Friday, February 23, 2007

What good are teacher unions for public education?

The main problem with public education in America is there is no single problem. There are several problems, maybe dozens, of reasons why public education has declined over the last fifty years.

One big contributing cause is the increasing variety of goals given to public schools. Jim Collins says in Good to Great, that great organizations are great because they have focus. Great organizations don’t try to walk the dog, build a house, raise a child, explore the frontier, and run a factory. They focus. By focusing they can improve their ability to do a specific function very well.

Public schools use to focus on just reading, writing, and arithmetic. Over time they were asked to teach a trade, prepare for college, teach physical education, give children exposure to the arts and drama, provide sex education, teach them about the environment, provide death education, feed lunches to the poor, and on, and on, and on. There are a few teachers who might be able to do many of these tasks well, but most teachers can not. This lack of focus makes it hard, if not impossible, for public schools to do well.

Another problem with public school is we don’t hold the students responsible for learning. We hold teachers. As Paul Zoch points out in his book Doomed to Fail: The Built-in Defects of American Education, but holding teachers responsible for learning, the students can take a passive attitude of “Go ahead and make me learn, I dare you.” If there were serious consequences to the students for not learning the students would be more engaged and more active in the learning process.

Steve Jobs recently said, and I agree, that teach unions have also contribute to the problems with public education. Teacher unions are focused on protecting the teachers. (Remember Albert Shanker’s line about “When school children start paying union dues, that 's when I'll start representing the interests of school children.”) For public schools to be good, let alone great, the schools have to be able to fire bad teachers.

The problems with Public Education have become a Gordian Knot, with so many causes that it may now be impossible to solve with out changing the basic nature of public education, for example going to vouchers.

I was surprised when a recent Google alert implied that Diane Ravitch was in favor of teacher unions. I have great admiration and respect for Diane Ravitch. Her book Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform explored how about every three to five years public schools were asked to do another task. This book is well written, well documented, and well worth reading. Her book The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn shows how the process for picking textbooks is broken. The book reminds me of Richard Feynman's experience with the textbook review process.

The google alert led me to an interview of Diane Ravitch in which she says teacher unions are important in improving public education:

"The public interest is served when teachers are able to do their jobs without fear of intimidation by uninformed, non-professional administrators. Teachers are the front-line workers of education; they are the ones who are in daily contact with children. It is they who must make minute-to-minute, on-the-spot decisions about the best interests of children. When their knowledge and wisdom are discounted and disregarded, we cannot expect education to improve.

"These days, there are many superintendents who have no experience in education and many principals who went through quickie training programs. These inexperienced leaders demand higher test scores because their jobs are on the line. Many of these inexperienced leaders think that testing is synonymous with instruction, and they insist on constant testing. Wise teachers know better. They know that achievement growth is necessarily incremental for most children. Wise teachers know that they cannot produce overnight miracles. If teaching becomes a job (not a profession) where administrators are free to bully teachers and where teachers are not permitted to exercise their judgment and experience, then the turnover rate (and the quality) of classroom teachers will decline, and that is certainly not in the interest of children or the public."

I totally agree that teachers are important in education. A good teacher can make a great difference in the life of a child.

Diane Ravitch goes on to say:

"The unions will, I hope, become champions of sound educational principles (such as the conditions I listed above, including a rich, sequential curriculum and appropriate student conduct and dress). They must also become engaged in making sure that the accountability programs are valid, reliable and fair, and that accountability measures do not take the place of instruction. In some districts, the overwhelming emphasis is on test-preparation, endless test-prep. Hours on hours of test-prep may lead to higher scores, but not to a good education."

This seems to be wishful thinking. Going back to Albert Shanker’s comment, there is no motivation for unions to focus on doing a better job of educating children. It would be nice if unions tried provide support to helping children learn, but unions are not motivated to really be involved with what happens to the students.

Diana Ravitch is asked:

"What are the priorities of teachers’ unions today?"

She replies with:

"Teachers' unions have been focused on salaries and working conditions, which is good but not enough any more. They must see that part of the working conditions that must be improved are the ability of their members to teach, their right to have a sound curriculum, and their right to act as professionals rather than automatons who produce this odd combination of higher test scores but not educated students."

Diane Ravitch is hoping that unions will change their very nature. For decades teacher unions have been focused on what is best for the teachers. They have worked to get higher wages, make it harder to fire teachers, and other job environment issues. Teacher Unions have not, and are not motivated, to focus on improving the education process for students.

Teacher unions may be good for teachers, but I still don’t see how they are helping children get a good education in public schools.

(Update I)

Alexander Russo says that Diane Ravitch will soon be blogging.

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