July 12, 2010

Gates speech at AFT

Originally written Saturday, July 10: I've figured out how to hang this electronic device onto the back of the chair in front of me while my old PDA foldable keyboard is synced and sitting on my lap, so I can write this blog entry in the middle of the AFT session. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka gave a spirited speech before lunch, and then the floor approved a resolution on teacher evaluation without amendment.

This afternoon, we started with resolutions on community support and career/technical education (CTE) programs. For the most part, the resolutions this afternoon were neither going to be the controversial resolutions nor the controversial part of the afternoon session, which was Bill Gates' appearance at the convention. Very popular was a resolution urging public meetings for the national commission on fiscal responsibility and reform and giving AFT an official position in favor of progressive effective tax policy instead of Social Security benefits cuts that are regressive. As I've written before, a number of people simultaneously want policies that would end in significant layoffs of teachers over 50 and also significantly reduce pension benefits and contributions to public-employee pensions. Evidently, there is some group of self-defined reformers who are in fear that somewhere, someone is enjoying a retirement free from fear of destitution.

The Gates appearance started at 4:15. From what a colleague told me later, he helicoptered over from his island estate. Randi Weingarten at first started speaking from the sheet announcing Innovation Fund awardees and then turned to introducing Gates. She took care to quote from Gates's annual letter at points where he specified opposition to solitary use of test scores to evaluate teachers and supported evaluation as a tool to help most teachers. With a smattering of boos, Weingarten smiled and said, "I thought you guys were leaving," referring to the threats of a boycott by the small dissenting caucus By Any Means Necessary (BAMN). The majority of delegates roared. Later, there were about 25 delegates out of several thousand present who walked out as Gates stood at the podium. So much for the huge boycott of Gates's speech...

Gates started by publicly congratulating AFT for the approval of the resolution on teacher evaluation/development and on steps taken thus far, including the AFT locals who are working with the Gates Foundation on specific programs. He mixed in some misleading statements about "declining" graduation rates (as opposed to stagnation) with some fair statements and a clear statement that teachers must be included in reform. He spent a few moments discussing the failed small-schools initiative. The greatest applause lines came when Gates criticized the existing record of poor administrators' evaluations and when he acknowledged that people who have never taught in a classroom do not understand how difficult teaching can be.

The BAMN protesters then had pretty awful timing, coming back towards the hall shouting protests ... just as Gates said some teachers have challenges with students who are bored or engage in disruptive behavior. The hall erupted in laughter at the irony.

Gates's weakest argument was the individual teacher equivalent of effective-schools rhetoric: see what teachers do when students demonstrate great achievement. It's a high-risk claim, to assert that the development of a teacher evaluation system can also document which a priori behaviors are best. What may be easier is the collection of videos of different teachers, with a broad enough sample that some will turn out to be great teachers. Gates also highlighted two project districts in AFT: Hillsborough, Florida, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As is common with description of risky projects in early days, the rhetoric was a bit breathless, and I could hear a few oohs and boos in the audience when he mentioned merit pay, Race to the Top, and tying tenure to student achievement.

Gates ended with the obligatory reference to Al Shanker and the need for teacher voice in reform. "Don't give it back, take the risk, and keep it up." "No other union is doing what you are to make this [reform] happen."

Additional thoughts a few days later: Gates got some personal mileage by appearing at AFT. He spoke with a few reporters afterwards, and his appearance generated some newspaper stories at the St. Pete Times and Washington Post that were more about the Gates Foundation than the AFT convention. At AFT, I don't think delegates had their minds changed much by Gates, since they were likely to be aware of what he's done and where he agrees and disagrees with them.

Gates's rhetoric is compartmentalized. In a good part of what he said, teachers were at the center of what he describes as reform, including teacher evaluation. But then the sore-thumb statement popped out about tying due-process protections to student test scores, unmediated by professional judgment. It's as if there's a switch inside his head, where he can talk either about test scores or about better evaluation of teacher practice. Reform rhetoric as a quantum effect? I don't know. But it's poor strategizing and a poor contribution to discussion. One of the wealthiest men in the world should be able to be more sophisticated.

Brief note justifying the lack of productivity this week

I have gotten less done this week in Seattle than I expected. I did the right thing and walked around the city as much as I could when not in the AFT convention's business meetings. Since Seattle has real hills, this is healthy exercise, and I used the Pike Place Market six blocks from the convention center as an excuse to get some exercise every day. But that means that I spent at least an hour or two walking every day instead of reading, blogging, etc. I also spent a few hours last night taking a bus to the Greenwood area to watch a coffeeshop concert some acquaintances were performing in.

My shins and calves are telling me exactly how many hills I've walked up and down, and they've been doing so every night. Again, this is good. It is also absolutely exhausting. So my thoughts on Bill Gates's speech yesterday will not be posted tonight. And I'll be spending some time tomorrow reading a doctoral student's proposal rather than having it read already. And so on and so forth. I have to figure out how to handle the jet lag when I get home, but I did not eat convention-hotel food, nor was I sedentary.

July 10, 2010

Convention dynamics

This is my second AFT convention. I observed the 2006 NEA representative assembly as a microphone volunteer, and I've participated in a number of other organizational meetings of various sorts over the years. With both the NEA and AFT, there's an internal meta-procedural discussion about the openness of the meeting itself, and that happened in today's business sessions with complaints ranging from inadequate discussion on an item (and specifically, a request for more discussion that did not point any fingers) to assertions that people were engaging in tactics to control debate (and alleging poor intent as well as procedural abuse). I've read and heard different allegations about business meetings of the NEA Representative Assembly, the Modern Language Association, the American Historical Association, etc., and maybe it's time for perspective on organizational politics.

First, most organizations have structured discussions. Sometimes they're structured intentionally, as when there are formal rules, either all written out or with a baseline set of rules (commonly Roberts) and organization-specific variations. Sometimes the structures are more cultural than formal, as with consensus in Quaker circles. But you can't have an unstructured discussion of organizational policy and direction, even if you figure out what it is after the fact. And sometimes people gripe about the specific structures, even if the nature of a particular structure is a matter of an arbitrary choice that you have to take rather than the One True System for running organizations.

Picky example: who gets to speak on the floor of the AFT and NEA, and how someone is recognized. In AFT, the presiding officer rotates recognition among a set of numbered microphones. Whoever is at the front of the line for the microphone next in line is recognized. In NEA, people who wish to speak go to a microphone, complete a slip that the microphone volunteer calls in to a set of staff on the dais, and the slips recorded at the dais are passed to the presiding officer, who calls on the next person eligible in the NEA's rules rotation (giving immediate preferences to points of information or order and afterwards alternating perspectives). If you have a large enough group of people, you can greatly influence speaking (i.e., "control the mics") in either organization.

All organizations have filters on the types of proposals that are considered seriously. Sometimes the filters are at the bare-minimum "if this doesn't require us to act illegally" sort, sometimes at the "we'll have a mechanism to educate the body on what this entails," and sometimes at the "we have an explicit filter mechanism" level. My friends in MLA report that it's fairly close to the minimal filter level. My experience is that NEA has the "education filter" mechanism, which comes generally through recommendations of the executive committee and each state affiliate and this year also operated through the estimated cost figures that the resolutions committee attached to each new business item (and almost anything with a price greater than $1000 lost, from what I heard). AFT uses committees that meet the first day of the convention as a formal filter mechanism. If you're not lucky or not part of a group with a well-executed mic tactic, your best chance for influencing resolutions is before floor action, in the NEA by joining the resolutions committee or by participating actively in a state caucus, in the AFT by participating actively in one of the convention committees.

All organizations rely on the parliamentary/procedural skills of the presiding officer to let most of the time focus on substantive discussion. When people lose on a substantive issue, sometimes they want to use procedural error as a trump card, and a good presiding officer persuades the vast majority of participants that they've had their say even if they didn't get their way. That doesn't hold if there truly are internal provocateurs who have no intention of losing gracefully, but if sane people are grumbling, there is some skill missing. Reg Weaver ran the NEA RA with a great deal of humor. I haven't seen Dennis Van Roekel in action on that front (I'm not an NEA delegate for my local for this biennium), and I've heard conflicting stories about his skill as a parliamentarian. I suspect there's a backstory behind Randi Weingarten's use of a professional parliamentarian this year, and I think she's exercised some good judgment in spots and made some choices I would not have in others.

There are three magic phrases I try to keep in the back of my head when I'm running a meeting: "If there are no objections," "Let me suggest what you can do within the rules," and "I'm terribly sorry I have to stop you/ask you to hold on for a second." The first is to accomplish something probably noncontroversial--my most common use is when someone suggests "a friendly amendment," which doesn't exist in Robert's Rules, and I have to say, "Well, there's nothing called a friendly amendment in this set of rules, but does anyone object to the amendment that X proposed?" The second phrase lets someone know that the specific mechanism they want to use is inappropriate but that there's a way for them to make a proposal if they take the chair's advice. The third is the hardest to use because it really does require interruption. I'm awful at interrupting even the most tangential comments, because many of our parents raised us with the standard that interruption is rude, and what harm can a few seconds of diversion do? It's an awful choice. When more than one microphone is live, the interruption of a speaker is not only very vivid, but if the speaker refuses to let the presiding officer explain the interruption, you get more time absorbed. There were several times I thought Randi should have interrupted a speaker, but that's an after-the-fact judgment, and I've also seen hard feelings at other meetings come from pretty firm interruptions that the membership clearly thought were too rough. It's a hard line to walk.

Or maybe the floor sergeants at arms need to have some yellow cards and red cards, and if you're issued one red or two yellows, you're suspended from floor participation for a day...

Update: In his Twitter stream, Mike Klonsky claimed that AFT was a "tightly-controlled convention" because not all resolutions were debated on the floor. Aaagh. This is precisely the type of misunderstanding that people have when they view their experience in one organization as setting the norm for other organizations. NEA lets delegates send any new business item to the floor with fifty signatures out of 10,000 delegates at the convention. AFT requires all resolutions be filed by a certain date several months before the meeting and then go through an assigned committee on the first day of the convention. Every delegate is assigned to a committee, and while I don't know how many delegates get their first choice of a committee, I have both times. The AFT's rules and the limited floor time means that not every resolution is heard on the floor. That doesn't mean that AFT is "tightly controlled" any more than NEA's rules require anarchy on the floor. If you persuade the majority of delegates at an AFT convention committee to recommend approval of a resolution and that the resolution should be a high priority, it comes to the floor.

When a resolution is not debated on the floor, it means you didn't persuade the people in the room to send it to the floor. That means you lost the parliamentary debate. In AFT, delegates don't have the right to debate every motion. Those are the rules currently operating in AFT. In NEA, you get to debate almost every motion. Just because you think the California delegation is hogging the floor doesn't mean you get to control debate, it means you didn't get yourself and others organized to file new business items before resolution sponsors from California. If you get yourself organized first, you get your new business items heard first. Those are the rules currently operating in NEA.

To those who don't like the AFT rules or don't like the NEA rules, all I can say is quit your bellyaching and persuade the majority of delegates that you're right. You want to demonstrate the susceptibility of NEA rules to silliness? Fine: get enough delegates together next year to sponsor 200 new business items filed on the first day. I bet that forces the organization to change the rules. You want to demonstrate the problems of limited debate in AFT? Fine: persuade your local or state delegation to submit so many fabulous resolutions in one area typically debated first that the convention committee that is the obvious place for all of the resolutions finishes later on the first day of the 2012 meeting than the start of the Progressive Caucus meeting that day. Incidentally, you're not going to persuade me to help you with either strategy; I'm not a believer in the One True Parliamentary Rules. I'm just pointing out that there are ways of making the point about the structure of the rules in a way that follows the rules and makes your fellow delegates see your point. Those who gripe about the putatively "tightly-controlled" AFT floor debates or the "anarchic" NEA just prefer the organizations they understand. Fine. But stop assuming that your experience is the One True Way.

June 1, 2010

The value of college II

An offhand reference I made last week to Lisa Delpit is nagging at me this evening. It's the part of Other People's Children (1995) where she talks about the existence of codes of power (what others would call tacit knowledge) and how one of the jobs of good schools should be to lay those bare, damn the accusation of selling out to an instrumental view of schooling. Her argument is that middle-class parents and educators too often talk in a Romantic discourse about schooling, ignoring how advantaged parents teach a great deal about the codes of power explicitly and how unfair it is if you hide some of the secrets of power from poor children. When I began teaching at USF, Delpit's book had been published recently, and I used it for several years. It never failed to stimulate healthy debate, especially since the majority of my undergraduate students are usually of the temperament and philosophy Delpit was trying to discomfit.


While her argument was more about primary and secondary education, a great deal of it could apply to college, yeah, even to junior faculty. Earlier in the spring, SUNY Buffalo sociologist Lois Weis visited USF, thanks to the Alliance for Applied Research in Education and Anthropology (Kathy Borman's group in the anthropology department here), and one of her talks briefly referred to Delpit as a jumping-off point to a realistic discussion of what research-heavy universities are looking for in faculty. You think I was unrealistic in urging assistant professors to wait until they're tenured before sinking a lot of time into experimental forms of scholarship? Go listen to Weis; I saw at least one colleague looking to apply for promotion to full absorb every word, and I thought that was wise. Weis's talk was unabashedly instrumentalist: if there's a game to be played in academe, let's not pretend it doesn't exist, and let's make sure that the people we care about can play the game with a full understanding of the rules.

Beneath these arguments is a realistic assessment of how schools combine instrumentalism and the potential for change. Delpit doesn't worry too much that children of color will sell out; let's give them the skills to succeed, and while some may want to sell out, we'll probably learn a great deal about how many won't. Weis didn't talk about that much in the hour-long presentation, but given the type of work she does, I don't think she's on the side of getting a bunch of sociology grad students to join Wall Street. Being successful as academics mean they can make arguments for a better society in general.

One of my friends and longtime colleagues talks about the time John Hope Franklin visited USF many years ago and when asked about radical change in society, Franklin reportedly said, "Go to the library!" What he meant, or what my friend drew from what he meant, was that the textbooks reach the next generation, but to be in the textbooks, you've got to publish research that's read and influences those who write textbooks. And to publish research, you've got to go to the library. It's a conventional view of academic research coming from one of the great African American intellectuals of the 20th century, someone who grew up in Oklahoma, went to college in Nashville in the 1930s, was denied opportunities in WW2 because of race, helped Thurgood Marshall prepare cases in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and stood by his association with W.E.B. Du Bois in the middle of anti-Communist hysteria as he was ascending the academic ladder. Of course, you might say that it's easy to take that view if you're John Hope Franklin, but I suspect it was not easy to be John Hope Franklin, at least not before the 1970s.

The point of all this is that schools simultaneously serve as a vehicle for hoarding privilege and also for breaking it down. The first part is going to exist not because schools exist but because those who currently have privilege are going to use whatever institutions exist to maintain that privilege. So Romantic notions aside, you don't get a choice in that fact, in any society with formal schooling. The choice is whether we take the tools that currently exist and make those tools available to people broadly. When I first saw a link to the May 16 New York Times article on Vedder's and Murray's anti-access view on college, my thought was that Vedder and Murray were arguing that poor families should give up half the tools at their disposal for improving their lives. Are college degrees sometimes used as credentials without reference to what graduates learn? Sure, but you don't eliminate the use of credentials by refusing to gain one. Are college programs sometimes light on substance or disconnected from the job you might get within two or three years? Sure, but you get to keep what you learn for the rest of your life, not just the job you get in the next few years.

And is formal schooling sometimes mind-numbing, discouraging, depressing, oppressive, disillusioning, lock-sync, and whatever other term you want to call lit? Sure, and that's a consequence of a structured curriculum that also provides millions of children with access to the life of the mind. If you've got the resources and the background to teach your children at home.... hmmn, where might you have gotten it? ... sure, you can be a successful homeschooling parent. Of course, if you're a homeschooling parent, you might well use a prepackaged curriculum that makes your kid's education fairly close to the structured system that you just called mind-numbing, discouraging, depressing, ... well, you get it. There are many, many ways in which formal schooling can improve, and there many ways in which schools carry a political burden that is unreasonable. But that's no reason to avoid or fail to use the instrumental value of schooling as formal schooling. First let's graduate the next John Hope Franklin, and Franklin's readers, and we can also worry about the tortured, contradictory nature of higher education.

May 18, 2010

Crabby comments from a higher-ed union activist

I'm in a slightly cranky mood from spending most of the last two days' work hours on copyediting. This says little about the material I was copyediting and more about the nature of the task (and why I did not get a job to spend all of my time copyediting). So I'm ending the day in a crabby mood and still want to be productive, but I may not want to contact any people about current issues. So it's time for crabby comments about situations that popped up in the semi-distant past (at least 12 months ago), and I'll refer to them vaguely enough that they could apply to all sorts of situations. If you think any of the following is about you, you're probably wrong.

  • Did you realize that if you hadn't tried the procedural short-cut, you would have won the argument on the merits?
  • You can probably get away with half of the stuff you're loading on your faculty. Which half do you care about? 
  • The union has membership, staff, institutional memory, and access to lawyers. We're plum out of magic wands. 
  • I know you've got a Ph.D. and a winning smile, but other people can remember things, too, and sometimes we check factual claims.
  • Your hallway is not the whole university. 
  • I don't care what Gordon's or Drew's trustees let them do.  
  • You've got several very smart administrators in your office. We've got several hundred members. Maybe you could outthink the lot of us, but your behavior makes me suspect you've never played a role-playing game. 
  • If wishes were fishes and gripes were wet wipes... no, let's not go there.
  • Yes, you've got academic freedom and I'll defend that to the hilt, but it may not be wise for assistant professors to run up a large debt in deviance credits. The interest alone is murder.
  • You didn't take advantage of the opportunity when it was in your lap, and you're now hoping the expired opportunity returns and doubles or triples in size. On your way out, could you please pick up my jaw and hand it back to me?
  • I refuse to answer on the grounds that it may incriminate you.  
  • Your strategic vision appears to rely on throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks. Pardon my brashness, but not even the most tendentious Soviet/corporate five-year plan has had "al dente" as a bullet point.
  • I see you're trying out the new Elizabeth Taylor fragrance, "Entitlement." I may be overstepping the bounds of friendship by saying this, but I think you've applied a bit too much. 
  • I'll give you 10 out of 10 for venomous intent, but my long-term exposure to teenagers has immunized me.
  • I'm sure I can take this horrible day and turn it into a conference presentation or article.

My thanks to G.K.R. for the model.

April 14, 2010

Concern trolling about union democracy

Over at Jay Greene's blog, Greg Forster points out that the majority of weighted votes in the last United Federation of Teachers election were not from current classroom teachers. This is corruption! is the implication. Er, no. It's called following the legal bylaws of an organization. I haven't heard Forster call for the reweighting of general-election balloting so that all ages are represented in proportion to their actual population, nor have I heard his call for the abolition of the U.S. Senate, which gives small-population states such as Arkansas power far beyond their relative size, nor any concern from him that in some cities, a single voter controls all of the ballots for school board elections (some people call that mayoral control).

There are potential problems when retirees form the majority of a union's membership, but it's also a problem if retirees who depend on the fulfillment of their pensions have no voice whatsoever in the running of the primary organization defending their pension rights. The weighting in UFT is one of many plausible ways to address the dilemma. From someone who received a Ph.D. in political science from Yale University, one might expect an analysis based on the existing literature on power in different voting systems, and it is disappointing not to see any evidence of such a perspective in what is essentially catcalling.

March 4, 2010

Every 24 minutes: why it's time to vote on the health care bill

Two years ago, a friend I've known for more than 40 years who works at the Urban Institute updated the Institute of Medicine's estimate of the annual excess deaths in the U.S. due to lack of insurance. In 2008, the updated estimate was 22,000 annual excess deaths. That's an average of one preventable death about every 24 minutes.

Every time that a Republican talks about "starting over," think of how many 24-minute chunks of time that would involve. Every 24 minutes of delay = one more excess death. Every time that an overly-righteous proponent of the public option talks about "being slapped in the face by the White House" and (again) starting the debate over, think of how many 24-minute chunks that would involve. Think of how many 24-minute chunks have passed since 1993 (the last time a major health-care initiative died). 

It's time for the Senate to vote on amendments to its bill using reconciliation, and it's time for the House to pass both the Senate bill and amendments.

Updated: Families USA has calculated that it's now a preventable death every 21 minutes.

February 25, 2010

William McKeen and me

On Sunday, the St. Petersburg Times published a bizarre column by University of Florida journalism chair William McKeen, who started off by asserting that UAH killer Amy Bishop is somehow presenting a case against tenure and then headed off into the mythical nethersphere of a world where all professors are tenured sloths. 

My response will appear in tomorrow morning's paper, and my thanks to the Times editorial staff for printing the rebuttal.

Given the constraints of an op-ed column, some material was left out. For example, William McKeen's own department has 42 classes listed on the University of Florida course schedule for the spring, and of those classes, only 22 are being taught by full-time faculty. From spreadsheets colleagues at UF sent me, I know that as chair McKeen hired 12 adjuncts to teach classes in the fall and 15 adjuncts for the spring, generally paying each of them $3,000 per course. I guess that when he wrote the column he forgot about all the adjuncts he hires every semester.

And nowhere do I see McKeen (the chair of UF's Department of Grandstanding) volunteering to be the first to give up his tenure in Gainesville. Maybe that has to do with the layoff notices issued to faculty around the state and country?

What's particularly scurrilous in McKeen's column on Sunday is the attempt to link a singular incident with a pet cause: "Has tenure become so important that someone would kill when it was denied?" As many others from Margaret Soltan to "Dean Dad" have pointed out, Amy Bishop is not your typical disappointed academic. She's killed before, she was apparently a suspect in an attempted letter-bombing, and as far as I'm aware, she is the only faculty member known to have killed peers after being denied tenure.

In the anonymous Dean Dad's words, "Let's not use a deranged shooter to make points. The crime is awful enough as it is."

October 27, 2009

Why unions need competent administrators on the other side

Dean Dad neatly explains why Southwestern College's leaders aren't even competent Machiavellian administrators. While I've occasionally heard from people that the best union recruiting tool is a horrid manager, life is more complicated. Yes, there are threshold effects of managerial incompetence and cruelty on organizing campaigns, but for an already-recognized union with plenty of duties, competence from most of management is far better, for a number of reasons:

  • Most union members--including most vigorous union members--do not want to spend their entire lives in conflict with coworkers (which most managers are, in terms of daily contact). Unions as advocates,  watchdogs, and the workplace equivalent of public defenders? That's a sustainable metaphor for what unions do. Us-Them metaphors can get people through a crisis, but not generally through an entire decade without some loss of integrity (see the great new book Staying with Conflict for more on the long game from a conflict-resolution expert's perspective). 
  • It's better to win grievances by persuading managers on most cases than be taking every issue to an arbitrator. In a large enough workplace, there will inevitably be contract violations, if for no other reason than because most managers don't understand collective bargaining agreements and there are many pressures to take short-cuts on process. Informal resolution of the vast majority of such situations is in the interest of union members, and you're much more likely to get that if the people on the other side of the table are sane and competent.
  • Competent and sane administrators are less likely to do extraordinary damage to your members. That's not a foolproof, money-back guarantee, since everyone makes mistakes (see the last point), but I'd rather save my resources and time for a handful of problems than try to address dozens of serious problems every year.
  • Competent and sane administrators can be engaged and taught how to improve relationships with the people you represent. Everyone has an ego, but I'd like to work with people where a solid majority can put aside their egos and ideas to learn how to work better. And where I might learn a thing or two in return.
  • Part of a union's job is to promote the careers of its members, and that may take them into management. Do you want managers who understand the needs of the people you represent? If you put a target on the back of every current manager, you discourage your coworkers from becoming sympathetic managers.

At this point in my career and union work, I am convinced that patience, a good ear, and large doses of self-deprecating humor are important tools of power for union leaders. Using them requires suspending a belief in the Force (which is required to believe in the Dark Side). As in all things automotive and judgmental, your mileage may vary.

August 23, 2009

NEA's comments: righteousness over responsibility to members?

I'm an NEA member, through my membership in the United Faculty of Florida. I'm a skeptic and critic of high-stakes accountability. Wrote a book and a few articles on the topic. And I am astounded at the NEA's comments on the Race to the Top draft regulations. (Hat tip.)

It is one thing to submit a righteous objection to the entire program if you are an individual with no responsibilities but to your conscience and your personal judgment of posterity. It is an entirely different thing when you represent several million teachers and you submit a document that for all intents and purposes appears to have an internal audience inside the NEA. That's nice, in the worst sense of the word "nice," because NEA staff had a responsibility to protect and advance their members' interests, not indulge any of our fantasies. To put it bluntly, on what planet would this regulatory comment have any effect on the final regs?

Let me be clear on my perspective as an NEA member and as an observer of political processes: There are lots of reasonable individual passages within the document, but you don't submit a manifesto when you comment on regs as an organization. You don't submit a manifesto that covers up any potential for effectiveness with what amounts to political poison. And you don't submit a manifesto that undermines your credibility. 

Two examples will have to suffice, because there's only so much I can wince at publicly: "we cannot support yet another layer of federal mandates" (from p. 2), or with regard to the creation of statewide longitudinal data systems, opposition to "[i]gnoring states' rights to enact their own laws and constitutions" (p. 24). The problem with these claims (and attendant tone of outrage) is that Race to the Top is not a mandate. Love it or hate it, it's something states must apply for. 

There were certainly alternatives available to the NEA, including the following choices:

  • Realpolitik: nudge the regs a bit to help state and local affiliates.
  • Legal: set up a legal challenge after final publication.
  • Abstinence: if you need to make a statement of conscience, declare that "we have serious doubts that this program will substantially help schools and will not participate in the regulatory comment process." 

I may be dead wrong about this, and there may be some uber-secret strategy behind this comment, but from where I sit at the end of the summer, it looks like one of my national affiliates' new president's first major move has been a bunch of wasted electrons.

June 6, 2009

Sifting priorities, micro and macro

I had such good intentions this morning. After dropping off my daughter at the High School o' SATs, I figured I'd sit in the local Starbucks and read student work while she was wearing down No. 2 pencils. So there I was at about 7:45 in the morning, listening to slightly-too-loud Sinatra and reading drafts of one section of the major paper for the class I'm teaching this summer. After about a third of the batch, I bailed on both student reading and the environment of too-loud soft music and too-loud jovial fellow customers. I listened to Scott Simon's interview of Naturally 7 while driving a few blocks to the library branch that just opened up, and I'll sit here for the meantime, trying to figure out what to do for the rest of the weekend. As usual, I have Too Much to do, and I have to do some of it and not the rest. May I make the choices wisely, but more importantly, may I make the choices consciously.


In many ways, education policy and policy debates are about the same types of choices: you can't do everything at once, you can't fix everything at once, and being ambitious requires being selective about where you spend energy. It also requires a big-picture perspective. That's part of why I shook my head at Norm Scott's confectionary history of UFT. There's an important role for internal debates inside unions, and I have respect for UFT activists who are willing to go toe-to-toe with the most powerful teachers union leader in the country, but there are huge leaps of logic in Scott's thumbnail history and a failure to see a crucial big-picture issue.

Scott assumed that there was an overarching "sellout strategy" that Al Shanker consistently used after spring 1968, and that the sellout strategy was based on a circumscribed realpolitik vision of unions:

After the brutal '68 strike Albert Shanker knew the UFT could never again win much more than salary increases for teachers, and at some point only those at the expense of selling out. Thus over the next 15 years was born the "new unionism" where the union no longer is an antagonist but a cooperative partner with management.

The problem with this argument is not that it has no basis in fact but that it gives far too much credit to a single individual for the direction of the UFT (and AFT). Shanker was certainly a forceful unionist, and both the UFT and AFT were shaped by his leadership, but the general dilemmas facing UFT in 1968 were not new or unique, Shanker would never have been able to take the UFT on strike without the agreement of hundreds of UFT leaders, and there is something odd about the obsession of union dissenters with a single leader.

It's the last that's the most surprising to me on both intellectual and political grounds. If I were a member of ICE (a dissenting caucus within UFT), I would not be obsessing about Randi Weingarten. While focusing on individual targets can be useful for energizing one's base, it's useless for public discussion and the nuts and bolts of organizing and campaigning. To put it bluntly, it's following the reasoning template offered by the New York Post, whose editorial board loves to focus on personalities and the imagined virtues and vices of key figures. Imagine for a second that Shanker had died fifteen years earlier than he did, in 1982 rather than 1997. How would the history of the AFT have been different?

Oh, wait. We don't have to speculate. We can look at what's happened to the AFT in the past 12 years, since his death. There have certainly been stylistic differences, and the AFT has a far less closed culture (and is thus healthier) than it was at Shanker's death. But many of the strategic decisions taken in the late 1990s and early part of this decade would probably have been taken if Shanker had been alive, and it wasn't because anyone at AFT held seances to figure out "what Al would think" (despite the jokes made about Richard Kahlenberg's attempt to channel Shanker and probably some debates framed in that way). 

Consider the debates about mayoral control in New York City. I don't pretend to know the inside politics, but anyone looking at the picture three months ago could have predicted a few things:

  • Mayoral control would not be extended precisely as is, but neither would it end, and whatever came out would be a political compromise.
  • There would be test scores released that would be spun by multiple sides, and almost surely inaccurately on multiple sides.
  • Weingarten would have to make choices about where to push for change in mayoral control.
  • Someone would accuse Weingarten of being a sellout no matter what position she took, because she would be presumed to have given her okay for whatever came out.

I can't see either the logic in Scott's understanding of his own local or how Scott thinks teachers unions should behave in public debates such as over mayoral control. He either is using Shanker as a synecdoche for the strategic choices many UFT leaders have made over the decades or truly thinks that the key problem is that the wrong charismatic leader is in charge. Okay: Weingarten will be gone from the active UFT leadership in some months, so who's going to be the next target? I suspect that Scott knows deep down that his fight is with a very large group of fellow unionists who just disagree with his desire for more open conflict. 

One of the dilemmas with collective bargaining is the fact that the act of collective bargaining channels an adversarial conflict into a pattern of routines that then circumscribes relationships between union and management. Sit down and bargain, ratify, enforce agreements, picket and strike, lobby publicly for your members' interests and values: these are the public tools of power for a recognized union. A skilled union leadership knows how to use more than one of the tools at any time and if both wise and lucky will use the right tools more often than the wrong tools. An unskilled union leadership relies on a narrow set of tools in a predictable and increasingly less effective way until its members have essentially lost all the advantages of representation. But as several labor historians have pointed out (and my apologies for forgetting the names right now), there is no way to avoid the fact that if you buy into the legal authority of a union, you then buy into the set of tools that gives you.

Buying into that set of tools is not the only choice, of course; there's the historical example of the Wobblies who disdained contracts and collective discipline. I don't mean to suggest that the alternative is to match the violence by some Wobblies, but suppose for a moment that a union's leadership essentially ignored contracts, contract enforcement, and the like, and instead let the union culture evolve into wildcat direct action much of the time. There are two problems with arguments that unions should look more like the Wobblies (absent violence) than the UFT. First, I don't think it's a very smart political move. Because this country has 70 years of at least putative legal protection/recognition of union organizing and close to 40 years of effective public-employee organizing, most of the general public would conclude that anarchic direct-action participants over the age of 22 are trying to eat their cake and have it, too -- have the benefits of legal recognition without trying to take on any responsibility to follow the consequences of that recognition. In addition, in the internet age, glaring inconsistencies in the explanations of direct-action participants will make a union look like its members are less in touch with reality than George W. Bush, more manipulative than Dick Cheney, or both.

Perhaps more importantly, a lack of collective discipline and strategic choice is a path that is going to lose more often than win. Direct action does work where it's organized and lucky. It does not always work, and as one observer noted about the United Teachers of Los Angeles one-day strike fizzle, if it's intended as a public show without a broader strategy around it, it's nothing but street theater, perhaps entertaining and good enough for the evening news, but not enough to shape policy.

Maybe Weingarten needed to drive a harder bargain (and I think that's a reasonable position to take, that she made her peace too early), but you are making an implicit argument against collective discipline if you pretend that a union doesn't have to make strategic choices, make bargains with adversaries, or decide what is a reasonable settlement.

May 29, 2009

Disappointing debate over teacher unions

I wish I could say I had learned something from the education globule's recent debate over the role of teacher unions, but I haven't. When the apparent tail end of the discussion ends with a claim that "unions... are tenacious and need to be defeated, over and over and over again if reform is to advance," I shake my head. Insert "Fordham Institute and other think tanks" where Mike Petrilli had written "unions," and you probably have Jerry Bracey's views on one of those days when the air conditioning breaks, the power goes out, and the roof begins leaking. It's more than a touch of demonization, or what's worse, facile reductionism (a more damning intellectual sin, in my book). 


Surprisingly, Andy Rotherham's rejoinder isn't much more substantive. Maybe there is a role in recapitulating the arguments for people who haven't heard them before, but this blog conversation has read to me much like Joan Scott's 1986 article Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis ($JSTOR), to which one of my fellow graduate students in the late 1980s accurately responded (and the following is a rough paraphrase), "Well, yes, this makes sense, but by now it's obvious rather than productive." 

One of the missing pieces in all this is some sense of the historical roles teachers unions have played over the past century, at times when they have been both powerful and not. Petrilli and others are focusing on three roles of teachers unions: collective-bargaining agents, public representatives for teachers (including lobbyists in legislatures), and scapegoats. The collective-bargaining role of teachers unions is relatively recent, dating from the 1960s and 1970s, and given the variation in legal authority (the "why is Mississippi so bad if it doesn't have collective bargaining?" question), the facile answer now is "because they lobby."

That's an interesting hypothesis, but I have yet to see a single study documenting evidence for the claim that the reason why many school structures in Mississippi are similar to those in Massachusetts is because of the tremendous lobbying power of the Mississippi Association of Educators (the NEA affiliate), or that those school structures are the primary reason why Mississippi's education is inferior. Which structures are the same? Ah, things like changing classes in high school. Bureaucratic rules. You want to throw away things like an academic curriculum? And teacher lobbying is responsible for all that? Maybe it has something to do with institutional isomorphism, or the authority of administrators at midcentury, when many of these structures were consolidated, or the inertia that Mary Metz calls the script of "real school" and Tyack and Cuban call the "grammar of schooling." Homework, folks: do your homework first.

I stick "scapegoat" in that list because teachers unions have been scapegoated in the past in matters entirely unrelated to the concerns of today's... I'm with Elizabeth Green here in needing a better descriptive than "reformer," "reformy person" (I think Alexander Russo gets credit for that), or "wannabe reformer" (and I don't know from whom I've heard that phrase). In Florida in the 1960s, teachers and their unions were accused of various things from communism to sheltering gay teachers. In the early 20th century, the Chicago Federation of Teachers was accused of ... being a union and consorting with unions. Now Petrilli blames "unions" writ large for not being reformy-ish enough for him. Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt, gave it to Goodwill.

Two other roles Petrilli (and many others) are ignoring. One is the role of unions in social movements that extend beyond them. An example of that is the type of innovative organizing drive that UFT had with day-care workers, which simultaneously addressed issues of social class, gender, race, and early childhood education, not to mention the historic focus of teachers unions with K-12 employees in bureaucratic systems. To put it bluntly, childcare workers are on the low end of the education totem pole, women who work for pittances given the huge responsibilities in caring for young children. Childcare is also one of the hidden underbellies of the changing gender dynamics of the American workplace, making possible hundreds of thousands of two-earner and two-professional-earner households, not to mention professional single-mother households. Organizing childcare workers is the type of thing you'd expect SEIU to do (such as in its janitorial organizing campaigns), not UFT, and there will be consequences down the road inside UFT in terms of policy and leadership, and interesting possibilities in other cities.

Reaching back further in time, teacher unions have been involved in a range of social movements from the Progressive Era (with the Chicago Federation of Teachers, Jane Addams, and other progressives suing to recover uncollected taxes from corporations to pay for city services) to the post-WW2 civil rights movements. Teachers unions often have struggled with these issues, but it has also bolstered them. Case in point: the 1968 teachers strike in Florida, where according to my colleague Barbara Shircliffe the public images of teachers was often explicitly multiracial, a message of cross-racial solidarity that's hard to miss as dramatic in the 1960s.

That relationship has not always been negotiated smoothly, as Daniel Perlstein describes in his history of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville controversy, and that touches on the fifth role of teachers unions historically, as organizers of teachers' social identities. Probably the best theorizer here is Ira Katznelson, who has argued in multiple palces that people construct their social identities and roles around different contexts. In the U.S., he argues that there is often a split between the identity at work and the identity in one's home, and the outcomes of political conflict often revolves around how and where those active in a controversy define themselves. Perlstein's book Justice Justice! is an uncomfortable reminder that workplace solidarity is not always synonymous with justice.

A more interesting and productive conversation could revolve around the last, largely ignored issue. How are teachers' social identities formed, and how do workplace politics (including unions) feed into that? To the extent that teachers see themselves as either technical test-preppers or astructural "facilitators," they're ignoring real needs of students, and the context of those tendencies are important. Even the reformy-ish-ist folks believe that, or they wouldn't argue so hard for "reconstitution," "reconstruction," and other proposals to disrupt local school culture. So we all agree with school culture. We all agree that teacher unions matter. Does anyone else see a huge research opportunity rather than a place for pat answers?

February 6, 2009

UTLA and "benchmark" or "periodic" testing

Last week, the United Teachers of Los Angeles called for the cessation of every-few-months testing in the district. The response of the district: such testing is an important tool in improving student achievement, which they know because schools with such testing have had annual-test scores higher than schools without such testing.

The flaw in the district's reasoning is left as an exercise for the reader, because I'm more concerned at the moment about what this debate shows about our attitudes towards assessment. UTLA is wrong to attack frequent testing on principle, though I think they may have a good point about this type of assessment. Such periodic assessment may help schools target assistance to students, or they may serve primarily to mimic the state test and encourage teaching to the test (the predictive success of which principals would know by results on the quarterly assessments). Without knowing more about the details, you can't say which is which, and both phenomena are possible (including in the same school).

What concerns me is the direction in which the machinery of testing is taking formative evaluation. There's a lot of research to suggest that when used to guide instruction, frequent assessment can dramatically change results. There are a number of technical questions about so-called formative assessment (or progress monitoring) that are the domains of researchers in the area: how to create material sufficiently related to key skills or the curriculum, how to create assessments where score movement is both meaningful and sensitive to change, how to gauge appropriate change, how to structure the feedback given to teachers, and so forth. My reading of the literature (which is not complete) is that the most powerful uses of formative assessment require very frequent, very short assessments--on the order of once or twice a week, and about the same length as your typical elementary-school spelling test (i.e., a few minutes at most). 

So what do we see as the evolving, bureaucratic version of formative assessment: long tests taken every few months. That's better than once a year in terms of frequency, but it's still a blunt instrument and absorbs a large chunk of time. The reason for this preference is obvious: a large, unwieldy school system can organize systematic evaluation/feedback around quarterly tests. That's doable. But organizing around something that's taken weekly and would often require data entry (e.g., a one-minute fluency score for first- and second-graders)? That's a different kettle of fish.

That doesn't mean it's impossible. It's easy, if you're a principal who's willing to devote the right resources. Consider reading fluency, for example. (I'm not saying that fluency is more important than comprehension. I just have the experience with this to imagine what I'd do as a principal.) Teach a paraprofessional to have every first- and second-grade student in the school read to them one minute a week on a sample reading passage (there are sets of roughly equivalent passages one can purchase for this purpose). Have them enter the data through a Google Docs form, a SurveyMonkey survey, or some other tool that will send the data to a spreadsheet. Get someone to program the results so that you can show data per child with trend lines and sort by grade, classroom, etc. For a few extra lines of code, you could add locally-weighted regression trends to be really fancy, but that's beside the point.

Here's the point: this is not rocket science, this does not require a gazillion-dollar software package from TestPublisher Inc., and it's very different from the type of quarterly testing that superintendents are buying into in a big way (including that gazillion-dollar software package from TestPublisher Inc.). It's very different from the quarterly testing that UTLA is protesting.

So, Ramon Cortines, here's my challenge: can you document that the quarterly-testing regime is better than the weekly-quiz-plus-trends proposal I've outlined above? The second can fit easily into the routines of any school. The second can start conversations EVERY WEEK at a school. The second is MUCH cheaper. It's also less sexy: no giant software packages manipulable from the front office, no instantly-printable pastel-colored graphs that demonstrate what kids were able to do on a test six weeks ago. You'd definitely give up the flashy for the mundane. But prove to me that the flashy is better than the mundane.

More charter-school organizing

Congratulations to United Teachers Los Angeles for organizing Accelerated School. If the reporting in the story is correct, some of the same issues motivating KIPP teachers in New York to join UFT are also motivating teachers in Accelerated School: teacher turnover, teacher voice in decisionmaking. It's never all about the money. (Hat tip.)

January 13, 2009

Brooklyn KIPP teachers unionizing

As reported in EdWize. What caught my attention was the issue of turnover:

KIPP AMP teachers believe that the high staff turnover at the school has harmed their efforts to build a positive and consistent school culture for their students. "There is a need to make the teacher position more sustainable," says [Luisa] Bonifacio, "so that teachers don't burn out, but are able to make a long-term commitment to the students and the school."

As any labor historian knows, unionization is usually driven by material and also by other considerations that motivate people to sign pledge cards: wanting to be treated decently on the job, having conditions likely to foster success, etc. Having co-chaired a card campaign, I know a touch of what a card campaign involves. If there were an Employee Free Choice Act at the federal level and parallel provisions for public employees in New York state, recognition would be automatic with a supermajority (which apparently UFT has collected from this school's teachers). Then the two sides could sit down immediately and negotiate a contract that meets the needs of teachers and students.

That's possible under current law; it just requires voluntary recognition of the UFT as the collective-bargaining agent for the schools' teachers.

August 1, 2008

A higher-ed unionist's view of the performance-pay debate

Corey Bunje Bower criticized a Newsweek column by Jonathan Alter and has the following response to Alter's slur against teacher unions:

Perhaps the most ridiculous thing that Alter writes -- and the statement that gives away the ideological underpinnings of his argument if anybody wasn't already aware -- is that unions "still believe that protecting incompetents is more important than educating children." Unions are far from perfect, and this is far from the most inflammatory rhetoric that I've read about them, but it's still sheer and utter nonsense.... Though more polite, it's the intellectual equivalent of calling somebody with whom you disagree a [N]azi or a terrorist.

If I were a union leader, however, I would mull over Alter's final point.... the general idea that unions could view submitting their members to more scrutiny in exchange for higher pay is something on which both sides might find some common ground.

I suppose I qualify as a union leader albeit in higher ed, so I'll take the bait. Disclosure: my faculty union was the one to propose merit pay at the table many years ago, and university faculty are more likely to approve of something called merit pay because there is a tradition of peer review for tenure/promotion. (Our collective bargaining agreement provides for general due process and substantive standards but leaves specific procedures for annual reviews to department votes.) So while I am skeptical of several top-down proposals for/policies encouraging performance pay in K-12, it is out of my seeing problems with it rather than a visceral opposition to merit pay. As the car ads say, your mileage may vary.


There are two policy issues here: one is how to think about teacher pay and working conditions in general, and the other is the question of collective bargaining at the local level (and the centralization/local question more generally). In Accountability Frankenstein, I wrote about high-stakes accountability advocates' simplistic and often flawed grasp of motivation. To put it briefly, even if we had a Holy Grail measure of "teacher contribution to learning," that wouldn't be a sufficient justification for relying on test scores for teacher pay. No one has the best idea for what works best, and a top-down approach would short-circuit even the most rabid merit-pay advocate's interest in finding out what works, in much the same way that NCLB's proficiency measure aborted alternative ways to examine student achievement (including quantitative measures such as average scale score, medians, percentile splits, etc.). Essentially, those interested in performance pay have to make the policy choice between experimentation and a crusade. So to all 0.379 Capitol Hill staffers and campaign advisors reading this blog, you should be wary of federal mandates: if you mandate the wrong formula, everyone will pay the price for Beltway arrogance, and you'll endanger the political legitimacy of the idea for the long term.

Caution about top-down mandates also fits with the local nature of collective bargaining and the affiliate structure in American unions. Despite what people may claim about the NEA's visceral opposition to merit pay, the big picture is more complicated: locals have negotiated performance pay or merit pay or whatever you want to call it, and the governance structures of both the NEA and the AFT commit the national affiliates to support collective bargaining at the local level. (There are also the merged locals and state affiliates that belong to both national affiliates.) That federal structure means that the NEA and AFT support what local leaders decide in terms of bargaining strategy and the agreements that the parties ratify at the local level. Where local leadership negotiates performance pay, the state and national affiliates support that. And where local leadership decides not to negotiate performance pay, the affiliates support that, too. (See a March 2008 column from NEA Today for an example of recent rhetoric that illustrates this complexity.) The more accurate policy position of both the NEA and AFT is that they oppose top-down mandates of performance pay, including how it is structured. The AFT is not officially skeptical of performance pay, but both national affiliates work with and for the locals. If you believe that either national teachers union can dictate bargaining positions to locals, e-mail me about my deep-discount sale price on the Brooklyn Bridge.

The second question about performance pay is thus the degree to which there should be centralized decision-making in education, and that is true for collective bargaining as well as for other matters of policy. It is not necessarily a matter of offering a grand bargain to Randi Weingarten and Dennis Van Roekel, because the bargain for some segments of a national union may be anathema to others. Let me put forward a pro-performance-pay, pro-union person's pipe-dream proposal that would serve someone's interests as a union leader, and you may understand: If I were a K-12 union leader in Florida, I would definitely listen to a national policy proposal that would tie some incentives for performance pay (bargained at the local level) to the degree to which a state had the following in place:

  • Collective-bargaining rights for public employees
  • Card-check procedures for certification of public employee unions
  • Binding arbitration for first contracts after a certain length of bargaining (say, 6-12 months)
  • Fair share in a bargaining unit that is represented by a union
Florida currently has one of those (collective bargaining rights for public employees), but gaining the others would be a pretty good trade in return for negotiating some version of performance pay (assuming it's not something that looks like the awful stuff that Florida has tried in recent years). To someone in a state like Florida, that looks like a possible deal. Framed as an incentive, it doesn't step on constitutional toes, but it gives more options to states that respect unions and collective bargaining. On the other hand, that's an awful deal to a union leader sitting in a state that already has fair share as well as collective bargaining. To someone who is opposed to any performance pay in such a state, that proposal looks closer to an insult than a serious attempt at a grand bargain.

As a result of this pattern, where different circumstances lead to different views of policy by local union leaders, you can have leaders sitting in different places, each of whom has a deserved reputation for being able to craft a deal with administrators, but where they have very different views of policy proposals. Ultimately, someone who wants performance pay in K-12 schools has to understand the fact that national affiliates support locals, and that the needs of locals will vary by state environment.

July 17, 2008

Teachers and the public sphere

Partially drafted in Chicago Sunday evening, July 13, and revised July 17:

I'm listening to Susan Ohanian at the moment, talking to a group of about 50 AFT delegates and others. Ohanian is a well-known opponent of NCLB and academic standards and was invited to speak at an event sponsored by the AFT Peace and Freedom Caucus (which should sound familiar to NEA national delegates, who can sign up for an NEA Peace and Freedom Caucus as well). As I've written elsewhere, Ohanian is right in several things and wrong in others. (Go read our books to figure out where we agree and disagree; I like her as a person, and she raises important questions about the purpose of education and high-stakes testing.) But I'm more interested this evening in the audience after she and the other speaker (the leader of an independent teachers union in Puerto Rico) finish. The AFT crowd neither applauded nor booed this morning when Barack Obama talked about merit pay in his live-feed speech to the convention floor. (The crowd went to its feet and cheered loudly when he first appeared and cheered again loudly at the end, and applauded at various points in the 10-minute speech. As Mike Antonucci has noted, it's essentially the same speech he gave to NEA, the one that had NEA California delegates booing, so we have an interesting comparison point.) But since a strong positive reaction followed Ohanian's statement that it was wrong for Obama to claim that teachers are the most important influence on children, I'm fascinated.

Part of the reason why I'm fascinated is because I think Ohanian's arguments are inconsistent. Ohanian worried about the statement by Obama that "the single most important factor in determining a child's achievement is not the color of their skin or where they come from; it's not who their parents are or how much money they have. It's who their teacher is." Ohanian argued that this statement is rhetoric that sets up blaming teachers for all sorts of problems they are not responsible for. A few minutes later, she claimed that the real danger of high-stakes accountability was the destruction of children's imaginations and the creation of a compliant workforce. But there's a logical inconsistency here: how can schools create worker robots if they are not powerful in shaping the lives of children?

I worry (and I said towards the end of the event) that Ohanian's criticism undercut arguments about the importance of the public sphere. You can say that teachers are not crucial to children's lives, but then it's hard to argue that schools should be well-funded. You can say that teachers are not crucial, but then it's hard to argue against all sorts of problematic policy proposals that take authority away from teachers or that position teachers' professional judgment as irrelevant. Ohanian was nodding in acknowledgment at the time, so I think (or I hope) she knows that her impromptu remarks were not consistent with either her deeper views of schooling or that of most teachers.

As it turned out my initial impression of the crowd was wrong: there was a lively discussion after the speakers finished, with plenty of dissent with Ohanian's arguments. So in one sense, I never had my question answered: what drew some of the delegates to agree with the remarks by Ohanian that concerned me the most?

July 15, 2008

Know what union membership means before you write, Ray

Ray Fisman wrote a laudatory article released Friday by Slate about NYC's P.S. 49 principal Anthony Lombardi, an article with themes remarkably similar to what Robert Kolker wrote for New York Magazine in 2003, even down to quoting Randi Weingarten calling Lombardi a tyrant without crediting Kolker. Fisman links to an Inside Schools page summarizing P.S. 49 data and using Kolker's quotation, again without credit. C'mon, Mr. Fisman: if I can find the source by Googling, why couldn't you? (Given that flaw, I am doubtful of Fisman's claim that Lombardi was ever "at the top of the teachers-union hit list" (evidence of any such list or just colorful language to cover up a reporter's lassitude?)

But the passage that had me laughing was the following bit of ignorance:

Currently, New York City teachers get their union cards their first day on the job. In theory they're on probation for three years after that, but in practice very few are forced out. Lombardi suggests replacing this system with an apprenticeship program. Rather than requiring teaching degrees (which don't seem to improve value-added all that much), new recruits would have a couple of years of in-school training. There would then come a day of reckoning, when teachers-to-be would face a serious evaluation before securing union membership and a job for life.

Here is a fundamental conflation of tenure and union membership, or union membership with the legal protections of a collective bargaining agreement, or "serious evaluation" with something. I'm not sure where the root of the error lies, but I do know one thing that's true everywhere, as far as I know: union membership does not change your legally recognized rights under a collective bargaining agreement. It does other things that are important (greater chance of gains at the bargaining table through solidarity, access to specific benefits provided by the union beyond CBA protection, etc.), but Fisman just doesn't know what he's talking about here.

And then Joanne Jacobs repeats the error. Wince time...

July 12, 2008

My AFT convention

Being a Florida delegate at the AFT convention is much easier than being a delegate at the NEA convention: NEA delegates must be at the Florida Education Association daily caucus at 7 am (which is still easier than the FEA leadership, who have a 6 am meeting before the state's 7 am caucus). Here in Chicago, I can luxuriate until the caucus breakfast starts at 7:30 am. Too bad for me the breakfast is designed for meat-eaters who have no family history of cholesterol problems. But it's one of the few times in the year when I can talk with people from other locals, and there are plenty of folks from other parts of Florida whom I very much appreciate as people, fellow educators, and fellow activists.

I also won the hotel-room lottery, having arrived at the hotel late Thursday night. When the desk clerk asked me if I preferred two double beds or a queen, I said, "Any bed that I can sleep on is fine with me." She looked at her computer and said, "Well... I have a king bed in a very nice room," and passed over a room key. I went up to the room, let myself in, and had the relatively unusual experience of feeling my jaw drop to the floor. I left my stuff, returned to the front desk, and asked (another) clerk if I had the right room. (I didn't want to pay for this room's rack rate or have my local on the hook, either.) She explained that sometimes when people with low contracted rates arrive late, the desk clerks only have the... er ... very nice rooms left, so the patrons get them at a much lower rate. I'm not complaining, though I suspect I'm just not the type of person who's going to enjoy this room as much as some others. At least I can finish a complete shoulder roll on the floor and shake my head at the state of the world.

In terms of AFT business, I think I learned the essential ropes in terms of resolutions committees and the AFT's internal politics (organized through the decades-old Progressive Caucus, something very different from NEA caucuses). My one concern on the higher-ed resolutions have been addressed, my state affiliate's president will probably still be on the AFT executive council, and I'll be happy to tell members back in Florida what passed at the AFT in terms of higher ed. Others I know are still actively politicking on various matters, but I've done what I set out to do, and the rest is participation for me in the official affairs of AFT, as a voting delegate.

Oh, yes, and I've met or seen several people from other states, some national staff I've come to know over several years, and walked around the neighborhood here in Chicago. I hope to catch up with at least one friend in Chicago, but I wasn't sure of the convention schedule (in terms of non-general session stuff), so I decided to underschedule. So now you know what I do on a Saturday night during a union convention: get away from the crowds, have dinner on my own (Elephant & Castle, where I haven't eaten in more than 20 years), and hide away in an internet cafe to blog. How sad, eh?

Weingarten on eve of the AFT elections

I've now seen Randi Weingarten speak three times in the last 30 hours, to different audiences and for different purposes. I can see how articulate and comfortable she is in different settings, including when challenged by one AFT delegate on an issue close to his heart. My (admittedly incomplete) judgment is that she is whip-smart, energetic, and definitely ready for prime time.

I don't know how the press will portray her election, though reporters have had several months to write the story in advance. (She's unopposed, and one union friend in another state told me his political judgment earlier this year that she essentially had no choice but to lead the AFT.) For some reporters, the lead will be a continuation of UFT dominance in the AFT leadership. For others, it'll be her shrewdness (or contrariness: take your pick) in leading the UFT towards charter school operations and somehow working with a schools chancellor many NYC teachers hate with a passion (and from my vantage point, for some good reasons). For yet others, it'll be her status as the first openly-gay leader of a major national labor union in the U.S. I don't know if reporters will write about retiring AFT President Ed McElroy's career or the speech by Senator Clinton this morning or Senator Obama later in the weekend.

As she takes over the AFT, the national union is in healthy shape, with a number of successful organizing campaigns over the past few years and growing membership. Internal debates seem focused largely on organizational matters (and relationships between state affiliates and the national), not on issues of (public) policy. Those internal debates are an important part of union democracy, but I suspect that the relative emphasis internally leaves Weingarten plenty of room to make AFT a major player in national policy debates.

One bit of trivia that I think has not appeared outside this blog: the NEA and AFT state affiliates in New York merged recently, so the new AFT president will also be an NEA member (and an NEA local leader, since she'll remain UFT president).

July 10, 2008

Off to Chicago

My flight is delayed 40 minutes, so I have a few more seconds of free Tampa airport wireless. I'm a delegate to the AFT national convention this weekend, and I have no idea how much time I'll have online. I've brought some work with me in case I get bored (ha!). I return in the wee hours of Tuesday morning... if the flight is on time.

Have fun this weekend riding the internet tubes without me, okay?

June 11, 2008

The costs of layoffs

It looks like faculty at USF are "getting off" lightly in terms of layoffs by almost any measure. I have some questions remaining about the choices available to my institution, but the position of faculty here is better than USF staff and better than those who work in other sectors hit hard by the recession. I know of one layoff notice to an instructor and another one to a professional researcher employee, and I expect to receive copies of a few others, mostly to professional employees who are in the bargaining unit. If you'll accept my apologies for the use of academic jargon to describe institutional behavior, this sucks. But it's still better than what Florida university administrators have pondered over the past few months.

Though very few faculty will receive layoff notices, there are real costs to everyone for staff layoffs, and we are starting to see those consequences this week. For the last few weeks, both faculty and staff have been walking around on eggshells, wondering who would receive layoff notices. Now we know: my guess is that more than half of those who will receive layoff notices this summer have been told, though we still may have some trickling in for a week or more. Anyone faculty member who's teaching and drops by the department this week will know which staff members are being laid off.

I know staff who have received notices, and if you aren't concerned about your coworkers' personal welfare, you're pretty low on the scale of human decency. These include people with disabilities, widows, single parents with children, those who have worked at USF for decades and have a solid job record. They have fewer resources than professionals and faculty, and they're being laid off in the worst economy in almost two decades, with gas prices heading sky-high. If you know someone who's laid off in your department and you don't have your productivity hit from several things (helping someone polish a resume, worrying about them, etc.), you need some help with your soul.

Then there are the long-term consequences of laying off staff. There will be longer wait times for equipment repair, more mold in buildings because leaks take longer to be fixed, students who are a little more likely to be alienated because they're less likely to see a human being when coming in for an appointment, stuff that takes longer to get done because there's a growing queue of logistical tasks for fewer people, and a general sense that the university is being dragged backwards.


May 1, 2008

The rest of the story on the excessed teacher controversy

I had been wondering what else was going on with the controversy over the excessed teacher pool in New York City. The politics here just seemed as if something was missing. Leo Casey calls it a naked political power play and lays out UFT's perspective, along with a trail of specifics. The core of the allegation is that

... when UFT President Randi Weingarten blew the whistle on the DoE's wasting of taxpayer funds at City Council hearings, the DoE retaliated by publishing the New Teacher Report it had been holding for this moment...

So part of this is the question of substantive policy, but another piece is the allegation that the NY DoE was being manipulative, essentially making policy by press strategy.

Incidentally, we'll now be able to judge the UFT's details by the city Department of Education's response. Here, remember the adage about what lawyers do: If you have the facts, pound the facts. If you have the law, pound the law. If you have neither the facts nor the law, pound the table.

April 3, 2008

An NEA member at the head of AFT?

In all the discussion about Randi Weingarten's imminent rise to the AFT presidency is one small detail that hasn't yet been discussed: UFT's state affiliate NYSUT is now merged and affiliated with both NEA and AFT. Which makes Weingarten an NEA member.

I have no clue whether Weingarten is a delegate to the NEA convention this summer, but that would be interesting.

January 7, 2008

Insomnia and IHE

If you're here because of the IHE article, welcome! Look around, add comments, subscribe to the RSS feed, and come back often. Here's the story behind Scott Jaschik's piece: I was awake early Sunday morning (or in the wee hours between Saturday and Sunday) and in shape to do not much more than crawl through the overnight news online. I was going through some of the clips from Saturday night's presidential debates and realized that moderator Charles Gibson had faked some numbers about faculty salaries.

If you take a family of two professors here at Saint Anselm, they’re going to be in the $200,000 category that you’re talking about lifting the taxes on...

The Democratic candidates laughed at Gibson, and his comments struck me as representative of journalistic laziness on higher education. St. Anselm is known as a solid Benedictine (Catholic) liberal-arts college in southern New Hampshire, with about 2,000 students. It doesn't have the highest snob-marketing statistics such as average incoming SATs, but the college reports a four-year graduation rate of 74%. They don't do that with highly-paid faculty, and after a little digging, I wrote a brief release mostly for local higher-ed reporters to talk about faculty salaries at USF as well as St. Anselm.

But I also sent it to Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed, figuring he'd add it as a blurb to this morning's quick takes page, after stripping it of any material specifically from me.

I guess it was a slow news day (or a slow news week) at the beginning of the year: I've been quoted for ABC Thinks You’re Rich; ‘U.S. News’ Says Your Job Is Cushy. For the record, I think Jaschik had the newsworthiness judgment wrong: GWU's contract with adjunct faculty is more important than my comments (or Karl Steel's letter of complaint to U.S. News and World Report). And since Jaschik lumps the two issues together, I should note that at least in my case, the job is wonderful: I am overcommitted to too many projects that I've chosen, but at least I'm in the position of choosing them.

But I'm grateful for at least the factual correction of Gibson's glib comment in one of the (electronic) papers of record for higher ed.

November 26, 2007

Palm Beach Community College Trustees Prefer Pets

Absolutely astounding: Palm Beach Community College recently voted against extending benefits to domestic partners but are allowing a discount program for ... pet health care.

August 13, 2007

Organizing charter-school teachers, Chicago style

According to a CATALYST article from April (belated hat tip), the Chicago Teachers Union is organizing teachers in charter schools. I wish I had known of it in the spring, to give a shout out to the national AFT organizer on the ground, Rob Callahan. Good luck, Rob!