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what's the point?

In this morning’s New York Times, there’s a not-yet-pay-per-view guest column by Matt Miller called Honor Thy Teacher, which suggests spending rougly $30 billion nationally on increasing the salaries of teachers in impoverished elementary school districts, in exchange for two union concessions: merit pay rather than seniority, and easier termination of “the worst teachers”. The 30 bees would raise starting salaries to $60,000 in the cities; “[t]he best teachers would earn up to $150,000.” Oh, and he’s suggesting the Democrats in Washington propose reinstating the estate tax to pay for this.

No, no, stop laughing. And you, stop weeping. I know, I know. It’ll never happen. I don’t want to talk about the merits of the plan (it has many), but why Mr. Miller is proposing it in the pages of the New York Times. What is his rhetorical purpose? What does he want? Because even if he really does want to make this grand bargain, he must know that there is nobody to make it with.

My first thought was that by indicating that the unions would be willing to make those concessions for a ton of money, he was devaluing those concessions, saying, in effect, that the unions didn’t really believe in seniority pay and job protection, but were just holding out for more money. I do think he’s doing that, but I don’t think that’s the main purpose of the article. It might be. It’s incredibly dismissive of those concessions, calling them “reforms” and acting as if there could be no doubt that they should be enacted, and it is just a matter of shmearing the right people. Myself (and y’all know how pro-union I am, Gentle Readers), I distrust merit pay, particularly coupled with removing job protection, as a way for budget-squeezed management to screw workers. It’s management who decide merit, usually, and their incentive to do it fairly is what, exactly? And if you complain, well, then, remember the last guy who complained? His performance reviews went downhill, and now he’s in another line of work.

I admit that there are serious flaws with systems that don’t allow pay raises for merit, and that don’t allow incompetents to be sacked. I have no idea whether those systems as they are currently enacted really do exacerbate those flaws. I do know that portraying the unions as inflexible, greedy and destructive political mammoths has been a trope used for specific political purposes by a party opposed to broadly egalitarian education. So by using language such as “soothe the savage union beast” or even “reforming destructive union practices”, Mr. Miller is telling me that either he isn’t really interested in improving public schools, or that he has bought in to the Republican line, or that he is pretending to have bought into it. Whichever is the truth, it doesn’t inspire me to trust the man. Still, I don’t think that weakening the union position is the main point of the article.

I was tempted, after dismissing that, to think that the point of the article was simply self-aggrandizement. Look, he says, I have an idea! Since it isn’t within the realm of political possibility, I don’t have any associated responsibilities. I can claim support for it without providing any evidence for it. I can smugly declare that I know what would be best without getting my hands dirty. I can be the smart guy! And, you know, there’s something to that. And, you know, he’s sitting in Maureen Dowd’s chair.

I think there’s something more to it, though. Mr. Miller’s Big Idea is that we need to be talking about Big Ideas. His big Big Idea is a 2% solution for increasing public investment, which, you know, I haven’t read, but he claims that conservatives would love it. I haven’t noticed. But I have some sympathy for the Big Idea that we should, nationally, be talking about big changes, not just tiny ones. Particularly, I think there’s some slight chance that Big Ideas could catch the public’s attention, and compete with the Anti-Tax idea. So I hope that the point of the article is not to seriously claim that “If Schwarzenegger or Bloomberg were to scrap their current plans and declare such ambitious goals, unions would chuck their dogma and link arms to find the money.” No, I hope that Mr. Miller is making such a preposterous claim in order to goad people to think about Big Idea solutions rather than small idea solutions to a variety of other problems. The point is not to solve this problem at this time, but to build a framework for solving problems in the future. At least if that’s his rhetorical purpose, it’s one I can take seriously. I still don’t, you know, wholeheartedly agree, but at least it’s not a total waste of the Times’s space.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

first of all. the ads attacking the california governor are not primarily focused on his teacher work rule changes. california teachers are mad because the governor reneged on a deal: they agreed to support a temporary release of $2-billion from the state education budget in exchange for political support. he then refused to return the money to that section of the budget as promised, when promised. (i knew this would happen; i couldn't believe the teachers' union didn't see it coming.) trying to pin blame on the teachers here is serpentine.

i have my own feelings about changing the model for teachers' associations to a professional model from a factory model.

this big idea, however, has no real merit. it has paper merit. there is an exchange on offer that could be taken to be fair, if two things weren't true:

(1) money that is promised can be more easily taken away than contracts can be renegotiated.

(2) more important than providing money for teachers in poor neighborhoods is providing job development money in those same neighborhoods.

i agree with paying teachers more, and particularly for spending the money needed to provide all the services a kid in trouble needs from a school:

* more staff. class size reduction. aides in classrooms, aides out of classrooms. kids get attention and get support.

* family involvement programs, such as parenting classes, to bring the parents into the process. many poor parents don't know how to play a positive role in their kids' education and don't trust the school system because of their own experiences.

* breakfast and lunch offered. nutritious food is a problem. also, part of the family outreach would be nutrition education.

* location-specific training and mentoring for teaching staff - if the teachers are into it.

beyond this, a wider framework for developing teaching and job strategies in the area, involving parents, kids, teachers, employers, planners... this is very broad, perhaps unworkable. but there's a need for a total program, an integrated effort, including both school quality improvements and job training and child care and much else for parents who themselves are stuck.

this is because the trouble in deeply poor areas isn't the income difference among teachers but among parents. i know that sounds old-fashioned but there really isn't any better predictor of the stability of a community than median income - it has to be addressed if the school isn't just going to fall flat on its face the minute the money is pulled out.


allison says that the services provided by the school should include:

* psychologists
* adequate onsite medical staff - allison's school has a nurse on site once a week and she's in a moderately-financed system

* college and career counselors - this is a popular cost-cutting measure - in her district, high school counselors have had their workload doubled since 2001.


full disclosure: i am not a fan of neo-classical economics. i agree that fixing a system often means paying key actors more money to get them off their duffs, but neo-classicists often err enormously on who they are willing to say deserves more pay.

parents are the key actors in this situation. pay them more.


The lack of Big Ideas is certainly damning the Democratic party to irrelevance. It used to be called vision. Sadly, the Lakoff book is the focus of the party. While I think it's useful to communicate well and it's clearly important not to cede the terminological low ground to your opponents, the Democratic party needs some decent Big Ideas in order to save the country and itself. If you have a good Big Idea, finding good words to describe it should follow naturally.


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