Public-sector unions as Public Work: The Case for Teachers

(This post is a continuation of Arendt, Antisemitism, and the Chicago Teachers’ Strike.)

Another way of thinking about public sector unionization is as an effort to force democratic public institutions to remain accountable to the professional standards and know-how of those who work within them. Citizens want better, more accountable teachers, yet they don’t know how to achieve this. Politicians are pressured to offer the politician’s fallacy:

“Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, we must do this.”

Thus, they end up championing measures like high-stakes testing that masquerade as accountability while failing to supply statistically meaningful information about teacher quality. Without an advocacy group, Chicago’s teachers would not be able to convey this simple message: there may well be bad teachers, and the current system makes them difficult to fire, but the proposed measures won’t help us get rid of them. Instead, the tests will make teachers randomly fireable based on their bad luck in getting the wrong students, and as a result experienced teachers will learn to avoid contexts (like underserved students) that place them at risk.

The plan is assuredly bad, but it’s the best that a technocratic vision of our educational troubles can cobble together. Real technocrats ought to realized that we don’t actually have educational troubles, at least not in the sense that most people assume: our schools are the best in the world, and everyone knows it but us.

In education, it’s important to recognize that we do better than the comparative international rankings give us credit for. We do poorly in rankings that don’t acknowledge that immigration creates unique challenges, but such rankings are bound to prefer homogeneous and xenophobic places and I don’t think we should see them as any kind of model to emulate. If you divide our performance into two bands, one of immigrants and one of non-immigrants, and compare us to the same bands of other nations, we’d win both categories: we do better by our long-term residents, and we do a better job educating immigrants. The US outperforms Western Europe and Asia on PISA scores, if you account for the demographics of immigration. As much as the political rhetoric and in the US is quite xenophobic and there’s been plenty of backsliding in the last few years in various states, we’ve long been deeply economically and culturally committed to a kind of multiculturalism you won’t find anyplace outside of North America. (Canada is also awesome on this front, but Finland certainly isn’t!)

That’s right: we’re doing it the best it can be done here in the US, (though the pace of the quality increases are slowing.) Plus we educate more immigrants than any other country, to better effect. We’re ranked lower because we have more, lower-skilled immigrants, not because we don’t teach as well. What’s more, education is an important part of immigrants’ assimilation, and we’re better off to have those new citizens, even if it means we take a hit in the “overall” scores.

Why then do we seem to believe otherwise?

“Of course, the biggest myth that the media reporting of PISA scores propagates is that the American public school system is horrible. The liberal left in U.S and in Europe loves this myth, because they get to demand more government spending, and at the same time get to gloat about how much smarter Europeans are than Americans. The right also kind of likes the myth, because they get to blame social problems on the government, and scare the public about Chinese competitiveness.”

What’s worse, often times international rankings are used to try to show that American teachers aren’t performing as well as they ought to be. In fact, they’re dealing with so much more than teachers in other countries, and succeeding, but their successes are being inappropriately compared to the easy victories elsewhere and painted as failure. Gah!

We should still strive to improve. This will sometimes require teachers to change in ways they would like to avoid. But let us be clear that we’re in the position of improving on the best, which is more difficult than simply aping the behavior of those who are allegedly “ahead” of us. (Think of Apple: they’re in the lead, so there’s often no one for them to copy.) And we should always ask ourselves why something is the way it is before we try change it, lest our efforts at improvement merely make it worse. Teachers and teachers unions are certainly in this category! Remember Chesterton’s Fence….

Of course, the Democratic technocrats aren’t all wrong. Sure, poor students do poorly, but some poor students do more poorly than others, and the correlations suggest that some teachers are much, much better at helping poor students improve. That means we can’t just throw up our hands and point to structural racism and poverty, because teachers merit a share of the praise or blame for actually enacting that poverty and racism by exacerbating mediocrity or rising to the challenge. At the same time, discovering the traits that make teachers great doesn’t guarantee that we’ll have an infinite supply of folks with those traits. We need excellent doctors and scientists and politicians, too. If there’s not enough greatness to go around, what then?

Our ongoing strategy has been to shunt the most ineffective teachers to deal with the poorest students, with predictable results. But the reverse strategy isn’t likely to satisfy, either: rich people want their kids to have good teachers, too, and they can afford to pay for the privilege. If we believe that they’re really getting something for their money (and maybe we shouldn’t; maybe private school teachers are no better than public school teachers) then we ought to see what we can do to get it for poor and middle-class students as well.

I should just note that while the strike has been suspended, the Emanuel administration is trying to enforce a provision of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act that prevents teachers from striking on the basis of “workplace conditions” like retention and testing regimes, and instead mandates mediation for such matters. This provision was added as a part of the 1995 move to grant mayoral control of schools championed by Richard Daley. Even as a dedicated deliberativist and advocate of alternative dispute resolution, I can’t help thinking that such a mediation is unlikely to lead to the promulgation of a wise testing policy, which would be extraordinarily expensive and slow to design, evaluate, and implement. Even then, many teachers will never work with enough students in the average two-year period to generate statistically meaningful results. And yet the drumbeat for measurable excellence continues.

Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.

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