The Teacher’s Dilemma

Some things stay with you. It was June 1981 – so long ago it might have been the birth of today’s world, kind of like the Big Bang or something. That was the year IBM introduced the first IBM PC – and it ran on their MS-DOS operating system. No one now knows what MS-DOS was, and you don’t want to know. But that changed the world. And that was the year Sandra Day O’Connor was nominated to become the very first female justice on the Supreme Court. There would be an actual woman on that court? The world was changing. Yes it was. Things would definitely change. Britney Spears and Paris Hilton were born that year – and the rest his history.

But that June was the last graduation ceremony at the prep school in upstate New York. The kids got their diplomas and headed off to Harvard and Yale and Princeton and Brandeis, and the sharp ones headed off to better schools with smaller names. And their teacher was off to LA – sell the unnecessary and ship the basics and hop on the plane and no more being a teacher. And few regrets – the years there had been fun, the kids for the most part rather wonderful, but the pay had been below low, and although people often say nice things about teachers, and about the profession, they know only fools and absurd idealists stick with it.

It had been, after all, year after year of agreeing that you were useless. You accepted that premise. If the kid did well – thought clearly and wrote beautifully and understood the complexity of this and that and could easily untangle it – that was the kid’s achievement. You just wisely got out of the way, or at best acted like a downfield blocker, removing obstacles. And if the kid just didn’t get it and seemed as if he or she never would, and couldn’t explain anything, that was the teacher’s failure. There must have been a way to turn that particular sow’s ear into a silk purse. You’d overlooked something. Maybe you hadn’t been stern enough, or understanding enough. Or you’d been one at the precise moment you should have been the other. Or maybe it was time to the review the literature on learning styles – visual or verbal or spatial or motor. Maybe you’d used the wrong one. There was no category for surly and dumb as a rock, with rich parents who would always bail you out. So you worried and that self-doubt ate at you.

And that self-doubt was structural. You were there to engage your students in the subject matter – employing passion or humor or coercion or whatever worked – but you were also there to provide them with self-esteem and self-confidence. They needed that too. You were there to encourage them. The last thing you’d ever do is say, well, it’s pretty obvious there is no way you’re going to understand this stuff in the slightest, so don’t even try. That was not an option. The structure, the culture of teaching, did not allow it. That sort of talk was reserved for the faculty room, where no student and no parent would ever hear such notions.

It grew tiresome. It was time to move on, as it seems that in the business world, when a subordinate screws up, and particularly when it seems they are in way over their head and there is no way they actually can do the job, you fire them and get someone else to do the work. Or you transfer them to some job they might actually understand, or to some other manager who’s pissed you off. You don’t agonize what you yourself could have done differently – you consider that of course, and if you couldn’t have done anything differently, you move on. The employee’s self-esteem and self-confidence are important, but there’s no time to create an array of fictions to generate hypothetical future self-esteem and self-confidence. There’s work to be done. It was kind of refreshing.

Still, good teaching is a wonderful thing. We all have that one teacher in the past who believed in us when everyone else was snorting in derision. That can turn things around. That can turn a whole life around. And that ought to be recognized and honored. Maybe such teachers should be paid princely sums for doing that sort of thing. And maybe there should be world peace and free ice cream for everyone on Friday. That’s just not going to happen. And one of the reasons that will never happen, beyond the fact that there’s no money to even keeps schools open these days, is that most people really find teaching and teachers slightly absurd. Or maybe teachers are lazy, sneaky bastards. People have conflicting views on the matter of whether we’re talking useless or we’re talking evil when we talk about teachers.

After all, this was the summer the House returned from its recess to approve a key state-aid jobs bill. Some say this was good policy and good politics. There was ten billion to save 160,000 teachers’ jobs, and over sixteen billion in state Medicaid funding – no programs for the poor or disabled would have to be eliminated. And the package didn’t add a penny to the deficit – it was all paid for by closing the tax loophole that gave giant corporations billions to move jobs overseas, and to make the Republicans happy, by cutting off food stamps to certain poor but working Americans. In the end the thing actually reduced the deficit a bit – it more than paid for itself. That didn’t help – Republican opposition was pretty much unanimous. They just didn’t happen to have enough votes to block it.

But they got in their licks anyway. Congressional Republicans told America that school teachers, firefighters, and police officers, whose jobs had just been saved, were “special interests” – the rescue of such folks was a con. In fact, Michele Bachmann and Sharron Angle argued that the state-aid jobs bill was actually an elaborate plot to grab tax-dollars, then make sure the funds were “laundered through the public employee unions” – and then those unions would use the money to help Democratic candidates in the midterm elections. So the Democrats had just effectively taken all the money and given it to themselves, or something.

Steve King, the Republican congressman from Iowa, took this idea and ran with it:

Much of those checks that will be distributed will have an automatic deduction in them that will transfer some of that money into the coffers of the unions and their political action money will go into the campaign accounts of 95 percent Democrats. This is a blatant money-laundering scheme that’s cooked up by Nancy Pelosi.

At the Washington Monthly, Seven Benen comments:

See the conspiracy? School teachers, instead of being laid off, will continue to teach kids. When they get paid for their work, they’re likely to pay dues to a union. The union will, in turn, pool those dues and spend some of the resources in support of allied political candidates. And some of those candidates will likely be Democrats.

Ergo, Democrats weren’t saving jobs and helping schools – that’s just what they want you to think – but rather, were hatching a devious money-laundering scheme. How clever!

Those teachers really are evil bastards, in cahoots with the Democrats, trying to rob America blind and dominate us all.

Benen adds this:

In the larger context, it’s actually helpful to Democrats that Republicans are still complaining about the jobs bill, because the more attention the effort receives, the better it is for the party that supported it. This was, after all, a popular, common-sense package – which lowered, not raised, the deficit – to save middle-class jobs. Voters can be fickle and unpredictable at times, but most folks tend to like school teachers, firefighters, and police officers.

Benen doesn’t substantiate that last claim, or he hasn’t been watching Fox News. He maintains that the campaign ads seem to write themselves:

Indeed, this is a debate to build an election around – with a struggling economy Democrats proposed a fiscally-responsible plan to save hundreds of thousands of jobs, specifically helping our local schools. Republicans said we can afford tax cuts for billionaires, but not teachers’ jobs.

It’s not every day the two parties’ approaches to government get spelled out so clearly, giving the public a stark choice between two very different ideologies.

Maybe so, but at the core of this is the teachers, and the meme here is that they’re greedy and sneaky bastards, and Democrats all, every damned one of them. There’s a lot of that going around – Bachmann and Angle and King are on Fox News all the time.

Anyone who has been a teacher is giggling by now. One single afternoon in any public faculty room would open some eyes. If the folks there were greedy and sneaky they’d have long ago left and become hedge fund managers. They’re there because they are just not good at that being greedy and sneaky – that’s real world stuff. We’re talking about teachers here.

And that’s the other view that floats around. Teachers are generally useless. In fact, out here, the Los Angeles Times plans to publish a database of teacher performance in the Los Angeles Unified School District – to prove it. It’s part of an ongoing series they’re running on a new metric that assesses “value added” – you can project a student’s performance based on past tests and then compare that to actual results at the end of the year. It’s very scientific and designed to control for poverty levels, the quality of the students, social factors and all sorts of things. The initial database in this case will include only third through fifth grades and only teachers who have taught sixty or more students – but it’s an attempt to quantify who is a good teacher and who is a doofus and a loser.

The LA Times is fascinated by this Los Angeles Unified School District initiative and will post all the data with each teacher’s name. The president of United Teachers Los Angeles plans to boycott the Times over that decision, but at Democracy in America, the Economist’s blog, Roger McShane says there’s another way to look at this:

There is no perfect way to evaluate teachers, but that is true of many jobs. (Should The Economist judge me on how much traffic this post gets? How much ad money it generates? How sharp the analysis is? Can that even be measured? How should each be weighted?) The problem is that the big teachers unions have not been credible participants in the conversation about reform, resisting efforts to incorporate test scores in the evaluation process, and fighting the consequences that must accompany bad evaluations. For its part, the Times plans to publish an online database with ratings for more than 6,000 elementary-school teachers based on test-score data. That is not fair to the teachers, who deserve a more comprehensive evaluation. But who is to blame for the absence of one?

Kevin Drum comments:

I don’t live in Los Angeles and don’t follow its affairs closely, but there’s at least one thing I can say about this: every single person I know who does follow LA politics, both liberal and conservative, thinks the LAUSD is a complete disaster. Obviously some of this is simply because LA has all the usual pathologies of urban school districts: it’s huge, it’s heavily poverty-ridden, it’s fantastically expensive to build new schools, and virtually all the middle class parents who normally drive concerns over quality have long since abandoned it for private schools. Still, even beyond that LA seems to be almost uniquely bad.

But is this the teachers’ fault? And should the Times be doing this? Drum thinks so:

The data is public, and either you believe that the press should disseminate public data or you don’t. I do – despite the fact that I know I’d be pretty unhappy to be one of the teachers included in this project.

In any case, I’ll be curious to see what the reaction is. Obviously you’re going to get a bell curve of performance. So the question is: how far down the bell curve do you have to get before you think a teacher ought to be dismissed? I suspect that most people have pretty unrealistic notions here. In the white collar private sector I’d guess that maybe one in twenty people is ever let go for performance reasons, but parents who look at the Times database are probably going to be disturbed by any teacher in the bottom quarter or so. But what do you do about that? Somebody’s kids have to be taught by below-average teachers, and that’s all a teacher at the 25th percentile is: below average, not an incompetent dullard.

They aren’t sneaky and greedy and plotting with the Democrats to take over the country? This is getting confusing, but out here at least a quarter of our teachers are incompetent dullards or something. And everything that’s wrong is their fault. At least that seems to be the idea:

Unfortunately, there’s one likely reaction to the Times project that will be entirely non-positive: the most active, engaged parents will aggressively use the database to make sure their kids get the best teachers possible while the poorest, most distracted parents will barely even know it exists. The former already have the smarts (and the income) to shop around for the best schools, and now they’ll have the tools to shop for the best teachers within each school. As long as they get those teachers, they won’t care much about all the other classes, and primary education in LA will become even more stratified than it is now.

That might not happen. I’m just guessing here. But one way or the other I hope the LAUSD is prepared for this. Once this data is out, the fight to get the best teachers will be in full swing with a new school year just weeks away. It might not be a pretty sight.

Ah, it’s just the teacher’s dilemma. The success is the kid’s. The failure is yours. It is tiresome.

But it’s not just the teacher’s dilemma. In the Los Angeles Times, Aaron David Miller writes about Washington, Lincoln and FDR, and Miller says Obama is just not up to snuff:

First, he was convinced that the country was so badly served by his Republican predecessor that most Americans understood the need for sweeping change and were prepared to support it. Second, he misread his crisis: the recession…. Finally, unlike some of his predecessors who grounded change in values that many Americans found familiar and functional, Obama hasn’t found a unifying message situated in an American experience that is universally shared. …

Obama may have had no choice but to introduce a large stimulus bill to stop the economic bleeding, but healthcare reform (and the way it was done) represented an overreach and stressed a political system that was already dysfunctional. It also convinced many, however unfairly, that he was a man of the left and a big-spending liberal to boot. …

Americans aren’t so much looking for great presidents, big ideas or historic transformations. They want satisfaction on mundane matters such as prosperity, keeping Americans safe from terrorist attacks and an end to the roller-coaster ride of partisanship, name-calling and celebrity politics that is Washington today.

Drum sees this as utter nonsense:

In order to attain greatness, Obama needed to understand that the country wasn’t in the mood for greatness and just wanted him to focus on mundane matters? …

Look: Obama passed a huge stimulus package, a historic healthcare bill, a pretty serviceable financial reform bill, has withdrawn 100,000 troops from Iraq, negotiated the New START treaty with Russia, made some decent progress on education reform and Pentagon procurement, and appears to be on track to repeal DADT. A terrible economy has hurt his fortunes, but let’s face facts – Republicans and centrist Democrats wouldn’t have allowed him to do anything more about this even if he’d wanted to. And in any case, as plenty of people have pointed out, Obama’s popularity is actually nearly identical to that of most other modern presidents at this point in their presidencies.

Drum says he doesn’t understand where this now common sort of analysis comes from:

Obviously Obama came into office with high expectations, but were there really a lot of people who expected him to be the second coming of FDR? If there were, I sure wasn’t reading them. The plain, boring fact is that Obama, like all presidents, is constrained by circumstances and by Congress, and he just hasn’t had the Congress to do much more than he’s done. FDR and LBJ won landslide victories and enjoyed enormous congressional majorities. By contrast, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton won solid victories and had sizeable congressional majorities (though only in the Senate for Reagan). That’s who Obama should be compared to, and on that score he shapes up pretty well: clearly better than Carter and Clinton and quite possibly the equal of Reagan. (We’ll know for sure in another six years.)

There are plenty of things I wish Obama had done differently. I wish he’d pushed harder for transformative financial reform. I wish he hadn’t escalated the war in Afghanistan. I wish he hadn’t reappointed Ben Bernanke. I wish his record on civil liberties were better. I wish he’d use his undeniable rhetorical gifts to really sell a liberal vision to the American public, the way Reagan sold a conservative one. But this is real life, and no president does everything his supporters want him to do. By any measure aside from having your face sculpted on Mount Rushmore, Obama’s had a pretty good run so far. It’s crazy to pretend otherwise.

Yep, he cannot do it alone. You remember Hillary Clinton’s book It Takes a Village (“a comprehensive look at what our children need and want and deserve”). Matthew Yglesias says It Takes a Congress:

Something to add to the growing “what’s Obama done wrong” literature and the “what’s wrong with the ‘what’s Obama don’t wrong’ literature” literature is that too often these discussions seem to me to forget that the United States Congress is composed of free and equal human beings who are responsible for their own actions. For example, it may or may not be the case that a different approach on the part of Barack Obama or his staff would have caused Ben Nelson to do different things low these past several months, but it’s absolutely certain that had Nelson wanted to do different things that different things would have happened.

Given that to err is human, I think we can take it for granted that some errors existed in the White House’s approach to legislative negotiations. But it’s also clear that members have their own volition. A skeptical Blanche Lincoln could have responded to the $800 billion stimulus request by asking Barack Obama “what does Christina Romer think? Will this really fill the output gap?” Vulnerable House members could have challenged Rahm Emanuel “if things turn out to be worse than you guys expect, we’re all going to lose in the midterms – wouldn’t it be more prudent to build in provisions for additional stimulus if necessary?” The members who insisted on exempting auto dealerships from the jurisdiction of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau could have said “you know what, Michael Barr is right, this doesn’t make any sense; we should do the right thing and tell the dealers to stop whining.”

But we simply have the congress we have:

Nobody really expects them to do the right thing or to ask smart questions or to listen to experts rather than engage in random acts of political posturing. So when they do bad stuff, we blame the White House for not doing a better job of preventing them from doing bad stuff. And fair enough – dealing with congress is an important part of the job. But you also do need to blame the people who are doing the bad deeds.

It’s the teacher’s dilemma. You cannot blame folks that way. They cry. They lose all self-esteem and self-confidence. They do well and it’s because of who they are. They don’t do well and it’s your fault, not theirs. And it seems that’s something you cannot walk away from. In June 1981 nothing changed.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Education, Obama as FDR, Obama as Lincoln, Obama Changing Little, Teaching and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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