Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Brill on New York City public schools

In this week's New Yorker; read it all and weep. Now, I'm pretty damn liberal, and sympathetic to unions in general — I once marched in a picket line as a member of UAW Local 4121 — but this piece had me frothing for the blood of New York City teacher's unions. As of this moment, I am a supporter of rapid expansion of charter schools everywhere; the sooner the better.

The most maddening thing about the whole conversation is not even the blatant terribleness of the teachers profiled, or the waste of taxpayer money, or the harm to students, but the disingenuousness of the union representatives*:

[Former United Federation of Teachers president] Rudy Weingarten . . . always tries to link the welfare of teachers to the welfare of those they teach — as in "what's good for teachers is what's good for children."

[New York City Department of Education deputy chancellor, Chris] Cerf's response is that "this is not about teachers; it is about children." He says, "We all agree with the idea that it is better that ten guilty men go free than that one innocent person be imprisoned. But by laying that on to a process of disciplining teachers you put the risk of the kids versus putting it on an occasional innocent teacher losing a job. For the union, it's better to protect one thousand teachers than to wrongly accuse one."

. . .

Should a thousand bad teachers stay put so that one innocent teacher is protected? "That's not a question we should be answering in education," Weingarten said to me. "Teachers who are treated fairly are better teachers. You can't have a situation that is fear-based. . . . That is why we press for due process."

Notice how Weingarten completely dodges the question of the cost/benefit tradeoff. Apparently accountability for teachers is synonymous with "fear", and that's unacceptable, full stop.

Sorry, but around the time I became an adult, I realized that, although being held responsible for my actions can produce a variety of emotions, including occasionally fear, this was simply the nature of holding responsibility.

And although it may be better for ten or even a thousand guilty people to go free than for one innocent person be imprisoned, there is surely some number of guilty people going free at which the balance tips. No reasonable justice system can be infallibly free of false convictions; therefore, by allowing a justice system to exist at all, we implicitly acknowledge that some number of wrongful convictions is a price worth paying for protecting society. And that's when the price of a false conviction is putting people in jail. When the cost is merely forcing people to find another job, the balance certainly tilts towards removing more guilty people and occasionally harming an innocent teacher.

It would be one thing for Weingarten to make an argument about where the balance lies, as an empirical matter, in the case of teachers. But she doesn't do that. She simply denies the premise of the question.

And, of course, the willful denial of transparently obvious logic is a huge red flag in any argument. People deny logic when they fear its conclusions, which is to say that they fear truth itself, which is to say that they are both holding an indefensible position, and also aware, on some level, that they're holding an indefensible position. The only remaining question in such cases is whether, in addition to misleading their audience, they're deceiving themselves as well.

Incidentally, this all leads me to wonder if intransigence will ultimately prove counterproductive for teachers' unions in the long run. Treating one's audience the way Weingarten does is insulting to their intelligence; and insulting people is not, as a rule, a good strategy for gaining their support.** I mean, I'm now sufficiently incensed that I'd donate a decent chunk of change annually to any organization that could credibly promise to accomplish nothing at all besides undermining the political power of teachers' unions.

Finally, I should add that the existence of bad teachers is no secret among actual classroom teachers. I was at dinner a couple of weeks ago with a couple of teachers in the Oakland, CA school system and they know who the goofballs are. Talk to a good public school teacher for about twenty minutes about the other teachers at their school, and see if you don't see them roll their eyes about someone or other. Maybe they don't believe that all borderline teachers should be fired, but among good teachers (particularly younger ones) I suspect that you'd find a fair amount of support for booting bad teachers with a much less ridiculously onerous process than currently prevails in New York City.

p.s. If you harbor some suspicion that Brill's article is unfairly slanted due to his haute-bourgeois disdain for the unionized classes, see this Village Voice article which examines a small slice of the same issue. The Voice ain't what it used to be, but anti-liberal it is not. And the union doesn't really come out smelling like roses there either.

*Yes, all of these things are more objectively harmful than the union representatives' disingenuousness; I'm just saying that the latter just pushes my personal buttons more.

**This observation may seem ironic because I insult people on this blog all the time. However, I'm mostly indifferent to the support of those whom I insult.

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