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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Fisking Owen Fisking Me Fisking Wendy

This was too long to do in the comments over there. But you can get yourself up to speed by starting here (note the comments), then here, then here (again noting the comments), and finally here. That last one is what this is in response to.

The italics are Owen. Yes, he actually said these things.

Who gives a rat’s ass which acronym actually does the negotiating? [. . .] It doesn’t matter who’s at the table when everyone knows who’s in the next room.
When Wendy (or anyone else) claims that WEAC negotiates with local districts, it is simply an untruth. Worse, it shows a fundamental lack of understanding about How Things Work. Your scary picture of the gorilla in the next room is fun and all, but not representative of Real Life.

WEAC is no different from, say, a state or national Teamsters organizaton. However, I doubt you and I will agree much on the issue of unions in general.

The QEO exists largely because of Shared Revenue.  With the State funding two-thirds of schools, local districts were all too happy to give out lavish compensation packages because they only had to pony up a fraction of the cost.  The State taxpayers have a vested interest in controlling costs and the QEO is meant to address that. [. . .] If you are willing to dump Shared Revenue, then I am willing to dump revenue caps AND the QEO.  Deal?
The QEO, shared revenue, and revenue caps are, indeed, all related. In fact, people on my side of the issue have been hoping to revisit those issues for a decade. Believe me, we would be more than happy to take you up on your trade of QEO and revenue caps for the shared revenue.

And now we may actually have a shot: In order to balance the last biennial budget, state aid to schools is down to about 64%, not the full 2/3, and next time around it will likely be even less. (This is why MPS is asking for a hike in its tax levy--to begin to make up for the millions lost in state aid by pushing right up to the revenue cap.)

You are absolutely correct that healthcare costs are increasing in Wisconsin.  They are increasing for everyone. [. . .] You won’t find a lot of sympathy regarding your healthcare costs from those of us in the private sector. Furthermore, I must point out that WEA Trust Insurance provides health insurance coverage for 80% of school districts in Wisconsin.  WEA Trust Insurance is run by WEAC--your union--and its rates are higher than the market norm.
Health care is a whole can of worms that I get the feeling you and I could debate for weeks on end. WEA Trust may have higher rates (and a brief Googling didn't give me what I was looking for, so if you have a cite, I'd gladly take it). But the WEA trust is also an award winning provider and WEA Trust and WEAC are among the leaders in the state in trying to actually reform the system to bring down costs for everyone. Beyond that, the reason that 80% of the districts in the state use the WEA Trust for insurance is that by themselves, they are too small to negotiate rates even as low as the WEA Trust provides--by pooling, they get a rate that, while maybe higher than average (taking your word for it), is lower than if they all tried to insure themselves individually.

While you're right that I tend not to find sympathy in the private sector on the health care issue, what's surprising is that I find so few allies. As I said in that post you linked to, what's obscene, to me, is that so many others do not have the level of coverage that I do. You're right to say that am a "liberal activist," and among the other fights I am active in, I am working to make health care coverage of the quality I have available to everyone. How evil does that make me?

Health care is the new weather, I always say--everyone complains about it, but nobody is willing to do anything. If every second people spent complaining about how good teachers' insurance is were spent fighting for reform, maybe people wouldn't have a reason to complain anymore.

If the cost [of private voucher schools] is the same to the state, or less, then why should it matter where my child receives his or her education?  Isn’t the point to educate the children?  It is to me, but apparently not to you.  You aren’t satisfied unless that child is being educated by a card-carrying dues-paying member of WEAC.  I’m more concerned about my child’s education--not the building in which it takes place.
The school choice debate, like health care, is one that we could have for weeks on end, and I don't want to get too deeply into it here. But one reason why the cost of private schooling to the state is "the same, or less" is that the state places burdens on the public schools that it does not and will not place on private schools. If and when the state does require private schools to accept special education students and provide full services under IDEA legislation and test students and hold schools accountable under the ESEA legislation (just to name two), then we can compare costs and see how comparable they are.

I'm concerned about quality--the students educated in voucher schools are, like public school students, the future of this city. If there is no guarantee that those schools will be held to the same standards as public schools, then I have a right to demand that my tax dollars not support that (potentially) substandard education.

Now, I know that there are dozens of quality private schools in Milwaukee with long-standing traditions of success. But what we have created here is a cottage industry, where anyone who takes a notion can hang out a shingle and bilk taxpayers out of money for what amounts to a daycare.

I've written about that here.

As for four-year-old kindergarten, let me re-phrase your paragraph:
The American Dental Association says that flossing is necessary and needed for people to prevent cavities.  True, right now they are only looking for more floss to be available.  But once you have taken the position that something is critical to the dental hygiene, isn’t the next logical step to demand that it be made mandatory?  I am not fooled by incrementalism.

See how absurd that sounds? And in any case, what Wendy said ("They [WEAC] want to force parents into sending their kids to school at 4 years old") is a bald-faced lie by even your own admission.

Although you don’t actually cite any studies to back you up, I tend to think that you are correct.  This is mirrored in the private sector.  Experience counts, but it always has to be weighed against expense.  I’m sure that if we gave teachers $600k/year and a 20-hour work week that turnover would plummet.  So, really, it’s just a matter of what turnover rate is acceptable. [. . .] I’d be willing to accept even higher turnover rates to keep my property taxes down.
I'm sorry I didn't take the time to fully source a comment I left on someone else's blog. </snark> For a start, this Education Week article provides a nice summary both on the experience issue and on the training issue I'll discuss in a minute:
Some studies that have correlated teacher test scores on basic skills tests and college entrance exams with the scores of their students on standardized tests have found that high-scoring teachers are more likely to elicit significant gains in student achievement than their lower-scoring counterparts (Ferguson, 1998; Ferguson & Ladd, 1996; Strauss & Sawyer, 1986).

Deep content-area knowledge is also an attribute of teachers that seems to have a positive impact on student achievement (Monk, 1994). This appears especially true for science and mathematics teachers. A review of research by the Education Commission of the States found moderate support for the importance that teachers be well-versed in their subjects. The review points out, however, that the research is not detailed enough to clarify how much subject matter is critical for teaching specific course levels and grades. The same review found less support for the importance of pedagogical coursework or field experiences for teachers, although courses focused on how best to teach a particular subject may contribute to effective teaching (Allen, 2003).

Teaching experience also appears to have an influence on student achievement. Teachers with less teaching experience typically produce smaller learning gains in their students compared with more seasoned teachers (Fetler, 1999; Murnane & Phillips, 1981). However, most of those studies have also discovered that the benefits of experience level off after the first five or so years of teaching.
So the question becomes, as you say, what turnover rate is acceptable? The fact is, 40% of teachers leave before those key first five years are up, and in urban districts, like mine, that number is close to or over 50%. That means the students most in need of qualified, experienced teachers are least likely to get them.

Look, teaching isn't simply a matter of "being smarter than your students," as Wendy so glibly noted. There are things you only learn with experience and training, like classroom management, how to individualize instruction, best paractices, and more.

And a higher turnover rate will emphatically not keep your property taxes lower. If a principal, department chair, program coordinator, lead teacher, mentor, or school district has to take the time and resources to get new teachers up to speed (and, in the case of a school district, advertise for, process, and hire new applicants), that's time and resources not spent actually educating a child.

Training a call center worker (and, hey, I spent many a summer as one) is nothing on the order of training a teacher. The longest I spent training for a call center job was 12 hours. I spent two sememsters in student teaching and still didn't feel I had the hang of it until into my third year as a teacher.

In my perfect world, turnover, outside of retirees, would be zero. That 15% is the norm does not make it acceptible.

Teachers in private schools tend to be paid less, have lower turnover, higher morale, and better results.
Source, please? And, if possible, I'd like you to distinguish between the aforementioned long-standing private schools with track records of success and the new bumper crop of voucher schools that have sprung up to suck taxpayer money.

As for morale, I’ve seen two forces at work in schools that lead to poor morale.  First, it is in the teachers’ best interest to complain.  [. . .] Second, the union, like unions everywhere, encourage the teachers to be unhappy.
What I said about morale has zero to do with pay or the union's attempts to keep us unhappy. What I said has everything to do with losing my best friend to a non-teaching job, plus watching the best teacher in my department walk away, not to mention trying to work knowing that a significant number of teaching positions in my school are being filled by long-term subs because people just aren't lining up to get into this profession.

I will not dignify your attacks on the union with a response; as I said earlier, you seem to have a skewed sense of what unions are and what they do.

You are a 10th grade English teacher.  How would a Masters in English make you any better at teaching tenth graders?  Especially when only about a third of your class is even proficient at reading in the first place?  The problem with how the pay vs. training structure in public education works is that teachers are encouraged to get more education, even if that additional education has little or no relationship to the job that the teacher performs.
You're wrong on several counts, here. One, my MA is in teaching, not English. (Though I would refer you back to the Ed. Week excerpt about content-area training.) Few teachers hold MAs or MSs in their subject areas; most of us pursue higher degrees in curriculum, administration, special needs education, or other education-related fields. Two, we do not get paid more for higher education outside of our fields--in other words, if it has no relationship to the job we do, tough cookies. I have seen tachers fight for years to try to get the district to accept their MBAs or other degrees to no avail. You're right that a degree in physics wouldn't help me teach better--but I wouldn't get paid more for it, either.

In the private sector, we are compensated based on performance.  I want the public sector employees to be compensated based on the same metric.
How do you judge? Students are not widgets, so many of which I can produce in an hour. Really, this is not a rhetorical question: I want to know, Owen, by what metric you would judge me. This merit-based pay thing rolls around fairly often, and I have yet to see a standard that makes sense and is fair. If you've got one, please share.

Wendy was not talking about the specific mechanics of how WEAC works. She was speaking to the issues that WEAC advocates that she (and I) believes are detrimental to the education of children in Wisconsin.  WEAC exists for the betterment of teachers--not the betterment of education for our children.  Some folks try to argue that better teachers equals better education.  After 35 years of following the teachers unions’ lead and ending up with a wretched education for our kids, I think that their argument falls flat.
I'm sorry, I guess I should have gotten that MA in English to know that a sentence like "WEAC steals tax dollars in the way they negotiate contracts for teachers" really means something other than what, on its face, it clearly says. My bad.

But, two questions, and, again, serious answers would be appreciated:
1. WEAC is a union, as is my local. Unions, by definition, serve one basic purpose: to protect their membership. So to say that teachers' unions protect their member teachers is like saying that the microwave pops your popcorn. It's what they do. Why is this wrong?

2. I'm sorry, but how in the world can you say that WEAC's leadership has been "wretched" when by most reports (this one, for example), Wisconsin ranks at or near the top in educational quality? Yes, Milwaukee, in particular has issues, but the state overall does an outstanding job that you cannot help but be proud of.

I guess what's most disturbing about your last statement, and it is echoed in your opening "rat's ass" comment, is that you show a certain proud ignorance (ignorant pride?) about this subject. What you say is not true, is in fact laughable to anyone who knows the truth, and yet it has the ring of truth within your own twisted world-view. WEAC may not do any negotiating, you say, but since unions are bad (teachers' unions in particular), any negotiation is tainted by the shadowy presence of WEAC in the next room. Or, WEAC may only want full funding for four-year-old kindergarten so districts aren't cutting PhyEd and music to pay for it, but since WEAC is evil, it's only a matter of time until 4K is compulsory.

If you have issues with public schools or unions in general--and I believe you do--fine. But don't make up lies out of whole cloth or talk in unsupportable generalities when it comes to education in this state. Maybe there's a reason why the initials of your blog are B and S.

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