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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Reflexive union-bashing is just lazy writing

by folkbum

Well, this turned out to be longer than I expected, even though what I'm writing about is not the part makes me angry from James T. Harris's call to shut down the Milwaukee Public Schools. It is, however, an issue I want to dispense with separately;
[O]n the whole, M.P.S. has de-evolved into a system that exists solely for the purpose of sustaining itself. By that I mean teachers' salaries and their Rolls-Royce benefits. There is power in the union.

The many dedicated M.P.S. teachers mentioned above--those not remaining solely for the purposes of sustaining and enriching themselves and their union--must do their jobs in the face of [problems omitted for brevity].
Harris is a relatively new blogger on the scene, and his arrival has been greeted with effusive praise by the right Cheddarsphere. But when I read something like this, it makes me wonder, as this kind of union bashing is really just laziness. Not just because it's cliche--and, jeebus help us, it's so tired--but because it betrays a level of ignorance about what's actually happening in the Milwaukee Public Schools and with the teachers union.

Set aside the notion that any union's first priority is to take care of its members--if they didn't fight for fair compensation for their members, they wouldn't be much of a union, no? MTEA specifically and the teachers unions generally are deeply involved in making education better. AFT, NEA, and their affiliates do more professional development with their members than most other unions combined. The MTEA developed a mentoring program, seen as a national model, for improving poor teachers or accelerating their way out the door. The MTEA is an integral partner with the Milwaukee Public Schools in developing its long-term plan (the "Working Together, Achieving More" process).

Harris seems to think that many teachers (and he doesn't specify how many, but with words like "exists solely for the purpose," it makes me think he's saying most) are teaching just because it's a big fat paycheck with health insurance. This is laughable. It's beyond laughable. No one goes into this business for the money. No one stays for the money. It isn't that good--believe me, I wish it were. If teaching in Milwaukee were such a cash cow, we wouldn't be short of teachers, and, maybe, Harris himself would go back into the profession and join us.

More telling than what Harris wrote, though, was what he said on his radio show Sunday night--the podcast is linked from the post above. He had on Corey Thompson, an assistant professor of education at Cardinal Stritch. About halfway through the podcast, toward the end of the conversation with Thompson, the guest starts talking about "leadership issues" in MPS. In context, it sounds like Thompson wants to talk about where and how the district spends its money. But Harris interrupts, getting more animated at that moment than at any other time in the show. He just goes off, putting words in Thompson's mouth:
You know what you're talking about, Dr. Thompson? I'm gonna say it. You're talking about the union! The teacher's union is the leadership, the only game in town when it comes to a roadblock to improving, or any kind of help whatsoever in the public school system.
Harris offers no evidence, no examples. He names no names and identifies no roadblocks. There is nothing there but reflexive animus. And, to his credit, Thompson doesn't take the bait. Harris implies that Thompson weenies out because Thompson has to work with the public schools and can't bite the hand that proverbially feeds him, but Thompson steers the conversation back to reality.

At the end of the show, Harris takes a call from someone who mentions merit pay for teachers, and blames the union for blocking it. The caller offers nothing to suggest that merit pay would improve schools (or, for that matter, that it's been proposed for MPS; it's hard to block something that hasn't been offered). Harris doesn't suggest how merit pay would improve schools, either. And he can't, as such data don't exist, even in places that have tried merit pay.

Worse, though, the caller says a lack of merit pay leaves administrators unable to run their schools, because they can't "pick and choose" teachers, or reward or punish them: "There's no one running the ship," the caller says. Harris fully endorses that, but it again reveals a certain ignorance about what really happens in the schools. Administrators have tremendous influence over who teaches in their schools, and have a wealth of tools at their disposal for identifying and dealing with bad teachers. If administrators won't use those tools, that's hardly the union's fault. If administrators won't take leadership roles seriously, that's hardly the union's fault. Look, if the administrators can't run a school and manage their employees, maybe someone should suggest merit pay for principals!

In none of the reporting about the Milwaukee Public Schools--either Sarah Carr's current excellent series on safety, or in any of the past stories about performance or anything else--is there a suggestion that what's dragging down Milwaukee's schools is the teachers or their union. That doesn't stop people from making that association, I know (including Dad29, who bizarrely claims that MTEA is silent on the issue of school violence, despite the several quotes from MTEA staff and officers in the very article he links to). There's no demonstrable causal link between the MTEA and the problems of MPS. In fact, I'd argue that without union protection, you'd see even the most dedicated of good MPS teachers eyeing the suburbs more seriously.

So that's what it comes down to: Empty overheated anti-union rhetoric, lazy writing and thinking, tired tropes about merit pay and roadblocks. If Harris has something substantive to say about the union, with real examples and facts, then he should be putting that on the table instead.

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