"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Educational Reform–Teacher Concessions and Parental Responsibility

Recent articles in the New York Times recently have highlighted two important aspects of educational reform.  The first by Nicholas Kristof today (2.16.12), looks at the successful attempts of the City of New Haven to exact willing concessions from school teachers to improve performance; and the second by Sabrina Tavernise looks at the growing rich-poor gap in educational performance which indirectly suggests parental practices that can easily be adopted by the poor.

Teacher Concessions

Nicholas Kristof writes in the New York Times today about the City of New Haven’s attempt to engage the teachers unions in educational reform.  An oxymoron?  Perhaps, but the author feels that the concession of the New Haven unions to better education – to fire non-performing teachers – is real. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/16/opinion/kristof-the-new-haven-experiment.html?ref=opinion

He begins his article with a dose of necessary skepticism:

I lost patience with teachers’ unions when union officials in New York City defended a teacher who had passed out in class, reeking of alcohol, with even the principal unable to rouse her.

Not to mention when union officials in Los Angeles helped a teacher keep his job after he allegedly mocked a student who had tried to commit suicide, suggesting that the boy slash his wrists more deeply the next time.

In many cities, teachers’ unions ensured no one was removed for mere incompetence. If a teacher stole or abused a student, yes, but school boards didn’t even try to remove teachers who couldn’t teach.

“Before, you had to go smack the mayor in order to get fired,” Reggie Mayo, the schools superintendent here in New Haven, told me.

New Haven, however, has taken steps out of this traditional ‘teachers first’ mentality:

A couple of years ago, the school district reached a revolutionary contract with teachers. Pay and benefits would rise, but teachers would embrace reform — including sacrificing job security. With a stronger evaluation system, tenure no longer mattered and weak teachers could be pushed out.

This is a very positive sign, for apparently the City of New Haven has achieved this landmark contract without the contentiousness that was associated with Michelle Rhee’s tenure in Washington, DC.  Rhee was able to exact concessions from the teacher’s union, but without the political finesse needed to pursue educational reform without alienating teachers.  Kristoff does not go into detail about the political context in which the contract was negotiated in New Haven, but DC’s situation was complicated by years of political patronage and racial politics played in the city.  The issue of teacher firings in DC was not looked at as the removal of unqualified personnel, but a move to eliminate this patronage.  If teachers were to be unreservedly professional and qualified, then unqualified sister-in-laws or second cousins would no longer be shoo-ins for jobs. 

When former Mayor Fenty addressed the issue of overall system management and demographics, and decided that schools had to be closed and teachers let go, the die was cast.  He was voted out of office and with him went the now nationally-renowned educational reformer, Rhee.  The new mayor has kept Rhee’s course, but barely.  He got elected with solid support from the ‘patronage’ community, still a majority in DC, and those for whom city favors had always been an important resource.  Marion Barry, the corrupt and convicted former mayor, was a master of racial politics and patronage and he is still is in office on the City Council.  The old system is by no means dead.

What gives the New Haven agreement more promise is because its racial and poverty profile is much like Washington’s:

New Haven may be home to Yale University, but this is a gritty, low-income school district in which four out of five kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Eighty-four percent of students are black or Hispanic, and graduation rates have been low.

What Kristof does not discuss is the city politics – unions nationwide have a history of digging in and protecting their own.  To be fair, this is what unions are for, not necessarily for assuring the quality of the product they are producing or the service they are providing.  To interest them in the end result at the expense of their jobs would be a reversal of the philosophy and politics which have kept them in power for so long.  Kristoff cites the Mayor for a reason why the City was able to supersede politics:

Mayor John DeStefano Jr. of New Haven says that the breakthrough isn’t so much that poor teachers are being eased out, but that feedback is making everyone perform better — principals included. “Most everybody picked up their game in the district,” he said.

Something happened to break the traditional logjam, and the mayor suggests that it was public opinion (feedback).  I doubt that.  I would be surprised that the supporters of the teachers’ union are any more enlightened than those in DC, and that the populace is any more informed.  My guess is that maybe finally teachers and their unions are getting it.  Kristof attributes this to Randi Weingarten, the President of the American Federation of Teachers:

The breakthrough experiment in New Haven offers a glimpse of an education future that is less rancorous. It’s a tribute to the savvy of Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers and as shrewd a union leader as any I’ve seen. She realized that the unions were alienating their allies, and she is trying to change the narrative.

This is a good thing.  We, the citizens, are fed up with underperforming schools, both because of our concern for the students and for our wasted taxpayer dollars.  I, however, think that unless the corrosive and persistent cabal between patronage-based politicians and unions is broken up, contracts like New Haven’s will still be few and far between.

Parental Responsibility

An article by Sabrina Tavernise in the New York Times of February 9th http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/10/education/education-gap-grows-between-rich-and-poor-studies-show.html?_r=1&hp focuses on the increasing gap between rich and poor families on educational opportunities, not just private schools, but on all the supportive investments that lead to a more completely educated student:

One reason for the growing gap in achievement, researchers say, could be that wealthy parents invest more time and money than ever before in their children (in weekend sports, ballet, music lessons, math tutors, and in overall involvement in their children’s schools), while lower-income families, which are now more likely than ever to be headed by a single parent, are increasingly stretched for time and resources. This has been particularly true as more parents try to position their children for college, which has  become ever more essential for success in today’s economy.

Charles Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, whose book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,”published Jan. 31, described income inequality as “more of a symptom than a cause”, and observed that the gap will only increase:

The growing gap between the better educated and the less educated, he argued, has formed a kind of cultural divide that has its roots in natural social forces, like the tendency of educated people to marry other educated people, as well as in the social policies of the 1960s, like welfare and other government programs, which he contended provided incentives for staying single.

Neither Murray nor the author of the Times article suggest any ways to reduce the gap, or to improve student performance at low cost.  However,  Asian-Americans consistently outperform black, Hispanic, and often white students in school, despite the fact that most are not affluent.  In a previous post on this blog I have cited statistics from the Washington, DC metropolitan area which compare not only academic performance but school-related behavior, such as suspensions.  The conclusion is clear – Asian-American families with a strong work and study ethic have produced disciplined, motivated students who perform above their income ranking. 

Another essential point not noted in this article but in others cited on this blog is that affluent families, regardless of race, spend educational time with their children from the day they are born.  They teach them concepts like quantity, form, logic, assessment, judgment, and relationships.  It costs them nothing; and this direct, intimate, and concerned parental involvement is worth far more than a more impersonal, outside opportunity.  Without a doubt, money pays off as children get older.  Courses in sculpture, music, painting, advanced mathematics; science and computer camps, are valuable resources which supplement those of parents.  Yet, the foundations for learning – the simple, interactive engagement between parents and children; taking advantage of every moment of the day to teach – are inexpensive and invaluable.

In summary, while the income gap does certainly come into play in the later school years,  Asian discipline and study ethic and affluent educational engagement from birth can be a way of countering the effects of income.

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