Saturday, June 16, 2007

HEY TIMES, TRY TEACHING FOR ONE DAY! - A response to an editorial on United Teachers-Los Angeles.

By John Lloyd – LA Times Blowback

May 22, 2007 Well, the real agenda was revealed the day after the L.A. Unified School Board elections. Smash the union, says the L.A. Times in its May 17 editorial "LAUSD's opportunity." The Times blames United Teachers Los Angeles for the woes of one of the most diverse—and challenging—districts in the United States.

The Times doesn't mince words. It calls the UTLA "the most regressive force in the L.A. Unified School District," and says the answer to the district's woes are for the union to "loosen work rules and toss tenure out the classroom window." It paints the UTLA as a barrier to "progress," a dinosaur "out of sync with the realities of modern education." "The post-World War II system of tenure, rigid work rules and budget-breaking pensions," the Times alleges, "have stultified schools." What's more, younger teachers "are more interested in good wages, upward mobility and affordable housing than in lifetime sinecures and fat retirement packages." The Times urges the new school board members, backed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, to institute "more flexible work hours and duties," such as requiring teachers to give up their own lunch breaks to supervise the playgrounds and requiring them to work after school "to make campuses safer." The Times then ends by throwing up this brilliant old canard: let's get rid of "bad teachers" and reward "good teachers." Golly gee, why didn't we think of that sooner?

Let's take the last of these claims first. No one—least of all the UTLA—would disagree with the idea we ought to reward "good teachers," and fire "bad teachers." But what does this mean, exactly? First of all, anyone who devotes her life and career to educating young people is to be applauded, not thrown in the trash can if her students' test scores don't meet some district bureaucrat's standard.

Quite simply, the LAUSD needs to see its teachers as its most valuable resource and work with struggling teachers to improve. Step one might be for a peer group of teachers and administrators to sit down with the underperforming teacher, figure out what that teacher's strengths and weaknesses are, and work with that person to devise concrete strategies for improvement. This process might also—gasp!—ask the teacher what he/she needs (more aides, better curricular support, professional development opportunities, etc.) to do a better job. The Times approach, however, is all top-down. A district bureaucrat says jump, and the teacher, like an obedient factory worker, jumps. The teacher doesn't dare ask questions (remember, tenure will be a thing of the past, and you can be fired for asking the wrong questions).

From the tenor of its proposal, the Times seems to think that teaching isn't really hard work, after all. The Times apparently thinks it is not unreasonable to expect teachers to stand in front of a class or restless ninth graders all day—all of whom are eager learners, of course—and then supervise students at lunch and after school, too. Why, who needs a lunch break? (Hint: it must be those "bad teachers"). I'd like to see the Times editors do this for one day. They might then realize that educating and supervising young people can't be done on the cheap, and that the District needs to pay for playground supervisors and additional staff to oversee worthy after-school programs.

The Times claims that younger teachers are interested in "good wages, upward mobility, and affordable housing." And older teachers presumably want, what, lower wages, downward mobility, and unaffordable housing? Precisely how ending tenure will address the lack of affordable housing is not explained by the Times. But, never mind that, the Times has another solution: get rid of teachers' pensions! After all, we know those younger teachers won't need them. They'll be living large on all the equity they've earned from that "affordable housing" they've invested in with their "high wages."

Far from being a forward-thinking solution to the L.A. schools' myriad challenges, the Times proposal is nothing more than an old-fashioned attack on teachers' unions. The Times wants to send teachers back to the bad old days before teachers' unions when teachers had to go hat-in-hand to their school boards and beg for a cost-of-living increase. If the district said no, and the teacher didn't like it, she was free to walk.

Then again, maybe I just don't understand the superior wisdom of the Times. After all, I was educated in that out-of-date post-World War II public school system where teachers were treated with respect by society, and weren't expected to give up their dignity and their rights to do their jobs.

John Lloyd is an assistant professor of history at Cal Poly Pomona.

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