Useless administrators, not the unions responsible for bad schools

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My favorite breakfast read, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, recently covered why teachers’ unions are blocking improvements in our schools. This conclusion was wrong, but, unfortunately, many people agree with it.

The June 7 editorial, “Parent School Council Revolt Continues,” celebrates the recent election victories of parent-backed school council candidates. They want something done about school closures and programs they believe are hurting their children.

“This increase in successful challenges is welcome because the fundamental problem with public schools has long been rooted in the failure of monopoly governance,” the editorial said. “School boards are dominated by teachers’ unions, which are very interested in the outcome.

Often these unions do good work. They fought for better salaries, pensions and job security for hard-working teachers like my mother. They also spout lies in political advertisements. One of the worst was the 2018 California Teachers Association ads saying billionaires were diverting “money from our public schools to their corporate charter schools,” not to mention that 97% of state charters were at non-profit.

So unions, like most of us, can be helpful or hurtful. But do they nullify attempts to improve our schools, as the Journal suggests? My reports on the most productive school reforms indicate that they do not. For several decades, I have asked teachers who have succeeded in improving performance whether unions have hindered them. Either way, the answer was no.

The real villain is the administrative inertia found in almost all human organizations, including school systems. Innovative teachers find that their best ideas seem too risky for principals or too expensive for district administrators. School boards have never devoted much time to what goes on inside the classrooms and therefore rarely engage in such reforms. The same goes for teachers’ unions.

How Ignorant Principals and Superintendents Are Ruining Great Schools

The Journal disagrees. “These days, teachers’ union leaders, even at the local level, no longer focus on student performance as they once did,” the editorial said. I would like to see proof of that. The union has always focused on wages, pensions and security. These questions are irrelevant to the most effective progress of teaching.

Jaime Escalante was a math teacher at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles in the 1970s and 1980s. He inspired the movie “Stand and Deliver” and played a key role in the most successful change in high schools this century. – a significant increase in the average number of student enrollments in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate college-level courses and tests.

Escalante didn’t like his school’s teacher’s union representative, but mostly because as a product of the Bolivian middle class (his parents were teachers), he grew up thinking unionism was only marginally better. than communism.

Escalante told me that the biggest obstacles to improving grades were fellow teachers who didn’t like his criticisms of their work and principals who didn’t appreciate his efforts to bring low-income students into crash courses. . He and the teacher he trained, Ben Jimenez, managed to produce 26% of Mexican American students in the country passing the AP Calculus exams in 1987 only because their director at the time, Henry Gradillas, was a former Army Airborne Ranger who loved Escalante’s. tenacity and high expectations. The union representative did not intervene.

Mary Catherine Swanson was an English teacher at Clairemont High School in the San Diego School District. She created a study skills and tutoring program in 1980 called Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID). Operating in more than 8,500 districts, it has become the nation’s largest effort to prepare average students for challenging grades. Her problem was not the teachers’ union but the administrators who resented the favorable publicity she was receiving.

A teacher who changed lives

When she refused to combine her program with that of the district’s gifted student seminary director, he said, “I’ll see to it that your career is ruined in the schools of the city of San Diego.” When her school’s new principal showed his distaste for her success by giving her a lot of work, Swanson quit and was warmly welcomed by the county superintendent of education, an AVID fan.

KIPP is the largest and one of the most successful public charter school networks in the nation, with 270 schools and more than 160,000 students. Its founders were Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, then teachers in their twenties. Labor unions in Houston and New York, where they established their first schools in the 1990s, paid little attention to KIPP. There were a few battles between KIPP and the teachers’ union later in New York, but by then the charter network was too successful and too politically connected to stop.

The biggest obstacles to Levin and Feinberg’s growth were not the unions but the district administrators who did not take them seriously. They sometimes had to be outrageous to get ahead. Feinberg gained access to a larger classroom by staking the Houston superintendent’s car for several hours until the man showed up. To go home for supper, he agreed to see Feinberg the next day.

Levin found a way to harness inertia in his favor one summer by having his staff and students quickly move boxes and equipment into an empty fourth floor of a school with only a tentative promise that he could have that space. Superintendent came back from vacation wanting to keep KIPP out of there, but gave up when it was learned that Levin had already settled down.

The Journal has more confidence than I do in the power of elections to improve teaching and learning. School board members and administrators are generally good people. But rarely do they face problems that have a great chance of increasing success. And even then, their instinct is usually to do nothing if the project is important or likely to annoy the parents.

Angry parents elected to school boards find they don’t go far without compromise, which means little is being done. Energetic educators with excellent track records have a much better chance of improving teaching. But they have to get rid of intrusive supervisors. Showing kids how to learn better helps teachers gain parental support more effectively than school board elections ever do.

About Rachel Gooch

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