PEF, one of the leading state-worker unions, is constantly berating the State for contracting out work that it claims should be performed better and at lower costs by its members. Here’s a Times Union item that reports the union representing some PEF legal workers has complained that PEF is contracting out some of their work. Especially ironic is that the contract employees will be representing full dues-paying PEF members, while PEF’s own employees will be representing agency shop payers who have opted out of union membership, a group about which it presumably cares less.
This little item in the Albany Times Union (the longer story linked to in the item is behind the paper’s pay wall) about the burden of rising pension costs is unusual only because of the employer — NYSUT, the teachers’ union. NYSUT’s own management is clearly aware of the burdensome costs of benefits for its own employees, and its officers appear to be willing to take a cut while they negotiate similar cuts with their employees’ union.
Of course, NYSUT’s role as bargaining representative for its members is different from its role as an employer, and it is charged by law to represent its members’ interests. In playing that role in contract negotiations, I don’t think NYSUT would be receptive to the concept of givebacks by its members.
What I suspect I won’t see is any of the school districts asking for the kind of givebacks NYSUT appears to believe warranted with respect to its employees (and leading the way by imposing them on their own staff). One reason for public employee unions’ great success has been the lack of aggressive counter parties representing the taxpayers in contract negotiations, though I am sure the School Boards’ Association would argue to the contrary. There are many reasons for this: the understandable urge (especially when spending other peoples’ money) to show appreciation for the good work teachers do, the large financial and political clout of the unions, and the fact that the better the deal for teachers, the better the deal for management, who must of course, be paid more than the rank and file in the trenches. Of course, in a competitive market for teachers, salary and benefits must be competitive, but smart management would make sure they were regardless of union pressure.
Recently, a caller to one of our local public broadcasting stations expressed the dilemma of wanting to support local public education but wanting to remain in his house, which was becoming increasingly less affordable due to rising school taxes, among other things. The moderator pooh-poohed him with the usual response — “nothing’s too good for our kids.”
Like that caller, I see both sides, and I certainly don’t want to return to the days of exploitation of teachers. However, I wonder who is representing this taxpayer, and how strongly. Only when both sides have equal bargaining power can a reasonable balance of interests be struck.
Education, like health care, is one of our most intractable problems. We spend more and get less than other states and countries, and it’s hard to pinpoint why. The teachers blame lack of parental support, poverty and other social ills. Others blame the teachers, especially as represented by their unions, and the tenure system, which they claim concentrate inordinately on protecting bad and ineffective teachers. At the center of this debate is so-called “high stakes” testing, which teachers claim is being used to punish them for conditions beyond their control and which, they further claim, requires them to “teach to the test” and to take valuable time from higher-level pedagogy. Those favoring testing believe it can be used to establish before and after scores that can measure a teacher’s “value added” effectiveness and therefore can differentiate between more and less effective teachers.
I hope we all can agree that public school teachers in general deserve our respect. They do not get to choose their students who, especially in high needs districts, can present challenges to keeping order and conveying information that most of us would not know how to deal with effectively. Most are dedicated, and spend time beyond the contractually mandated minimum and money from their own pockets buying supplies they feel are needed but the school district doesn’t. As in any profession or occupation, there is a small number of bad actors, and it is on those that most of the controversy centers. But all teachers, and particularly those who face the challenge of teaching high needs students, fear that factors beyond their control may be used to jeopardize their job security and otherwise “punish” them.
I come down in support of testing, if done intelligently, and if the results are used correctly. As one who was a manager for much of my career, I heartily subscribe to the adage “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.” Testing, if valid, provides some information needed to effectively manage schools and teachers. It does not provide all the information needed to effectively manage schools and teachers — such as the reasons for the results it reports — but it does provide an objective snapshot of how well a teacher or school is performing based on objective standards. It is common sense that an average class score in the South Bronx that may be lower than an average class score in Scarsdale does not mean the teacher in the South Bronx is ineffective or that the Scarsdale teacher is a star performer. But it does show where improvement is needed. How that improvement is to be achieved, and whether substandard teaching is responsible to any degree for poor test results, must be determined by more nuanced, subjective measures. Having test scores represent half a teacher’s evaluation score recognizes its role and importance, and seems to me reasonable.
A Daily News column by Erroll Louis raises two very good additional points about testing. One is that the interests of parents and teachers on this issue are not completely the same. Some parents resent the time spent “teaching to the test” and to administering the tests, which they may feel could better be spent on other educational activities. Though the teachers agree, the difference between the concerns of parents and teachers is that the “high stakes” of test scores are used only to evaluate teachers. Students’ test scores do not impact their grades, though perhaps a test score indicating a lack of basic understanding of reading or math should trump a passing grade in those subjects. The other point Louis raises is that testing, like it or not, is a fact of life in this society, and performing satisfactorily on tests is necessary for admission to institutions of higher learning and many trades and professions. In other words, teaching to the test may impart a practical life skill.
While I am sympathetic to a limited point with teachers who feel bad test scores will be used unfairly against them, that sympathy is tempered by two factors: first, no occupation has stronger legal and contractual job protection, union representation or political clout. Second, it seems pretty clear to me that teachers do not have a better answer for improving schools. In a state that spends 70% above the national per-pupil average, throwing more money at the problem cannot be the answer, especially in a labor intensive enterprise like teaching, where most additional resources will go to increasing teacher compensation or administrative overhead. $20,000 per child should be more than enough to provide a clean, safe school environment, necessary supplies and equipment and reasonable class size. If it isn’t, administrators are not doing their jobs. Blaming conditions outside the schools for poor student performance, if taken to its logical extreme, is really an argument that providing public education, at least in high-needs areas, is an exercise in futility. Since teachers cannot make a meaningful difference, why bother at all?
I am not an expert on education, but I think it’s hard to argue with success, as demonstrated by the better, more successful charter schools. What they do is not magic. A lot of it boils down to time on task, meaning more school days per year and more hours per school day. I was shocked to read that the most recent New York City teachers’ contract actually decreased classroom time (in exchange for an increase in parent-teacher contact time). I also understand that the mere fact that charters are populated by students whose parents entered lotteries is a form of pre-selection that indicates better home support for those students, but I’m not sure how much of the performance difference between the better charters and public schools can be accounted for by that difference, and studies suggest that such factors are not statistically significant. No question, improving out-of-school social services can improve students’ academic performance, as programs like the Harlem Children’s Zone have demonstrated. But the public schools can and should do better, even though some face difficult challenges. Using valid tests in an intelligent way to establish a baseline from which progress can be measured with reasonable accuracy is a necessary first step toward that goal.
This New York Times story shows the LIRR pension scandal is far from over.