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Bruno: More "Divide And Conquer," Please

Rman868lRick Hess had a great post last week pointing out that even if you think your debate opponents are wrong about an issue, that doesn't necessarily mean they're being unreasonable. He defends the strategic value of respecting your opponents' points of view because "[e]mpathy is ultimately the difference between cage-busters who implode amidst endless battles and those who, studying their Sun-Tzu, operate with determination and deliberation."

Hess illustrates the idea by describing why veteran teachers drive union opposition to compensation and seniority reform when those things might be to the benefit of less-veteran members. As it happens, that's the sort of difficulty Sun-Tzu addressed directly in The Art of War: "If [your enemy's] forces are united, separate them." And this raises the question - at least in my mind - of why reformers haven't adopted a divide-and-conquer strategy more frequently.

The overall merits of the particular reform aside, if it's true that younger teachers would be more open to, say, seniority reform, why not appeal directly to them and appease many of the veterans by exempting them and giving them some additional carrot? Not only would this be the Sun-Tzu-approved method, it's exactly the tactic politicians take all the time when attempting "reforms" of social security, Medicare, etc. It's not usually the most efficient thing to do in policy terms, but it seems to be effective and acceptable politics.

Indeed, my general sense is that reformers have had some of their biggest successes implementing their agenda when they manage to carve up the potential opposition this way: think about Michelle Rhee's negotiations with the DC teachers union in 2010. So why don't we see more divide-and-conquer strategies in the education reform wars? - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)


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But the younger teachers only benefit in the short term from eliminating seniority protection. In the long term, their entire profession is weakened, their career is made far more unstable, and their students are more likely to suffer from the instability caused by high teacher turnover. Perhaps teachers are thoughtful enough to look past the short term and recognize that.

In response to the anticipated comeback that students will benefit and learn more because "bad teachers" can be pushed out: No. That's conclusively refuted by the fact that non-unionized states consistently show lower student achievement.

In addition, when teachers are constantly vilified and demonized by the "reformers" who are making these proposals, all teachers are the targets, and isn't that likely to unite them against the "reformers"? (Rhetorical question.) So it would be unclear on the concept for "reformers" to engage in endless teacher-bashing and then attempt to divide teachers in the hope of conquering them. Though it is quite clear that "reformers" see teachers as the enemy to be conquered -- a counterproductive philosophy for forces who purport to want to improve education.

(Thanks for bringing in the "Art of War" analogy, though, because it does clarify what we public-education defenders say and "reformers" often deny. The "reform" forces are waging war on teachers and public schools -- and children.)

@Caroline - There's a lot going on in those comments, but on the narrow question of whether tenure reform involves newer teachers making a trade-off between short-term and long-term interest, I think the answer is "maybe, maybe not". My experience with many newer teachers is that the tenure status quo effectively eliminates the long-term question by forcing them out of the profession early in their career. Yes, they'll eventually reap the rewards of seniority protection, but only if they can avoid getting bumped out of their jobs by more veteran teachers. Considering the extent to which we all bemoan the de-professionalization of teaching, I'm a little surprised there's not more of a consensus that we need to stop encouraging young teachers to leave with such seniority-heavy placement rules. And since seniority rules shift the burden of uncertainty toward newer teachers, it's not obvious to me that they reduce turnover on net, either, particularly in those disadvantaged schools served disproportionately by newer teachers.

It's also not obvious to me that the most respected, "professionalized" occupations got to be that way with really rigid seniority rules.

That being said, I agree with you about reformers taking on (or sometimes, as you say, "attacking") teachers as a monolithic group. Indeed, my point was precisely that that seems like poor tactics on their part, since different teachers have different incentives and can probably be brought on board the agenda in different ways.

There's a lot more to be explored about comparing professions in the light of seniority rules. On the other hand, I can't think of ANY other profession in which experience and expertise are under attack -- and lack of experience is exalted -- in the way that's currently fashionable with teaching. As I've said, no one is disparaging experience in favor of the energy of bright-eyed beginners when it's their surgeon or their airline pilot.

Perhaps I'm foolish in believing that the constant rounds of teacher layoffs are a temporary phase while we as a nation regain our sanity and decided that we do after all believe in funding education and other public services and infrastructure adequately.

Do you really think that teachers can ever be brought on board the agenda? First, it's an agenda that is inherently anathema to most teachers of sound mind; second, its failure is becoming more and more clear by the day; and third, the promoters of the agenda have been relentlessly attacking teachers for years and years now. I can't think of any reason that teachers would buy into it now, if they didn't at first, when there was no track record to judge and they hadn't been attacked yet.

@Caroline - I think I'm just less inclined than you to paint with so broad a brush, be it about reformers (who I do not think are uniformly contemptible), the reform agenda (which actually includes lots of individual policy proposals of varying quality), or teachers (who are not monolithic in their thinking: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/26/teachers-reform-experience-gates-scholastic_n_1381037.html). Since the reform agenda is multifaceted and teachers are diverse in their thinking, I'd be particularly reluctant to label broad swathes of teachers of "unsound mind" just because they happen to be sympathetic to this or that reform.

Yes, I'm familiar with the array of reformers and their array of policy proposals. I've been following them closely since they were touting for-profit Edison Schools Inc. as the magical miracle solution, bringing the efficiencies of the private sector to public education.

I think there are very few who actually believe in what they're touting; their funding or their think-tank fellowships or their paychecks depend on professing to believe it. "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it," and all that.

(For that matter, I'm convinced that there's a reason President Obama, appearing oblivious, delegates his entire education policy to Arne Duncan -- and occasionally baffles everyone by making comments about education that run counter to his own administration's ed policy. The big-ticket donors insist on adherence to the currently vogueish ed policy agenda, and Obama isn't willing to directly get his own hands dirty with it. But I digress.)

I don't think there are many teachers who are sympathetic to these "reforms" -- a few outliers, maybe. Even if the agenda itself appealed to them -- which doesn't seem to be the case, as we rarely see a teacher speaking up for it despite the evident personal benefit to their careers if they did -- the teacher-bashing would seem likely to deter them.

It was only a few weeks ago that Alexander was bemoaning the inability to find any teachers or anyone else who's on the ground in actual schools -- as opposed to think-tankers and hedge-funders -- who would speak up for the "reform" agenda. All the evidence indicates that there simply aren't broad swaths of teachers who support it.

No "reformer" anywhere is trying to win the young teachers over with carrots; not-getting-laid-off means living in the shadow of a stick.

LAUSD superintendent Deasey (hand picked by Broad) just pink-slipped 11,000 Los Angeles teachers, out of a workforce of 33,000.

Hess' rhetorical technique is to enshrine a lie by embedding it in another argument. You perpetuate his mealy-mouthed strategy:
" ... why veteran teachers drive union opposition to compensation and seniority reform when those things might be to the benefit of less-veteran members."

No, we veteran teachers don't drive any such thing. This wave of attack on public workers isn't "compensation and seniority reform". It is funded by players like the Koch brothers and Gates, through entities like ALEC. Paul Krugman finally spoke up on the subject, and called it "crony capitalism". It's an honor hold tenure as a teacher and public servant, and I user it to defend my students, community, and profession against them.

You and Hess want to pretend there's a "reform" game going on with different points of view to be respected. We "veteran teachers" are fine with actual opposing points of view that don't cycle back to your corporate cronyism axis - we've got lots of them, and they're part of our movement.

Our opponents and their sock-puppets share one agenda with which we won't compromise.

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