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Waiting for Union Reform

October 14, 2010

I had the privilege of seeing Davis Guggenheim’s superlative new documentary, Waiting for “Superman” last night with Iveta. The film gives powerful evidence of the unique, critical importance of great teachers in achieving globally competitive student performance, and it confronts a major sociopolitical issue, teacher’s unions, and the ways these unions now block any kind of useful reform in U.S. education. I recommend you visit the website, donate, and of course tell all your friends to see the movie.

We should think hard about real solutions to the U.S. high school education crisis, and recommend them to our congresspersons. The film makes pretty clear that American HS teacher’s unions need to be reformed, as soon as possible. Bob Bowdon’s documentary The Cartel, 2009, makes similar points, in a more heavy-handed fashion. Both are really worth seeing.

One idea might be to make it easy for additional, merit-rewarding unions to emerge in competition with the two existing large and corrupt ones, the NEA and the AFT, to give teachers a choice between multiple unions at each school. For more on the broad scope of the sad story of union monopolies, which are in their own ways just as bad as corporate monopolies, you might read The Teacher’s Unions, Lieberman, 1997, Power Grab, Moo, 1999, Conflicting Missions?, Loveless, 2000, The Worm in the Apple, Brimelow (most popular), 2004, and The War Against Hope, Paige (former U.S. Education Secretary), 2009. No Child Left Behind in 2001 was an important step forward as it mandated comprehensive tests, which told us how poor our children’s writing and reading and arithmetic performances are, but the teacher’s unions responded by teaching superficially to the tests, which are themselves not testing the right things, and resisting all other changes in behavior, incentive, discipline, etc. The only clear successes we’ve seen have emerged from the best of the charter schools, like the 80+ KIPP Schools around the country. We have the data we need. Now it’s time to act.

One bold but very unlikely solution would be a Federal one, to temporarily outlaw collective bargaining for teachers in failing schools, until American performance on STEM, civics, global awareness, and critical thinking can be brought back out of the gutter into which it has fallen. Teaching is unique among professions in that it lays the foundation for the abilities of the next generation. Bad teaching weakens the democracy. Just having the conversation about radical reform would benefit our nation. Obama, are you listening?

Teaching must become a desirable, high paid job, like we see in Korea and other countries that value education, and for most teachers, it should probably also become a short term job, where typical teachers are expected to stay for 10 years, and great teachers for a maximum of ten more, where they mentor other teachers. This is what we see in technology industries, so why not teaching, which is increasingly about preparing people to innovate and deal with the consequences of continuous technological change?

However we handle it legally, it seems pretty clear to me and I’ll bet the data would support the idea that the majority of high school teachers today should be young. Teaching young kids takes a lot of energy, and keeping up with our modern, accelerating world requires the rapid learning of youthful teachers. Japanese culture has a phrase, Gakkyu hokai, which translates to “classroom breakdown”, where bored, tech-savvy youth, as young as elementary school, simply stop paying any attention to their teachers once they realize that they know virtually nothing about the new digital world the kids inhabit. Gakkyu hokai is a problem with all first world classes today, and it will only get worse. Young, tech-savvy teachers can solve that, and be the analytical, numerate, and literate mentors and coaches the kids need. We also need teachers who have some business startup experience, because more than ever, knowledge and service work involves an entrepreneurial and creative mindset, and the ability to take calculated risks.

A good percentage of high school teachers should be able to start in their mid 20’s, shortly out of college. Any B.S. or higher degree, and a year of training, should be sufficient to get into the trainee pool, and teacher trainees should be aggressively weeded out in the first five years. While hiring a minority of older, second-career teachers would bring wisdom and life experience to the teaching pool, typical track teachers might finish their maximum 20 year stint by their mid-40’s, so they can easily start a second career. They would have had high salary during their time as teachers. If they make it to 10 years, they might get a quarter pension, and if they make it to 20, a half-pension. But they would all be encouraged get back in the private workforce at that point. This more part-time model can be compared to the standard, failing model to see which produces a better outcome.

The smarter the web gets, and the more our society moves to teacherless education, just in time education, and continuous education models, the more our political system should recognize that full-time teaching, for most teachers, isn’t typically a lifetime job, just as full-time learning isn’t a lifetime activity. This happens by default in America’s top universities, where long term professorships are rare. I think it should happen a lot more at the public high school and junior college level as well.

We need to reorient our public education systems to emphasize a continuous and diverse supply of high-quality short-term teachers who are literate, numerate, lifelong learners, accomplished-in-themselves, and willing to teach for the love and challenge, not the security. If they have tech, entrepreneurship, trade, or other useful skills going in, they should get serious bonuses. We want caring, exceptional teachers who the students want to emulate, across the board.

How much longer can we wait around, and watch our next generation of children get demotivated and unserved by our existing public educational system, which has turned into a job security program for a very large and well funded group of untouchable, unfirable, unaccountable adults? Our nation’s future is at stake.

Update: I’ve since discovered that Governor Jim Gibbons (R-Nevada) last year proposed eliminating collective bargaining for teachers. Geoffrey Lawrence of the (conservative) Nevada Policy Research Institute has a good writeup in favor of this policy. It focuses on the big issues: tenure, which must be eliminated, the blocks against youth and experienced non-teachers joining the teaching pool and competing with traditionally-educated teachers, and problems with current teacher certification, which is irrelevant to teaching quality as presently structured. While I don’t agree with permanently taking away collective bargaining rights for workers in any full-time profession, I do think many professions, including teaching, can benefit by having more part-timers competing against full-timers on merit to do the same job, and letting the data decide who’s better, and that politicians need broad powers to intervene in failing systems, to temporarily suspend both collective bargaining and corporate rights in any critical industry that has experienced massive failure, to create alternative forms of unions and teacher certification, pay systems based on merit, better and faster feedback, and a greater ability to fire lemon teachers. Let’s hope something useful happens soon.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 15, 2010 6:11 am

    Fantastic observations that I support – as mother of 2 bright curious teenagers aged 12 and 16, I watch both them and their friends react and interact with their teachers. Those who stimulate their curiosity, treat them as intelligent and learning-capable (albeit sometimes teenagery sub-adults) who can be guided on a journey of exploration cultivate a love of learning. Those teachers who do this job to “get through the curriculum so they can take a paycheck home end of the month with zero passion or purpose, fail TOTALLY- as teachers, and in facilitating interest and learning. Its a lose-lose outcome all round. This is no different to people who work in corporate life. Those who have a passion, achieve…..and get rewarded accordingly. Those who don’t, they either plod in the middle or get worked out. Why should this not apply to poor performing teachers?

  2. Richard Adams permalink
    October 15, 2010 6:43 am

    The old fashioned right wing nature of your comments and your ageism obscure what might have been an interesting article. There’s little balance here, something one would expect from good teachers of course…Reading this it sounds like the US system is a disaster, which it clearly is not as evidenced by the quality of university leavers.

    • October 15, 2010 8:07 pm

      I hope you get a chance to see the movie Richard. The U.S. high school educational system is in major trouble, and gets worse every year. It’s a crisis, and we need to call it that.

      I get called right wing and left wing just about equally frequently, but what I actually am is upwing. I’m relentlessly for any policy that is going to provably increase our collective social and technical intelligence and resiliency, to create social progress, which exists and can increasingly be measured. Such policies cross both sides of traditional political lines.

      When it comes to education of youth, age definitely matters, both the age of the students and of the teachers, so I will take your “ageism” comment as a compliment in this case. A few decades of great teacher data show that relatively young, competitive teachers are the best, so we should make teaching a high-paid, time-limited, very competitive occupation. When we do so we will find that most, certainly not all, who flock to and thrive in that occupation will be young.

      The greatest crisis will be if we do nothing, and America turns out another generation of kids without the skills to compete, and perpetuates a culture where it’s OK to fail. In the worst case, we will turn into a new version of the United Kingdom, where the only hard workers are the immigrants. That should scare the pants off of us. If we want to avoid sliding into apathy, if we want to remain a leading contributor to global innovation, we can’t do better than giving our next generation all the essential skills to do it.

      The U.S. university system does a much better job as you imply, but a big part of that is due to immigration of top foreign grad students. Since 9/11 we’ve put up major blocks to such immigration, and as the developing nations rise, they are less interested in sending their top students overseas. So the universities are in for their own problems as well, unless they become far more friendly to immigrants, and can get their spiraling costs under control.

      The Feds, for their part, should allow PhD and entrepreneurship paths to citizenship for all the foreign students who come to our universities. That merit-based, immigrant-friendly attitude is what made America great.

      Today, with the rise of the developing world, our need to raise globally aware, technically adept, innovative kids with superior social, partnering and managerial skills is more acute than ever.

      The world is ready for us to partner with it, to build the businesses and services that are going to raise the emerging nation’s up our standard of living, in increasingly sustainable ways. They will do it with or without us.

      If we don’t retire and re-form our broken teacher unions, we won’t be able to change high school education. There are many other aspects to this problem, but I think the most critical issue is as simple as that.

  3. Joshua Davis permalink
    October 15, 2010 8:51 pm

    Thanks for this article, John.
    It’s been less than ten years since I left high school, and I vividly remember those passionate and capable teachers by name, face, and career achievements, and I regularly check in with them to see how things are going. Four particular teachers made lasting impressions that have shaped my love for environmental science, history, literature, and technology. With one teacher in particular, knowing how he engaged in his community has formed part of my passion for community futuring.
    To the previous commenter who wrote “Reading this it sounds like the US system is a disaster, which it clearly is not as evidenced by the quality of university leavers,” that argument seems to commit two logic errors: red herring and faulty generalization (composition).
    – Red herring – because it does not account for international students who attend university, nor does it account for the radical change process that should happen while attending college. I’m not sure the “quality of university leavers” offers any conclusive data on the quality of the US high school system, but it does distract from the fact that the educational system is askew.
    – Composition – because many HS grads do not attend college, it is not reliable or valid to project the characteristics of college grads (Are they what/whom you are calling “college leavers”?) on the population of high school grads.
    On the other hand, there were HS teachers that negatively affected me. In the worst case I can remember, the teacher was much older than the other teachers, and had been teaching for many years (tenured). The class stands out at the worst educational experience I’ve ever had (for all of the stereotypical reasons we can think of) in all of my primary and secondary education, undergrad, three master’s degrees (in progress), US Navy boot camp, and the Navy Nuclear Power program. To this day I cringe when I think of world geography as a subject of study.
    I do think the US educational system is a disaster, in large part because of the current rewards system we have in place for tenure and also in part because of other cultural norms that have harmed child development (like parenting skills). My wife and I have decided to home school for these reasons, though admittedly that is a lifestyle choice that not everyone can make. What are your thoughts, Richard? (or others?)
    I think it’s possible that teachers unions as they currently stand are obsolete, and yesterday’s solution became today’s problem. A new system (probably as John writes facilitated by federal action) would be helpful, though it too must be flexible enough to adjust with each generation. Thoughts?

  4. Iveta permalink
    October 19, 2010 3:24 am

    While there are a lot of metrics we could use to measure whether the US public school system is “failing” or not, the top one in my mind is usually workforce preparation. What kinds of skills and accompanying quality of life are kids developing?

    First, only about 70% of US high school students graduate high school. I’ve seen numbers around 50% for inner city schools. The vast majority of these kids are not leaving high school for 6-figure internet firm offers, so what kinds of skills are they bringing to the 21st century economy? In some poor-performing city schools, the average high schooler barely reads at an elementary school reading level.

    I agree that our university system puts some fantastic grads, but I think the distribution is bi-modal, with a small percentage of students making it out with competitive skills. Even those who go to college don’t necessary learn valuable skills along with the general socialization and edification happening at 2- and 4-year universities.

    I think there is a serious problem in our education system, but the good news is that pieces of it are working. We just need to replicate those throughout the rest of the system …

  5. john kot permalink
    March 19, 2011 3:07 am

    Lets not forget the school administrators, some of them make more than ten teachers do combined. This problem goes all the way up to the top of the board. we have been witness to so much corruption from the city hall on down! we should not lay it all on teachers.

  6. July 15, 2013 3:02 pm

    I also saw Waiting for Superman and read enough of this article to notice that both the move and this article are fututistic in only a very limited sense; They are only tweeking the edges of the process.
    I have been looking at and working in and around education for a couple decades, with a focus on school and education improvement. I am currently exploring what would our education system and processes have to be in a sci-fi level society. With luck it will turn into a book. It is from that perspective that I see the above discussion as shuffling the existing pieces, but only the existing pieces.
    I have created an after-school program that produces an average 1.3 years growth in reading level for first through third graders and a 30% boost in graduation rate for upper grade students, all in just 50 one-hour sessions in one year, and at only about $250 per student. Even with an excellent teacher with all the best current technology, you still measure success as test scores, not the effects they have during their lifetime and the legacy they leave for generations. Education is for a purpose and that is lifetime success for each individual. We speak of student success, and that has not been fully defined.
    To quote Yogi Berra, “If you don’t know where you are going, you are liable to end up somewhere else.”

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