Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

March 30, 2009


David Macaray, Counterpunch - On Friday, March 13, comedian and uber-liberal Bill Maher . . . railed against the "powerful" California teachers' union, accusing it of contributing to the crisis in public education by not allowing the school district to remove incompetent teachers.

Maher came armed with statistics. He noted with dismay that the U.S. ranked 35th in the world in math, 29th in science, and that barely 50% of California's public school pupils manage to graduate from high school. He blamed the teachers for this.

Although every teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District has a college degree and a teaching credential and managed to survive the scrutiny of a lengthy probationary period, Maher piously maintained that these teachers were unqualified to run a classroom. . .

Maher made a huge deal of the fact that, because of the union's protective shield, less than 1% of California's tenured/post-probationary teachers get fired. Although this ratio clearly outraged him (he appeared visibly upset by it), had he taken five minutes to research the subject, he'd have realized that this figure represents the national average-with or without unions.

In Georgia, where 92.5% of the teachers are non-union, only 0.5% of tenured/post-probationary teachers get fired. In South Carolina, where 100% of the teachers are non-union, it's 0.32%. And in North Carolina, where 97.7% are non-union, a miniscule .03% of tenured/post-probationary teachers get fired-the exact same percentage as California.

An even more startling comparison: In California, with its "powerful" teachers' union, school administrators fire, on average, 6.91% of its probationary teachers. In non-union North Carolina, that figure is only 1.38%. California is actually tougher on prospective candidates. . .

During the 1950s and 1960s, California's public school system was routinely ranked among the nation's finest. . . More significantly, the teachers in those classrooms were union members. . .

Which raises the question: Has anything else changed in California (and the rest of the country, for that matter) in the last 40 years to lead one to believe there might be causes other than labor unions to explain the drop in graduation rates? Have there been any significant changes in, say, cultural attitudes or demographics?

For openers, how about the disintegration of the American family and the decline in parental supervision/involvement? . . .

Or how about the rise in urban poverty? Or the hollowing-out of the middle-class (the average worker hasn't received a pay increase, in real dollars, since 1973)? Or the assimilation of non-English-speaking immigrants? Or the decrease in per capita funding on California public education? Or the chaos created by school boards arbitrarily mandating wholesale changes in "educational ideology" every two years? . . .

Oregon has a good public school system. So do South Dakota, Vermont, Connecticut, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Maine and Washington, among others. Is that because the folks living in these states are exceptionally bright? Is it because their teachers are extraordinarily talented? Or is it because these school districts are stable, relatively homogeneous, and don't face a fraction of the challenges facing California?

For the record, the teachers in these aforementioned good schools are overwhelmingly unionized. Oregon and Washington teachers are 100% unionized; Wisconsin is 98%; Connecticut is 98%; etc. . .

During the first two years of employment, any teacher in the LAUSD can be fired for any reason, with no recourse to union representation and no access to the grievance procedure. Two full years. If the district doesn't like you for any reason, they fire you. No union. No grievance. Nothing. Could any arrangement be more favorable to management?

Yet, the myth persists, the myth of the Unqualified Teacher. Instead of identifying the real problems facing California's schools (daunting as they may be), and trying to solve them, people stubbornly insist that thousands of our teachers-every one of them college-educated, credentialed, and having survived two years of scrutiny-need to be fired. . .


Anonymous m said...

Bad teachers are no myth. I have known some. Some of them are indeed being kept in place by unions or by excessively protective law. Not all teachers who start well end well. Burnout, alcoholism, psychiatric illnesses and other issues can wreck what were once promising teachers. Some are kept in the classroom for years beyond the time they should have been removed. Others spend their careers doing nothing in sequestered rooms, as the only way to protect the rest of the teachers and students. The do nothing but absorb the educational dollar. In NYC there are whol school buildings devoted to such teachers. Bad teachers are by far not the only problem, but bad teachers do exist. They need to be dealth with.

The malignant growth of the educational administration sector is even more damaging. As I have noted before on this blog, in some States administrative services, not directly connected to teaching or the physical plant of schools, absorb more than 50% of the total educational budget.

Possibly the greatest difficulties lie in the various and sundry teaching curricula. My last view of the mathematics curricula in New York demonstrated it to be an absolute abomination. A devotion to pure mathematics determined to destroy the math proclivities in anyone with less ability than say John Forbes Nash or others of his caliber.

I have used a lot of math in my career. BS in Chem, minor in physics, graduate courses in math, chemistry and physics, a thesis in theortetical quantum statistical mechanics and more. But if I had faced the math curricula that my children had, I probably would have become a watercolor artist. I would have memorized what was needed for the course work, but never would have learned to actually use math.

Some of the curricula in the other subjects are nearly as bad. And we won't even begin to discuss what happens in States like Texas, Kentucky and others where ignorance and superstition rule the "educational" communities.

And when politicians get into the educational process the damage they do is massive on scale. We have seen an exemplar of that with Bush43 with "No child's education not screwed up"

March 31, 2009 12:51 PM  
Anonymous robbie said...

Bill Maher an "uber-liberal"? When did that happen? He's favored some very right-wing viewpoints over the years. When I first started watching him in 2000, I would never have thought he was left of center. He's become more liberal, or leftist, and anybody looks "uber-liberal" when they're talking about George W., which he has for a long time. He's got very negative views about teachers and women, and children.

March 31, 2009 7:52 PM  
Anonymous Mairead said...

My first-year algebra teacher was a nice old fraud who had no idea how to teach, nor much interest in doing it that I could ever detect. She was a real character and everyone loved her, but I'm not sure how many people learned anything from her.

Or perhaps everyone else learned, and I was her only failure. But I was for sure a failure. I came away from her class as ignorant and mystified as when I entered, and it definitely changed the course of my life in ways I would never have freely chosen.

April 1, 2009 6:35 AM  
Anonymous Jay said...

Curriculum dictated by state and federal bureaucrats administered by corrupt local oligarchs enable and promote whatever the problems are with teachers.

I've known many excellent teachers who have left the mainstream educational system in disgust with the mandated programs and those who administer them.

Once the best and brightest have gone, driven out by institutional incompetence, you are stuck with the rest. We have the teachers the status quo wants teaching.

April 1, 2009 7:20 PM  

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