November 14, 2006

Manichean views of motivation in school politics

Joe Williams's column in the Daily News Saturday, Johnny got a raw deal, will have a tone very familiar to readers of his book, Cheating our Kids (2005):

Mayor Bloomberg and Randi Weingarten flashed smiles this week after an unprecedented early contract deal between the city and the 80,000-strong teachers union she leads. Her smiles were understandable - the deal will enrich lots of teachers, many of whom deserve it. His were not. This agreement was not a real step forward for the city's 1.1 million schoolkids.

The underlying narrative here is important: Teachers unions act only in the material interest of their members and bargaining units. Politicians need to act on behalf of kids' interests. Teachers have material interests, not interests in schools, Williams has proclaimed over and over again. In contrast, he says, we adults have to protect the real interests of children. 

This argument is very appealing, and it's wrong on several fronts:

  • There's something fundamentally inconsistent with saying that groups of teachers looking after their material interest is bad, but "real performance pay" (whatever that is) is good. Wouldn't performance pay be motivating teachers with ... their material self-interest?
  • Reducing anyone's motivations to self-interest ("greed," as one of the words in the subtitle of Williams's book) is reductionist. Aren't we motivated by a mix of self-interest and our broader sense of self, the ideals we've invested in? I'd say that the second is more powerful for the majority of people, including teachers.
  • There's something naive about claiming that there is a single definition of children's interests. Who made Joe Williams the arbiter of that? For the record, I'm not claiming the authority, but I don't think Williams has it, either, and it's not always self-evident.

Williams is a good journalist in terms of describing serious corruption. He's not very reflective about his own language and his black-and-white view of motivations.

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Posted in Education policy on November 14, 2006 5:41 AM |