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Education Reformer (Sic) Three Card Monte

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In his response to my point that people arguing that the CTU wants to make it impossible to fire bad teachers need some evidence that the CTU wants to make it impossible to fire bad teachers (as opposed to evidence that the CTU doesn’t want teachers to be evaluated solely by high-stakes standardized tests), I think Matt engages in precisely the same kind of evasion I was talking about:

Scott Lemieux, expressing a view I’ve heard frequently, calls for “carefully distinguish the truth from union-busting non-sequiturs.”

What’s he got in mind? “In particular, believing that teachers should not be promoted or fired based on solely on standardized test scores is not at all the same thing as saying that bad teachers shouldn’t be fired.”

I think this is 180 degrees backward. The controversy about what is and isn’t an appropriate metric by which to assess a teacher’s performance is obviously a very important one. But the idea that labor union objections to firing their members are fundamentally about evaluation metrics is extraordinarily naive. Under any possible evaluation scheme—whether for teachers, journalists, auto workers, basketball players, truck drivers, or what have you—the union is going to want to make it as difficult as possible to fire people. The idea of a labor union is to, among other things, represent the workforce’s interests and give voice to its desires. And in my experience people don’t want to get fired! In any kind of unionized workplace you see management pushing for more flexibility (i.e., ability to fire people) and the union pushing for more job securitiy (i.e., it’s easier to keep your job even if management decides you’re bad at it).

The rest of the post goes on to further establish a point that is not actually in dispute — that union contracts generally make it harder to fire employees. Obviously, this is true. And, from a progressive standpoint, this is obviously salutary. It is true that establishing a process for terminating employees may make it harder to fire employees that management decides are bad at their jobs (some subset of which may, in fact, be be bad at their jobs.) It also makes it harder for management to fire people because they don’t like the way they look, or because they refuse to fellate their supervisor as a condition of further employment, or because they don’t root for the same team their boss does, or because they want to read a newspaper on their lunch break, etc. etc.

Being a progressive, I generally regard this a salutary. It’s trivially true that a good, collectively bargained process for terminating workers makes it “harder” to fire incompetent employees in the sense that management has to demonstrate that an employee is incompetent rather than that management doesn’t like the cut of the employee’s jib. But it and of itself this would be a terrible reason to oppose the CTA strike. It would be extraordinarily naive to think that giving management unlimited discretion to fire employees necessarily improves the quality of work or of employee.

So the fact that having a union contract makes it harder to fire employees all things being equal is neither here nor there. The relevant question is whether the employee protections given to CTA members are reasonable, or whether they make it so difficult to fire bad teachers that the interests of students are damaged. Or, even when bad teachers can be removed from the classroom, procedures for termination may be so cumbersome that taxpayer money that could go to education is wasted (as in New York’s “rubber rooms”, as unrepresentative as New York teachers as they may have been.) Even in these cases, it must be noted that it takes two to negotiate, and management may accede to unreasonable job security protections because they want concessions on pay and working conditions. But unreasonable protections of bad employees in public schools is certainly a legitimate matter of concern.

But unless you’re a reactionary who thinks that giving management unfettered discretion to fire employees inevitably improves outcomes (and the performance of schools in states with no unions and at-will employment does not encourage such a conclusion), the details matter, and what the CTA is actually asking for matters. If there’s a good argument that the CTA is making it unreasonably hard to fire bad teachers, I’m happy to listen. But nobody seems to be offering any such evidence; rather, critics like Kristof just assume it. Again, it’s true that the CTA doesn’t believe that teachers should be evaluated solely (rather than partly) by high-stakes testing, but since they’re right about this that’s no reason to not support them. If Matt has an argument about why what the CTA is asking for would be worse for schools than what the city is asking for, he should make it. The fact that union contracts constrain the power of management is not actually such an argument.

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