I was chilling, doing some busy work like deleting old stuff from my iCal agenda, and listening to a podcast about Trump’s pick for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Everything was going good until they had a high-ranking union person from Massachusetts critiquing DeVos, and I sat there confused…
From my Twitter feed, the news, and from reading DeVos’ Wikipedia page I could see why so many people did not want her to be the Ed Secretary. But I also know how unions protect bad teachers, and subsequently propagate bad schools, so I wasn’t sure if this union person’s critique of DeVos was on point, or biased to protect the status quo that unions seemingly love to protect?
I still don’t know….. but I do know that I had to pause the podcast and draft an outline for this blog post. For, as much animus as people have for Trump, and his nominees for cabinet positions in turn, I have as much for teacher unions due to my first hand experience in seeing them fight for teacher interests while sometimes to the detriment of students.
So while it is clear that DeVos doesn’t understand the difference between growth and proficiency, or that IDEA is a federal mandate for a reason, when I hear the union person talk against DeVos, I wonder which is the correct position?
Full disclosure. I was born and bred in the liberal Bay Area of California and still subscribe to most of the views. I graduated from super liberal UC Santa Cruz and am still down for a lot of the causes. So I feel like I should be as opposed to Betsy DeVos as much as everyone else in my Facebook and Twitter feed. But I am more passionate about students and education. That is why I think the status quo in K-12 education needs some disruption, as people in the Bay love to talk about. And when I hear the people from the teachers unions railing against DeVos, it makes me wonder whose interests they are worried about when they oppose DeVos?
While working in California as a teacher for 6 years, and a TA for 4 years, all 10 years having union representation, I grew to have a great disdain for teacher unions.
During my Teacher Assistant days in my late teens and early 20’s I didn’t realize the problem. But while earning my Sociology degree I learned a concept that would later, as a teacher, help me frame the disgust I grew to have for teacher unions.
The concept is “Diametrically Opposed”. This was added to my schema in the context of capitalism, and how two parties can be in a factory, but have totally opposite viewpoints. The worker wants to work the least and earn the most, while the owners want to get the most work out of the employees while paying them the least. At the end of the day the factory produces widgets, but the interests inside are completely opposed.
That is what I came to see as the crux of the problem with teacher unions in a sense. You have teachers who want their rights, and want to be valued, don’t want to be overburdened with extra duties, etc. But at every turn of the union who are looking to fight for these things, they are often forgetting that so many concessions that are made for the union affect the students negatively.
One area in which this is seen egregiously is in the Last in First Out seniority policy that is often highly supported by unions. According to Benjamin Feinberg, “Teachers unions often argue that the ‘last in, first out (LIFO)’ policy is the only fair way to lay off teachers.” Yet, the First in Last Out seriously affects the kids with (fill in the negative blank…ineffective?) teachers. So is it fair to students?
I have co-taught with over 40 teachers in my career as a special educator, and some of the best teachers I have worked with are the young, energetic teachers with fresh ideas from the uni. But these are the exact teachers I have seen fired when teacher cuts happen, partly because the union wholeheartedly supports the first in last out policy.
I still remember looking at the seniority list regularly posted in the main office of my school in Los Angeles. I always thanked my blessings that my name was towards the top in my department, but is that fair?
One of my most uncomfortable moments as a teacher was in a meeting where some old timers were griping about not getting a raise this year (COLA), and other stuff, and I just snapped. I looked at the head of the department and said, “500,000 people a month are losing their jobs in this country. Tons of teachers are getting pink slipped…and you are worried about your cost of living allowance?!” I went on to mention that one of our best teachers at the school was getting pink slipped, only because of these silly union-supported seniority policies, and he was fighting to save his % increase.
Bad times. Misplaced priorities.
Consequently poor and disadvantaged students are often left with older or burnt out teachers who are counting days to the break, or to retirement. I have seen both! One of these teachers who I co-taught with, who had recently shown me during class her Spring break spot on Google Maps (in January!), she was out one day, and this 16 year old Mexican girls looks at me and says, “Why does Ms. BLANK hate us?” How am I supposed to answer that!?
I can tell you how the union answers it though. She has tenure, she has seniority, and unless she does something heinous, she will keep collecting checks.
If you remember the shocking statistics cited in the movie “Waiting for Superman” , you may recall how detrimental even one year with an ineffective teacher can be to student growth. Maybe some of the policies that DeVos may enact could light a fire under the districts, and in turn the principals, and in turn the schools. Otherwise we may continue to be stuck with another generation of students asking why their teachers hate them.
It is shocking to read the bios of the last few Ed Secretaries and compare their experience in the field of education to DeVos’ (lack of) experience in this area. It creates a strange feeling reading about all the degrees they have and initiatives the past Ed Secretaries were part of, and the inspiration it gives to me to do more, while at the same time being struck with disbelief that DeVos would be put in the same ranks as these folks.
But maybe the draining of the swamp that Trump aspires to will extend to the millions (billions?) that are being spent for a K-12 system that doesn’t correlate with our place as the country with the worlds highest GDP. A system that regularly fails a huge amount of our students…I’m thinking in a PISA framework, and I’m also thinking in a framework of being in the trenches and seeing what happens.
My Facebook and Twitter feeds may be right. DeVos may take education back decades. But maybe….just maybe… we will be left with a system that fights for student growth, not fights to keep unfit teachers in the classrooms?