“I’m just here for the union-busting!”: Nicholas Kristof, School “Reform”, and the Chicago Teachers Strike

I’ve been defending the Chicago Teachers Union in my posts on Facebook and that has led to a number of online arguments with some of my more neoliberal acquaintances (who, in general, have never met a union that they don’t want to bust).  My overall argument is that socioeconomic factors have such a massive effect on educational outcomes that it is unfair to blame “underperforming” teachers for poor test scores.  More than one acquaintance responded to my argument by linking to a recent op-ed in the NYT by Nicholas Kristof.  I ended up writing (and posting in a comment thread on Facebook) a long rebuttal to this op-ed, but I’ve decided that I’d like to publish it more generally.  Here is my response (enhanced with a few hyperlinks):

First things first. No one is arguing that there aren’t teacher effects on educational outcomes. But the problem is that’s all Kristof and his neoliberal cronies want to talk about. They love to mention–in passing–poverty and racism and inequality, but they always come to back to firing teachers. The whole introduction of his op-ed could be summarized as “Poverty is the most important issue affecting education, which is why we need to fire some teachers.” It’s a bait-and-switch. Kristof may want to come off as a thoughtful observer of complex social phenomena, but he’s really just here for the union-busting.

Which brings us to his evidence. Despite his assertions, the studies Kristof cites just aren’t that clear cut. Diane Ravitch and Bruce Baker (among others) have discussed all of the studies that Kristof cites and have made several important points (you can read these critiques here and here):

  1. The effects that Kristof cites are just not as large as the rhetoric claims.
  2. Despite the fact that teacher effects exist, it is still not clear how to isolate individual teachers based on evaluation. (Kristof admits this in passing and then quickly ignores it.)
  3. There is nothing in these studies that supports firing bad teachers as a solution. Indeed, considering that the mode of teacher experience nationwide is one year and that evidence suggests that teachers improve by their third year of teaching, it may actually be preferable to spend money on training/retraining/professional development of current teachers than hiring (and then firing) a whole new set of teachers every year. (Incidentally, Rahm’s proposal to the union cut funds for teacher training, whereas the union’s original proposal called for a significant increase in funds for professional development.)

In fact, I don’t see any reason to believe that strict evaluation and lack of job security will improve educational outcomes. After all, charter schools–where “underperforming” teachers are NOT protected–do no better on average than traditional schools. Somehow, the charter school model of turning teachers into well-educated temps doesn’t actually produce all of the promised educational benefits. This is the problem that Kristof and his ilk forget to mention in their op-eds and propaganda films.

CTU Strike: 'Democratic Party, Where Are You?'

But Kristof isn’t really trying to be fair here. He’s more interested in trying to make teachers look bad. He seethes about how “unconscionable” it is that Chicago schools have a shorter day/year than other schools and applauds Rahm for trying to increase the length of the day/year. But Kristof forgets to mention that Rahm didn’t offer the teachers a commensurate increase in compensation for the increased workload. Kristof claims that he wants to pay teachers more, but I guess that doesn’t apply in this case.

And then there’s that cheapest of cheap shot lines about teachers expecting not to be held accountable for educational outcomes until poverty is solved. I don’t think teachers are asking for quite that much. Indeed, I suspect that most teachers would just be happy to see Democrat politicians and philanthropists do ONE FUCKING THING about poverty and inequality. But why should Kristof and the  NYT call out Rahm, Pritzker, Obama, etc., when there are teachers to be fired?

Finally, let me say how enraging I find it when Bill Gates (from his compound on Lake Washington) or Penny Pritzker (in her under-taxed Chicago mansion) or Nicholas Kristof (from his aerie in Manhattan) claim that they care more about the poor black kids on the South Side and know what is better for those kids than the teachers who spend every day with those kids. How dare the (underpaid) people who teach these kids try to speak up when the rich and the powerful are telling them (from afar) how to do their jobs! As far as I’m concerned, we should make education policy by listening to teachers, not to the arrogant rich and their pet technocrats.

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