It’s early, but it appears that new DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee and union chief George Parker are off to a good start. The City Paper story is quite thorough and should be required reading for anybody interested in the question of labor-management relations in schools. Kevin Carey and Ezra Klein have pointed out how some on the left seek to show their independence by thoughtlessly blaming the unions for school failure. (Which is not to say that unions, just like management, don’t sometimes take positions that are bad for kids.) But if one were to list the problems in DC schools, union opposition to reform has to rank very low. Even better, I think there is a decent chance that Rhee and Parker will do some things that are genuinely reform-oriented in this next round of contract negotiations.

Update: Parker is not alone. Leo Casey highlights a good Ed Sector report showing the diversity of views among local union leaders.


Recognizing Bad Policing

July 10, 2007

The NY Times’ Bob Herbert is publicizing incidents of bad police practice in schools. In his latest, he describes:

a cop who grotesquely abused his power by invading a high school classroom in the Bronx because a girl had uttered a curse word in a hallway. Not only did the cop handcuff and arrest the girl in a room filled with stunned students and a helpless teacher, but he arrested the school’s principal, who had attempted to reason with the officer.

As a recent ACLU report makes clear, this is not an isolated incident.

That police practice in high-poverty schools often leaves much to be desired should not come as a surprise to education reformers. After all, the education reform community is appropriately quick to criticize bad teaching practice in high poverty schools. Yet few edu-bloggers have focused much on the issue, and some of those who have argued that Herbert has it wrong.

My friend Whitney Tilson argues,

“I’m not buying for an instant Herbert’s assertion that police officers in NYC’s public schools,” and “I suspect that incidents in which police officers are out of line are extremely rare — it’s just that in a system with 1,400+ schools and over 1 million students, even if there’s a 1/100th of 1% ‘error rate,’ that will yield dozens of juicy stories for reports (like the ACLU’s) and reporters (like Herbert) to go nuts over.”

This reaction has long surprised me–so many smart people have really high standards for teachers and really low ones for police officers. But both of these groups have a tremendous influence on poor communities, and we should have high standards for both.

Edu-types should get this, because many of the same things that lead to poor teaching lead to poor policing, and many of the same structural issues that protect bad teachers also protect bad officers. These include: low pay, low barriers to entry into the profession, poor training (if you think education schools are bad, talk to smart officers about the police academies in some cities), strong job protections, administrators who don’t document poor performance, and a culture of low-expectations. Indeed, the same low expectations that allow terrible teaching practice to continue also let terrible policing practices to go on. Too many people think poor kids don’t deserve better.

Teachers and educators and education reformers should all care about this issue, a lot. The bottom line is that our work in schools is trying to change students perceptions of who they are and who they can be. When they are treated like criminals instead of scholars by police officers, either in schools or in their neighborhoods, that has an impact.

Update: I e-mailed a version of this post to Whitney, whose response is here. I take Whitney’s point about the bias in the ACLU report, but I would still recommend people check out the reference to Julia Richman, on page 24. Regardless of how big a problem bad policing in schools is, I think it is pretty clear that the Julia Richman approach to school safety is the way to go.

Kevin Carey and Sara Mead at The Quick and the Ed are addressing one of the fundamental questions that liberals and progressives must face today. In light of the mounting evidence that some public school systems are doing a terrible job of educating poor kids, and kids of color, what is the left’s response? Kevin and Sara have done a great job of outlining some of the key issues. Let me add some important race and class issues to the mix.

How did the left ever get to the point where we were defending school systems that don’t work? Part of the answer, as I’ve written before, is the politics of race:

Many of the urban public school administrations that the left once attacked as white, middle-class enclaves now are the province of middle-class black managers. In his study of urban school systems, Jeffrey Henig found that in Baltimore, Detroit and Washington, D.C., the public school systems are the city’s largest single employer. Many in the black community, including much of the civil rights leadership, have been less likely to criticize the under-performance of these black-run systems.

In 2007, the civil rights community and, in particular, black folks, ultimately are going to have to make a decision: is the civil rights movement vindicated by having upper and middle-class black people (like me) run school systems that disserve poor black children? I believe the answer is no. My father gave most of his life to the movement, and I know that all the marching and the dying that people did was not so that some of us could have jobs. It was so that all of us could read, do math, develop a love for learning, feel the power that comes from knowing your brain can solve tough problems, and get a job you enjoy. Until we become clear on this question nothing else will get fixed.

Last week I posted this comment after attending a Center for American Progress panel on teacher compensation practices. One of the panelists, Nancy Van Meter of the American Federation of Teachers, had this to say in response:

Before we even get to the question of your question “whether merit pay offers the biggest bang for the buck” — I think we need to ask how much bang for the buck it gets period. Unfortunately, I was very disappointed that the paper we discussed provided no evidence on whether the plans succeeded in attracting and retaining teachers, nor did it provide evidence that it resulted in improved student achievement.

Frankly, I was surprised by the paper’s implicit assumption that public schools can and should draw lessons from the compensation systems of privates and charters…that privates and charters are more successful than publics in raising student achievement and recruiting and retaining more effective, qualified teachers. In fact, as I explained, the evidence from the most recent research shows just the opposite — on average. I don’t dispute that there are high performers in every sector — public, private and charters. I strongly believe we can learn a lot from successful charters and privates — but based on the evidence presented in this paper, not in this area.

As I said at the event, there are scores of public schools where performance pay and skills-and-knowledge-based pay are being developed and implemented — some poorly (see Houston) and some well (see Denver, Cincinnati, Douglas County, CO). Public school districts are more likely to look at what other similar districts are doing successfully than to look at the private Salem Academy or High Tech High charter school because districts have to grapple with issues of scale and replicability in ways that don’t confront private schools or small chains of charter schools.

I think Center for American Progress would do a service for all if in a future paper it explores the best models of redesigned compensation systems regardless of what sector they come from– private, charter, public. As you point out, James, it’s not clear that any of the mechanisms are in place to evaluate the effect of the examples presented in the CAP paper. It will be unfortunate (though not unsurprising) if the push for performance pay/merit pay/etc continues with no evidence from any plans showing improved teacher recruitment and retention; improved instruction or gains in student achievement to back up claims.

A defense of teacher unions

January 27, 2007

Diane Ravitch comes to the defense of the much-maligned teachers’ unions in the AFT’s journal, American Educator (here). Ravitch, an unpredictable thinker who typically has interesting things to say about the state of schooling, points out that teachers too often take the blame for the failures of others. As Ravitch says,

Some academics blame the unions when student achievement remains stagnant. If scores are low, the critics say it must be because of the teachers’ contract, not because the district has a weak curriculum or lacks resources or has mediocre leadership. If some teachers are incompetent, it must be because of the contract, not because the district has a flawed, bureaucratic hiring process or has failed to evaluate new teachers before awarding them tenure.

We can’t let unions completely off the hook for what’s wrong in schools today. There are simply too many examples of unions fighting educational changes that would benefit kids. But Ravitch’s article is a good corrective to some of the thoughtless union-bashing that has become commonplace in some school reform circles.