Monday, May 23, 2011

LA Mayor: Screw Teachers, We Don’t Really Need ‘Em

Teaching was already a tremendously difficult job, even before the current onslaught of anti-teacher propaganda and legislation. The test-taking orgy that has permeated the profession for the past decade has added phenomenal pressure on teachers to make students succeed, despite the overwhelming evidence that test scores are influenced far more by students’ socioeconomic background than their teachers and schools. On top of that, the job is so poorly remunerated that many refuse to go into teaching in the first place. The job is so difficult that half of all teachers quit within their first five years and look for less stressful or higher paying work.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa proposed exacerbating this problem in a speech on Thursday, calling for a four-year probationary period before teachers can earn tenure and linking their evaluations and tenure requests to students’ test scores. Currently, it takes two years to achieve tenure. Until then, a teacher can be fired for any reason.

The consequences of Villaraigosa’s proposal, should it go through, are that California’s teacher shortage would be greatly worsened. Who in their right mind would go into such a low paying and stressful career, knowing that they will have to keep their mouth shut and kiss ass for four years just to ensure that they don’t get fired for arbitrary or vindictive reasons? An additional problem is that those who already have tenure will rush to be transferred to middle class schools, where test scores tend to be higher, to ensure that they continue to receive positive evaluations, raises, and avoid the chopping block, thus depriving low income students of the best and most experienced teachers.

Who Are The Real School Yard Bullies?
Of course, Villaraigosa and other Ed Deformers want to hack away at tenure precisely because it gives administrators much more control over teachers. The greater the insecurity of the job, the greater the chances that employees will go along with administrators’ reform agendas, even if those agendas are clearly going to be detrimental to students’ wellbeing and interests. Teachers who lack seniority are also less likely to go on strike or join in other job actions over issues like pay and benefits knowing that they could be let go without cause, thus weakening the overall power of the union in fighting for the interests of all its members, even veterans who already have tenure.

Villaraigosa made no effort to cloak his agenda. The Los Angeles Times quoted him admitting that he was a bully: "But I do have a bully pulpit and I will continue to use it."

Another school yard bully is the new superintendent, John Deasy, who has also been pushing “performance” based evaluations. While it might sound reasonable, fair, and beneficial to students to have teachers evaluated and promoted based on their performance, these schemes actually tell us little about the quality of teaching, as they measure student test scores. At best, student test scores are merely a proxy for teacher ability, an indicator that is heavily biased by students’ socioeconomic backgrounds, family supports and other factors that have little or nothing to do with the quality of their teachers.

While the national teachers union leaders have been indicating a willingness to accept the use of test scores in evaluations, the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) sought a court order on Friday to block a voluntary pilot program from being launched in LAUSD, according to the LA Times. They also accuse Deasy of bargaining in bad faith for making public statements about furlough days, which were supposed to be part of confidential negotiations.

The Times is another schoolyard bully, attempting to publicly shame teachers by publishing their Value-Added scores and pushing to have these scores become part of future evaluations. The Times based their witch hunt for “bad” teachers on their own formula, partly because there is no consensus on how to measure teacher quality based on their students’ test scores. The Times has even tried to take credit for the school boards authorization of a new evaluation system based on student data.

Whose Interests? Teachers AND Students.
Ed Deformers are fond of accusing teachers unions of being selfish and placing their needs above those of their students. However, this is exactly the point of unions: to fight for the interests of their members (not those of their clients, and definitely not those of their bosses). Of course, it is prudent to fight for the interests of students if teachers want to win public support and most of the time teachers’ interests are the same as students’ interests. It’s just that the Ed Deformers misinform the public and manipulate the facts to make teachers look bad. By ignoring the biggest causes of low student achievement (poverty and familial stress), they can effectively divert blame onto teachers (which is a more intuitive and understandable explanation anyway, even if it is incorrect). By this thinking, student failure must be entirely (or mostly) due to bad teachers, justifying actions that rid the system of these “bad” teachers.

Unions make the mistake of resisting “reforms” without also educating the public about the true causes of low student achievement. If student failure is due more to poverty than the quality of their teachers, then there is no logical justification for connecting test scores to teacher evaluations. Furthermore, if this point were really understood and accepted by more people, then perhaps there would be more support for programs that help families get out of poverty. In fact, there is even a correlation between union membership and income: higher levels of union membership correlate with higher income levels, even among non-union workers, because collective bargaining helps bring up wages. Therefore, increasing union membership could be a strategy for reducing poverty and increasing student achievement.

At the very least, driving people away from the profession by slashing wages and benefits, piling on increasing amounts of stressful reforms, and making it more difficult to earn tenure, will harm children far more than the status quo.


  1. We just went from 3 years to get tenure to no tenure, all new teachers will be the equivalant of first year teachers their whole careers... sigh...

  2. Yeh, I heard about that. Pretty lousy situation in FL.