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THOMPSON: With Friends Like These

Img_history_photo Our friends at the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights, after acknowledging organized labor's long history of fighting for justice, offered "a full and fair explication of the words and actions of national unions."  The Commission argues that teachers' unions have "posed a barrier to improving educational opportunity for the most disadvantaged students."  They claim that test-driven accountablity is the "watchword of school reform."  To unions, however, standardized test-driven models "have not been thoroughly developed, researched, and rigorously evaluated."  Sounds like a difference of opinion to me.

Why should such a difference of opinon split the civil rights community? 

The Commission supports merit pay and unions oppose it. Sounds like a difference of opinion to me. "Reformers" argue "proponents of pay for performance rest much of their case on increasing evidence that student achievement is closely linked to teacher quality ..." Wat? They present no evidence that rewarding test score increases will increase teacher quality. Sounds like sloppy logic to me. 

The Civil Rights Commission correctly wrote, "In general teachers who start in high-poverty, high-needs schools, transfer to lower poverty, less needy schools as they gain tenure and seniority." 

Rather than address those deplorable conditions that wear down teachers and students alike, the Commission seeks a NATIONAL mandate to interfere with local collective bargaining agreements. (raising the specter of now-exhausted or dissatisfied teachers who volunteered to teach in the toughest schools being denied the right to transfer and thus leaving the profession)  In an undocumented statement, the Commission writes, "the comparability measures proposed in Congress have explicitly stated that teachers would not be required to transfer to remedy disparities in comparability.  But both unions continue to argue the worst-case scenario of forced teacher transfers."     

Was the NEA president unreasonable in warning "forcing a teacher to go someplace just doesn't work, they are not indentured servants ...?"  Was the AFT unreasonable in recounting the unintended consequences of the Hobson case when mandated transfers to achieve equity prompted teachers to leave the profession or move to the suburbs?  Did the unions have the right to oppose Margaret Spellings' proposal to "transfer teachers in their districts to help improve poorly performing schools, even if union contracts banned such moves?" 

The Commission is correct that "teachers and their representatives occupy a unique position.  Without their acceptance of policy change, its unlikely to occur."  But that is not an argument for challenging our integrity, or claiming that our political efforts - efforts that we proudly proclaim - are a "stealth camapign."  What did teachers and our unions do to be attacked as being "unconstrained by considerations of propriety and fairness?"  We "sought to insert our amendments," and we "used the courts" to oppose NCLB by "employing arguments."  Sounds like democracy to me. - John Thompson 

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John,

This is another set of arguments that mystifies me. While everyone seems to agree that poor children have a right to a good teachers, underlying – and unspoken – assumptions make acting on this value impossible.

First of all, everyone seems to operate out of the assumption that teaching capacity is fixed, that there are only so many good teachers, and that there won’t be any more, ever. No one suggests training existing teachers to be better or training pre-service teachers to be good from the get-go. Training teachers, not moving them, should be the first order of business.

Second, why is it fair to move teachers (involuntarily or through financial incentives) from one school to another? Yes, poor children might benefit but wouldn’t that mean that middle class children would lose good teachers at the same time? I mean, who do they send back to the middle class school? Teachers they know to be ineffective. Try explaining that to parents or principals or the staff at a school that is working hard to make progress. In most cases, the schools they want to take teachers from aren’t doing that well themselves. Better, certainly, than the schools they’d be going to, but not yet well enough to satisfy most people’s expectations – or state and national requirements.

Third, while the Supreme Court in the Seattle and Louisville cases ruled that student reassignment by race was not allowed, reassignment by socio-economics is still OK. We don’t have to have “poor” schools. Why reassign teachers when it might be better simply to reassign kids?

Finally, what makes working in “poor” schools so challenging is not the poverty or the fact that many kids are behind. It’s the discipline. Or lack thereof. I’ve found poor kids absolutely inspiring to work with – when they’re in a well-managed school with well-managed classrooms. This suggests to me that the first training we should offer is leadership training for the principal and classroom management training for the teachers. Well run schools with well managed classrooms are a pleasure to work in – regardless of the ability levels of the students.

If you look at each of my criticisms of the current argument about staffing hard-to-staff schools, you’ll see a simple thread: everyone doing the arguing believes we have a zero sum game here. We don’t. We just have zero creative thinking and zero optimism. Believe me, after working in dozens of schools like these, I can understand and empathize with the parties. But I can’t agree with them. And I think, when they frame the debate in such stark and competitive terms, the children end up being the losers.

You make plenty of great poiints but the best may be, "We just have zero creative thinking and zero optimism." That's consistent with Balfanz saying that "reform" focuses predominantly on weakness, but we need to build on students' strenghts.

My first reading of the NY ACLU on discipline in six NYCPS schools reminded me of your points. I need to rereard it but there is a lot there that we all have in common.

Like yesterday, though, my main point is more specific. My biggest point relates to the Commission's statement that, "the comparability measures proposed in Congress have explicitly stated that teachers would not be required to transfer to remedy disparities in comparability." Where was the footnote? How do they define explicit? I've read years' of Ed Trust reports on comparablity and they always play cute on that issue. If they want compromises, then proclaim that promise from the rooftops, repudiate previous efforts and implications that they would force transfers, and then let's settle the matter and bring equity to poor schools. But if that statement is not accurate, then there needs to be a correction. And the Board of the Commission should demand an explanation. The Board members aren't educational experts, but if they have received misleading briefings, its their job to demand accurate information. We don't need a civil war among progressives, and certainly we don't want this conflict to be made worst by mis-information.

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