Education, Teachers — April 28, 2018 at 11:19 am

The Politics of Teacher Walkouts Make Mike & Randi Uneasy Bedmates


A recent editorial in USA Today (“We can expect more from teachers when we pay them like pros: Bloomberg and Weingarten”) presents an object lesson in how the politics surrounding the recent wave of teacher walkouts is creating some very troubling alliances in the nexus between business and education.

Under the guise of presenting a “unified front”, former NYC mayor Mike Bloomberg and teachers union head Randi Weingarten penned a faux bon bon of support for striking teachers. But the bloom comes off the rose in the title of the piece, and things go downhill from there.

“Expect more from teachers”???

Bloomberg’s approach here is just more of the same from the corporate reform crowd. It’s based on the assumption that workers only give you their best effort when the supervisor applies the appropriate motivation. Here’s the problem–it doesn’t work.

Research suggests that when persons are engaged in higher-order thinking tasks (like, um…teaching), “incentives” and “productivity” actually have an inverse relationship…which is to say that people actually don’t work harder when motivated by monetary incentives; just the opposite.

What does this have to do with teacher walkouts?

The idea that raising teachers’ salaries will get them to “work harder” is based on a faulty premise. Teachers are already giving 100%. More, in fact. Teachers are already taking home papers to grade at night and over the weekend, registering for summer grad degree programs and professional development workshops, attending endless meetings before and after school, attend concerts, dance recitals, sporting events, debate competitions, and countless other school events, all on their own time.

Bloomberg and Weingarten are too clever by half in trying to obscure their true intentions here, but a careful reading reveals the beliefs that underpin their actual policy leanings.

For example…

“This time of tension and frustration is also a moment of tremendous opportunity — to increase teachers’ pay, acknowledge the importance of their work, strengthen accountability, ensure adequate education resources, and, most importantly, achieve the outcomes we need and want for all our kids.”

1. “tremendous opportunity”—only a businessman would label a time of terrible unrest and anxiety for the teaching profession as a “tremendous opportunity”—true vulture capitalism

2. “increase teachers’ pay”—Bloomberg and Weingarten keep the focus on pay here by mentioning it first in the list—a subtle way to impugn teachers’ motives as selfish, and not attuned to students’ needs…

3. “acknowledge the importance of their work”—throw them a bone, right?

4. “strengthen accountability” and “achieve the outcomes we need and want for all our kids”–and here we get to the crux of the matter…connecting accountability for teachers to student learning outcomes. In New York State this belief led to the current nightmare of a teacher evaluation system known as “APPR” (Annual Professional Performance Review). For New York’s teachers this has meant that 50% of their annual performance evaluation is based on students’ scores on standardized tests of math and reading.

Never mind that as many as 70% of all teachers don’t have anything to do with teaching math and reading.

Never mind that there is virtually no statistical relationship between student test scores and teacher effectiveness, and that even the American Statistical Association issued a statement slamming the use of these scores in high-stakes teacher evaluation decisions.

Never mind that the state itself has admitted that the premise behind APPR is deeply flawed, and has placed a moratorium on using test scores to evaluate teachers.

Never mind the fact that although no one who actually knows anything about testing, assessment, and evaluation believes that “student outcomes” and “teacher accountability” have anything to do with one another–Bloomberg and Weingarten are still beating this dead horse like a drum.

It’s “zombie policy”. You can’t kill it with facts. You can’t kill it with public opinion. You can’t kill it with logic. Despite the fact that it’s as dead as that horse that Mike and Randi are so fond of, it just keeps shambling along, bent on leaving a trail of destruction in it’s wake.

So with all due respect to Mr. Bloomberg and Ms. Weingarten, the purpose of raising teachers’ salaries is not so you can “expect more” from them—the purpose of increasing salaries is to restore the cuts to teachers’ compensation that have been made, by politicians like Bloomberg, and actually pay our teachers a wage a little closer to what they are worth.

The purpose of teacher walkouts isn’t just to raise salaries–it’s to force legislators to acknowledge that their policies have seriously damaged one of the public institutions they have sworn to protect and defend; and that their actions have been craven, unethical, and immoral.

It would also be a real mistake for GOP governors and other legislators to buy in to what Bloomberg and Weingarten are selling here, and think teachers are walking out over just salary. Teachers don’t just want better salaries–they also want a voice at the table to determine better policies. Such as…

  • adequate funding for all schools, especially urban and rural schools
  • a full and rich curriculum for all children, including music, art, PE, libraries, social workers, etc.
  • eliminate current teacher evaluation systems, and involve teachers in creation of new system
  • restore teacher tenure
  • strengthen teacher unions
  • short term: hold charter schools to the same accountability standards as traditional public schools; long term: eliminate all charter schools–an “experiment” that has failed to produce benefits commensurate with the damage it’s created
  • strengthen teacher certification regulations
  • eliminate alternative routes to certification, and fake teacher preparation programs like Teach for America, Teachers of Tomorrow, and the Relay Graduate School of Education
  • tightly monitor virtual and online schools

It’s about a lot more than salary.

I understand what Bloomberg is doing here–he’s trying to salvage the last remnants of the accountability scam he’s been running in NYC for years; demeaning teachers by supporting unregulated charter schools, while pretending to care about the city’s public schools through demands for increased accountability.

I’m less sure about Weingarten’s angle here. It’s a curious gambit to join forces with a guy like Bloomberg, whose disdain for teachers is well documented. She may be thinking that showing her ability to work across party lines, or to appear “nonpartisan,” will demonstrate her interest in seeking solutions to the problem being illuminated by these walkouts. Or, she may be revealing that she’s part of the problem–clinging to a corporate approach to union leadership that’s failing to meet the needs of her union’s members in state after state.

In any event, it would be nice if the mindset on display here from both Bloomberg and Weingarten would evolve just a bit…from seeing teachers as lazy, unmotivated drones who only put forth an effort if motivated by carrots on sticks, to appreciating teachers as professionals who are already maxing out on what they can do for their students, and their communities, and would just like to be recognized with a living wage, decent benefits, and a little bit of respect.