Thursday, June 21, 2007

Highway Honchos

Eduwonk and I have a running conversation on whether UFT President Randi Weingarten should be promoting teacher interests or (to me, at least) those of Joel Klein and Rod Paige. He may think I'm upset, but it's not him I'm upset with. It's his job to promote educational reform, and he does it very well:
While it's preposterous to say that the interests of the teachers' unions are always at odds with those of the kids in schools, it's equally preposterous to say that they never collide. Some policies are good for teachers, but not so good for kids.

That's probably true (though no examples spring to mind right now). As for Ms. Weingarten, it's regrettable that many of her decisions benefit neither teachers nor kids. How does it benefit anyone to place teachers on unpaid suspensions for months based on unsubstantiated charges? Immediate removal from classrooms and fines for those found guilty could achieve the same result without jeopardizing the innocent (I've now heard of two teachers ensnared by this preposterous rule and later found innocent).

Reform though it is, the whole travesty of justice thing rubs me the wrong way.

Furthermore, her support of the third NYC reorganization, the one in which principals must weigh salaries of experienced teachers against cheaper, newer teachers (or refurnishing their offices, or the rising price of donuts, or the most discreet escort services, or whatever) will certainly hurt teachers displaced through no fault of their own. There's little evidence that non-educator Joel Klein (who trains and hires principals with no teaching experience) values teaching experience.

In a job where you have to make instantaneous decisions at odd moments, there's often nothing more valuable than experience. How do you handle the needs of 34 kids, when they conflict with one another and change every moment? What do you do when a girl is sure to punch a boy's face out? What do you do when the AC drops dead in your trailer on the hottest day of the year? How do you respond when you're giving a final exam and the marching band has deemed it a good moment to walk up and down the street endlessly playing Louie Louie?

In any case, Ms. Weingarten's decision to support the reorganization reeks of collusion, and the timing (in the face of Mayor Bloomberg's rapidly declining PR) helped him to smoothly orchestrate a program that will hurt working teachers and probably schoolchildren as well. As Patrick Sullivan pointedly told the chancellor:

...under the FSF proposal, about half of failing schools would have had substantial budget cuts if fully implemented-- and instead would see no extra funding at all. He also asked why the funding changes would not undercut the professional status of teachers, encouraging principals to try to get rid of their most experienced staff.

It's tough for me to find fault with Mr. Sullivan's analysis, and it's tougher for me to see why Ms. Weingarten honestly needed to support and enable this program (or mayoral control). Halting a demonstration against it was a massive tactical error, if she'd intended to oppose this mayor (who now wants to be president). The need for a third reorganization, in any case, explicitly suggests the first two have failed.

Unfortunately, these reorganizations rely more on saving money for important stadiums than doing what's right for kids. The assumption that principals know best is belied by the longstanding city policy of granting tenure to virtually anyone with a pulse. There are no shortcuts to good teachers, and the notion of McTeachers, as put forth by some reformers, represents exactly what they're aiming for--poorly paid, replaceable cogs with no lives, no pensions, and no future to speak of

A friend of mine who just retired worries a lot about her daughter, who's planning to teach next year. I worry about my own daughter, who often speaks of becoming a teacher. And I believe absolutely that attacks on teachers are often thinly veiled attacks on unions.

Job one of a teachers' union is to vigorously protect the interests of its members. These interests should be more important than the political ambitions of the union leaders, the chancellor, or indeed the mayor. They should even be more important than Ms. Weingarten's ever-expanding 40-million per annum patronage mill.

And frankly, protecting the interests of working people can do nothing but help our children, who are bound to live and work in the world we leave them.

Thanks to David Bellel
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