bad teacher.

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          • A question everyone seems to be asking here is why is a teachers union so different. I’d like to suggest that the difference has less to do with the teachers, and more to do with us.

            Every group of people, union or not, trumpets its worth, and probably even myopically overestimates it. But with teachers in unions, it gets a lot more complicated because of what we outsiders bring to the table.

            For some, especially those with children, teachers themselves are given improper importance for the future success of their offspring. There are a lot of voters who will take the side of the teachers union in any situation, no matter how absurd, because in their minds the issue isn’t the teacher unions – it’s whether or not their child will be a successful adult.

            Likewise, there are just as many that have a knee jerk adversarial reaction to teachers unions, and from where I sit it rarely has anything to do with particular issues at hand. Rather, because of their dominance in the political world for many they take on the role of living metaphor for people who hate government, and resent having to pay taxes. They see themselves as second class citizens, and are looking for a way to stick it to the man – the man, in this case, being the teachers union.

            The best example of this dynamic I can think of took place in my city about ten years ago, when there was a HUGE battle between whether to use whole language and phonics as the mechanism to teach kids how to read. Everyone who knew much about the subject at all was in agreement: different kids learn differently; schools should be able to accommodate both methods. But that didn’t stop the issue from becoming a political fire storm, with the teachers union in the center. (In the center of everyone’s defense or derision, that is. The union had no preference about one method over the other.) At the end of the day no one in the trenches of the battle cared about the actual issue, or for that matter about the teachers union, even though they both were being used as a club agains the other side.

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          • Sam –

            I don’t think our experiences have been different, though we clearly view teacher impact differently. Good teachers can’t imbue students with intellectual talents they don’t have. How could they? And being engaged is challenging enough for parents without have to work around a bad teacher.

            But, a hard-working and inspirational teacher can raise middling students to excellence and change their lives.

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        • “So the first question that comes to my mind when discussing the elimination of teachers unions is, how do you intend to attract and retain high quality teachers in the absence of unions, which can at least provide a some leverage with the government?”

          Especially as teaching is politically sensitive, both at the individual level and the school board level. It’d really stink having purges with every change in the school board, or having teachers fired for doing their jobs in a way that loud-mouthed special interests don’t like.

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          • Good point, though teachers are routinely laid off by changes in administration regardless. And what do you do about a system like Detroit? I can see how the unions in Wisconsin were essentially a waste of time to go after – good test scores, reasonable bargaining partners in the union, etc. But Detroit represents an entirely different set of problems, and public sector workers are a big part of the problems there. (As are public officials, bureaucrats and politicians both).

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            • ED: “And what do you do about a system like Detroit?”

              Detroit to a large degree is an economic wasteland; whenever I drive there I’m stupified whenever I actually *look* at the open spaces which were clearly built up (with the odd building standing like the last surviving tooth in an otherwise toothless mouth). Functioning at all there is beating the odds.

              As an analogy, basing things on Detroit would be like a car manufacturing reforming their systems based on how Yugo performed during the Yugoslavian civil war.

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            • Detroit is starting to look like Dresden. Maybe even worse. It’s “white flight”–an inevitable consequence when you start have a murder rate in the 1000s. Devil’s night happens every day here, not just October 30/31. Or when the Tigers win the World Series.

              I’m starting to like more and more the idea of turning Detroit into one big giant farm. But then you have the rather large problem of drugs and gangs. I can just see the protest signs, “Cannabis Now, Cannabis now”. And of course, don’t forget the poppy opium and just for good measure, and a midday buzz, chewing coca leaves.

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    • “As for private sector unions in the US, it seems to me that unlike the factory or business of the past where labor was more or less fungible, businesses now need trained employees, and the happiness of the employees is now of great importance, both for smooth function and retentention. ”

      In other words, Unions were perhaps necessary in the Bad Old Days, but not in these present enlightened times.

      I wonder how many decades ago that argument became popular? 4? 6? 8?

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  3. Who better to represent the concerns of the teachers than a body selected and empowered by the teachers? Wouldn’t any “third way” you propose that eliminates the teachers’ right to represent their own interests in negotiation essentially be saying that this third party knows better than the teachers themselves what the teachers need? If we extend that argument beyond the specific example here, aren’t you essentially making the argument for benevolent dictatorship/oligarchy and central planning? Definitely not what I expected.

    I love how you take your opinion that teachers’ unions are wrong on the issue of education reform (at least, in the guises it has currently been offered, which is pretty much universally high-stakes testing or gutting the funding of unionized schools in order to transfer the funds to privatized schools) and extend that to the blanket need to replace teachers’ unions with some undefined “third way”. Can we not pursue other options, like negotiating compensation increases for education reform, or maybe even coming up with education reform options that teachers might like?

    Even if we were to assume that any of the current education reform options that have been floated and rejected by unions are better than the status quo (which is a hell of an assumption), why do you automatically assume that opposition from the teachers means that the teachers’ voice must be dysfunctional? If the reform is good for the system overall but bad for the workers, then the voice of the workers (whether it be unions or some nebulous, undefined “third way”) has the obvious duty to oppose it.

    The teachers’ union is not tasked with optimizing the school system; it is tasked with optimizing the outcome for the teachers. Yet it seems that at least one of the defining attributes of an acceptable “third way” would be that it would accept education reform that is unacceptable to teachers, therefore not acting as an advocate for the teachers. Which, in essence, means that you would like some way to eliminate teachers’ advocates from the decision-making process altogether without suffering any backlash from the teachers.

    So, to make a long post short (too late), nothing replaces unions as a voice for the workers, unless you assume that people are not best suited at determining what they want, which is the antithesis of perhaps the most important central postulate of libertarianism. Unions die for a variety of reasons (some of them worker choice, some owner collusion or government interference), but nothing can effectively replace them.

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    • “Who better to represent the concerns of the teachers than a body selected and empowered by the teachers? Wouldn’t any “third way” you propose that eliminates the teachers’ right to represent their own interests in negotiation essentially be saying that this third party knows better than the teachers themselves what the teachers need?”

      Wait, waitaminute. First you say that teachers should turn over their negotiation rights to “a body”. Then you say that nobody knows what the teachers need better than they do.

      So, which is it? Do the teachers negotiate for themselves or let someone else do it for them?

      “The teachers’ union is not tasked with optimizing the school system; it is tasked with optimizing the outcome for the teachers.”

      Well, at least you’re willing to admit it!

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      • “Wait, waitaminute. First you say that teachers should turn over their negotiation rights to “a body”. Then you say that nobody knows what the teachers need better than they do.”

        DensityDuck, I assume the notion of elected representation is not new to you, so I’ll take your comment as merely poorly incubated. Collective bargaining, whether on the part of capital (corporations, partnerships, etc.) or labor (unions) requires delegation of bargaining power. Typically, the union must approve whatever their delegates negotiate.

        “Well, at least you’re willing to admit it!”

        Why wouldn’t I? Fortunately, the teachers’ union is only one of many interests that negotiate outcomes.

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        • “Collective bargaining, whether on the part of capital (corporations, partnerships, etc.) or labor (unions) requires delegation of bargaining power.”

          aaaaaand this goes back to my question of why you’re saying that individuality is important and therefore teachers should give theirs up.

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        • I assume the notion of elected representation is not new to you

          Its when we assume at the outset that elected representation is old hat and if not unproblematic, then ultimately justified that we fail to see the spectacular problems with the notion of elected representation. One of those is that elected representation cannot be justified with reference to individualism.

          If individuals tend to be the best evaluators vis-a-vis their own welfare, aggregating said preferences fails to provide a better alternative to autocratic styles of decision making.

          The teachers’ union is not tasked with optimizing the school system; it is tasked with optimizing the outcome for the teachers.

          The justification of public education as an institutional componenet of the state lies entirely in the ability of said education system to benefit the prospective students. It is only as a further condition of stability that we would want to be ocnencerned about the interests of the teachers, and then only to the extent that the education system as a whole is not impaired as with regards to its mission: To educate the young.

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  4. In an ideal world, which I guess is where we’re coming from here, the answer is worker control. In the context of schools, that means teachers controlling schools and school boards (or whatever level of government you deem appropriate) simply agreeing to fund anything that meets certain basic criteria. I my really-idea world, to be honest, you’d get the government completely out of the picture and leave it up to the parent to choose their children’s curricula, since that gets rid of the political question of what the “basic criteria” should be. But that’s probably going beyond the scope of this discussion, since it requires a radical transformation of many other things, too.

    In the wider economy, there are two related things you’d need to fix to make worker control actually work – scale, and capitalization. “Worker control” in the sense that the John Lewis Partnership or Recology are worker controlled doesn’t amount to much since the number of workers is so large their influence is basically that of shareholders, except that they happen to work for the management they theoretically control. One rather suspects the management has the better end of that deal (as they do with shareholders for that matter – its just worse).

    What you want is something more like the sense in which a law firm or a certain kind of software startup or all those bicycle co-ops is worker controlled – some group of people gets together to start a business and in doing so defers some or all of their compensation in order to build up capital for the business they expect to profit from later. They may or may not choose to employ other people and many or may not choose to give them equity participation, but they’re basically working in the business they created and which they control and profit from. You get rid of all the agency problems this way.

    But. There’s always a “but” with this stuff. Those are all businesses where the product of the business basically is its human and organization capital, which it then rents out to others. There’s no real need for large scale coordination or buying large amounts of heavy equipment and the people who start the business are exactly the same kind of people as you generally want to have working in it. You definitely could apply this model to schools, though – indeed some private schools do.

    If you think about a heavy manufacturing operation, the difficulties with worker control become more apparent. The people who make the equipment you need to get the business started are not the same people you want to have running it or working in it, and they aren’t likely to want to take an ownership stake in the business in place of getting paid for the machines and buildings. So one group of people pays for the machinery, gets the ownership of the enterprise in exchange, another group of people actually operates the machinery and a third group coordinates the enterprise. The key question is can those three groups of people be the same – in general the answer seems to be that its possible but things tend against it.

    Even if the workers start, run and own the enterprise, what happens when they want to cash out? Can they? Do they have to sell to other workers? If they can’t, why not? Can they employ other people who don’t have an equity stake? If not, why not? These issues do in fact come up in real worker owned firms and they do tend to limit expansion and make workplace relations rather complicated. When given the choice, people do tend to cash out their equity stake and choose to work mainly for wages.

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      • By E.D. Kain, how would turning over control of schools to teachers allow you to enact the teacher-unpopular reforms that you have stated are your biggest problem with teacher unions today? You would still have the same issues of teachers being against merit-based pay when “merit” is either undefined or defined with high-stakes testing that is not embraced by the community.

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        • It would change the incentives dramatically. For the most part people want to be successful and to be recognized as successful. The (good) teachers I know define success in terms of helping kids to advance in their learning and behavior, and overcoming the obstacles to that whatever they may be. Parents, at least those who care, define success in much the same way.

          But there are giant obstacles in the way of just letting everyone get on with this. Parents can’t choose their kids schools, unless they’re rich enough to pick a school district or private school. Teachers can’t teach to the individual kids, and have to follow prescribed curricula. Kids have to go to school and have to study certain things even if they gain no benefit from it. Parents may have little or no visibility of what happens in schools.

          This mess creates the horrible conflict of interest we currently see – parents demand standardized testing because they know some classes/teachers exist where their kids won’t learn and they want to avoid them, politicians demand merit pay because they want to please parents and want to get rid of the teachers who won’t help with that, teachers resist this because they don’t want their jobs to rest on the acheivement of goals that are frankly unrealistic and in many cases pointless for many classes of students. So round it goes – people’s positions really seem to be determined by who they feel least bad about screwing over – teachers or parents.

          My thought is merely that you can escape this insoluble dilemna by simply making teachers responsible to parents for educating their kids and telling the politicians to get lost to the greatest extent possible.

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          • “For the most part people want to be successful and to be recognized as successful. The (good) teachers I know define success in terms of helping kids to advance in their learning and behavior, and overcoming the obstacles to that whatever they may be.”

            If this is the case, then teachers’ unions are not a current obstacle to good education reform, and E.D.’s thesis is invalid; then it becomes an argument for eliminating school boards and allowing teachers to elect their own administrators. And I’m sure I don’t need to point out to this crew that, while school choice would work great for me and people like me, those who are of limited means and mobility would be screwed, as they would not be able to send children to distant schools, and the only schools in their district would be those willing to teach for very low costs (which would, of course, result in lower quality).

            And parents have exactly as much visibility as to what goes on in schools as they want. Most (if not all) public schools have an open visitation policy for parents. The problem is that most parents either don’t care or don’t have the time to visit. No amount of school choice can correct either of these problems.

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            • For the majority of folks here, the majority of education theories would have worked out fine.

              We have an amazing amount of cultural capital and fair amounts of intelligence on top of that… whether or not we happened to be food insecure as kids or were lucky enough to be raised with silver sporks.

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  5. Your question is unanswerable because it’s the wrong question.

    The right question is to ask why teachers–who are most surely highly-educated persons with prized skills–need to be in a union at all.

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    • Because, for the most part, they are selling their labor in a monopsony market, which tends to drive the price of the commodity in question (here, the labor of teachers) down dramatically.

      Not that I’m a huge fan of teacher’s unions. Few things in the labor market bug me more than the spectacle of a teacher’s strike and the obstacles unions put in the way of meaningful and needed education reform and removing bad teachers from the system have exceeded the boundaries of reasonability. But I do see why teachers would feel the need to form a union and at least some public benefit from the union being in the mix.

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      • Burt,

        Here’s something I’ve struggled to understand about that argument. We put the government in charge of building schools. Why? Because it is a matter of public policy entrusted to government. We put the government in charge of designing curricula. Why? Public policy, entrusted to government. We put the government in charge of designing school districts and administering school facilities, etc. Why? Policy, government. All other issues concerning public education are all set by government, all for the same reason: Government just is the body we’ve established to make public policy decisions of this sort.

        So why, just when it comes to questions of teachers’ pay and benefits, do we decide government has suddenly become lousy and can’t be trusted to set public policy, and that special interests are the only way to fairly serve the public? The way I see it, if you’re going to make the argument that as to teachers, government is a monopsony and thus can’t be trusted to set good policy for educators, then you’d also have to make the argument with equal force that as to parents and children, government is a monopoly and thus can’t be trusted to set good policy for students.

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            • Look to the private sector to see why. The basic justification of unions from the labor perspective aren’t that different. But either you knew that or unions really aren’t something you understand at all.

              On an only slightly related note, I’d be perfectly happy with customers having a say in things like curriculum, class size, etc. Maybe we could have a system where such decisions are made by some sort of policy-making group or groups, the members of which are elected, and therefore beholding to the customer, at least in theory. I’m just throwing these names out there off the top of my head, but my suggestion is to call them legislatures and school boards.

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          • Theoretically it allows more room for funds to go toward wages instead of administration and bureaucracy. Or it allows more tech to enter into schools, allowing schools to do more with less and putting more resources directly into the classroom and teaching.

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        • That sounds like a fine idea. Even in an environment where most schools are controlled by the government, it is possible to structure the schooling system so that schools compete with each other.

          Since the benefits of unions tend to be stronger in uncompetitive markets, this would have the effect of squeezing unions, but not necessarily at the expense of teachers.

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          • Schools already do compete with each other, and the effects are disastrous to low-income districts. Districts that are willing/able to invest more funds to education will offer supplements to the state wage, which allows them to attract more desirable teachers. Similarly, teachers in higher SES districts, even without a local supplement, know that they will be required to do less work than in a low SES district for the same wage. Governments have tried in some cases to equalize these problems with incentive for teaching in undesirable districts, but these programs have only moderate success are are big political footballs in the right/left wars in legislatures.

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        • It certainly could be. But as long as local school districts are tethered to the states that ultimately regulate and control them, they will only have so much latitude in which to “compete” with one another, and in practice the apparently large supply of teachers compete with one another for the relatively scarce supply of jobs so intensely that the school districts would be foolish not to take advantage of that.

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    • I think the more prescient question to ask is why you feel that your insights to the needs of teachers to unionize has more (or even comparable) value to the insights of the teachers themselves. Aren’t the teachers the ones best suited and most invested in correctly answering that question for themselves?

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  6. “Broadening the scope somewhat, what replaces unions in the economy as a whole in giving workers voice and agency?”

    Ombudsmens, OSHA, social media, a more mobile workforce, etc. Simply, labor doesn’t have to be ‘organized’ into unions to hold employers accountable.

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    • Do you really think I should trust this government to look out for my best interest? Think mining disasters and gulf oil rig explosions. The weaker the unions become the lower the paychecks for the people who produce the goods. A really good thing for America would be if Walmart became a gaint union company. That way American taxpayers would not be obligated to cover the difference between a full time employee’s wages and the poverty the poverty level. Then those psuedo christian waltons would have to get by on a billion a year instead of the 15 billion they make now.

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      • “Think mining disasters and gulf oil rig explosions.”

        As a risk manager, I can’t help but point out what these industries were like before government looking out for your interests. Especially mining.

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        • Why not allow the workers to negotiate the salary themselves? Why is it that the right of capital to collectively bargain for labor is rarely debated, but the right of labor to collectively bargain for capital is somehow beyond the pale? Or is there a big libertarian push to outlaw all enterprises except sole proprietorships that I haven’t heard of?

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        • That depends on where you live. I am sure that I can get by quite well on my four acre spread outside of Baton Rouge on a lot less money than it takes in Los Angeles. I have seen ads for efficiencies in New York City asking a thousand dollars a foot. Back before the illegals took all the construction jobs I worked for a company that sold new houses for around a hundred a foot.
          Four of the richest Americans are Waltons and all they did to get rich was enter the world. The Waltons and people like them are one of the many reasons that America is killing the middle class.
          My first real job after leaving the nest was an extremely menial job that paid about 23 an hour in todays wages. Try to find one of those today.
          It doesn’t take too many google searches to find out what the Waltons are up to. The first one I clicked on said that Obama refusing to rescind Bush’s tax cuts gave the Waltons about 600 million dollars. How many bridges can one build for that?
          I am not trying to pick a fight, but the greed of some people truly amazes me.

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            • I am going to pick a number out of my hat because it has been such a long time since I was anywhere near a minimum wage job. I really don’t know the cost of food because over half of our vegitables come from my garden. I would like to see the wages raised to at least 12 dollars per hour in Baton Rouge and that is with univeral health care.
              As to what lifestyle they should have is they should be able to go to bed at night without worrying about how they will pay the bills. Play time is up to them.
              Of course they should be able to support a family. As to how many, I am one of those “silly old hippies” and a serious believer that there are entirely to many homo sapiens on the planet and would love it if everybody had only two children for the next 1000 years.

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                  • It’s not about numbers. It’s about the lifestyle (living is the key part of ‘living wage’). For example, I might think it’s fair for a WalMart employee to be able to afford an efficency apartment, $200 in groceries and a bus pass. You might say that they should be able to buy a 1,500 brick home, a Honda civic and feed a family of four.

                    I guess I should have asked that instead of asking for a salary number. I’m more interested in what kind of lifestyle people think un-skilled or low-skilled labor should support.

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                    • Are you talking entry-level or experienced? If you’re talking entry-level 40 hour/week, I would pretty much agree with you, although I would add in health insurance to that list and say “healthy cook-at-home groceries and moderate incidentals” rather than give specific money figures, as grocery and incidental costs vary widely from location to location, and replace “bus pass” with “minimal transportation for work and life needs”, as many areas preferred by Wal-Mart actually has poor to no bus service. In a society that meets my personal vision of a just modern society, this should be the minimum standard of living for anyone willing to labor satisfactorily for 40 hours/week.

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  7. Just a question: do teachers in private schools have a union? I understand why people have issues with unions for people who work for the government, but it makes me wonder about private school teachers because I know those are often plum jobs and I have no idea if they have their own union. I also know, having been considering this option, that you sometimes need more education to teach at private schools (a PhD versus a Master’s degree here), but I have no idea what the job security is like.

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    • “I know those are often plum jobs and I have no idea if they have their own union”

      I don’t know. At the Catholic school my kids are attending, the teachers get paid basically nothing. The ones who are their families’ primary bread winners typically have to switch over to the public school, which pays much, much more.

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    • Where I went to school in Scotland they certainly did – a somewhat sedate and non-radical union, but not a completely useless one. US labor laws have the perverse effect of making labor/management relations more hostile than they would be by default in a white collar environment because the NLRB process actually serves to discourage communication during the initial unionization drive and there can be no coming back from that.

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      • I strongly disagree with this sentiment. US labor laws have a lot of problems, but the fact that management is prevented from interfering in the organization process is not one of them. And I don’t want the discussion to devolve into a history of labor before labor laws, but I think we can summarize that they weren’t enacted in an environment of cheerful labor/management relations; they were enacted to solve specific problems with those relations that, by themselves, refute the notion that management input into the organization process would lead to better relations. What is has led to historically is management sabotage of labor organization through means that could charitably be described as unethical.

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        • Sorry, I missed a mental leap out of my comment above. I was contemplating possible reasons why US private schools probably aren’t unionized and it occurred to me that the NLRB process creates a large incentive for employers to avoid organization even getting started if at all possible. Usually they avoid it by treating their employees better than they might otherwise, so its not necessarily a bad thing.

          I’m not an expert on this at all, but from my second hand observations, it does seem like unions are quite expert at using the process and not always totally honest with the potential bargaining unit about what they can and can’t do. The average management team, on the other hand, only ever experiences this once, and unless they actually genuinely are abusive, which few are, usually loses because they’re terrified of breaking the rules. Once the union is in place, they do make life a lot harder for managers even if they ultimately don’t do very much for the workers.

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          • Some private schools are unionized, but if you want to know why more aren’t I would suggest that they fit into the broader trend of non-unionization in the private sector in the US. There are numerous reasons for this, including governmental agencies taking some of the roles of unions, legislation that weakens the union’s bargaining power, and cultural changes that have brought unions into disfavor in some regions.

            “I’m not an expert on this at all, but from my second hand observations, it does seem like unions are quite expert at using the process and not always totally honest with the potential bargaining unit about what they can and can’t do. The average management team, on the other hand, only ever experiences this once, and unless they actually genuinely are abusive, which few are, usually loses because they’re terrified of breaking the rules. ”

            Management of a company sufficiently large to worry about unionization will, almost invariably, hire outside consultants in the face of any labor process. These consultants bring huge amounts of experience to management. Which is part of why most union drives fail for mid-to-large companies.

            “Once the union is in place, they do make life a lot harder for managers even if they ultimately don’t do very much for the workers.”

            Seems to me that the amount of difficulty they give managers is necessarily directly related to how far management is away from employee wants. Isn’t that the job of any workers’ advocate?

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            • Where do you get the idea that only large companies have to worry about unionization? Unionization drives happen in small companies. Indeed unions seem to prefer them, for the reason you give, which is that they tend to succeed because the managers can’t afford consultants. In the cases I’ve observed, the union has gone on to do nothing except collect dues and harass managers with grievances unrelated either to the collective bargaining agreement or anything the employees actually wanted when they signed up.

              Look – I don’t want to read too much into my personal experience, which is undeniably second hand and partial. I’m not particularly anti-union in general. Indeed prior to watching them in operation, I’d have said I was pro. But the legal regime in the US seems to create the following pattern:

              1. Large employers that pay low wages, especially those that really do have unethical practices, can fend off unions quite nicely.
              2. Unions have a number of expensive obligations, and need regular dues income, which means they need new members. So they have an incentive to look for small, white-collar workplaces to organize that won’t cost them much but will bring in dues.
              3. They’re quite experienced at winning union elections and just as happy to skirt the law as large employers are. Employees typically don’t really understand the up and down sides of collective bargaining until they’re already signed up.

              This creates a perverse situation where union penetration among workers who don’t especially benefit from them is rising, while unionization in workplaces where workers actually need some protection is declining. And yet whenever this gets discussed we’re always referred back to the mid-20th century and invited to assume we’re talking about auto-workers.

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      • Really?? Assuming we have schools, which i guess we will, people have to work at them. The people who work there are likely to have some effect on how the school does its job. In fact its likely that he quality of employees and quality of work environment does have an impact on education.

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          • I think the idea is to create a profession that draws really good people into it so that they can do the most good for students. I’m really frankly not sure that union-based, tenure-based systems are the best, but I’m not sure anyone has come up with a great alternative yet either. The fact is, the only good option I can see is paying people much more up front, and then having their salaries flatten out. This of course will cost lots of money up front so it will be politically difficult. But Rhee proposed the two-track system in D.C. and it honestly was a pretty good idea.

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          • That’s the point (at least, one of the points) to the teachers. And that is as it should be: it’s not the point of GM to provide jobs, but to build and sell cars; however, it is difficult to fault the auto worker for demanding the best wage he can get even if it makes it harder for GM to build and sell cars. The worker is selling his labor, just as the corporation is selling his product. The union is a collective labor corporation using its collective bargaining power to improve its negotiating position.

            Let’s not forget, even if we assume the teachers are purely selfish (a dubious assumption), we still have elected school boards, legislators, parent associations, and administrative staff as empowered stakeholders in negotiations with teachers. It’s not just teachers’ unions making policy, here.

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            • Right, but this goes back to the Microsoft comparison someone made above. Teachers are supposed to be professionals, like software engineers, or dentists. In professional jobs, the idea is that you’re paid to accomplish something – educate kids, write software to animate irritating paperclips, or look after people’s teeth. If you’re in that kind of job, and you say “the point of my job for me is just to get paid”, you’re not doing your job and therefore shouldn’t be getting paid. I think this is why teacher’s unions worry people. Even though I don’t know any actual teachers that approach their job with that mindset, the union machinery seems set up to support it.

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              • Nonsense. Employees (regardless of training level) trade labor for wages. To expect them to pretend otherwise is just silly, as is to imply that recognition of this fact prevents them from professionally doing their duties. The union’s job is to give bargaining leverage to maximize the return on labor, by improving wages and/or working conditions.

                Do you expect ownerss of software companies to ignore cost controls, because their job is to make excellent software, not make money? No! Their purpose is to make money by making excellent software. The engineer’s purpose is to make money by making excellent software. The teacher’s purpose is to make money by educating students. The union aids them, and part of that aid is by helping them make money.

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          • What is the point of school?

            If there is more than one point to school, are the points ranked or are they equally important?

            It seems to me that if we aren’t doing a spectacular job with the main point of school, then arguing over how very important it is that we maintain the secondary (or tertiary) points of school is to make a major mistake.

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            • > What is the point of school?

              I’d say it depends upon who you’re asking.

              Our society’s engineers purportedly wanted an educated populace so that they can participate in democracy meaningfully.

              Our parents want schools because they want their children to be exposed to ideas that will encourage them to grow, intellectually. Also, free day care. Depends upon how engaged they are as parents.

              Our business community wants schools because they want a pool of educated workers who have some basic skills already embedded, so that they don’t have to go through the expense of training ’em.

              Our political leaders want schools because everybody above wants schools.

              All of the above would have wildly different ideas of success metrics.

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              • All of your examples (excepting politicians) involve the students. None of your examples involved the teachers.

                Additionally, the first three examples have outcomes that are measurable to some degree in theory.

                Do we have numbers for them? More importantly, are the numbers that we do have for them goof enough to allow us to say “okay, close enough for jazz, let’s worry about secondary (or tertiary) issues”?

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                • Oh, sure. Sorry if I wasn’t clear on that point myself.

                  Yes, all of my examples involve the students. Teachers are proximal. Regardless of whose outcomes we’re talking about or measuring, the focus should be on the student.

                  Teacher’s “shoulds” need to be addressed, for the same reason that nurses “shoulds” need to be addressed if you want a stable population of nurse practitioners. But they’re secondary and lots easier to discuss once you get the first batch of shoulds out of the way.

                  I’m not sure that the outcomes are measurable in practice… without spending lots of resources on measurement. I’m pretty sure that most measurement methods, as a function of utility, are poor at best. I get irritated constantly about all the measurement and metrics discussions because they’re all on the bandwagon of “we need this!” and won’t step back to the “what does it actually mean to ‘need this’, when it comes to measurement?”

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                  • So what’s with all of the focus on unions whenever we discuss this thing?

                    Whenever we talk about “school reform”, it seems that we spend a lot more time talking about stuff other than the point of school.

                    Surely we wouldn’t still be talking about “school reform” if schools were accomplishing that for which they were instituted… would we?

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            • From “Madison and Jefferson” by Burstein and Isenberg, according to Jefferson “stated the best way to prevent tyranny was to ‘enlighten as far as practible, the minds of the people at large’. This was part of the opening debate on schools in Virginia in 1799, but could not be implemented because of the “a costly war”. Does that sound familiar or what?

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  8. Every time someone says “Certainly teachers” this, or “Certainly teachers” that, I want to laugh. I put my wife through six years of school and two master’s degrees, raised our babies while she did so, endured 24 years of the drama of her coming home in tears, dealing with a feckless administration, buying the computers for her classroom from my own pocket, ultimately watching her assaulted three times before she finally withdrew from the profession.

    Reform!!!? What this country needs is a reformed student, not reformed teachers. Every school and district is different for they are all funded by property taxes, which when the referenda fail, crumble and fumble through shortages, situations which must be borne by the teachers like my wife, who buy the paper and pencils from their own pockets, more precisely, my pockets. Wonder not why schools fail: society pays for what it values and gives mandate when it wants results. Somehow, lost in all this bumptious madness about School Reform is the concept of the Report Card, where educational outcomes are actually measured.

    Who shall represent the teachers’ interests? The policeman doing security in the school has more authority there, and is represented by a union. Ask yourself what sort of society requires a uniformed police officer and metal detectors in its schools. I return you, gentle reader, to graf one of this comment. Curiously, nobody seems to ask if the police officers are doing a good enough job to warrant a merit raise. And why not? Because cops carry weapons. They are authority figures where the teachers are not, and the necessity of their presence reflects the true chaos of our public schools. In the immortal words of the signer of our last education bill: “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?”

    As for what might be done to reform the workplace, the answer is fairly obvious: the German Aufsichtsrat system elects workers to corporate boards.

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  9. You know, I can sort of imagine how frustrating it must be for parents when their kids get stuck with a teacher who’s a real shitbird, since I ended up with a truly horrible algebra 2 teacher in High School who my parents were told several parents had complained about, but she was still there. It was frustrating for me as a student because she simply refused to do anything like teaching. It was all assigning pages of questions and having the same student answer them on the board the next day. Every time I’d ask for help, she’d tell me that I was going to flunk the class anyway, so I should arrange to retake it over the summer. (I did not flunk)

    Anyway, I get the frustration. But I have trouble with the fact that the US school system is so severely troubled, according to nearly everyone, and yet nobody can think of any solutions beyond “we need to be able to fire more teachers”. Okay, and then what?

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    • “We then need to be able to hire more teachers.”

      Imagine a system where the worst 10% were fired/replaced every year. Assuming a bell curve distribution of new hires, the overall quality of the system would be going up (perhaps even dramatically) for a few years.

      If we reach the point where the “worst” are merely mediocre, we can stop the program.

      And, please, make sure that those teachers are in someone else’s district.

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      • “Imagine a system where the worst 10% were fired/replaced every year. Assuming a bell curve distribution of new hires, the overall quality of the system would be going up (perhaps even dramatically) for a few years.”

        The only way to get a bell curve distribution of new hires is to assume a pool from which to draw new hires that is MUCH larger than the teacher workforce; otherwise, every release of a teacher into the workforce would shift the distribution to the lower end. Given that your plan would result in large unemployment/underemployment rates for education majors coming out of college, how exactly do you propose generating such a pool? You are also assuming that the hiring process has zero effect on differentiating between a good teacher and a bad; if we assume that the hiring process gives merely a 10% better chance at picking a good teacher than random, then suddenly your gains have largely vanished even given an infinitely large pool.

        “If we reach the point where the “worst” are merely mediocre, we can stop the program.”

        Mediocre compared to what? I’m sorry but that statement makes as little sense as the NCLB mandate that all children be above average. If we improve our teacher workforce by 10% (whatever metric you use for quality), then suddenly what used to be mediocre is now 10% below average.

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        • Given that your plan would result in large unemployment/underemployment rates for education majors coming out of college, how exactly do you propose generating such a pool?

          Really?

          Because it seems to me that more of them would be hired due to the large number of openings created every year.

          Mediocre compared to what?

          Compared to “holy crap, that’s awful”.

          I’m talking about moving the bell curve to the right, not about eliminating variance.

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          • I was pretty bad at teaching my first year. Mostly it was nerves, but I was bad enough that my contract was almost cancelled. Classically, the admins said their concern was that I “cared too much” about teaching. Four years later, and I’ve improved enough that the measurements of my classes (grades and the dreaded evaluations) are higher than average for my university. Under this scheme, do I get fired in the first year or given a grace period to improve? I’ve heard of people who excelled at teaching from day one, most often in movies though. I didn’t excel at first but desperately wanted to, which seemed to make the difference.

            My other question: if we create a world with perfect teachers, do problems remain or do the students now get straight As? Is education solely a matter of the work the teachers do, with the rest of the society being insignificant or passive recipients of wisdom? It would be nice.

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              • The key for me, Jaybird, is getting it right. I would make the trade – get rid of tenure, unions, etc. while backing off of the focus on testing. Use a normal administration-based evaluation process which includes testing and other on-the-job factors. Break ties with seniority.

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                • The key for me, Jaybird, is getting it right.

                  How can you tell whether you got it right?

                  If the point of school is, primarily, to do X… and, assuming we can measure how well X is done, maybe we can give X a score on a 100-point scale… 70 is satisfactory, say… 80 is good, 90 is great, 50 fails… something like that.

                  It seems to me that if X is at 84 and we’re arguing over how we can get it to 85 or 86, we’re spending a great deal of effort on something that we really ought to lighten up about.

                  If, however, we are in the high 60’s and we’re trying to get to the 80’s, then that’s another kettle of fish entirely.

                  Or if we have a case where these Xes over here are in the low 40’s and those Xes over there are in the high 80’s, then we have yet another problem.

                  What is the point of school?
                  Is X measurable?
                  Is X changeable?

                  If it is measurable and changeable, why in the hell are we talking about teacher unions all the damn time?

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                  • I’m not sure how measurable it is, but the reason we’re talking about teachers’ unions all the time is that they represent a huge political and economic force, for both good and ill, in these debates. There is no way around the elephant in the room.

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                    • The elephant in the room does not seem to me to be the teacher unions but the fact that the teacher unions act in such a way that is independent of X.

                      The point of schools, whatever it is, has nothing to do with the goals of teacher unions.

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                    • “I’m not sure how measurable it is, but the reason we’re talking about teachers’ unions all the time is that they represent a huge political and economic force, for both good and ill, in these debates.”

                      And school boards and administration are negligible forces? Come on, E.D., this is ridiculous. Because teachers’ unions resist some reforms that many people, even outside of the union, think are dubious on their face, you require elimination of labor agents from negotiation altogether, freedom of assembly and freedom of contract be damned! It seems to me that the elephant in the room is your odd desire to have labor have no representation in contract negotiations, which undermines the entire idea of a free labor market.

                      “The point of schools, whatever it is, has nothing to do with the goals of teacher unions.”

                      The point of car manufacturers have nothing to do with the goals of autoworkers unions. If the goals of owners ever coincided with the goals of labor, then labor would require no advocate. But that will never be true because the two are on opposite sides of an economic transaction; both want the best deal they can get from the transaction. It’s the free negotiation of this transaction that’s supposed to make the free market work.

                      But let’s just kill the unions. That’s fair. Free assembly and right to contract is for commies anyway.

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                    • And school boards and administration are negligible forces?

                      This is a “why are you talking about the holocaust instead of the Russian famine!” argument, for the record.

                      But that will never be true because the two are on opposite sides of an economic transaction; both want the best deal they can get from the transaction. It’s the free negotiation of this transaction that’s supposed to make the free market work.

                      Fair enough.

                      But if we look at X and see that X is not at an acceptable level, then we can argue that schools are *NOT* doing that which they were created to do and everything not involving X is, at least, secondary.

                      Treating teacher unions as more important than X is a mistake. Treating X as secondary to teacher unions is also a mistake.

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              • Well, you know, we could always try having people assist an experienced teacher until they get the hang of it. I got nearly four days of training before running my own class. It took me about three years to get really good at it and was probably only awkward for the first year. So, if I’d been fired at the end of that year, it still would have been a write off. Maybe at the end of the first semester?

                The other thing was that my first assignment was a reading discussion class in which only one student ever read anything before any of the classes. Not that the quality of the students is relevant here.

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                • If there is a difference between the quality of output from this school and that school, I’m sure that much of it has to do with the quality of students in either school.

                  I’m also fairly sure that, if there is a difference in the quality of teachers in both schools, the quality maps to the difference in quality of students.

                  Now, if we *REALLY* want to get crazy, we can ask what would happen if we swapped teachers wholesale between the two schools and if outcomes would be significantly different in either.

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                    • Because if it maps up completely: so that teacher performance determines student performance- it doesn’t seem fair to grade them on something that’s my doing. The difficulty in teaching is that, yes, it’s critical. But all sorts of other things match up with student performance as well, none of which any of us want to, or are any position to address. I’ve had friends who did what you talk about: an ex-girlfriend taught for a while in the very wealthy suburbs of Northern Virginia and then taught for a year in Anacostia, DC, and found it much harder to get her students up to speed. It wasn’t that her teaching declined dramatically in the year. She just couldn’t be with the students 24 hours a day. Honestly, I’ve thought before that, if teachers could just adopt their classes, teaching would be a lot easier.

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          • “Because it seems to me that more of them would be hired due to the large number of openings created every year.”

            Because you would have a huge pool of unemployed “undesirable” teachers that would compete with new graduates for jobs; teachers that would have the benefits of experience, references, etc. and that aren’t employable in any other job at their education level.

            “Compared to “holy crap, that’s awful”.

            I’m talking about moving the bell curve to the right, not about eliminating variance.”

            But you have to have some metric for your bell curve, and your only metric is, well, I’m not sure. Compared to one hundred years ago, current teachers are well above the median of the curve…so where will you put your discriminant line?

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            • Because you would have a huge pool of unemployed “undesirable” teachers that would compete with new graduates for jobs; teachers that would have the benefits of experience, references, etc. and that aren’t employable in any other job at their education level.

              So the teachers who have been fired would be as attractive as the teachers fresh out of school (if not more so)?

              In my experience, this has not been the case in the private sector.

              And, if nothing else, the job openings that would remain filled by the bottom 10% of teachers would not be competed for… despite all of the new entrants into the field from education programs. Assuming a 99% rate of fired teachers staying in the teaching field still has more new people taking jobs than under the status quo.

              Compared to one hundred years ago, current teachers are well above the median of the curve…so where will you put your discriminant line?

              Do you mean that the teachers today are better at teaching kids how to use Unix than those 100 years ago? Better at teaching them calculus? Better at teaching them reading?

              What yardstick are you using?

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  10. ED Kain: “Certainly teachers unions represent a major obstacle to reform of our education system.”

    Considering that the charter schools (who don’t have unions) have at best a mixed record, and that the overwhelming determinant of school outcomes is the wealth/health of the neighborhood, this is at best a baseless assertion.

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    • Every institution fights for its survival, including unions. Reform/change threaten institutions, including unions. As I’ve said, unions resist some reforms that I disapprove of, do you deny they resist these reforms?

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        • I don’t like high-stakes testing. Neither do unions. I’m quite open to school choice, vouchers for low-income students, new compensation schemes, an end to tenure (at least in its current shape) and unions oppose all those reforms.

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  11. @Jaybird: In many instances, this does appear to be the case. This does not mean reformers are on the side of angels either, of course. But between the one side and the other, a whole lot of students are paying a high price.

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    • This is why it seems exceptionally important to me that we define what X is, whether it is measurable, and whether it is changeable.

      If we can define X to the point where we can get everybody to, at least, concede the point for the sake of argument, we can then address the problem (if there is, in fact, a problem).

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      • That’s a big “if”, and lies at the heart of the problem. Many people agree that high-stakes testing is not a good way to define X, yet that’s what these “reforms” are all based around. Merit-based pay depending on increasing test scores, job retention based on test scores, etc. Current practices are job retention based on administrative and peer review; this is what people want to reform, but the alternatives for measuring merit are controversial, to put it charitably. E.D.’s position is that employee’s should have no elected say in how merit is determined. I disagree.

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  12. As to the point of your post, ED, I’ll make a deal with you: You can get rid of unions as soon as you get rid of local tax inequalities, racial segregation under the guise of “free market” white flight, raise accountability standards for administrators, and remove local board control that allows teaching of creationism as a scientific “theory.”

    deal?

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    • racial segregation under the guise of “free market” white flight

      I’d be interested in hearing your plan of the best way to go about doing this.

      remove local board control that allows teaching of creationism as a scientific “theory.”

      How do you propose doing this without opening the door for central control that allows “teaching the controversy”?

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    • What? I thought you were dead, Thomas P. “Tip” of Neil.

      I’m feeling the extremely oppressive weight of Lefty Progressivism in those words. Please tell I’m wrong, arguingwithgoalposts.

      And now, things have gotten so bad that the mere act of moving from one house to another constitutes racist segregation. Or moving a business from one location to another is white flight not white fright. How about protecting one’s self interests? They have to have some bearing on these kinds decisions, no? Or is that too tainted with underlying racial discord and intolerance?

      Next thing you know, you’ll be telling us the earth is older than 6,000 years!! And Shockley will be the High Priest of eugenics and genetic determinism for the Republican Tea Party baboons.

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        • I certainly do, Mr. arguingwithsignposts.

          Being expelled in 8th grade has to count for something, doesn’t it? Just an experiment gone bad. Those Dominicans and Jesuits can be nasty, though–especially with a 2″ thick paddle in their hands. Ouch! Still a law and order guy when it comes to school discipline. Fear works. Period.

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    • My goodness! Now it’s gotten so bad that it’s considered racist to move from house to another or to move a business from one place to another–it couldn’t possibly be a matter of protecting one’s self interests now, could it?

      Nah. It’s those knuckle-dragging, swinging on a tree vine, Tea Party baboons who are causing all the ruckus around here.

      Next thing you know, they’re going to start teaching kids that the earth is 6,ooo years old! Head for the hills all yins and don’t forget to carry those pitchforks.

      It’s probably inevitable that they’ll dig up Shockley somewhere and appoint him High Priest of Genetic Determinism. Who better?

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  13. ED: “But it’s also true that at least part of the reason we’ve come to this point in the first place is that unions have consistently opposed reforms across the board – not just high-stakes testing. ”

    I’d like to see proof of that statement. And that means showing that unions have ‘onsistently opposed reforms across the board ‘. Anecdotes and incidents don’t count.

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    • Unions consistently oppose merit pay, charter schools, changes to tenure, seniority rules, LIFO, different salary schedules, a shift to portable retirement accounts, vouchers for low income students, alternative certification, accountability measures, etc. etc. etc.

      I defended them for a while, but more and more I can’t do that. We have a ridiculous school system built around a different economy, largely broken out into decent schools for the suburbanites and lousy schools for the poor inner city kids. Unions entrench this by allowing senior teachers to move to the good schools, or by shuffling bad teachers (or brand new teachers) into poor schools.

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      • Merit pay: not all unions oppose it in principle. There’s a concept afoot called a Mentor Teacher, a sort of sub-principal, who works with new teachers and manages the exit process for bad teachers. The unions freely acknowledge the existence of superior teachers. The problem with merit pay resolves to who’s grading the teachers.

        Charter schools: lots of teachers like the idea. Unfortunately, given the historical position of teachers versus the state and school districts, a situation the unions did not create, a situation which becomes worse every year, do not expect the teachers’ unions to back charter schools: the charter school is a public school by another name, with all the restrictions on curriculum and none of the benefits.

        Changes to tenure: this is a non-starter. Teachers are leaving the profession: the problem isn’t tenure, it’s retaining good teachers. Furthermore, I’ve seen bad teachers removed. Sure, the union gets involved, but you’d be surprised how easily a teacher can be removed, and for the most trivial of causes. Tenured teachers leave the profession too, my wife is a case in point. It wasn’t worth waiting around for retirement.

        Seniority rules: see above.

        LIFO: another myth. When teachers are RIFfed out, the old teachers are bought out with early retirement. The first teachers let go are the Phys Ed, Art, Music, counselors, groundskeepers and ancillary staff.

        Different salary schedules: teachers have contracts, too. If new teachers are hired at lower salaries, that’s a function of a lowered tax base. Often, terminated teachers are brought back in on a year-to-year basis when it’s determined they’ve cut too much and they don’t come cheap.

        Portable retirement accounts: Huh? My wife had an account through the Teacher’s Credit Union. I suppose this might vary according to the state, but it’s a standard 401(K) arrangement, with rollover. Another non-starter.

        Vouchers are bullshit and everyone knows it. There’s no competition for poor and disadvantaged students and especially not for Special Ed kids.

        Alternative certification: This simply isn’t true. Most states have programs for professional-to-teacher conversion. The vast majority of teacher certification is derived from student teaching.

        Accountability measures: teachers are obliged to get credits for continuing education. The rest of this business wherein we shall judge teachers by their students has the cart before the horse and is completely invalid. Teachers are obliged to submit lesson plans and progress reports and are observed within an inch of their lives.

        Perversely, the failure of the public school has been heaped upon those least able to change it: the teachers themselves. Parents, administration, the states, the local community, even the children themselves are thereby completely absolved of any responsibility. It is a darkly hilarious parable to observe violent students retained while teachers leave the profession. Curriculum is hurled down from atop the Mount Sinai of the state ed boards. Policemen and firemen, their unions are okay. Teachers, not so.

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