School Reform and Politics: The Inflammatory and the Misperception Across the School Reform Divide

Summary: An op ed piece from the Washington Policy Center is examined for its “non-partisan” view on the Washington Education Association and school reform in Washington State.

School reform is a highly complex enterprise, with streaming from the surrounding culture always in play, and actors as diverse as students, parents, teachers, and administrators inside the educational beast. Operating from the outside are politicians, university based researchers, special interest organizations with skin in the game (in a sense including unions), journalists and all manner of lookers on with their own particular set of knowledge and skills and sometimes an axe to grind.

Note the “inside” and “outside,” which is purposeful. I do fear that often there is too little understanding of the real problems of teachers on the part of outsiders, while the power of outsiders and their particular solutions, sometimes well-meaning and well thought out, but sometimes petty and poorly conceived, can intensify the bunker mentality in schools, and hinder rather than help progress. I read with interest a report by Linda Shaw last month in the Seattle Times that the Gates Foundation, heavy hitter in school reform circles, has found it appropriate to mend fences with teachers, after past head butting. Cross fertilization and communication are too often casualties when diverse points of view seek identical goals.

So it was with dismay that I read a recent op ed piece in the Seattle Times by Liv Finne, the Educational Director of the Washington Policy Center, which attacks the Washington teachers’ union —  “Education reforms for state students blocked by the WEA.”

The website of the Center identifies itself as a non-partisan think tank “promoting sound public policy based on free market solutions.” The skeptic in me wonders if advocates of free market solutions can in fact be non-partisan, particularly in the current political environment, but as a fallen away economics major in college I have myself with limited success tried to apply market principles to public policy issues, particularly education, so am relatively open to such arguments where they make sense. We need all the help we can get, particularly fresh ideas. I even agree with a couple of the major positions Ms. Finne argues, in both of which the WEA falls short.

But the title of her piece, “Education reforms for state students blocked by the WEA,” immediately raised red flags: “uh, oh, another bashing of the union and by extension the teachers it represents.” At least the Gates folks have learned from their mistakes. And, indeed, some of the half-truths in Ms. Finne’s article are uttered in the fine tradition of partisanship, which need not mean the usual Democrat/Republican divide, but which may refer more generally to advocacy of one side of an argument to the exclusion of more balanced (and therefore confusing!) rebuttal. How language is used can reveal partisan intent, in this case an attempt to delegitimize the WEA.

First, she is correct in lambasting the Washington Education Association for its resistance to charter school experiments in Washington State. As I have argued in a recent post, the union appears to have failed to even consider the option and has left little evidence of entering the conversation in order to allow the wealth of its membership’s knowledge to influence the outcome.

Second, she is correct in my view that principals be given the power to prevent the forced transfer to his or her building of an inferior teacher, as I have also argued in a recent post. Ms. Finne lays the blame for the failure of this proposal at the feet of the WEA, as well. I have not been close enough to this particular issue to comment on the charge, but other of her statements remind me that the full story is a casualty when politically charged comments enter the arena.

For example, she states that in typical school practice “restrictive seniority policies prevent students from learning from the best teachers.” Overreach, Ms. Finne. Though I agree with the point you attempt about the forced transfer of inferior teachers, this particular statement implies a blanket quarantine of students from the best teachers, and so misleads and inflames.

Better that market based philosophy find ways to keep the 46% of teachers who leave the profession after five years. Among that throng are surely many individuals who would have developed into the fine teachers you lament. Or, learn from the Finns (no pun intended), and ask how market based solutions might guide the infusions of state money the court has ordered, untie the many tangles of school bureaucracy, and liberate teachers into the ranks of independently acting professionals. Ponder in market philosophy the message of Finnish teachers that they value their autonomy as professionals in the Finnish system more highly than their pay scale, which is not so astronomically different from our own.

Later in the same article, Ms. Finne avers that “the WEA is also working to cut educational services to children.” The absurdity of this line fades into misstatement when she clarifies that the WEA pushed in the recent legislative session for a half day school closure for planning and training purposes. The periodic half day workshop has been a negotiated item in individual school districts for a while now. I am not a particular fan of them. Though well intended to give teachers and administrators time to plan and train, in my experience the time often could have been used in a more concentrated fashion. The intent has been to improve instruction; to make the distorted claim it is to “cut educational services to children” raises questions about the partisan purpose of its author.

Other of the positions of the Washington Policy Center as outlined in Ms. Finne’s article echo other entities “outside” the school bubble and similarly insulated from it, and so share their poor understanding of reality from a teacher’s classroom point of view.

First case in point: she laments the failure by the legislature to end the practice of “social promotion” of students “who cannot read at grade level by third grade.” Clearly these students represent an important nexus of school challenges. However, the preponderance of the research is pretty consistent that retention at grade level has a negative outcome over time. Students who are retained are more likely to fall further behind and eventually drop out of school. Better is targeted intervention with such students while they continue on with their class.

I am unclear why the Washington Policy Center would advocate for such a policy; perhaps to their thinking inadequate students have not met the market test and so should not be rewarded with advancement.  If so, a poor choice of time, place, and circumstance to implement ideological perspective; it comes across as punitive. They might more consistently argue that in this particular market more investment is needed. To implement social retention would be a step backward, not a reform. If the WEA is responsible for the maintenance of this particular status quo, score one for them.

Second case. The Washington Policy Center also wants to implement A-F “grades” for schools “so parents could easily understand how well their local school is performing.” I don’t know if this is more disrespectful of parents or of teachers and their schools. First off, Ms. Finne earlier in the article already has acknowledged that schools are ranked as “struggling”, “fair,” and so forth. How do letter grades substantially enhance the fundamental evaluation that is already in place? Does the WPC think parents will not understand or that teachers will not get the point? Is there something ambiguous about “struggling” and “fair?”

Moreover, there is something subtly patronizing to subject a complex adult activity such as teaching to the simplicities of grading similar to that which we use with our children. Somewhere in the position is the blame of and disrespect of teachers I upon which I have remarked in previous posts, and smacks of a punitive stance toward school people.

In the end, this position is frivolous, advances the cause not one whit, and wastes the time of the legislature. If the WEA has squelched it, score two for them.

Finally, the Washington Policy Center would have salary increases beyond adjustments for inflation tied to “professional training in methods that actually work at teaching underachieving students.” One could infer a belief from this passage and its choice of phrase that all teachers actually have no clue what works, and currently flail in the wind. Perhaps true of novice or demonstrably inferior teachers, but to lump all teachers under one heading in this way merely stereotypes and ignores good work being done by good teachers and schools.

This position is not a new one. In my own school district in the past, as an outcome of negotiations, local supplements to the state designated salary schedule came in the form of additional recompense for activities intended to improve instruction.

From the perspective of the teaching ranks, however, remember there have been no raises to the salary schedule within recent experience, and cost of living increases continually have been removed by the legislature in the face of dire budget realities. In effect, conscientious teachers who give strong effort to their workload, which has increased over recent years in a state which is short on teachers in national comparisons, are asked to work even longer hours just to get a modest increase on their pay check.

At some point the individual teacher, no matter how good a soldier, does a slow burn and tires of carrying the burden without adequate recompense, and in the face of misperceptions of their competence by people who have never walked a step in the complexities of today’s classroom.

I understand enough economic theory and the psychology of incentive to wonder why the Washington Policy Center’s thinking, allegedly in the search for free market solutions, would not understand this existential dilemma in teacher lives.

So if the WEA is responsible for death of this particular policy, then they likely are listening to their constituency, and the quiet smolder behind closed doors in the schoolhouse. Consider it pushback. “You ain’t gonna solve this problem by laying the full burden on our backs.”

On this issue, I think the WEA aligns with its constituency.

All this said, the relationship between union and membership in general puzzles me. Speaking for myself, I valued the collective strength and procedural protection, if needed. It wasn’t, but I admit to some paranoia working in the school bureaucracy, so there was solace in knowing I had the union behind me.

But it was also true that I had little time, being probably overly committed to my work, for contemplation of the kinds of issues I can entertain in my subsequent retirement. After family, home, and work, chronically my sleep suffered. Charter schools? I didn’t have time to refine my thinking and influence my union’s position. It wouldn’t surprise me if the ranks of the various teacher school reform offshoots are numbered by young teachers in the period before new families and home responsibilities have commandeered all available time.

I don’t think my experience is unique.

In the absence of assertive and consistent input from membership, union leadership is left with protection of the status quo on its agenda, with progressive action on issues essential to professional purpose too often eddying to the side.

That said I believe local chapter unions have crafted reformist compacts with school districts. And it has been my impression that Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, has been prominent in reform conversations, so activism does happen from union shores.

I am not blind to the failings of the Washington Education Association. But I have my loyalties, and they include calling out pale arguments against the WEA for their insufficiency. Though I think they have some of the issues correctly, on others the Washington Policy Center needs to broaden its thinking and more diversely inform its purported non-partisan point of view.

So I growl back at the attack dogs; a quasi-partisan response to a quasi-partisan launch.

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