Exposing the Man Behind the Curtain: What's Behind "Education Reform"? Part 1 of 3
Boston Teachers Union
In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy learned that behind all the smoke and mirrors, fire and thunder of the great and powerful Wizard of Oz there was nothing more than a con artist. But she only learned that after Toto pulled back the curtain and exposed the man pulling all the levers. To author L. Frank Baum the wizard represented the politicians of his day. The wizards today are the so called education reformers who promise people better schools. But behind their smoke and mirrors are empty promises to the majority of people who want a better life for their children, and real attacks on public school employees and their unions. We need to pull back the curtain.
A good place to start pulling back the curtain is on the recently released study performed by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ). This organization claims to be non-partisan and only committed to improving teaching. Yet it was commissioned by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education and a close read of the 62 page document shows that much of its prescription for what ails the Boston Public Schools has little to do with creating democratic schools and a whole lot to do with creating top-down businesses with all the power concentrated in the hands of the administration.
The document, entitled "Human Capital in Boston Public Schools" is broken into 3 sections and contains 10 goals. The sections are I) Hiring, Transfer and Assignment, II) Developing an Effective Teaching Corps, and III) Working Conditions and Compensation. This month we will look at their goals and recommendations for Hiring, Transfer and Assignment.
Over the years adherence to strict seniority rules in the placement of teachers have largely been eliminated in our contracts. No longer do the most senior teachers get to pick the school where they want to teach. Teachers do have the right to apply for transfers, but principals are under no obligation to accept the teacher with the most seniority. Seniority only comes into play in the excess pool, where the most senior teacher is guaranteed one of their top 3 choices of vacant positions in other buildings. This insures that when budget cuts and layoffs occur the school system cannot simply look to save money by letting go more expensive veteran teachers. No teacher, and certainly no union likes layoffs, but when they do occur determining it based on seniority is the only fair way for this to happen.
NCTQ is recommending that this minimal protection be eliminated in favor of giving principals complete control in the hiring process. If you lose your position due to budget cuts...well...tough. You would be "free" to compete for a position. But if you don't find (or can't find) a position after one year you would be terminated.
The smoke and mirrors NCTQ throws up to confuse the issue is their claim that this is the only way to insure that every child gets the best teacher. And what parent doesn't want the best teacher for their child? They claim that union seniority rules, however minimal they may be, puts the interests of adults before the interests of children. They play on people's emotions and sincere desires to get the best possible education for their children. But in reality this "market" model of education reform that would have teachers competing with each other in the marketplace has little to do with putting the best teacher in front of children, and a whole lot to do with union busting.
What would the school system do without union protections? Let's look to the past, before teacher unions, and then ask a few questions. Before teacher unions it was often political connections that got you the job in the public sector. You would have to curry favor to get and keep your job. If you had enough connections you got placed in better schools. If you spoke out about the injustices you saw in your school? You didn't last long. Just ask Jonathan Kozol, author of Death at An Early Age and other books about the inequalities that exist in public schools, who lost his teaching job in Boston for giving his students a Langston Hughes poem to read.
But that was the past. What would happen today? Would a principal hire a pregnant woman with 10 years experience over a fresh young teacher unburdened by family? Would a teacher with 15 years experience who stood up to an autocratic administrator have a fair shot in this brave new educational marketplace they would like to create? What would stop the school system from eliminating more expensive teachers if given the chance? Is creating competition between teachers the way to build collaborative communities in our schools? Is the real issue union busting?
The corporate interests that bankroll these so-called education reform wizards never liked unions. It cuts into their profits. The union movement of the past created the middle class in this country. The response of business was to ship union manufacturing jobs first to the non-union south and then across the border in search of low wages. High priced lobbyists bought politicians to change labor laws to make it more difficult to organize. Today, most union membership is concentrated in the public sector. I guess we can't be shipped overseas. As the economic crisis gets deeper, smoke and mirrors are being used and public worker unions are targeted as the problem.
NCTQ goes further and criticizes the union contract for the failure to attract the best candidates to open positions in our schools. The timely staffing of schools is important if Boston is to attract the best candidates for openings that exist in our schools. NCTQ does point to practices that do hurt this ability. But it's principals they point to who often "hide" positions by not posting them during the transfer process. This lengthens the process and keeps perspective candidates waiting. NCTQ then makes the disingenuous claim that the only way to solve this problem is to get rid of the transfer process and minimal seniority rights. It's principals who need to change this practice and should be compelled to stop if this is the reason that positions take so long to be filled.
There are many ways to improve the teaching force and create good schools. Meaningful professional development throughout one's career, the time to work with and discuss your practice with colleagues, and creating schools that are real communities with shared decision making are just a few. This is where our energies should go. This is REAL education reform. It's not to be found with the man behind the curtain.