Blame and Motivation in Education
Friday night’s Violent Roundtable on the Matt Allen Show featured Rhode Island House Minority Leader Bob Watson and legal analyst Lou Pulner, and I was surprised to find Pulner nearly standing alone when the conversation turned toward the teachers unions’ blocking the state’s federal Race to the Top application (on which the RI Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals has just changed its position):
Matt Allen: The teacher unions in Rhode Island are stuck, because they do not want teacher evaluation to be dependent upon student performance. I guess Deborah Gist’s proposal is 51% of teacher performance and evaluation will be based on student performance and standardized tests.
Lou Pulner: Gee, what a bummer that would be, huh? Think about it — that we’re actually going to rate our teachers based upon how they’re students are doing in class and on exams.
Bob Watson: And you know what’s always interesting is you wonder if you inventory the rank and file, how many of them are in agreement with the positions that the teachers union’s take.
LP: I’ll bet you 80%. They don’t want to lose their job because they’re doing a poor job.
BW: On certain core issues, I think you’re right. But then there are other areas, I think that there are certain areas where some of the better teachers — and I happen to have a brother that’s a teacher and a sister that recently retired, my mother’s a teacher, having retired, so I’ve got some bias, I suppose.
MA: My soon-to-be wife is also a public school teacher.
LP: But she’s not political, you told me.
MA: She’s not political.
BW: And when I knocked on doors in East Greenwich and campaigned for office, I found one of the predominant …
LP: Where is your brother a teacher?
BW: In Cranston.
LP: OK. Good schools. East Greenwich, good schools. But if your brother were a teacher in Central Falls or Pawtucket, maybe you wouldn’t be taking this position.
BW: As I said, one of the predominant second incomes in East Greenwich is a teacher’s salary, and I’ve often found myself talking to a teacher from all sorts of parts of the state. They live in East Greenwich; they may teach in Central Falls. They have the same interests in having quality teachers in the schools, because when the good teachers are in a classroom next to a teacher that’s slacking off and just not carrying their weight, trust me, all morale is reduced.
LP: But what happens, then, Bob? Then they bump in to a Classical High School because they have seniority.
BW: When it comes to certain issues relative to compensation, they share common ground, but I also think that, were it put out to a vote — maybe it would have to be a secret vote, not one of those hold a paper card up in a room full of peers — but if it were to come to a vote, I think more teachers than not would support this.
LP: But we’re talking about a hundred million dollars that could come to the state of Rhode Island for educational purposes.
MA: Here’s the thing, and I gotta tell you my soon-to-be bride’s job has affected my opinion on this, because I get to see the inside, and let me just tell you this. Let me offer you up a piece of information. I know — this is not from her, but from other situations that she’s told me about — where you have classrooms that might as well be hospital wards, because they are required by law to teach all sorts of kids and in all sorts of situations and all sorts of backgrounds and everything else.
LP: But special-ed can be backed out.
MA: Let me tell you something: Special ed is not backed out. Special ed, at least where she teaches, is in the classroom, with everybody else, and so you have these kids in this room, and they all have to pass the same standards that everybody else does, and then you gotta… you know… what kid didn’t take a shower this morning, what kid didn’t get breakfast this morning, what kid had to deal with a mother’s boyfriend that night, what kid had to deal with this and the other thing, and one kid’s got restive leg syndrome, so he can go and do jumping jacks in the back of the classroom whenever he wants to do it.
LP: Matty, I love you, but pillow talk aside between you and your betrothed is the fact that we need $100 million to enhance our education here in the state of Rhode Island, and the fact is that teachers ought to step up, and maybe they ought to work a little bit harder to make sure the students in their class are achieving.
BW: You know, Lou… show me a bad student, and I bet there’s a bad parent at home waiting for that kid.
LP: Every time? Not every time.
BW: More times than not, Lou, and let’s face it: We have too many people having children, and they don’t keep the responsibility of raising those children properly.
LP: That’s the babies are having babies argument. You’re getting violent, Bob; you’re getting violent right now. [Laughter.] This is VRT at its best.
BW: I can’t use words on the radio, but I want to make my point: blame the parents; don’t blame the teachers. A lot of good teachers try to do what they can, and Matt just explained just a typical day in a classroom.
LP: Bob, you don’t think there are teachers in there who have the same curriculum and the same syllibus for forty freakin’ years, and they’re going through the motions.
BW: Because certain things don’t change. Math doesn’t change. Reading, writing, arithmatic shouldn’t change.
MA: Let me just say this: I think that there’s a happy medium. I think that student performance should be a factor. I just don’t know how much of a factor it should be.
LP: For $100 million, I say raise it up a notch.
MA: I think we do need to go through and separate the wheat from the chaff, though, in the teachers’ ranks, because some people I hear about need to go.
Coming from the legislative leader of the opposition party in Rhode Island, Watson’s position is just not acceptable. Indeed, if it’s an indication of the alternative that voters have in November, parents needn’t wait until then to determine that they have to move or find a way to pay for private school. Watson’s commentary is so knee jerk as to be dumb and so biased as to be offensive.
According to the latest Infoworks! document (PDF) from the state Department of Education, fewer than one-fifth of Rhode Island high school students are proficient in science, and just about one-quarter of them are proficient in math. Are 75-80% of Rhode Island’s public school students living with bad parents? Or is Mr. Watson a bit too sanguine about 40-year-old lesson plans? (I use that reference emblematically, not literally.)
Matt’s introduction of the conditions in some classrooms only highlights the critical factor. Note that he had to become intimate with a teacher before hearing about the challenges that education policies can present for them. As somebody who pays attention to local news, he’s surely been very well aware of proposed salary cuts and healthcare copay increases, but when was the last time teachers worked to rule because their working conditions made it impossible for them to perform?
Perhaps if teachers’ pay were strongly tied to the performance of their students, they’d be taking the lead in education reform, rather than standing in its way as a unionized matter of course. That probability brings us to the bigger problem of our blameless system. Let’s quote Watson again:
Blame the parents; don’t blame the teachers.
In the archetypal example of the Rhode Island Way, Watson here attacks the one group in the educational chain that is not on a government payroll. The General Assembly blames the towns, because after all, they have direct control over contracts and policies. The school committees and administrations blame the General Assembly for mandates and insufficient funding and the unions for contractual demands that drain control and resources. The teachers blame all of the above as well as the parents.
Well, if the folks on government payrolls have no power to improve the quality of education in the state, then those payrolls ought to be decimated. They’re a waste of money. Redirect the resources to “good parents,” so they can select an appropriate private school, and to social workers, so they can assist the “bad parents.”
But I don’t believe that the blame lies solely with the group whose main interest in the education system is through the well-being of their children. If we step back from the finger pointing and look at the situation as adults seeking to develop a functional educational machine, it is clear that mechanisms for incentives and accountability must be introduced. Evaluate teachers almost entirely on their performance, with formulas that adjust to the actual students — their challenges and their prior performance — and give the ultimate say to administrators, who are in a position to know all of the less-tangible considerations. On the other end, keep the General Assembly and federal government out of the equation.
In that way, the communities that are most affected on a personal level will have the ability to trace and change problems from the school committee dais down to the classroom in a chain accountability rather than evaded responsibility.