Worse than Michelle Rhee: Teachers and public schools have a shocking new enemy

George W Bush's education secretary called teacher unions terrorist organizations. Post-Vergara, do liberals agree?

Published July 1, 2014 4:55PM (EDT)

  (AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Jeff Chiu/Mary Altaffer)
(AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Jeff Chiu/Mary Altaffer)

Remember when Rod Paige, Secretary of Education under George W. Bush, called teachers unions "terrorist organizations?"

The year was 2004, and, according to accounts written at the time, Paige made the remark "in a private White House meeting with governors while answering a question about the National Education Association." He was speaking "at length" about the implementation of the relatively new, back then, law called No Child Left Behind, a law now widely regarded as a failure.

That law, as you recall, rolled out unfunded mandates for nationwide testing and unreachable "accountability" goals for the nation's schools – policies that are now widely regarded as unworkable, if not downright contemptible. At the time Paige made his remark, the NEA had said the law was "practically impossible to implement," under-funded, and in need of more "flexibility" – criticisms today generally regarded as true.

Recall also that Paige's remark ignited outrage from politicians and activist groups on the left. "Vile and disgusting form of hate speech," said Terry McAuliffe, then-chairman of the Democratic National Committee and now the newly elected governor of Virginia. Move On posted a petition on its website, co-sponsored by the Campaign for America's Future, that got millions of signatures from people who agreed, "We teach our kids that name calling is not the right way to win an argument – in fact, it’s usually a sign that you don't have the facts on your side. Making our schools better is a tough job. We need a Secretary of Education who sees teachers and their representatives as partners in this effort rather than as enemies."

Leading Democrats, including Sen. Harry Reid, joined with the NEA in demanding Paige resign, and before the year was out, he was gone.

My how things have changed.

From Insults To Injury

Now, flash forward to today.

The campaign against public school teachers and their unions has evolved from casting insults to inflicting real injury. The recent ruling by a California judge in the Vergara v. California case made it a legal precedent to equate teachers' employment security to an affront to students' rights to a quality education.

David Cohen of the California teacher leadership network, Accomplished California Teachers, wrote on that organization's blog, that the Vergara decision was determined before the case was even tried. "Questions about the plaintiffs’ standing and their ability to prove any harm were dismissed," he explained. No real proof of harm to individual or schools was ever shown. The testimony against teacher job security policies relied mostly on economists. And the ruling was based on mostly "a thought exercise" rather than relevant legal precedent.

In an interview that appeared on Salon, UCLA law professor Jonathan Zasloff noted, "There was a trial here, there was testimony here; but there seemed to be very few facts that the judge explicitly relied on for his decision."

As education journalist and author Dana Goldstein pointed out for The Atlantic, whether you like or dislike the California policies that Vergara struck down, those policies "aren’t the only, or even the primary, driver of the teacher-quality gap between the state’s middle-class and low-income schools. The larger problem is that too few of the best teachers are willing to work long-term in the country’s most racially isolated and poorest neighborhoods. There are lots of reasons why."

At The New York Times, education professor Jesse Rothstein concluded that the judge's ruling "will do little to address the real barriers to effective teaching in impoverished schools, and may even make them worse."

Nevertheless, an enormous PR campaign hailing the ruling has begun, and Vergara-inspired copycat lawsuits are being rolled out in other states.

So how does "the left" respond?

What's Happened To "The Left"?

Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education in a Democratic presidential administration, declared the court ruling on Vergara a "mandate" that "protects students’ rights to equal educational opportunities." Michelle Rhee, former chief of Washington, D.C., public schools and avowed Democrat, called the ruling to deny teachers due process when they are threatened with employment termination a "clear win for all children." The Center for American Progress stated the Vergara verdict "appropriately" pits a teacher's job evaluation against her students' rights to equal access to a quality education. And left-leaning columnist Matt Bai, writing for Yahoo News, said the ruling "condemned" the negotiated rights of teachers to have some safeguards against arbitrary firing as "age-old protections of incompetent teachers." Oh, and about the NEA? Bai called the organization "intransigent and blindly doctrinaire" – tantamount to "the National Rifle Association."

What happened?

How did teachers and their unions – those bastions of labor rights, loyal supporters of Democratic candidates, and frontline troops educating the nation's children – become equal to zealots who turned the mass slaughter of school children and teachers – yes, teachers were killed that day – in Newtown, Connecticut, into a rationale to advocate for more guns and fewer restrictions on firearms?

Hey, Teachers Unions Are Teachers

There's an easy answer to the question of how so many left-leaning people changed from staunch NEA defenders to irrational union haters.

As education policy analyst and research expert Matt DiCarlo of the Albert Shanker Institute recently explained, many on the left have been conditioned to regard teachers as separate from their unions. As an example of this notion, DiCarlo pointed to a quote from liberal Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter, who stated in the union-bashing documentary "Waiting for Superman," "It’s very, very important to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time. Teachers are great, a national treasure. Teachers’ unions are, generally speaking, a menace and an impediment to reform."

What idiocy. As DiCarlo explained, "Teachers’ unions are comprised of members who are teachers, they’re led by teachers (many still in the classroom) who are elected by teachers, and union policy positions and collective bargaining agreements are voted on and approved by teachers."

Yes, there is certainly some distinction between teachers and their unions, DiCarlo hedged, because the unions are mostly democratic organizations, which include teachers who hold minority views – within the union – on issues unions have taken strong stances on and teachers who don't bother participating in union processes. "But don’t kid yourself," DiCarlo wrote, "In the majority of cases, disagreeing with unions’ education policy positions represents disagreeing with most teachers. In other words, opposing unions certainly doesn’t mean you’re 'bashing'” teachers, but it does, on average, mean you hold different views than they do." (emphasis original)

Teachers unions are not the only examples of organized labor who have been rebranded as somehow separate, even anathema, to the workers and the workers' rights they fight for. As teacher Ani McHugh recently explained on her personal blog, in reflecting on the recent Supreme Court ruling in the Harris v. Quinn case that thwarted unionization of home care workers, "People have long forgotten the virtues of organized labor–and the benefits most workers enjoy that were fought for and earned by unions.  Minimum wage … weekends … sick leave … workers’ comp … child labor laws? Etc. etc. etc.? Meh. Now, public workers who want that stuff are lazy and greedy.  (But private-sector people who get such benefits deserve them, dammit!)"

McHugh included in her post an "overview of what strong teachers’ unions do for their members," which included examples of student and teacher achievement, professional development opportunities, fair tenure reforms that still ensure ineffective teachers would be dismissed, influence on legislative policy, and better community relationships.

All this is somehow not representative of what teachers want?

The Clueless Left

Another easy answer for why teachers unions have fallen out of favor with liberals is that when education policy is the matter at hand, liberals no longer know what they're talking about.

That observation certainly seems to pertain to the folks at the Center for American Progress who believed the Vergara case rested on "the role of effective teaching in educational equity."

While no one denies that good teachers matter a lot to the education trajectory of children, the whole notion that policy makers have a valid and reliable method for identifying who is and is not an effective teacher is far from a settled matter.

Currently, new teacher evaluation systems are being rolled out across the nation at the encouragement – others would contend, coercion – of the federal government.

According to Education Week, at least a dozen states have asked the U.S. Department of Education to allow them delays in rolling out those evaluation systems due to their complexity and the often-controversial results.

In states that claim to have had more success at implementing new teacher evaluations, the results have been decidedly underwhelming.

As Education Week reported last year, “In Michigan, 98 percent of teachers were rated effective or better under new teacher-evaluation systems recently put in place. In Florida, 97 percent of teachers were deemed effective or better. Principals in Tennessee judged 98 percent of teachers to be ‘at expectations’ or better last school year, while evaluators in Georgia gave good reviews to 94 percent of teachers taking part in a pilot evaluation program.”

Indiana‘s new evaluation program found, “88 percent of teachers and administrators were rated as either effective or highly effective under the system; only about two percent need improvement, and less than a half a percent were deemed ineffective.”

In many of these states where supposedly under-performing teachers have been spotted, there are numerous anecdotes that the labeling has been either highly questionable or blatantly mistaken. Teachers in Florida, for instance, have their performance rated using the test scores of students they’ve never even taught.

Most of the flaws in these teacher evaluation systems stem from their reliance, in varying degrees, on student test scores – a criterion, by the way, that teachers unions have often accepted in their negotiations with management.

As Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuk recently reported, the American Statistical Association, “the world’s largest community of statisticians,” examined the practice of basing teachers’ performance evaluations on students’ standardized test scores and warned against this approach.

Reflecting on the new ASA study referenced above, education journalist Valerie Strauss wrote on her blog at The Washington Post, that current teacher evaluation methods of evaluating teachers “purport to be able to take student standardized test scores and measure the ‘value’ a teacher adds to student learning through complicated formulas,” but “these formulas can’t actually do this with sufficient reliability and validity.”

So the designation of "ineffective teacher" remains by and large arbitrary.

In fact, one of the students testifying for the plaintiff identified an "ineffective" teacher who had previously been awarded Teacher of the Year and who had been lauded by numerous of her students on a school-made video.

Writing at the blogsite of education historian Diane Ravitch, the teacher, Christine McLaughlin, explained that the student making the accusation had "stated that every teacher she had in [her school district] from fifth through ninth grade were 'bad' teachers. Except one! The one that recruited her to join this lawsuit. He had his agenda because he was RIFed [let go due to a reduction in force policy], and he did not like the system. I was moved into his position (I was RIFed that year too).”

That liberals are ignorant of the flaws with teacher evaluation systems could be a matter of just the unwillingness of folks like those at the Center for American Progress to engage with educators rather than economists on the issues … or it could be a matter of something else.

A More Likely Explanation

The more difficult but likely more accurate explanation for why many on the left have done an about face on teachers unions has to do with the philosophy driving prominent liberals today.

In another recent conversation occurring on Salon with Thomas Frank, Barry Lynn of the New America Foundation pointed out that the Democratic Party, which has been serving as home for the left, suffers from a schism. Although Lynn's analysis pertained mostly to economics, now that economics is the frame most used by policy makers to analyze education, his conclusions are apt metaphors to understand what produced rulings like Vergara and the adulations it received from supposed progressives.

In the conversation, Lynn contended while on the one hand, there are those in the party who "believe in community based democracy and industrial liberty," there is an "overlay … of people who still really believe that the main thing we should aim at is efficiency, and these people wield real power in the party."

This cult of efficiency currently dominating the left is what has led to education policy driven by what Valerie Strauss called an “obsession with standardized test scores."

Eventually, the cult of efficiency spawned in economic think tanks persuaded advocates in the civil rights movement to join in “a motley alliance,” to use the words of University of Texas education professor Julian Vasquez-Heilig, to impose new teacher evaluation systems and a way of thinking about teachers as the chief engineers of students' education destinies.

This alliance has the support of the federal government and rich private foundations and venture capitalist that pay for the Vergara lawsuit and other efforts to attack teachers unions. Yet it has produced little if any progress in achieving education equity for children, despite the stated intent.

What it is definitely producing, though, is an economic system geared toward treating teachers as replaceable parts in a manufacturing process in which their jobs become more expendable even as student achievement levels barely budge and the least served children in the system remain that way.

The costs of this are not just a deteriorating teacher profession made up of low paid, expendable workers and a irreparably harmed education system capable of serving only the most fortunate students, but, as Lynn puts it, "the end of democracy … the end of liberty."

Teachers and their unions are the conscience reminding the left of this ensuing disaster. Let's hope someone is listening.

By Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

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