Wednesday, June 9

Three More Holes In The Atmosphere

Matt Yglesias-Mercouri,"Why Is Paying Effective Teachers More A Form of 'Teacher-Bashing'?" June 7
One tic I really don’t understand is the practice of referring to performance pay plans for K-12 teachers as “teacher-bashing”. If I proposed putting all the professors at the University of California on a flat salary schedule based on years on the job, would people deem that a “pro-professor” proposal? Why? What’s of interest, salary-wise, to teachers in the aggregate is how much overall money is spent on teacher compensation.

I've admitted, here and there, that I voluntarily subjected myself to the first Star Wars flicker, complete with appropriately plastic Mall Cinema ambience, the smell of two-week-old "popcorn" reheated and topped with petrochemicals, and a crowded house of children and "adults" stomping and clapping and booing and hissing like their grandparents did for William S. Hart (it's different now, okay? As in "the people who were actually children at the time have so thoroughly adopted the parti-colored and sugar-drenched breakfast cereal of popular culture that juvenalia is in their marrow"; succeeding generationlets had no chance whatsoever. We accept and move on. But at the time we were convinced the entire exercise was a sort of mass hypnosis with a disturbingly political twist we only later came to identify as libertarian: the sort of easy psilocybin of special effects--no worries that you won't come back from this Trip, Mr. and Mrs. Middle America!--and the fact that the Good Guys won this one, like they should, like you knew they would, and in contradistinction to everything America Herself had her grubby mitts on at the time, and most everything since). And that I did so for the sake of the bible college student with the Amazonian physique and hypocritical taste and talent for premarital sex who sat to my right. It was a summer thing, as it most certainly had to be; she was up from Tennessee staying with her sister and brother-in-law. A months later we took advantage of their weekend absence to spend a night together at their place. On their return a concerned neighbor reported to Sis that my car had been parked in the driveway way past any other explanation, and my Amazon died of embarrassment.

What I don't think I've admitted is that I read the first twenty-five pages of The Fountainhead for approximately the same reason, with the same reaction most sane people who've undergone the experience while still young enough to excuse it report: five pages of thinking, "Hey, she's onto something," followed by a ten-page recognition that her crappy writing is not doing that Something any favors, followed by the distinct aroma of snake oil quickly becoming overpowering. My young darling at the time, a fellow highschooler who had, unbeknownst to me, already revealed as much of her dewy charms as I would ever be allowed, had pressed the thing into my hands between classes. I told her it sucked, even if she didn't, and that, as they say, was that. My best friend--I swear this is true--had a underclass coed walk up to him in the hall one afternoon as we were leaving and give him a copy of Justine. There's no way sexting has improved on that.

What's Yglesias' excuse? Missing what trades unions have done for this country, on the grounds that one is well-born enough to start off as an heroic Randian middle-management cog, is like missing the real struggle over Civil Rights on the grounds that one bought a book of Martin Luther King stamps. Let's just note--shits and grins--a couple of distinctions between the public school teacher and the tweedy professor, shall we? Professors don't roam the hallways between classes making sure everyone gets to where he's supposed to be without being stuffed in a locker, or shivved. They don't chaperone their young charges' prescription meds, or their apparel, or even their attendance. Secondary education is a shared occupation, inside and outside the classroom. My Poor Wife began last school year writing quick lesson plans for the classes of a new teacher whose health problems had worsened suddenly, a practice which would continue on and off for the entire year. Not because her feather-bedding contract required her to; she'd already agreed to teach an extra class per day. And certainly not because she was paid extra to do so. Because she is an adult (and experienced, Klein), and because all teachers are responsible for all the students in school. If the prof--sorry, I mean if the TA--next door doesn't show for ten minutes everybody leaves, or starts sexting, or something. The guy next door doesn't even look in.
When you talk to teachers, in my experience they generally believe that the work they’re doing is important, that doing a good job makes a difference, and that the very best teachers are having unusually large impacts on their students’ lives.

Where? On camera? In the street? At cocktail parties or oxygen bars? Riding in the cabs they drive part time? Where'd you elicit the platitudes, Matt?

This is what's been said to me, several times, and not by my Poor Wife, who's too damn saintly: when they start paying someone teaching Math, or Physics, or for "Meritorious service in helping students cheat on standardized tests" more than me, that's the day that person gets no more of my help. Not watching her class, or taking his lunchroom duty, or helping with lesson plans. Nothing. If it's gonna be a free-for-all then it'll be a real free-for-all.

And we can add to that the fact that shared workplace effort so often seems invisible to people who've been Wi-fying it in all their working lives.

Ezra Klein, "The problem of 'first-hired, last-fired' ". June 7
Even putting aside things like work rules and union contracts, layoffs are hard. You've got to be a cold soul to call someone you've known for years into your office and wreck their economic stability, their daily routine, their sense of self-worth. And so in good times, there are probably fewer layoffs then there should be. People try to manage employees who aren't carrying their weight rather than go through the rigmarole of firing them.

In that way, there can be a benefit to tight times when layoffs become unavoidable. They allow businesses to shed bad employees who should've been let go years earlier. But as Seyward Darby notes, this doesn't happen in most school systems. There, they follow a "first-hired, last-fired" rule, where the newest employees get kicked out first. The absence of discretion ensures that there's no silver-lining at all.

First, it's only fair to warn you I'm reporting this, so if you and Yglesias both put this imaginary cab ride on your expense tabs you might wanna get the story straight.

Second, and maybe all America should be listening: this pretense that such things exist in a vacuum, and so can be cut from the herd, as it were, and killed and et, has done none of us any good. See, for example, what you and Matt "figured out" about the Iraq war before it began.

Okay, I can only speak for Indianapolis, and Indiana generally, but it doesn't exactly work like that. Seniority only counts intra-discipline. We don't layoff physics or gym teachers with five years' experience and replace them with kindergarden teachers with fourteen. And--as always, as always, Klein! You hear me?--those Middle Management Heroes of yours have a certain amount of "flexibility" they can use to screw with peoples' rights. And do. And usually for petty personal reasons, like the rest of the race, and not the higher dictates of Excellence.

And, y'know, it's not visible--again--from your aerie, but union rules are real-world rules. In Indianapolis, at least, new teachers can pretty much be fired at will for their first two years. (Not that it's often done; generally people are given a chance to improve, which is only sensible. Interesting, though, that this gets chalked up to "trying to manage people rather than go through rigamarole"--oh, the poor Middle Manager, beset by a world of stupid rules!--rather than "poor fucking management technique" which ought to lead to wholesale firing of the classes Klein and Yglesias identify with.) One-third of all new teachers leave within three years, and half within five. Once you've decided to rely on them for your staffing you are committing public education to Excellence through Neophytism.

And make no mistake about that. Once you remove protection for the most experienced teachers they'll be the first on the chopping block, and with no more concern for "merit" than you claim that cabbie told you about this weekend. They'll be cut because they're paid more. They're paid more because they've survived the tests of time. On what fucking libertarian planet don't things work this way? And th' fuck shouldn't they? It's how we run the goddam military, Ezra, the only difference being that generations of its poor test results are routinely ignored.

God, do you really imagine that the more power we give petty tyrants, the more we turn schools into personal fiefdoms, the better, more dedicated everyone becomes? Grab a towel, son, and get to work behind those ears. This flippin' mythology of the excellent teaching corps buried underneath a bunch of feather-bedding oldsters--like the myth of thousands of technically-skilled experts who'd love to teach high school math to Poor Children, if only they didn't have to get a degree to do so--is really not one you want to find out in two years' time you were wrong about. It's not like this is just a little war or something.

Sabrina Tavernise and Michael Slackman, "Turkey Goes From Pliable Ally to Thorn for U.S." June 8
Turkey’s shifting foreign policy is making its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a hero to the Arab world, and is openly challenging the way the United States manages its two most pressing issues in the region, Iran’s nuclear program and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Turkey is seen increasingly in Washington as “running around the region doing things that are at cross-purposes to what the big powers in the region want,” said Steven A. Cook, a scholar with the Council on Foreign Relations. The question being asked, he said, is “How do we keep the Turks in their lane?”

Proving, once again--like we needed it--that nothing changes these fucks' tune about "spreading democracy" faster than somebody actually practicing it.


Keifus said...

In my world, you have two choices for career advancement, should you happen to stand the test of time, only one of which has potential for a decent pay increase: you can become a manager, or else you can become an embittered hermit. Sort of a punishment for persistence, and it continually boggles me as a promotion, but at least it's something. It's been my observation (anecdotal evidence, I admit) that manglement for educators is drawn more directly and regularly from that pre-minted MBA pool--the comfortable landscape of these guys what with its superior status built right in, as you eloquently describe. (The fact that even engineers have more time to go back and get that silly bidness degree may tell us something about the joys and rewards of teaching.)

scripto said...

"... easy psilocybin of special effects"

Wow. Genius. Look for that phrase to reappear soon at a blogoplex near you.

Brock said...

Another great post.

This is why this blog is my first, and favorite, stop on the interwebz nearly every day.

(I may be partial to your viewpoint, coming from a family of teachers, but what the hey.)

grouchomarxist said...

As the son of a teacher, and having been married to a teacher for thirty-one years, all I can say is: "Abso-fucking-lutely spot on, mate!"

The Sailor said...

but, but, unions is ruining this country! before we had unions this was utopia! [/snark]

What they fail to recognize about higher-ed profs is that they don't get paid by merit either. Law profs make more than music profs, biz profs make more than law profs.

It's not merit, it's outside funding and endowments that rule the pay scale. i.e. music grads will make less money and not be able to fund the brazillion dollar chair that the rapacious MBAs can.

DBake said...

As a professor whose mother is a teacher, I am in complete agreement. Mom has had to deal with a student swinging a metal bar at her in class. And the performance-based aspect of my job is mostly my research, not my teaching. To the extent teaching figures in, it's the teaching evaluations: i.e., how much the students like me.

Unknown said...

Both my parents and my brother have been teachers and I am a professor, I say if management wants to experiment on merit based for funding jobs that are hard to quantify, they should do it on themselves first, and then after they have a system that works well they can maybe begin to think about branching out.

Anonymous said...

Matt and Ezra: they may not look at all alike but they might as well be brothers. I gave them both the GFY years ago. They don't even have their youth as an excuse anymore.

DPirate said...

He elicited the platitudes from the hundred or so horrible 'wonderful teacher makes a difference in the colored section of town' movies Hollywood insists on making to revive aging has-beens careers.

Anonymous said...

I've always admired what Matt and Ezra have been able to achieve at such an early age. That said, they've also been vulnerable to wet-behind-the-ears flirtations with glibertarianism. Next time they're in the Capitol they might visit Lamar! Alexander and ask him what happened to the Career Ladder he set up for teachers when he was the Tennessee governor.