Friday, July 29, 2011

Psychoanalyzing the Politics of Teaching (part 1)

"Struggling for Legitimacy"
Original artwork by Tavet Rubel, created for Dewey to Delpit

Two weeks ago, Andrew Rotherham posted a piece about teachers’ unions on Eduwonk. The inspiration for the piece was a Times story about a collaboration between GM and the United Auto Workers union on the development of a new, domestically-produced sub-compact car. Rotherham acknowledges that there are some examples of similar union-management collaboration in education, but he thinks that conditions in the public sector do not create the same incentives for collaboration:
I don’t want to imply that teachers’ union leaders are not committed to the success of public education.  But… the incentives around success are different because private firms can go out of business while public sector ones generally do not (especially public education, which is an essential service).
He’s right, of course—it’s clear from the Times article that the UAW’s involvement in the collaboration was driven by concerns about the future of American domestic automobile manufacturing, concerns that have no parallel in education—but I think Rotherham is looking for the wrong kind of explanation.

Whichever side you’re listening to, and whomever you blame for the problem, it’s hard to deny that relations between teachers’ unions and the state and local governments with whom they are in contract are uncommonly ugly these days. It’s worth asking why that’s happening; and it’s hard to argue with a conclusion as reasonable and open-ended as Rotherham’s:
...there are real differences between public sector and private sector unions and their various incentives and… we had better pay attention to them in our industry and think about how to navigate the various challenges public education faces with that in mind.
But whatever the complexities of public-sector incentives, I don’t think incentives are the heart of the problem. Economic incentives have never been primary motivators for teachers, and despite all the talk about merit-based pay and strategic firings, I suspect they never will. (I’m not arguing that financial interests don’t play a role in union decision-making; I’m just arguing that it’s a secondary role.)

I don’t think anyone out there—or hardly anyone—actually thinks teachers are in it for the money. So, why are we so quick to assume that their unions are in it for the money—or at least for the self-interest: the salary, the job security, the long vacations, etc.? Well, because that’s what labor unions do: they look out for the financial interests of their constituents; and teachers unions don’t seem to act any differently. At the same time, there’s something weird about it: why would a coalition of people most of whom are deeply committed to their students base its decisions on the self-interests of its members? More to the point, why does a professional group whose primary motivation is an intrinsic concern for the products of its labor even need a union?

What I want to suggest is that teachers’ unions’ primary purpose today is the same for which the unions were created a hundred years ago: to legitimize teaching as a profession. That goal has never been obtained, and despite many apparent improvements in the status and cultural image of teachers, we are, in the most important senses, no closer to being professionals today than we were a hundred years ago.

A labor union is an odd way to try to legitimize a profession, of course. After all, labor is what you are if you’re not a professional. Indeed, the teachers’ unions are often faulted on the grounds that they bargain for policies that are more labor-like than professional, e.g. regulations limiting teachers’ working hours: labor leaves at the end of the day; professionals leave when the job is done.

The contradiction in that position—protecting labor rights through collective bargaining while fighting for professional status—is indicative of the strange and uncomfortable position in which teachers find themselves: they’re professionals without a profession, experts without an identifiable expertise. Society does not put stock in teachers’ knowledge: it accords them no authority and does not seek their advice on matters relating to their field. When politicians want to improve schools, they hire outside consultants.

It’s never worth faulting society; society is the amoral aggregate. There are compelling reasons why teachers’ expertise is not widely valued. In my next post two posts, I will explore the nature and causes of teachers’ ambiguous professional status and argue that it is a powerful lens for understanding the state of education in America.


  1. Let me suggest here that what is undervalued in American society today is actually service, where the role of educators is just one example.

    To that end, within the tech world, you see companies offering their services as "products." You can't go to the store and buy a Gmail and bring it home, and yet Gmail is labeled by Google as one of their products. Why would companies choose to use a word that misrepresents what they offer, given that what they offer has been shown to be of value (thus deception seems unnecessary)?

    Obviously, there's a stigma attached to service, and I don't know exactly why-- I suspect the answer lies in American labor history. But as you've noted with education, there's no money in service, even though in our every day lives, service is infinitely more valuable than things.

  2. Stigma attached to service? Law and medicine are both services, aren't they? No stigma there.

    I don't think there's much ambiguous about a teacher's professional status. The problem isn't status; the problem is pay. Teachers aren't able to move around freely to get better jobs. They can't put out their own shingle. They can't contract by the hour and work at multiple schools. They can't choose work remotely. They have no control over their client base. All of this is not because of the nature of the job, but the nature of the employer.

    And because teachers can't move about and demand better pay, letting market conditions and job preferences determine their salaries, their pay has to be strictly prescribed. No teacher would want to give full salary control to a principal, as it would lead inevitably to favoritism, which means raises are near automatic. And since teachers can't move around and raises are automatic, senior teachers are more expensive than junior teachers, while not nearly productive enough to justify the added expense, since even a beginning teacher is, by definition, doing the same job for far less money.

    Then, we can't define success in any meaningful way.

    Unions weren't necessary for any of this, and I'd argue only caused trouble by pigging out on pensions. But if we got rid of unions, the job restrictions would still be the same and we'd be in the same place.

    It's not about defining the teacher's job as professional. It's about the constrained nature of the job.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Joanna and Cal. I hope you'll both come back to check out the next two posts, which will be on this topic.

    Joanna, I think the service/product conversation is interesting, but I think Cal's point about law and medicine is compelling. In fact, all labor, professional, unskilled, high-paying, low-paying, is service.

    Cal, your points about the employment structure of teaching are compelling. You’re right, of course, that teachers are in a much more difficult bargaining position than are doctors or lawyers or plumbers. They are not without recourse if their compensation is insufficient, though: they can leave the “profession” or go into private schooling or consulting; and many avail themselves of these options. Indeed, we lose many effective teachers in this way, every year. That said, the limitations on mobility certainly play a role in low teacher salaries and in the perceived need for unions; and those low salaries are a major cause of the low status of the teaching profession. As I will argue in the next two posts, however, there are other and deeper causes. I would love to hear your reaction after you’ve read the next two posts.


  4. Thanks for your response, Max.

    "They are not without recourse if their compensation is insufficient, though: they can leave the “profession” or go into private schooling or consulting; and many avail themselves of these options. "

    Sure, but that's a binary solution--you teach or you leave the profession (or private school, where you trade off a lot). I'm starting my third year as a teacher, but before that I was a private tutor and instructor (well, still am on the side), and before that, I was in tech for 15 years (ditto). In tech, if I didn't like my job, I went looking for a job--first an internal transfer, if possible, then moving on to other companies. I could work as an employee. I could work for a huge corporation or for a small business. Or I could put out my own shingle and work as a consultant. I could set my rate or set my salary requirements, based on what the market would tolerate. I didn't leave the profession if I didn't like something about the job. All of this was true as a private instructor/tutor, too. I work both independently for parents and clients, but also take on part-time employment working for instruction companies.

    Notice all the flexibility in types of employment and types of companies I have to choose from. Teachers have no such flexibility. That lack of flexibility is built into the profession--in fact, I suspect that if you look at teacher personality profiles, you'll see that many of them are drawn to that certainty.

    Imagine a job where teacher salaries were like they are (or used to be) in corporate America. Say, Teacher I, Teacher II, Teacher III, Senior Teacher. Each category had a range for the salary. You came into the range based on your own ability to negotiate and the principal's determination of your value (this is the gotcha, and for good reason). Your raise was based on the principal's evaluation, and based on whether you were 1-5 (with 5 the highest), and where you are in your category, your percentage raise was determined. The principal also determines whether or not you can be promoted, which gives you a higher base salary range.
    If you feel your principal isn't evaluating you or promoting you appropriately, you can go look for a new job--and your category and salary would be determined up to you. Or, after a while, you could bill yourself out as someone who teaches 4 classes a day--two in the morning, two in the afternoon, teaching a .4 at two different schools in two different districts--both with negotiated salaries.

    There are good reasons why this sort of structure can't exist--mainly, giving too much power to principals, who are fundamentally running small family owned businesses on the taxpayers dime. I just mention it to show how fixed and inflexible teaching jobs are.

    On another note: I don't think teachers are, as a group, underpaid. I don't think they're overpaid, either, and certainly salaries vary by state and district. But given the certainty of employment after a couple years, the easy working hours, and the limited demands the boss can make on their time (teachers work outside of work hours by choice only), it's nice pay for the group. Obviously, individual teachers deserve much more or much less. But that's kind of my point--we can't pay them that way. Since we can't, I think it's pretty good money. (I am, apparently, the only teacher in the world who holds this view!)

    I also push back on teaching being a low status profession. It is under attack, but that's different. For example, lawyers are constantly attacked, both individually and as an occupation. But lawyering is not a low status profession. Similarly, teaching is not low status. It's just not as high a status position as law or medicine.

    I look forward to reading your next posts.

  5. Cal,

    Thanks for pushing on this point. It’s definitely an interesting argument, and I didn’t intend to dismiss its significance by saying that teachers have the recourse of leaving the profession.

    Your vision of a competitive market for teaching labor is a compelling one, though I’m not entirely clear why you need the four categories of teachers. Wouldn’t the market function to set salaries without any tiers? Charter schools may or may not have created an effective marketplace for education, as their conservative advocates envisioned, but they have definitely begun to create a competitive marketplace for teachers. Within the NYC charter world, teachers jump schools a lot. Each school has its own organizational culture and its own compensation structure; teachers have reputations within the community and schools will try to steal teachers from other schools by offering them better packages. The only problem is workloads are so heavy in most of these charters that it proves unsustainable for many teachers, and schools rarely offer part-time positions.

    I may agree with you that teachers are not underpaid, but I think that’s because they’re also under-trained and frequently under-qualified. A properly trained and highly qualified teaching force would require higher salaries. More on this in future posts.

  6. " I’m not entirely clear why you need the four categories of teachers. "

    Well, that's how corporate America used to work (and may still). You start off as a I, and move through the ranks as you get promoted. It's a two-tier method of managing salaries--raises based on your yearly performance, but also on your categorization. It would start to cap adequate (but not terrible) performers, who wouldn't get promoted, but also wouldn't be getting huge raises. It sounds as if one small part of the NYC school district competes but that's not nearly enough.

    I read your proposal and all I can say is, not in a million, billion, quadrillion years would any sane teacher sign on for it. Good god, a year was more than enough. If I understand, you want to raise teacher pay so that there's more justification for us giving up five years of our lives until someone judges it's safe to put us in front of the classroom. But most teachers don't go into the profession for pay. Your suggestion that teachers in it for life would be more open to five years than TFAers is, I am certain, a complete non-starter. I went to an elite program with 70 others all dedicated to teaching. None of them would have been open to a five year program. I mean, seriously, dude--it's THE HORROR, THE HORROR. Linda Darling Hammond pushes this, too. I don't know what you all are smoking.

    We give teachers more training and hold them to higher content standards than at any point in our history. But we had no problem educating our population in the past. Now, to some extent, the teacher population has changed--the teacher pool is less able as females and minorities got more opportunities. Overall, however, our results are still just fine if we hold ourselves to the same standards we had in the past. If we allowed low ability students to drop out or take easier classes, we would have better results than we did in the past, I'd wager.

    But our goal has changed--we now demand that low ability kids do as well as high ability kids (you just wrote three posts about this). That's a huge difference and, despite the fact that we have no evidence that such goals have ever been met, we continue to demand this of teachers. (Note: I understand the goal; I'm just pointing out that it's never been done.)

    I think the people who push an abysmally long training period are focusing overmuch on teaching low ability kids. I teach low ability kids, and it's brutal. But by focusing on these kids, you're ignoring the fact that mid and high ability kids do very well, for the most part, and have done so for decades. No reason to force teacher training for five more years on their account. And if you're going to focus on low ability kids, fine, but there's zero evidence that five years of training are going to make any difference. Besides, as you yourself point out, the senior teachers are in good schools and good classes. There are very few senior teachers teaching in brutal classrooms in horrible schools. Which brings up another big problem--scalability. Think of the overhead you're suggesting to create just one teacher. Multiply that by hundreds of thousands. And that's nothing compared to the utter lack of research showing that training time improves teacher quality.

    Not only wouldn't it make better teachers, but it would also do nothing to raise the status of teachers.

    If I understand this, you're actually letting the tail wag the dog. Goal: higher status. Method: higher pay. Path: longer training time.

    I'd argue the status is fine, the pay is fine, and the problem is our goals are absurd.

  7. I agree that one small portion of NYC teachers having the mobility to bargain for salaries is insufficient, but one hopes that the competitive market for good teachers in the charter world will drive similar competition on the DOE end. (Of course, that’s the same kind of argument, regarding teachers instead of students, that conservatives have used for years to promote charter-schools and voucher programs; and I actually think the argument is very problematic when applied to competition for students rather than faculty, but this isn’t the moment to go into it.) On the other hand, DOE schools could just become a dumping ground for low-performing teachers who are selected out of the competitive charter system. Time will tell.

    Regarding my proposal for teacher training, that was quite a salvo. I’ll try to respond, but it's a big conversation. I may just respond with an entire post.

  8. Hi Cal,

    I've already written 850+ words on this, so it's going to be its own post. I think it'll be of general interest, anyway. I'll post when I'm done with this series on the teaching profession. Sorry to put the debate on hold.


  9. Max,

    It was a salvo. I'm glad you're going to write on it. I have really strong feelings about this (no, really?). The year I was in ed school (second career), I had to sit through Linda Darling Hammond talking excitedly about what she wanted to see in an Obama administration. It was the day after the election, I'm no Obama fan (sorry), and I wrote notes to keep from talking.

    Given that I was vehement, let me recap the fundamentals, which I often miss in my froth of "increase the time? MADNESS!" response:

    1. The premise is flawed. Teacher training has been the same for decades and before that it was much looser. Therefore, teacher training has very little to do with the results we now find unsatisfactory.

    2. While teacher training is largely useless, the only real "fix" is to accept that there's no real way to create a teacher through training.

    3. We need huge number of teachers; therefore, anything that dramatically reduces the number of teachers is by definition a terrible idea. (I say that nicely, of course!) Your proposal would profoundly limit the number of teachers, and thus not workable.

    One final point: I have no problem in setting this up as a pilot for those poor, deluded fools who find it attractive. But you know what would happen, almost instantly: research would show very little difference between teachers who go the apprentice route and teachers who go the traditional route. Or not enough to justify the much higher washout rate and the forced apprenticeship of teachers working for little pay for so long.

    Would you agree, though, that this is the best way to test it out?