Class Warfare Blog

January 11, 2014

The War on Public Education is a War on Teachers

The current “reform” effort in public education, financed mostly by what has become known as the Billionaire Boy’s Club (that name was already taken in the 1980’s but currently it refers to the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, etc.) is in favor of “market-based” reforms, especially using VAMs or “value-added measures” to determine teacher effectiveness. It goes like this: a teacher’s students are given a test at the beginning of a term. They are then given a test later in the term to see how much progress has been made and then a great deal of the teacher’s evaluation is based upon the score improvement. Teachers who raise test scores a lot are “good” teachers; teachers who raise them little or not at all are “bad” teachers . . . and bad teachers need to be fired. This all sounds realistic and even scientific . . . but, let’s see how this works in the real world.

As this idea is being imposed from outside of education circles (the foundations, the linkage (illegal linkage) of federal support to the schools to adoption of such practices, etc.) a number of obvious questions pop up: what is the current system it would it replace? How does it compare with other systems?

As one who is old enough to have been subject to the Viet Nam War draft, I remember the “intelligence test” required for all “recruits.” When insufficient numbers of young males were passing this test, a solution was easily found; they lowered the score considered passing. Then and more recently, school districts have found themselves frequently in a similar position: a new school term begins in just a few days and more than a few classes do not have teachers assigned because there were not enough teachers available. The solution . . . provisional credentials. Local school boards would grant what one hoped were reasonably well-qualified job candidates a “temporary teaching credential” and voila, a teacher had been found. The “provisional” aspect was that said credential holders were to meet the certification requirements in the next X years. I have not read any research on how many of these provisional credential holders were able to become fully qualified, but I heard stories of “teachers” whose Provisional Credential expired in one school district, so they migrated to another school district to receive another provisional credential. (Hey! Market forces, supply-and-demand, you know.)

“Public education is no different from our military services. A private cannot just be “fired” from the Army by a general. There are processes involved.”

There is also a presumption that “teacher tenure” is a guarantee of lifetime employment, which is untrue. Tenure refers to policies in place that guarantee teachers a process by which they can be fired and that any such termination needs to be based upon performance and not on the fact that the principal’s nephew needed a job. (It happened.) And this can appear strange to people in the private sector where they can be fired for almost any reason with no process. But the distinction is that in the private sector, the firer is the owner of the company and in the school systems, the “administrator” is just another employee like the teacher, with no economic stake in the “company.” I have never had a problem with a business owners hiring and firing at whim (within the laws applicable) but the public owns the school systems, and Boards of Education are elected to run them, and procedures are required to avoid abuses. In this, public education is no different from our military services. A private cannot just be “fired” from the Army by a general. There are processes involved.

It is interesting that VAMs have been used in the private sector and mostly failed to achieve any of the promised results. So, what kinds of things do they actually do in the private sector to increase the quality of their workforces?

Let’s take Wall Street as an example. During the recent scandalous melt down, government bailout funds were taken and then given as large bonuses to the Wall Street traders who were a part of the problem that brought the world’s economies to their knees. There was considerable outrage at these actions. The defense was that if those bonuses hadn’t been paid, the traders would have up and moved to another firm, a significant loss of intellectual capital to their firms. Do you “buy” this argument? (Doesn’t matter; they do.) So, to keep quality employees, you must pay them well is the lesson.

Almost nowhere is there a business that is run as these folks want to run public education. Take highly educated employees, underpay them, and then just fire those who are less competent and hire replacements. This is bizarre. Teachers go into the teaching profession knowing that the profession is underpaid (my salary as a chemistry professor was roughly half what people made in my profession with my credentials). The tradeoffs for the low salary were a lower number of work days, relatively good pensions, and job security (most teachers are at least competent, so few get fired, although some did at my workplaces). How many people are going to go into a profession that requires a graduate college education but offers poor pay, a weak pension, and poor job security? Is that the way commercial interests do it?

How did Silicon Valley attract its highly qualified workers? Let’s see: good or high salaries, many fringe benefits (some lavish), attractive workplaces, stock options, hmm. VAMs, not so much, with one big exception: Microsoft Corporation. Bill Gates was fond of a policy that resulted in the bottom X% of employees being fired every year. (Now that Mr. Gates is no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of his company, that policy has been scrapped.) And Mr. Gates, through his foundation, is the primary advocate of applying VAMs to teacher evaluations. Hmmm.

So, of course, all of this was tested out, right? Right? Wrong. In fact, it is quite sure that the previous studies on teacher evaluations weren’t even read before embarking upon this jihad. Business owners don’t have to justify their whims (unless they cost the company lots of money and then they need to justify themselves to stockholders if they are publically financed), they just implement them.

So, why is this being done? Speculating on the motives of the “reformers” is probably specious but conservatives have two dependable memes: they hate unions and they intensely dislike opposition to their plans. Teachers are often unionized (when it is allowed) and teachers often support progressive candidates (with their feet and their money), two very strong reasons to paint them as “undesirable actors” in the political arena. Even if these weren’t explicit reasons to justify undermining them and their unions, they certainly support the efforts of the “reformers.”

“In the longer term, the teaching profession will attract only people who are interested in such working conditions (low pay, poor pension, testing to determine your job security, so, no job security) so ask yourself: will the general quality of teaching be improved over time by the imposition of such conditions?”

So, we see: attacks on tenure (to be replaced by short-term contracts), attacks on teacher pensions (more so in states that mismanaged teacher’s retirement funding), insistence on “merit pay” (for people not motivated primarily by money?), and attacks on teacher’s unions (They oppose innovation! You would too, if they were after your job. And it is just not true, teachers support innovation if it benefits students.)

Let’s set aside these “motives.” Let’s look at how the system will be affected if there is wide-spread adoption of these techniques. Districts will spend a lot more money on test purchase and administration. Districts will fire more “substandard teachers” (hopefully not by making math errors like Michele Rhee’s old system did) and have to train new ones, and the consequences are? (Certainly classrooms with teachers with “provisional credentials” a la Teach for America teachers.) The reformers say that since teachers will be better, students will be better taught and will learn more and we will all benefit. I say . . . wait a minute. Teachers are not blindly selfless, they will respond to these new conditions. They will focus more and more on their students passing the tests or scoring better on the tests. And what will happen to subjects that are not amenable to “bubble in” testing (music, sports, dance, painting, acting)? What will happen to nuances of learning? What will happen to subtleties? (Bye-bye.) In the longer term, the teaching profession will attract only people who are interested in such working conditions (low pay, poor pension, testing to determine your job security, so, no job security) so ask yourself: will the general quality of teaching be improved over time by the imposition of such conditions?

The sad thing is who has been left out of this discussion: students, who embody our future. Do we ever ask them what they want? I certainly think that they would prefer to not be treated as “throughput” in some industrialized system. Let’s ask them what they want. It is their future as well as ours.



  1. Well done Stephen. Sounds all too familiar where in the private sector older, more higher paid employees are let go for dubious reasons to bring in younger, less experienced ones who will work for meager wages in this job-starved economy.


    Comment by lbwoodgate — January 11, 2014 @ 9:44 am | Reply

  2. And what will happen is teachers and entire school forging test results, like what happened in Atlanta a couple of years ago. It’s probably not too common, but common enough to show that obsession with testing is not making much of positive impact.


    Comment by List of X — January 11, 2014 @ 9:47 am | Reply

    • Happened in D.C., too. Sad but predictable. People perform best when given a safe, secure working environment. Hmm, where have I heard that before?


      Comment by stephenpruis — January 11, 2014 @ 9:51 am | Reply

  3. Reblogged this on oogenhand.


    Comment by oogenhand — January 11, 2014 @ 10:03 am | Reply

  4. Great post! I think the “problems” with public school education, insofar as they actually exist, have more to do with our culture’s lack of interest in and respect for education (and by extension, teachers); with the baloney that passes for teacher education in our Colleges of Education (I would prefer pure instruction in content plus a practical apprenticeship); and with inequities in school funding. I believe that the school funding system in Ohio was long ago ruled unacceptable by the state supreme court, but nothing ever seems to be done about it.


    Comment by linnetmoss — January 11, 2014 @ 10:28 am | Reply

    • There are some very good Schools of Education but most are academic wastelands, so quality faculty are very hard to find. If some of the Billionaire Boy’s Club money would endow chairs in Education, maybe we could attract some of our best and brightest.

      And Diane Ravich has basically proven that the “schools are broken” narrative is false. By and large the public schools are doing quite well, and where they aren’t drugs and poverty are quite rampant.


      Comment by stephenpruis — January 11, 2014 @ 12:54 pm | Reply

  5. Not sure if you’ve ever seen this (or if i’ve posted it before?) but if you haven’t then enjoy. Matt damons mother is a teacher. His smackdown to the Libertarian “reporter” is priceless.


    Comment by john zande — January 11, 2014 @ 12:43 pm | Reply

    • Yep, saw it … but of course Matt is one of those pointy-headed misguided pussies from Hollywood.


      Comment by stephenpruis — January 11, 2014 @ 12:55 pm | Reply

  6. Both my parents were teachers and I went to high school in a town that had a university and many of my friends’ parents were professors. I’ve described my childhood as having more education than money. I think it’s one reason I view the contemporary tendency to equate money and smarts and a person’s worth with their net worth with more than a bit of skepticism. I remember once having a man on a date tell me very snottily, “I’m rich because I’m good at math.” I guess he thought that I wasn’t good at math because I wasn’t rich? My closest female friend in college after she got her Ph.D. in theoretical physics (she’s good at math) toyed with the idea of going to Wall Street and “calculating derivatives” for a couple of years to make money. (This was before the crash.) She decided to earn less money in a job closer to her chosen field. I was trying to make a living as a fine artist, which is why I was broke, not because I was bad at math. People make these choices all the time.

    I think many of the people who are in positions of power have internalized the notion of a Meritocracy. I read Chris Hayes’ book on the subject and was disappointed because he, like many people, points out the problems with the meritocracy, but ultimately just wants to make it more “fair” and doesn’t question the essential notions at it’s core. (Hint: It’s not the “merit”; it’s the “ocracy.”) Maybe it’s simply because I’ve grown up with it, but I think the kind of financially stable family I had thanks to unions is very good for children. (In fact, that sort of stability was the enticement my ex used to get me to Canada. He noted that we would have to make more money in the U.S. before I’d be willing to have children, a level we would probably never achieve, whereas with Canada’s greater social safety net we could have kids with just normal middle-class type jobs.)

    I think this privatization of the school system is one of the most dangerous things going on in our country today. Bill Gates’ involvement in it is a real black mark on his desire to be a philanthropist in his retirement. Microsoft back in the day was in a unique position. If you were a programmer in the eighties it was the place to work. I lived with a man who graduated from Harvard, had been a Westinghouse Science Competition Finalist and he was very proud of having worked at Microsoft for a time. Most schools don’t have top notch talent dying to work for them, not enough, anyway. Most people I know who run small businesses think the idea of firing ten percent every year is ridiculous. Where are the replacements going to come from.

    When I decided that the lack of “job security” in art was not good enough as middle age was approaching I returned to school for computer science. There were a lot of former teachers in my classes all of them saying that they didn’t like the way schools were changing.

    I didn’t realize that you wrote about class issues. I’m sure I’ll be back.

    Nice post, btw.


    Comment by fojap — January 13, 2014 @ 8:07 pm | Reply

    • Enjoyed reading your story fojap.

      “I think this privatization of the school system is one of the most dangerous things going on in our country today. “

      Agreed. Not only the privatization of schools but of health care as well. These essential services need to be made available through government to ensure that everyone has access to them. Not just the wealthy. The belief that a business can run things better than government is laughable when you realize thousands of businesses fail each year. It’s a myth that plutocrats have been selling us for centuries.


      Comment by lbwoodgate — January 14, 2014 @ 6:00 am | Reply

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