Tilting at Windmills

July/August 2011 Layer cake… The Department of Housing and Unbelievable Delays… God help the squeaky wheel

By Charles Peters

The benign attitude that the media showed toward the Peace Corps was shared by almost all Democrats and moderate Republicans in Congress. Still, there were some who wanted to give us a hard time. But in hearings they rarely proved informed enough to ask the right question, and if they happened to stumble upon it, the right follow-up question almost never came. Even if it did, the questioner would soon have to leave the hearing for a quorum call or some other congressional business, or their time for questioning had expired.

… and when loyalty curdles

As long as we had frank internal self-evaluation, the Peace Corps could get by without informed outside critics. After the 1968 election, however, the Nixon administration abolished my office, and the loyal desire to protect the agency, left unchecked, ultimately led to the disgraceful concealment of the rapes of female volunteers that has recently come to light. At its worst, this desire to hide the bad news resulted in the agency’s helping a murderer go free. (See American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps, by Philip Weiss.)

As an agency matures, pride in its work as a motive for not revealing the bad news is accompanied or replaced by a concern for the agency’s budget. The one sure way any civil servant can lose his job is if his agency’s budget is cut. And so the survival imperative becomes a strong motive for avoiding excessive candor.

Asking the right questions

Today I can imagine that there is an even greater reluctance to disclose the bad news. The Republicans in Congress have become so automatically anti-government that they are almost certain to use any critical information to reduce or eliminate an agency’s effectiveness rather than to improve it.

This does not excuse control freaks like Michael Hayden, or the inanity, not to mention insanity, of indicting Thomas Drake for espionage. But I hope it does help explain why good people can feel obliged to conceal their agency’s difficulties, and why it becomes so important for White Houses, congressmen, and journalists who are truly concerned with better government to do enough homework to ask the right questions.

Who said “monster”?

Oddly enough, I think that Democrats in the 2012 election will have a similar problem with truth telling. It seems to me that their most likely road to success is to oppose any change in Medicare or Social Security and to wholeheartedly embrace the public employees unions that are among their major sources of funding and campaign workers.

For the conscientious among them, the challenge will be to find a way to tell the truth without sacrificing their electoral heads.

I had a recent experience in the difficulty of doing so. In our last issue, in the course of describing the selfishness and greed that had increasingly dominated this country in the last thirty years, I noted that the selfishness even extended to the non-greedy, giving as an example “those teachers who are more concerned with protecting their tenure than educating children.”

I then received an otherwise thoughtful letter from a reader who began, “Who are these monsters? If I were looking for a highly paid sinecure, it would not be in a classroom.”

Of course, I had not called anyone a monster, and I had specifically stated that I was talking about the non-greedy. And of course I was not describing all teachers— after all, my son is one—but only those “who are more concerned with protecting their tenure than educating children.”

Don’t be Mediscared

For Democrats who were not convinced by the 2010 election, in which Republicans exploited seniors’ anger over Obama’s attempt to rein in Medicare costs with the Affordable Care Act, the recent congressional election in upstate New York has probably clinched the case that any discussion of Medicare is hazardous to their political health. Yet I cling to the hope that a way can be found to raise issues like Medicare costs and teacher quality without immediately inviting reactions like that of my reader.

My hope is shared by two of the Monthly’s contributing editors who are now columnists—Joe Nocera of the New York Times and Matt Miller of the Washington Post—who have recently urged Democrats to face the problems with Medicare. But I think we critics have a responsibility to help find the magic combination of words that will enable politicians to grapple with the real issues while preserving some reasonable hope of winning an election.

The patient can suffer from more than one illness, you know

The cause of tenure reform, which seemed to be gaining traction with Davis Guggenheim’s documentary Waiting for Superman, has recently become the subject of a strong counterattack led by Diane Ravitch. Both the Washington Post and the New York Times have recently published pieces by her and others that question the wisdom of tenure reform. The argument these people emphasize—take, for example, “Five Myths about America’s Schools,” by Paul Farhi in the Post—is that there are many other problems, like poverty, that adversely affect the quality of education. Of course there are. But this does not mean that tenure itself is not a serious problem, keeping bad teachers in the classroom, absorbing too much of the education budget with their higher salaries, and, when budget cuts are necessary, requiring that talented young instructors be fired instead of their less competent elders.

The old boys still run the show

One of the oddest articles in this counterrevolution was a front-page piece by Sam Dillon of the New York Times, which seemed to find sinister— and, according to one source, “Orwellian”— purpose in Bill Gates’s support of grassroots advocacy “aimed at focusing the presidential candidates on issues like teacher quality and education standards,” or “revealing that existing evaluation systems tended to give higher ratings to all teachers,” or “arguing against seniority-based layoffs.”

Dillon’s fear is that Gates money will dominate the education debate. My fear is that, even with Gates money and a lot more, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the schools of education will continue to prevent any significant reform in public education. If you have any doubt about the power of these groups, read Joel Klein’s account of his attempts to effect reform in New York in the June Atlantic.

Stacked deck

To give you an idea of how the presidencies of Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and the two Bushes have enabled the Republicans to dominate the federal judiciary, thirteen of the sixteen judges on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals—now in the news because of the NFL lockout case—were nominated by one of them.

The “election fraud” fraud

Comments

  • Andrew Clarke on July 11, 2011 12:15 PM:

    Dear Mr. Peters,

    I am most disappointed by your now regular maligning of teachers’ unions in recent editions of ‘Tilting At Windmills’. You generally decry a lack of effective (and nondescript) “reform” to “improve education”, with teacher unions identified as a primary culprit, while giving outsiders like Bill Gates a free pass (someone who without name recognition or immense wealth would be dismissed for lack of experience and insight in education). You also regularly cite your perceived dysfunction at the tenure system, and its assumed outcome of “keeping bad teachers in the classroom”.

    First, if your publication wishes to catalogue and evaluate the range of challenges presently affecting pre-collegiate public education, and an associated range of viable solutions, then devote the time and research to it - preferably inclusive of those who actually spend many hours engaged with students in the classroom, from across the nation. Vapid comments that cast blame on unions are not useful. It is these very union members who are central to educating our pre-adult citizens in an increasingly toxic environment (see the governors of Wisconsin, Ohio, New Jersey, Michigan, Maine, Indiana, Pennsylvania... the list grows). Your rhetoric lends itself to no substantive solutions, and provides ammunition to the right wing ideologues who seek to destroy what’s left of organized labor in this nation. Teachers - who don’t seek the profession for wealth - should be the very last people targeted in any lamentation of shortcomings in public education. Insofar as there exist “bad” teachers, I welcome more evidentiary analysis & reporting: in what way are these teachers “bad”? How is such performance measured & evaluated? On what criteria and by whom? How often? What complicating factors make their performance subject to nuanced externalities, that may be difficult to measure or account for? Most importantly, just how many “bad teachers” are there? What proportional impact do they have on adversely holding back improved educational outcomes (relative to other variables, including ever tighter educational budgets)?

    When you speak of the nebulous and nonspecific force of “bad teachers” without context, data, or evidence, you are providing aid and comfort to the ideological enemies of public education, further doing a major disservice to all the “good” and “decent” teachers who positively impact hundreds of students throughout the school year - including, yes, your own son.

    Second, and more specifically, there seems to be a great misunderstanding of what exactly tenure is, in the field of public education. It is not something in place to “protect bad teachers”, and render them unable to be terminated. It is, rather, a system of due process, to ensure that terminations are valid and with cause, rather than potentially capricious or retaliatory. That’s one part of a union’s basic mission - protect its membership against the vagaries of a possibly adversarial administration. And due process strikes me as something all Americans are receptive toward - why not economically, as well as legally? Both involve fundamental security of person and livelihood.

    You further cite the example of “bad” teachers “absorbing too much of the education with their higher salaries, and when budget cuts are necessary, requiring that talented young instructors be fired instead of their less competent elders”. You couldn’t have gift-wrapped it better for the conservative base. Aside from the repeated point that you cite no quantitative proportionality of just how big an impact these purported “bad teachers” have in the overall discussion, your assumption is also one-sided. Consider the reciprocal argument: in a system void of tenure or seniority, how about instances of budget cuts putting pressure on school districts to terminate the more experienced, more competent, highly qualified good teachers, simply to realize budget savings? Do

  • jhand on August 03, 2011 7:35 PM:

    Although I share Mr. Peters' concern abut the ability of such large organizations as the NEA (of which I am a member), to work toward meaningful, positive change in public education, I was most impressed with Mr. Clarke's long, strong, rebuttal of an attitude that pervades the halls of Congress and the White House, as well as the chairs at the many Starbucks in D.C. Mr. Clarke's argument on evidence-free teacher bashing needs no support, but I would like to share my take on teacher tenure as it applies to Texas, a non-union state.
    Tenure in public primary and secondary education in Texas is not a sinecure. It essentially means that the teacher is no longer on probation. Probation means that you can be terminated for any reason or, worse, for no reason. In this system, there is no appeal, and probation usually lasts for three years. There is no guarantee that a teacher who has passed his or her probationary period will be able to keep his or her job, but there have been state laws that guaranteed due process. This meant that, if a teacher was considered (in Mr. Peters' terms) a "bad teacher," that teacher could be offered a growth plan and eventually terminated--IF the supervisor documented the weakness or failings of the "tenured" teacher, and IF the documents convince either a superintendent, a school board, or a hearing officer. So tenure is not really anything more than a guarantee of a job as long as you are performing that job, and you can lose it for a cause--as long as the cause is documented and convincing. That's how it was in Texas.
    Our legislature has passed financing laws that leave our public schools with a multi-billion shortfall over the next two years. Anticipating layoffs, the lege also passed a laws that allow a school district to declare a financial emergency and then lay off any teacher regardless of seniority. This is called a Reduction in Force (RIF), and the new law allows school boards the right to set their own criteria for RIFs. Declaring a RIF effectively eliminates due process for "tenured" teachers. I doubt that the Teach for America crew is taking bus reservations for their recruits to move to Texas and start a lifetime career in teaching in these conditions .
    I am not so sure that "tenure" in Texas, as it has previously existed, is not all that much different from "tenure" in union states. When teachers in union states have fought and won dismissal cases, they often win because of lack of due diligence on the part of the supervisor--who either did not intervene correctly or did not correctly document the reasons for dismissal. I would leave that argument to someone more familiar with the union states than I am.
    I hope that you, Mr. Peters, can see Mr. Clarke's point, that "bad teachers" are hardly the primary --or even secondary--problem in public education. Blaming teachers will make people feel better, but won't even begin to improve education.