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Triumphant Managerialism, And The Strategy Of Intellectual Non-Engagement And Avoidance

One of the more negative features of contemporary educational policy debates is the way in which a number of ‘camps’ have adopted a strategy of intellectual non-engagement and avoidance toward differing positions. The martial metaphor of ‘camps’ is deliberately chosen here, since the underlying logic of this strategy is one of opposing armies meeting on a field of battle. The essentials one needs to know in any debate, according to this view of educational policy, is who lines up with your army and who lines up against it – is the advocate of this policy friend or enemy? The substance of the argument made for or against a policy is largely immaterial. Indeed, it is better not to discuss that substance, since a discussion might reveal a weakness in one’s own position, or worse, the strength of the alternative position. All that is important is whether or not the ‘policy’ in question is part of your weaponry, and whether its advocates belong to your army.

If the reader suspects that we are demonstrating a weakness for hyperbole here, consider the responses to the publication earlier this year of a study evaluating the academic performance of charter schools and the controversy surrounding the AFT’s release of NAEP data on that subject, The Charter School Dust-Up: Examining the Evidence on Enrollment and Achievement. Over at Eduwonk, Andy Rotherham dedicated several column inches to a “review” of the report. He began by pointing out the union connections of the Economic Policy Institute, the progressive Washington DC think tank which co-published the text with Teachers’ College Press and to which a number of the authors were affiliated. He then headed off on a tangent concerning NCLB accountability measures, turned to a defense of his prior characterization of the AFT’s release of the NAEP data as a “hatchet job,” and went on to criticize the method of publication and dissemination of the report. Finally, after eight lengthy paragraphs on such ancillary matters, Rotherham managed to find one facet of the report worthy of a brief discussion, its treatment of charter school demographics. Nowhere did he address the actual question at the core of The Charter School Dust-Up – the academic performance of charter schools. Not to be outdone, Checker Finn produced a “review” dripping with disdain at Gadfly, managing to avoid even a single reference to an actual argument from the text. Every word of Finn’s commentary was dedicated to the propositions that the authors were critics of charter schools, and that EPI had received financial support from teacher unions. That’s all you need to know, in the logic of Finn’s presentation.

Sadly, this pattern of intellectual non-engagement and avoidance, this ‘don’t confuse me with any actual arguments’ approach to ideas and policies, is what passes for educational debate in some circles these days. We say sadly, because it is hard to see how educational policy moves forward under the tutelage of pseudo-debates, or how educational ideas are strengthened and improved when they are never intellectually engaged, but simply dismissed as the work of the enemy. What reigns is the most vulgar form of politicization, in which the measure of the value of an educational policy is reduced to its efficacy as a weapon in the great education wars – which, for all too many practitioners of this strategy, is simply a euphemism for the great culture wars. As a consequence, today much of American education is far removed from the republican ideal of a public square, in which ideas and policy proposals are vigorously debated and refined; instead, we have a public discourse that, in all too many quarters, rarely rises even to the level of ‘spin.’

Take the question of the recent report of the New Teacher Project, Unintended Consequences, which targeted school staffing clauses in urban teacher contracts. Here at Edwize we took the time to read the report carefully, and to offer some considered comments and criticisms. We found that its arguments were lacking and that its research methods fell far short of scholarly rigor, and we disagreed strongly with the report’s conclusions. But we thought it important to lay out a serious critique of the actual arguments of Unintended Consequences, to show where they were wrong and where they ignored inconvenient realities, rather than simply dismiss the report because the New Teacher Project has as its paying “clients” the very school districts it was “studying” in this report, and because the main “endorsers” of the report were the leaders of those same school districts. Our readers are certainly entitled to be informed of the connection between the researcher and the researched/endorser, but a due respect for what educational policy debates should be and for the intelligence of those readers required that we address the report’s actual arguments.

Unfortunately, the response to that critique of Unintended Consequences from Eduwonk’s Andy Rotherham fits the pattern of “intellectual non-engagement and avoidance.” We read Rotherham’s comments several times, looking for even a hint of substantive grappling with the points we made. But the conclusion we were forced to draw is best captured by the words Gertrude Stein reportedly used to describe Oakland, “there is no there, there.”

The issue that the Unintended Consequences and Rotherham claim to address – what must be done to staff low performing schools serving high poverty communities with accomplished teachers – is, without question, an important issue. It is at the very center of efforts to bring a measure of equity and justice to urban schools which are caught in an educational system which is still all too separate and all too unequal. The UFT takes this issue seriously, and we are committed to doing what needs to be done to bring quality teaching to these schools and to the young people they serve. A year and a half ago, Randi Weingarten laid out a comprehensive strategy for an ‘educational enterprise zone’ for low performing, high poverty schools. Among the specific measures in that strategy were unprecedented proposals for changes in our contract, such as a salary differential for teachers serving in these schools as an incentive to attract experienced teachers, and the establishment of a lead teacher position to provide instructional leadership, professional development and mentoring in these schools. Moreover, our school based staffing plan – which was added to the contract at the initiative of the UFT, and which Unintended Consequences had to misrepresent to make its case – meant that any school in this zone that wanted control over the hiring of their staff could have it. And we have discussed the question of how to staff low performing, high poverty schools at some length here at Edwize, well before the publication of Unintended Consequences.

What was so striking about Unintended Consequences was the extraordinary disconnect between the goal it purportedly espoused of staffing low performing, high poverty schools, a goal which we have long supported, and the various proposals for the expansion of management authority and power it proposed. It was remarkable, for example, that the report which was so lavish in the space it dedicated to the symptom – how teachers in urban districts like New York City are placed in a new school, once they are excessed – had not a penny’s worth of a line to give to the underlying disease – why there is so much excessing, especially mid-year excessing, and why that excessing is so heavily concentrated in low performing, high poverty schools. This contrast can only be explicable in the context of the ideology of ‘triumphant managerialism’ that runs like a bright red thread through the report. The issue of placing excessed teachers is one in which teachers have some voice, through the collective bargaining agreement, while the issue of the extent of excessing and its concentration in low performing, high poverty schools is one solely under the discretion of the school district. So if your agenda is about expanding management authority and power, you go after the placement of excessed teachers, and ignore the problem of excessing and everything that gives rise to it.

According to Eduwonk’s Rotherham, the wily teacher union advocates are engaged in a ‘misdirection’ ploy when we point to the Unintended Consequences’ studious avoidance of the underlying systemic problem of excessing. But we think our readers are intelligent enough to know the difference between spin and “keeping your eye on the prize,” and are able to recognize when we are doing the latter. If one really cares about the problem of staffing low performing schools serving high poverty communities with accomplished teachers, then one has to diagnose and treat the disease, and not just mask the symptoms. For our part, we are prepared to work with anyone serious about the real problem, and to modify collective bargaining agreements, when the changes address that real problem. Randi Weingarten’s comprehensive strategy for an “educational enterprise zone” demonstrates clearly and unambiguously that we are prepared to ‘walk the walk’ on this issue. Our record on contractual changes such as school based staffing shows that we follow through on these commitments. Unfortunately, a year and a half after that proposal was made, the NYC Department of Education has yet to even ‘talk the talk.’

On more mundane matters, Eduwonk’s posts on the subject of Unintended Consequences are interesting as a specimen of the strategy of “intellectual non-engagement and avoidance” in action. The writing is rich in techniques, but we will limit ourselves to a few illustrations.

The case made for the report includes the fact that the lead author is a “Clinton [administration] alum,” a line that regular Eduwonk readers will recognize as a common refrain from that blog. We would refer Rotherham to Thomas Aquinas, who famously noted that “the argument from authority is the weakest of all arguments.” And being a Clinton appointee does not exactly make you the strongest of authorities to begin with. Or perhaps we should now all turn to the writings of a better known Clinton administration alum, Dick Morris, for our moral philosophy.

However, we did detect a fine piece of Clintonian linguistic parsing in Rotherham’s announcement that New Teacher Project CEO and President Michelle Rhee was not a “paid witness” for the NYC Department of Education and against the UFT in the fact-finding process. Given that the New Teacher Project and Rhee publicly boast that the NYC Department of Education is one of their “clients,” are we to believe that this pecuniary relationship is somehow mystically dissolved for the one day she appears as its witness? It must all depend on the meaning of ‘was’ in ‘was a paid witness.’

But we save the best for last. Here is Eduwonk on the method used to publish and disseminate The Charter School Dust Up:

Finally, worth noting that the way the book was released was the policy equivalent of a drive-by. A private conference call with a handful of reporters and no advance copies circulated to people being criticized in the book. That’s no way to business and essentially no different than President Bush’s fraudulent “town meetings” on Social Security which have understandably enraged the Left and one can only assume EPI doesn’t support.

Guess how Unintended Consequences was published and disseminated? Yes, a private conference call with a handful of reporters and no advance copies circulated to people being criticized in the report. And that is only the beginning. This was a report that ‘analyzed’ the New York City collective bargaining agreement as one of its five case studies, and its authors managed to interview numerous DOE officials, labor relations staff, personnel staff, superintendents and principals – and not a single person from the UFT or the AFT. Better yet, they managed to avoid even quoting the language of the contract they were discussing, a remarkable measure which they defend as necessary to protect the school district’s anonymity. Note that the “anonymity” did not survive even the publication of the report, when Joel Klein and Alan Bersin – the heads of two of the five districts during the period of the study – appeared as its main endorsers. And when asked for their interview methodology and questions, the New Teacher Project has not exactly been forthcoming. The interview questions could be shared, but the school districts have a “proprietary interest” in the data, the AFT was told. One wonders how the Annie E. Casey Foundation, who the New Teacher Project reports funded the ‘research’ for this report, feels about the NYC DOE having a “proprietary interest” in the data. Come to think about it, one wonders how they feels about the quality of the research in Unintended Consequences.

Do you think Eduwonk might be able to mount some outrage over the ‘drive-by’ way Unintended Consequences was published and disseminated? Over research so shoddy that it can ‘study’ labor relations, and only interview the management side? Over the way in which The New Teacher Project refuses to share the report’s data? Don’t count on it. The New Teacher Project is part of his army.

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17 Comments:

  • 1 NYC Educator
    · Dec 16, 2005 at 9:46 pm

    As a loyal member of the UFT, I applaud the deletion of the last post.

    How dare anyone question the wisdom of Leo Casey? It’s simply unpatriotic.

  • 2 no_slappz
    · Dec 18, 2005 at 9:15 am

    Weingarten’s Educational Enterprise Zones:

    Good for a belly laugh. No matter which way you look at it, her ridiculous plan does nothing more than mask her attempt to raise the salaries of every person working in the Department of Education through some unworkable dreams presented as strategy.

    Randi writes:

    All enterprise zone schools, regardless of level would have:
    • reduced class sizes to allow teachers to individualize instruction;

    Okay, but smaller classes means more teachers. There are 75,000 or more teachers in the NYC school system today. That number equates to about 15 students per teacher. I guess many of those teachers don’t actually teach. Hmmmm.

    • extensive parental involvement and programs that support parents in helping their children;

    Does anyone think it’s possible for schools to mandate parental involvement in the toughest communities in this city? Or even in the better parts of town. Only the most naive dreamer would accept this pie-in-the-sky statement. Decades of parental neglect will not be overcome by overworked school employees.

    • meaningful professional development tailored for the staff of each school;

    To suggest that the DOE would introduce “meaningful professional development” really says that whatever has gone before wasn’t at all meaningful. Rather, current “professional development” has been a waste of time. I don’t think that’s what Randi wanted to admit. However, she has indicted herself with this statement. That aside, how would the DOE/UFT convert the current practice of “unmeaningful professional development” into “meaningful professional development”? The answer: It can’t.

    • timely academic interventions for struggling students, including longer school days for intensive small-group instruction;

    This statement is another admission of failure. Apparently the current practice is to ignore struggling students. Meanwhile, the call for longer school days sounds remarkably like an idea included in the Whittle Edison Schools plan. So I guess the UFT believes some of Edison’s strategies are good.

    • preventive health, guidance and social services that focus on urban health problems like obesity and asthma, and provide counseling and family services;

    Okay. Now the DOE and UFT would demand that teachers and others function as social workers. Of course one of the larger problems is teen pregnancy, but Randi didn’t mention it. By the way, is there any part of kids lives into which the state will not intrude? The shouldering of so many aspects of kids lives by the state (school monopoly) is becoming frightening.

    • a strictly enforced student code of conduct; and

    Again, this statement is an admission that currently it is impossible to enforce a code of conduct. At best, the current practice seems to be suspension for problems kids. Brilliant. If a kid skips school, he’ll get suspended. Yeah, that’ll teach him. As long as kids have the legal ability to intimidate teachers, they maintain the upper hand.

    • well-maintained facilities with enough space, technology and supplies.

    Okay, now we’re talking about a huge pay raise and more corruption among the school custodians.

    For elementary schools, we would add:
    • enriched early childhood programs beginning in an expanded pre-k program and including a “promotional gate” in grade one to lay a strong foundation for learning to read; and

    The intent here seems to be for the school system to get its hands on kids sooner and sooner, relieving parents of their responsibilities. This intrusion, is, in fact, necessary. But a cradle-to-adulthood inculcation of state thinking upon the fragile minds of children is scary. Which leads to…

    • reading and mathematics programs chosen by school staffs from scientifically–proven models.

    Once again, the people down in central planning know what’s best. A handful of education mullahs will set the curriculum for everyone. We know how well that’s worked and we know how cooperative eager educators have been with one another when it comes to deciding which curriculum is “best.”

    And in the secondary schools, particularly middle schools, there would be:
    • a well-rounded curriculum that includes art, music, health and physical education, foreign languages and opportunities for career and technical exploration;

    Okay. Fine. Mom and apple pie. And more teachers at higher pay. Ahh, Randi’s preceding statement caused me to flash on images of the Hitler Youth. All that seeming healthfulness masking the state’s determination to decide which music, which art, and which other thoughts are appropriate for the minds of children. Scary. Very scary.

    • an intimate, supportive atmosphere, so no child feels anonymous..

    Okay, all together now… Let’s get out the guitars and sing Kumbaya. Let every teacher also function as each student’s therapist. Let’s sing the praises of our Dear Leader.

    • Finally, the most important ingredient: the teachers.

    This, as they say, is the money shot.

    • Schools in the School Enterprise Zone present the most difficult challenge to teachers, of course. To encourage and reward those who volunteer to take on the toughest assignments and work in our hardest-to-staff schools I propose we offer a 15 percent pay differential.

    Guess what? Virtually every school would soon find itself in an “enterprise zone” and every teacher would quickly become eligible for that 15% raise.

    • We would support such a differential, on top of a competitive pay base, provided it is available to all school staffers in the School Enterprise Zone — not just a teacher or a principal but everyone from the secretary in the office to the paraprofessional who works with the teacher in the classroom.

    There you go. In a single shot, a huge windfall for everyone, with no prospect of actually improving student performance.

  • 3 Chaz
    · Dec 18, 2005 at 5:35 pm

    no_slappz;

    Your right, for once. When you do the statistics many teachers are not teaching in the classroom. Where are the teachers?

    Many of them are the UFT Unity hacks that gave us this wonderful contract.

  • 4 redhog
    · Dec 18, 2005 at 8:34 pm

    Chaz: Do not ally yourself with this ludicrous reactionary buffoon,quoted above. Be angry with your family, if you must, but don’t estrange yourself from it.

  • 5 no_slappz
    · Dec 19, 2005 at 6:29 am

    redhog, it seems you possess one slight skill — engaging in pointless ad hominem attacks.

    I think your feelings are widely held. That being so, it’s unlikely the work experience for union teachers will ever approach the dream state expressed so often here.

  • 6 curious2
    · Dec 20, 2005 at 7:17 am

    Leo or anyone, please help me! Relevant to the reports cited in this posting, I wonder how many teachers have been terminated from the NYC system (and not just moved to other teaching or administrative positions) for poor performance over the past few years? I can’t seem to find this data anywhere! It seems very important in understanding the arguments on both sides.

  • 7 redhog
    · Dec 20, 2005 at 4:44 pm

    I apologize for “engaging in pointless ad hominem attacks.” I shall endeavor to make them sharper in future.

  • 8 Chaz
    · Dec 20, 2005 at 6:22 pm

    redhog:

    Please don’t insult me. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Further, Edwiz should be open to all opinions even if we don’t agree with them. That is what makes us the “brightest”…..Except for voting yes on the last contract.

  • 9 redhog
    · Dec 20, 2005 at 11:21 pm

    Chaz: How can a thoughtful person, as I concede you are, despite our differences, claim that Edwize is not open to all opinions? There are some vehement comments, occasionally quite unconscionable, posted here. In your travels and surfing, have you found a single other comparable outlet for democratic expression of any public or private organization’s members? Name one!
    The suppression of bad taste is not a moral necessity and one cannot legislate civility. But do not soil yourself by seeking to besmirch this Union, especially its leadership. Doing so is beneath contempt and beyond the pale.

  • 10 Chaz
    · Dec 21, 2005 at 10:20 pm

    redhog;

    Maybe I’m missing something but I have not seen articles from the many (any?) of the classroom teachers that comment on Edwiz.
    In fact almost all the posts are from non-classroom teachers who seem more interested in presenting their own agenda than what is of interest in the NYC classroom.

    As for seeking to besmirch the Union…The inferior, anti-classroom teacher contract that the Union negotiated speaks for itself.

  • 11 redhog
    · Dec 22, 2005 at 3:56 am

    Chaz: I am not the center of even my own universe, so I don’t expect to be the center of your reference, but I comment on Edwize a lot, and have been a middle-school classroom teacher, sans plums or fluff jobs,for 34 years, and I support Randi.

  • 12 Chaz
    · Dec 22, 2005 at 4:57 pm

    redhog;

    I am well aware that you are a classroom teacher, one of the very few who are allowed to post articles. However, almost all the givebacks Randi gave up occur in the classroom while the non-classroom teacher reaped the benefits of the raise. Why shouldn’t I be resentful? Randi & her stooges are not subject to the corporal punishment/sexual harrassment issues, the micromanaging, the ungrievable letter in the file, the 22 month freeze of per session pay, and the stealth sixth period.

    I am certainly thrilled to see Leo Casey publishing articles about Darfur and the wacked headline of this thread which have nothing to do with classroom teaching. I guess I just can’t understand why our union is not fighting for our rights in the classroom!

    Finally, redhog I can only finsh this comment with the statement “we agree to disagree”

  • 13 Persam1197
    · Dec 26, 2005 at 7:12 pm

    I would like to see more classroom teachers posting as well. I’ve encouraged my colleagues in my school to check Edwize out. There’s a lot of potential here for us in this medium. There’s a lot of venting done here, but I do see some constructive responses as well. When it’s time to vote again for the UFT officers, it will be intriguing to hear what our brethren across the city think.

    I agree with Chaz that more attention needs to be made to our work in the classroom. The contract was a complete disaster as my chapter leader is overwhelmed with marked increases in letters to the file and disciplinary actions. One of my colleagues is getting a reprimand for excessive absences despite having medical excuses for back ailments from a car accident.

    Perhaps there should be a separate category for postings relevant to the classroom for teachers (and I mean teachers only) to discuss and another section for the extra stuff that’s interesting but not germaine to the craft.

  • 14 redhog
    · Dec 27, 2005 at 6:01 am

    Since the new contract, there has not been even one disciplinary letter-in-file in my rather large school. It is not because my principal is a saint or that teachers are martyrs. It is because we know how to make the Contract work for us and it does indeed perform superbly when wielded as the weapon and healing tool that it is.

  • 15 Persam1197
    · Dec 28, 2005 at 9:21 am

    Redhog, I agree with you to a point. My chapter leader is amazed at the increase in letters in the file as well as disciplinary meetings with individual staff at my school. At our UFT meeting, we were discussing the change in tone by the administration. They’re not ogres, however, the feeling is that the DOE wants to see more U-ratings system-wide (I think we’re at 1% at present). This is coming from the Region at the very least. It is difficult for our chapter to make the contract work for us since there are disagreements on the language between our district rep and the Region. There’s a lot of ambiguity and lack of foresight in this new contract. As a former chapter leader myself, I don’t envy the work my chapter leader is facing.

    Another factor to the success of your school may be that your school may have more seasoned personnel. These new smaller schools are usually staffed with a disappropriate number of newbies that have to be “educated” with regards to the history of the union.

  • 16 firebrand
    · Dec 28, 2005 at 1:44 pm

    Redhog. Give em time. They will start as soon as the new assignments are required of us. When does that happen Feb. 1st or so? Bet you see/hear of plenty of letters then.

    The principals didn’t even know what to do with themselves until recently. They were meeting every week to figure out how to implement the new assignments. They had no idea whether to scatch their watches or wind their butts. They’ve only just got on the same page.

    The letters will come. Plenty of them.

  • 17 Edwize » IF THE LEADERSHIP OF NEW YORK CITY’S DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION WERE CAPABLE OF SHAME…
    · Jan 5, 2006 at 2:33 pm

    […] Filed under: General — Leo Casey @ 2:32 pm Then the recent New York Times commentary on the outrageous situation at the elite Brooklyn Technical High School, A Bully on the Wrong Side of the Principal’s Desk, would lead to a collective hanging of heads and averting of eyes in the old haunt of Boss Tweed on Chambers Street.   How else could an educational leader of integrity respond to the Times’ revelations? To the knowledge that, having been given a pre-publication copy of this New York Teacher exposé of the pattern of egregious misconduct by Tech’s Principal and Assistant Principal of English, and an opportunity to correct the situation without publication, Tweed did nothing. And worse, that it then permitted the Principal and Assistant Principal to mount unsatisfactory ratings against the teachers who had gone on the record regarding the damage being done to Brooklyn Tech and its students?   This is Tweed’s triumphant managerialism stripped of its ideological pretense, defending the actions of supervisors without regard for the most elementary standards of stewardship for the education of New York City’s youth.   There is little question but that the most transparent of ‘double standards’ is being employed here. Could one imagine a situation in which a teacher conducted a class the way the Assistant Principal of English did, teaching the notorious Amiri Baraka ‘Somebody Blew Up America’ poem, with its anti-Semitic conspiracy theory of September 11 and its claims that Jews were forewarned of the attacks on the World Trade Center, and still remain in the classroom, much less without an official reprimand?   And what but a ‘double standard’ can explain how a 15 year veteran educator could be hounded from Brooklyn Tech for assigning a supposedly pornographic novel [Russell Banks’ Continental Drift, a work that was a Pulitzer prize finalist] while Assistant Principal of English taught Nuruddin Farah’s Secrets, which opens with scenes of group masturbation and sexual intercourse with a cow? Secrets appeared on Tech’s summer reading list, under the name of Tech principal, at the very same time he was pursuing disciplinary action against the teacher who had assigned Continental Drift. Scholars of contemporary literature would agree that both Banks and Farah are skilled authors and practitioners of the writing craft, widely respected in the field and worthy of study by young people of an appropriate age and maturity. But the record of grievances and professional conciliations on the Principal’s efforts to discipline the teacher who assigned Continental Drift indicate that the DOE officials knew so little about the literature in question that they kept misidentifying the author and the title of the book. It seems that all they know is how to provide unquestioning support to the principal.   For a number of years now, the New York Times and the New York Daily News have published articles chronicling the misconduct of Brooklyn Tech’s administration. They have told the story of how the Brooklyn Tech administration has consistently put the interests of Tech students last, as they closed down award winning Shakespearean programs, and kept students from participating in robotics, chess and state and national debating competitions – all programs which were run by teacher critics of the Tech administration. In January 2003 [$] and again in January 2004 [$], the Times published extended articles on the exodus of accomplished teachers from Brooklyn Tech that had taken place in response to an administrative campaign of vindictiveness, noting how the departing teachers had been received as the excellent educators they were by their colleagues and supervisors in their new schools.   It is hard to believe that Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning Carmen Fariña was unaware of this published record, or of the fact that three of the four Tech teachers targeted for ‘U’ ratings in 2005 had gone on the record criticizing the Principal in the New York Teacher article. [‘U’ ratings are so rare in Tech that in 2004, not a single teacher received one.] Yet in the October 23 Daily News article, Brooklyn Tech’s Crass Warfare, Fariña is quoted as saying that the complaints of teachers, parents and students at Brooklyn Tech are an "union ploy to pick on a particular principal who exercises his right" to give teachers unsatisfactory ratings. "He does what he feels like he needs to do,” she told the News, “to make the teachers the best possible."   Such a statement makes one want to cry out “Shame!” But an invocation of ‘shame’ would make sense only if the top leadership at Tweed had not long since surrendered its capacity for that emotion. […]