Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Defending the Phrog Farm - Education "Experts" Opine on Gates Foundation 'Meddling' in Education

Diane Ravitch is puzzled by the Gates Foundation.  Apparently Diane thinks " their efforts to “reform” education are woefully mistaken."  It seems, to Ms. Ravitch's horror, the Gates Foundation is funding astroturf” groups of young teachers who insist that they don’t want any job protections, don’t want to be rewarded for their experience (of which they have little) or for any additional degrees, and certainly don’t want to be represented by a collective bargaining unit.

And there is the key to Diane's anger with Gates. His foundation supports "non-unionized" groups.

(insert gasp of collective horror)

Also, apparently, Diane can't get a meeting with Bill to tell him her opinion and she seems more than a little upset about that.

Rick Cohen over at Nonprofit Quarterly is also righteously indignant and pulls together a lot of supporting commentary in his article, opining that the Gates Foundation is promoting an anti-teacher, anti-public education agenda in state after state.

I understand Rick and Diane's concern. Education is a frustrating issue, whichever side of the fence you sit on. If you're on the blindly pro-union side, however, all that loose money, uncontrolled by some "collective bargaining unit", must make them nervous. Some schools might take the money and be 'corrupted'.

Diane seems most worried, about the supposed deleterious effects of the Gates Foundation's support for a non-unionized, dare I say, free market approach to education. As soon as anyone funds a group that is even looking at an approach that rewards performance rather than time served, the pro-union crowd rises up with pitchforks and torches.

Myself, I've watched too many outstanding teachers over the years fired because they rocked the union boat, made other teachers look bad, taught in ways that upset their colleagues or drifted outside the holy curriculuum. One of my favorite teachers, Marva Collins, left the public school system and started a private school in a garage that quickly filled up with kids who had been kicked out of the Chicago Public School system. I've met some of those kids and they are miles ahead of their peers. Marva could never have taught like she did in the unionized public school system. Her teaching methods would not long have been tolerated.

What the Gates Foundation's support of non-unionized teachers does is add a competitive element to education. (And, yes, Virginia, there are teachers who don't want to be in teacher's unions.) How that having a place in education for nonunion teachers profits Microsoft is something of a mystery to me.

Any school that doesn't want Gates' money is, of course, free to not take it and go ahead and do what they want, just as my own alma mater chose not to accept government education grants and the strings that come with them.

Let's face it, the public school system is in dismal shape in much of America. Even the kids know it and are rebelling even more than we were back in the 60s. What's wrong with trying something different?

Kids and parents both want education that teaches our young-uns to do something valuable, something marketable so they have good jobs when they grow up and don't have to live in our basements. Companies (including the evil corporations) want trained workers too. So why is it so bad to teach kids more of the kinds of things that get them good jobs and start successful careers? Foundations wanting to fund innovation in education shouldn't damage the unionized education system if, as the unions claim, their system is better. If kids aren't getting a good education, parents will simply refuse to pay for it and send their kids back to class with a suitably reliable union teacher.

Why not, let's try something new and see if it works better before we summarily pitch out the bath without checking if the baby is still in there? The biggest complaint parents like me have with education is that the teachers unions protect bad teachers, reward them with steady raises and benefits no matter what sort of miserable teacher they prove themselves to be. All they have to do is mark time and not do anything spectacular.

I'm wondering why paying teachers by how well their kids learn isn't a good idea. So what if some students are poorly motivated, poorly disciplined and troubled. Shouldn't we as parents be willing to pay teachers who have the ability to handle those tough kids, motivate them and inspire them. And I'm tired of hearing teachers whine about the poor quality of their students.

I worked with multi-diagnosis emotionally disturbed kids. They came from horrific homes. I did things with my kids that people said couldn't be done. My kids struggled; a few let me down, but for the most part, they made me proud to be their teacher. I worked outside the teacher's unions and the education system. Our kids had the best outcomes records in the state next to other treatment centers and we were hated by our colleagues and our government supervisors for showing them up.

I'm tired of the teacher's unions complaining that we are teaching children to be good test takers and yet quote the results of those same tests to prove that we need to spend more money (largely on union teacher salaries and dues) ostensibly to enable our kids able to pass those same tests with as good a grades as their Japanese or Europeans counterparts.

Little secret here - that's going to take more than a little "teaching to the test" to kick up those test scores and prove that all that money was well spent.

The problem with governments and unions and even schools is that they mistake sameness for fairness. If they could make us all "C" students, I think they might be happy.  They know damned good and well they're not going to make "A" students out of all of them. 

In so-called "progressive" societies and organizations, if you do too well, if you stick your head above the crowd, the rest of the group WILL lop your head right off for making the rest of them look bad.  It's well known that at Harvard and other progressive Ivy league schools that the quickest way to not get tenure is to win the teacher of the year award. Unions all meant well in the beginning, but, especially in the field of education, they've turned schools into swamps.

Management guru, Dr. Jerry Harvey, once pointed out in his insightful 1977 paper, "Organizations as Phrog Farms" that:

"The Job of most swamp managers is to maintain and enhance the swamp, not to drain it.... The purpose of swamp consultants—in the eyes of swamp managers—is to help the swamp operate more effectively."

Simply substitute "school superintendents" for "swamp managers" and "teacher's unions"  for "swamp consultants".

You should read professor's Harvey's wonderfully subversive book: The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management.  It explains what happened to education and why many big corporations, especially the ones that are "too big to fail" aren't much better off.

Dr. Harvey's paper "The Abilene Paradox" explains as well as any book on management I've ever read, why groups of people try to make good decisions about what to do and with the best of intentions, manage to decide to do what nobody wants to do and make themselves miserable in the process.  I recommend reading the book curled up in a chair with no distractions.  You can get the two key articles at the above links in a pdf file, but be warned:  there is a danger of spewing coffee all over your computer monitor.  Just so you know the risk.

Just one man's opinion.

Tom King

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