Monday, January 16

The End of Theological Debate

Next Week: The Tragic Plight of Americans With One-Dimensional Sense of Smell

n further review, Part II will begin where the first draft of Part I did: how did the American educational system fail John Stossel?

Which is a greater concern: that some fifteen year olds can't do algebra, a skill 90% of them will have no use for once the state stops testing them on it, or that a guy with a disproportionate hold on the nation's attention cannot, or cannot be bothered to, construct an honest argument?

Most of us, upon being told we needed a serious operation, major work on the foundation of our house, or a complete engine overhaul, would at least consider getting a second opinion. Who would we go to for that second opinion? John Stossel? On the grounds that he has plenty (or more accurately, because he has one for any occasion)?

Who is John Stossel? A concerned citizen advocating serious educational reform, or a teevee entertainer peddling intestinal gas remedies? He's certainly not someone on whose word you'd undergo a quadruple bypass. Why should we take his word on something as serious as public education? He might have managed to be somewhat convincing had he confronted any of the hundreds of available, reasonable, and knowledgeable spokespersons for points of view other than his own. Instead the sum total of the response from the so-called educational establishment was this: a 22-second clip, with Stossel talking half the time, of a South Carolina school board member saying "the more [money] the better"; a couple minutes of interview with the South Carolina superintendent of education as she responds to Stossel's every question with sunny platitudes; and three snippets of his interview with the head of the NYC teachers' union, totaling five sentences, one of which was interrupted by a Stossel voice-over.

Even if you agree with him you can't argue this is a fair or reasonable way of making a persuasive argument, let alone understanding public education. And that's being generous enough to ignore his personal history of difficulties with the truth, which are extensive enough to justify shutting him out altogether; why anyone wants the guy as a spokesman for his point of view just begs the question. You can get a monkey to fling shit, and much more cost effectively.

It's interesting to see that Voltaire's Prayer * works for the ideologically atheistic, and there'd be great comic relief in watching some of the ham-fisted propaganda if only ABC were still required to air the other side in exchange for using the public airwaves. But it isn't (where's the outrage, Mr. Stossel?). As we swing into the second half-hour, trailing unsourced anecdotes and specious reinactments of PISA, with the taunts of Belgians in our ears (pray tell, what insight does the Belgian On the Street have into the American education system?), we're treated to some theatre to balance the movie trailers from Act I. First, a Lilly Tomlin "Ernestine the Operator" routine shows us the hideous state of telecommunications service before deregulation and competition solved all our problems, and then shots of breadlines in the Soviet Union and some file footage of Stossel in a Russian restaurant mugging for the camera as his waiters ignored him. Yeah, I know, Moscow restaurants were notorious, and probably still are, but on the other hand, waiters the world over can smell a stiff at thirty yards.

So public education is "Communism"? If you just repeat the "education monopoly" mantra long enough, people who do not remember either Lily Tomlin nor Laugh In will equate the two? Again, even if you believe this stuff, how does it not insult your intelligence?

Naturally this was the lead-in to the Evil Unions portion of the program, the part which has the real money behind it since teachers' unions wield no small amount of political power and they allign themselves with Democrats. Before we move to the specifics of the program, the general response of this blog: your right to theological certitude is respected. It ends where others' rights begin. If you oppose trade unionism, fine. If you believe the government should provide no services, fine. You've got two Senators and a Representative to take it up with. But failure to acknowledge that the competition of the ballot box has routinely rejected your ideas means you are engaging in metaphysics. Disconnect yourself from the electric grid, get off the streets, stop paying taxes, find someone who cares, and tell them.

The program was pre-fluffed with the shocking story of how a NYC teacher who sent sexually-explicit emails to a sixteen-year-old student couldn't be fired because of union protection.

Urban legend? Unfortunately not.

Weaseling? Slight amount.

Grandstanding? Yes.
• by Joel Klein, Chancellor of New York City schools, who had been mired in negotiations with the union which was working with a contract that expired two years ago. A tentative agreement was reached last October. Stossel noted it was "a few months after our interview."

• by Stossel, for dramatically unfolding a two-and-a-half foot chart purporting to show the procedure required to fire a teacher.

Details? Hard to come by, since yet again, there was no citation. What Klein presented was this: a teacher admitted to sending sexually explicit email to a sixteen-year-old student, but could not be fired. Stossel: "You can't fire him?" Klein: "It's almost impossible."

That's the end of the clip.

Further weaseling? Yes. It was only five seconds short of two minutes later (which included a thirty-second hagiography of Jack Welch, for some reason) before we returned to Klein and learned the teacher had been removed from teaching for the six years it took to fire him.

Where does the blame lie? First and foremost, with the State of New York, which does not have a law making it a crime for a teacher to have that sort of sexual contact with a student. Teachers who are convicted of a sex crime in New York are fired. Period.

So the union isn't culpable? I wouldn't go that far. Considering the source I'm not willing to assume we have all the facts at hand, but I'd say it's certainly in everyone's interest to prevent any sort of sexual contact between teacher and student, however slight. But the union also has a responsibility to protect the rights of its members, just as we supporters of free speech have to defend Hustler at times. But that doesn't mean Hustler is always appropriate.

Anything you'd like to add? Sure, some less than expert testimony. In Indiana, state law dictates what conditions teachers' unions can collectively bargain for. And the grievance program, as I understand it, is this (my wife is not the grievance-filing type): a teacher can file a grievance for any circumstance covered in the contract, or over the results of an annual supervisory review. The administration can agree to hear the grievance or not (it generally does). If not, the teacher can appeal the decision. If the grievance is heard and the ruling goes against him, the teacher can appeal. The decision of the appeal board is final. The teacher then has recourse to the courts, like every other citizen, and may be represented by union counsel. That's it. I'm not sure how long a document I could produce from that, with circles and lines and recursive arrows, but I sure would have liked to been able to read Stossel's chart, or hear some details, or know who produced it.

What other outrages do teachers' unions perpetrate? Well, basically, they make Jack Welch cry, because you can't fire 10% of teachers on a regular basis just to motivate the rest. (We're ignoring here the successful extrapolation of the New York City situation to every other locality in the country.) I'd be curious to know whether GE fires 10% of its 21,000 union workers every year. And what the grievance procedures are.

(By the way, the sudden appearance of Jack Welch may be gratuitous, but it was hardly accidental. Welch is chairman of the advisory board of The Leadership Academy, the $70 million program to train new principals according to the precepts of GE, instead of the traditional promotion from within. As the Times reported on December 20, the program is now under fire, in part for the success rate of only 62% despite spending $160-180,000 per principal in training. Some of the administrators created through the program have less than a year of classroom experience.)

Is there some problem with a grievance procedure in general? Those of you in the private sector whose jobs hang in the balance daily over competition and performance, are you without recourse when rules are broken or rights violated? Is it the key to your success? Or is it just a good idea for your underlings?

Stossel also made cow eyes for the audience when the union president said the contract called for teachers to work 6-1/4 hours a day. "Do YOOOOU (in the audience) get to work 6-1/4 hours a day?

That's cheap thuggery and Stossel knows it. The union isn't calling for teachers to work 6-1/4 hours, punch out, and head for home. That's 6-1/4 hours of class instruction time. Full time teachers aren't punching a clock. They're there for the full school day. At IPS that includes a stint supervising a lunch period, monitoring halls between classes, and supervising students on and off buses before and after school. Plus one hour of teachers' meetings after school per week, and twice a semester parent nights. My wife never gets home in less than nine hours, frequently a couple more. Nine week grades, monthly progress reports, mentoring a first-year teacher, writing curriculum for the state, pursuing mandated post-grad work, and calling parents about disciplinary problems are on her own time, as are the half-dozen student shows she has to mount and remove over the year (Three hours mounting one today instead of watching football, plus 45 minutes going after supplies to frame next week's). Do YOOOOU work like that?

Want your child's teacher working another hour and a half a day on top of that? Wanna indemnify her from strangling little Susie when she mouths off at the end of an eighty-hour week?

* "I have made but one prayer to God, a very brief one: 'Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.' And God granted it."


TangoMan said...

But failure to acknowledge that the competition of the ballot box has routinely rejected your ideas means you are engaging in metaphysics. Disconnect yourself from the electric grid, get off the streets, stop paying taxes, find someone who cares, and tell them.

I almost fell out of my chair. I never thought I'd find a liberal voice uttering such insightful analysis. If only more liberals would see the logic of your argument. I'm completely serious.

Thankfully, now we can put Affirmative Action to the vote. We can put Gay Marriage to the vote. I'm sure that there are other non-ballot box instituted issues that we can put to the vote. We'll let the public speak for we know that both of these issues have been removed from the ballot box, why you know, it's odd that the main movers of these initiatives were liberals and they avoided the ballot box and went right to the court. How about that? They need to get on board with you.

Anonymous said...

Many good points made. I'm always perplexed at what kind of society those who disparage teachers' unions and salaries, or oppose national health care, etc., want to live in. Of course, many of them oppose the whole concept of society from the getgo. But even from the standpoint of pure self-interest, a concept they embrace almost exclusively, one would think it better that the person who probably spends more time than you do with your ten-year old daughter, and who can have a profound impact on her development as a human being, should be treated like a professional, and paid accordingly. (Or the person who makes your little girl's cheese sandwich in the school cafeteria have access to treatment for that consumptive cough. And so on.)

I worked as a teacher for a few years long ago and I'm glad I stopped. I tell anyone who hasn't done it that it is one of the most exhausting jobs I've ever had. There was no such thing as a 6 1/4 hour day, and 175 bored, disinterested or outright resentful kids is a tough crowd to face day in, day out. But then Stossel has always been a thug with his turn to the camera pandering demagogue schtick.

As an aside, it would help greatly if one of the other commenters on this thread actually read what you wrote before commiting fallacio.

Anonymous said...

I dunno. I think it takes some real courage to stand up and admit that you don't know the difference between an electoral approach to solving a policy problem and an electoral approach to deciding who gets civil rights.

I'm very fond, of course, of people who say that we can't solve our schools' problems by throwing money at them. When have we tried it? So far, mostly what we've done is tried to solve our schools' problems by taking money away from the ones already in trouble and giving it to the ones already doing okay.

As you noted, Mr Riley, the "Everybody on the bus, we're going to the successful school" approach is somewhat less than practical.
Mr Stossel is either too clueless to spot the difficulties, or too dishonest to present them.

It's advocacy journalism, which is fine in its place. But it's advocacy journalism masquerading as objective journalism, and to some extent as balance journalism, though the barest observation of any of his specials will demonstrate that the He Said takes up thirty eight minutes and the She Said five.
I've gone on about it before, but advocacy journalism only works when you know who's paying for it and who's reporting it, and what their stakes are.

Stossel was never an investigative journalist, he was just a guy with a hidden camera--the reportorial equivalent of an ID supporter--and now he's not even a reporter. He's marketing.

Anonymous said...

Just to show the weirdness: as a teacher, I also don't get to go to the restroom whenever I need to. I have to wait until the students' recess or lunchtime.

Do YOOOOU have to hold your water for 2 hours at a time?

Seriously, I don't know of any teacher who only works the contracted time. Before school, after school, grading at night and all adds up to way more than my contract. Plus, I have 30 sets of parents and a few admins all over my every action and word (not to mention the district and Sacramento).

Do I work hard during the school year? Oh, yeah. Do I enjoy and deserve my summer? Oh, yeah.

TangoMan said...

an electoral approach to deciding who gets civil rights.

Give me a break. Civil rights is one thing and engineered outcomes are another. Have you ever been on the wrong side of an EEOC investigation? I have. We had the wrong kind of diversity, too many Asian Americans and Indian Americans and hardly any African Americans and Hispanic Americans. It's not that we didn't look far and wide but we simply wanted to hire the best people. You wear the presumption of being racist for not participating in the game of engineering outcomes. Civil rights is one thing, lowered preferences for school admissions and lowered competency levels for job applications are a completely other thing.

I'm very fond, of course, of people who say that we can't solve our schools' problems by throwing money at them.

I'll fully support a decade-long pilot project which provides generous, (equal to top schools, or perhaps marginally more generous) funding to a few school districts that have hugely disproportionate levels of under-achieving children. You think a class size of 22 is optimum, go for it. You think that new textbooks every year are the answer, go for it. You think paying teachers $90,000 a year is the guaranteed route to success, go for it. You think that having free reign to implement the latest education research is the route to success, go for it. I'll fully support any findings that arise which close the achievement gap so long as you are prepared to jettison any notions that prove not to work.

TangoMan said...

and who can have a profound impact on her development as a human being, should be treated like a professional, and paid accordingly.

Impact? Read the Nurture Assumption for a compilation of the latest research on issues like teacher impact on students.

I don't know too many professionals who are forced to join unions. I don't know of any other professions that draw their members from the lowest scoring group of university students.

Paid accordlingly, well the market has spoken. Reputation and remuneration are not demanded, they are earned. As per the point above, teachers had the lowest SAT scores and GRE scores of all university majors which means that many are not equipped for more cognitively demanding work, which likely pays better.

You want recognition and pay commensurate with professional status, well then achieve results which garner the respect of those who pay you. Don't act like teamsters. Accept that firing is an everyday occurance in the real world, and it could be for things as simple as ideological mismatches between principal and teacher. There are lots of schools in which one can ply their trade. This is the situation that confronts professionals on a daily basis. Unions are counterproductive to professionals because a professional relies on their own talent and skill and doesn't need coercive measures to protect their employment contract.

Jim McCulloch said...

Unions are counterproductive to professionals because a professional relies on their own talent and skill and doesn't need coercive measures to protect their employment contract.

Never heard of professonal baseball, Ace?

Anonymous said...

Oh, deary, deary me.
"Give me a break"?

Thank you, Mr Stossel. You have defended your special admirably, and now you may go back to and continue complaining about how the liberals are keeping you from getting the sunblock you want so badly.

Anonymous said...

...draw their members from the lowest scoring group of university students

According to this report (check page 8) educators scored lower than some college-bound folk, and higher than others. Teachers had a mean score of 482 verbal/483math. Lower than engineers and scientists, about the same as architects (verbally, anyway) and business majors (again, verbal).

But so what? Does the SAT give any indication of how good a teacher one may be? Or how good a (any career)? If it does, why did none of my employers ask to see it?

It's a tool to get into college. No more, no less.

Anonymous said...

Impact? Read the Nurture Assumption for a compilation of the latest research on issues like teacher impact on students.

Harris' stuff is now ten years old. As far as I'm concerned, she watched one branch of child psychology walking off a cliff so she decided to simply walk off the opposite cliff, and she's getting even more extreme lately. I'm not about to enter that time-consuming quicksand debating who influences the development of personality, parents or peers, but, unlike the theorists, I don't think either is mutually exclusive. Suffice to say it has nothing to do with what I was talking about.

As to the impact of teachers, I know one intimately whose efforts were likely responsible for getting several kids who were doomed to remedial everything to triumph over their peers' influence and eventually graduate from college. And yes, that's what I would call impact.

As to your decade-long fantasy project, hey, bring it on, sweetie. But we both know it ain't never gonna happen so your "support" for it is lame, and your own pre-conceived notions about its result (i.e., why you made it up in the first place) remain as unproven as you think mine are.

TangoMan said...

Education majors scored at a mean of 965. I apologize for not noting that they scored above 3 other categories, Home Economics majors (924), Public Affairs majors (920), and Vocational and Technical students (891.) Unfortunately, the nation's future farmers (966) scored higher than the nation's future teachers, as did those who study Acting (1014) Military Science (1029), Library Science (1084) and Business (1096) as well as all the remaining majors that I haven't listed.

It's a tool to get into college. No more, no less

It's a sorting tool that has the best predictive validity of any pyschometric variable. It gets you into a school and program that you'll likely master. Employers don't need to see the score because your degree is now evidence of where you've been sorted along the cognitive axis. If I have before me candidates with degrees from PoDunk Teaching College and PoDunk School of Engineering, most of the time I'm able to ascertain, without need to reference SAT scores, the mathematical and verbal mastery of the candidates. The degree becomes a credential. Now, much better than credentialing is to go straight to the IQ test and bypass the college degree and college major information. The validity and reliability of assessment have just been increased. Too bad that doing so is illegal.

TangoMan said...

But we both know it ain't never gonna happen so your "support" for it is lame, and your own pre-conceived notions about its result (i.e., why you made it up in the first place) remain as unproven as you think mine are.

I've got some fairly substantive reasons to believe that such a program won't amount to much. The fact that some troubled districts outspend their more affluent counterparts and produce little to no change. Case in point New Jersey

"On average this year, the state's 31 special-needs districts are outspending their suburban counterparts by about $3,500 per student."

"Trenton, which receives 84 percent of its budget from the state, now spends $14,567 per child, higher than its most affluent neighbor in Mercer County, Princeton Regional ($13,230), and far above rapidly growing Washington Township ($9,383)."

I'm sure that the objection you would raise is that the teachers weren't given free reign to do what needed to be done and that all the money was pissed away on administrator trips to Hawaiian conferences, or something along those lines, so that's why I offered more rope in the form of allowing teachers to respond as they see best.

It's not entirely the money that is the problem with disadvantaged schools - it's the students that are the far greater problem.