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March 22, 2011


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Oh, David, King of the Straw Man:

You set up the piece by saying that EVERY "AMERICAN" thinks teachers are "TOTALLY AMAZING," and that if you work in the inner city you are a "HERO" and then easily pulverize your own fake straw man by saying that those same "Americans" are convinced that "many teachers, if not most, are bums and burnout cases who, without their creepy unions, would have no jobs at all."

I don't know that most Americans think public school teachers are heroes. Or even amazing. I think your vision is skewed, because your wife is a fantastic person, and an even better teacher.

So when all these unnamed Americans meet HER, they think she is "amazing" and a "hero."

I would think that most Americans are like me. They realize that there are many amazing heroic teachers in the public school system, and there are just as many, if not more, who are, in fact: "bums and burnout cases who, without their creepy unions, would have no jobs at all."

And most of those people realize that collective bargaining, which makes it impossible to fire bums and burnouts, is broken and needs to be fixed.

Steve C.

Steve, clearly when I speak of The American, I'm creating something of a straw man. Thanks for noticing.

My wife is not the only teacher I know. Through my wife and along my other travels in life, I've gotten to know some dozens of teachers over the years, a couple of whom are "amazing," most of whom are bright and energetic, a few of whom are mopes.

(Generally, the true mopes of the world can find an easier environment to make a living than being swarmed by 30 kids all day. But let's not digress.)

You misinterpret my post (I think) to be an argument that all teachers are wonderful, if only Americans would admit it. What I mean to say is that I think most Americans, you included, are ALL-AROUND-CRAZY on the subject of teachers and education.

And that internal contradictions abound, especially in people who aren't close to the system. Like you.

Calling teachers heroes doesn't help them, any more than calling them bums does. (If you respect my wife's professional opinion so much, why don't you ask her if most of her colleagues are mopes?)

My remedy: Call teachers professionals, pay the good ones well, supervise them all closely enough that you know who the failures are without a lot of convoluted performance metric formulas. (This is the biggest unspoken problem in schools--there is little direct supervision of teachers.)

And yes, of course, shitcan the losers.

Kind of like what we do, or at least believe we do, with nurses and police and pro football players, all of whom belong to unions.

We don't go around speculating whether or not most of those folks are bums and burnout cases, do we?

Why is it teachers who we vilify in these big swaths? For the same psychological reason we call them heroes without checking that, either: We just don't really give enough of a shit to pay attention and sort it all out.

Steve, one more thing: I know you know my wife is a fantastic person. But how do you have any idea that she is an "even better teacher"? You've never seen her teach, you can't name a single unit or project that she's ever taught, you don't know any of her techniques, you don't even know what exactly she teaches the kids, besides, "art."

Because you've never asked. Because you don't give a shit about education. Like most Americans!

So you just say she's a wonderful teacher (unlike most of her colleagues) and you roll on.

I can't think of a better illustration of the point I was making.

Oh, you're wrong about that. I HAVE talked to your wife about education. I've met the students that she has basically adopted into her household as her own children. I've seen her fund field trips with her own money. I've heard her talk about how she buys art supplies with cash out of her own pocket.

I've heard her horror stories of parents who don't care. I've heard her horror stories of administrators who don't care. I've seen the effect it all has on her.

No, David, I can't get specific on the various "units" or "projects" she has taught (I doubt she can talk at any length about the details of the communications audits I do, or the speeches I give, but she knows I'm good at what I do).

Next time we talk, I'll ask her about specific course outlines and unit tests.

But in the meantime, I'll base my opinion on the passion and dedication to her craft that comes out every time we talk about what she does for a living.

I think the reason people don't like to talk about education is very simple: Nobody has any answers, because education is tied to everything: poverty, parenting (or lack of it), smart kids who don't want to learn, stupid kids who can't learn, shitty teachers protected by a shitty union, great teachers pushed out by a shitty union, government's inability to fund the system properly, the right way to judge what makes a "good" teacher . . . . I could go on and on.

The reason people don't talk about it? It's too complicated.

You're the only person I've ever met, besides maybe Bill Sweetland, who thinks he understands it.

Steve C.

You are dead-on right about one thing: ALL the public sector unions---teachers, cops, firemen---do a very good job of protecting the bums and the burnouts, of which there are many in every profession.

But the football players union? You do see the difference, don't you? If you're a bum and a burnout on the football field, there ain't a damn thing your union can do about it. You're shitcanned the next day.

It takes nine years to fire an ineffective Chicago Public Teacher . . . if you can do it, which you usually can't.

Steve C.

Steve, to your two points:

1. Cristie knows 1,000 more specifics about your ideas about employee communication, your teaching style, even specific jokes you make in sessions, than you know about her teaching. She doesn't know about your communication audits for the same reason you don't know about her "units": No one would want to waste precious drinking time talking about them!

2. Why is it that football players can be fired (though many of them do have guarantees in their contracts)?

Because they are supervised, because the whole world is watching them, people truly care about whether or not they win, and because everyone knows who is good and who sucks.

None of that is quite true with teachers and schools.


1. If Christie knows about those specifics about what i do, she got them from you, not me.

2. Football players can get fired because their union isn't set up to protect incompetent or untalented or lazy players. The don't have that kind of power. The Teachers Unions do, usually through collective bargaining. Unfortunately, the teachers unions are more concerned with the rights of the burnouts and mopes than with the rights of the good teachers. Oh . . . And coming in a very, very distant third? The rights of the students.

Steve C.

Okay, I think it's safe to sum up Steve's views here:

• Most teachers suck, but my wife does not suck.

• Unions suck. And collective bargaining, that evil circumstance where representatives of employees negotiate working conditions and rules with employers, REALLY sucks.

• Education is just too darned complicated to talk about, and anyone who does talk about it probably sucks too.

• But generally, education sucks and always will.

Does anyone have anything to add, or should we just wrap up another heartwarming conversation about American education?

Me... I'd like to point out that the last sentence in your post is so smarty-pants perfect that you can almost see it turning into a cheesy cliche of itself even as it's unfolding in your brain. Interesting trick.

David: I think Steve has some good points here that you're either choosing to ignore or which you've grossly misharacterized in your "summary."

First, although unions are without question a fundamental tenet of well-functioning capitalism, public sector unions (police, fire, teachers, etc.) are notoriously horrible at protecting the mopes at the expense of everyone, including (and unfortunately) the people who receive their services. I don't know Steve, but it strikes me as a bit disingenuous to infer that in pointing this out, Steve thinks "unions suck." Maybe he does think that, but it's not conveyed here.

Second, I don't see anyone here (including Steve) disagreeing with your remedy: "call teachers professionals, pay the good ones well, supervise them all closely enough that you know who the failures are without a lot of convoluted performance metric formulas." In my experience, do you know who does disagree with your remedy? The teacher's union.

Third, do you think we actually employ your remedy with respect to *any* public sector union employees? I can't think of any.

Fourth, the reason that teachers get vilified is entirely political. Republicans hate unions, but they will never criticize policemen or firefighters for fear of being perceived as anti-law enforcement. So they instead target a public sector union that votes 90% Democratic and which does not raise the specter of being perceived as anti-law enforcement.

And while we're summing up, allow me to sum up David's points:

1. Every American, David of course excluded, is two-faced when it comes to education, calling teachers heroic on one hand and bottom-feeding union scumbags on the other.

2. Every American is are too stupid or shallow to talk about education (David excluded), so they ignore it and blame everything on the unions.

3. If teachers blocked and tackled each other on TV, education in this country would be far better off.

4. David is married to a good teacher and has met "dozens" of other good teachers over the years so all this talk of bad teachers being protected by the union and collective bargaining over the years is overblown and ludicrous.

On to the next topic!!!

Steve C.

I'll let Steve clarify his overall opinion about unions, which is immaterial here, but would be fun to hear.

Here is the only context in which I defend the teachers union:

The current context, in which teachers really are almost completely unsupervised, with a principal or another observer coming into the classroom on an incredibly rare basis.

The lack of a supervisory/mentoring structure in schools was one of the first shocks I got when Cristie went into teaching. The equivalent in my business would be a newspaper going out every day, with an editor spot-checking a reporter's articles once every couple of months and making some perfunctory suggestions.

That really is how most teachers operate.

In that environment, how can you laud about free and easy hiring and firing? Such actions would almost necessarily be politically motivated.

Now, in the IDEAL environment--or even in the far-from-deal typical corporate environment--you could call the teachers' union obstructionist.

I agree that the union would have to be beaten to within an inch of its life in order to install a proper management structure. But so would cost-cutting politicians, who would have to hire more people to staff that structure in every school.

With your fourth point, I mostly agree; though I think another reason that teachers get vilified is that if we declared that half the nurses in the world were incompetent, we'd scare ourselves to death. But incompetent teachers? Aw, what the hell.

And Steve, with your characterization of my views ... you're not far off. Thanks for summing it up.

You are correct. I don't know Illinois law, but in Ohio an incompetent teacher with tenure can be fired in 18 months. It takes nine years to find someone to do it.

Steve Jamison


Thanks for making some points far better than I was trying to make them.

David: You're welcome for summing up your thoughts. If you'd like to send me your blog posts before you publish them, I'll condense them down to one good tweet.

Steve C.

Steve Jamison:

If you're interested in how the process works in Illinois, the Chicago Tribune recently ran a very good article (and an even better graphical "map") of the process involved for getting rid of an inferior teacher.

It was titled: Why Bad Teachers Survive, and walks you through the 27 steps and 2-5 years it typically takes to TRY and get rid of a bad teacher.

I say TRY because there are so many appeals involved, and so many union hurdles to clear, that, according to the article, most people don't even try to get rid of teachers any more. It's easier to move them around . . .what they call "The dance of the lemons."

Here's the article, if you're interested:


Steve C.

I don't know about you, but I hate when other people try to sum up my thoughts so I will sum them up before anybody else has a chance.

The teachers union is the primary power force in the education establishment, but they don't deserve all of the blame. Maybe we the people have some resentments because.

- The establishment stands in the way of every improvement to the education system that comes from outside the system. i.e. charter schools

- The establishment blames poor test scores on everything other than bad schools and bad teachers

- The establishment stands in the way of anybody new getting a job as a teacher. My master's degree can get me a job teaching college, but not 6th grade

- The establishment hides behind zero tolerance policies in establishing discipline so that they don't actually have to make any decisions based on logic and judgment

Feel free to sum up your own thoughts and to add them to my list.

Let me think of a two improvements that unions wouldn't fight, that would be tremendously useful in improving things.

• Smaller class sizes--dramatically smaller for lower grades in reading and math.

• More money to pay for better teacher supervision.

• Air conditioned school buildings.

Look, I'm intellectually open to all solutions, including giving up on public education entirely and leaving the babysitting up to the parents.

I also do not think more powerful unions are the solution, and in fact I flinch when I hear about a union threatening to organize an experimental charter school.

But the "unions are the problem" mantra, however true, and with the "parents are the problem" mantra, however true, often serves to let the government (us) off the hook in terms of improving the schools.

And that sound you hear is me scraping the rust off the bottom of the barrel of my education theory. I hope teachers and others to weigh in, because education CAN'T be left to boors like me.

We're all experts on it, because we were each victims/beneficiaries of it for at least 13 years.

Why do we talk about it as if it's such an abstract, theoretical thing?

Not having children of my very own, I really have no dog in this fight, so I probably shouldn't even comment, but I just gotta say:

"Gosh, I LOVE IT when David and Steve are kind enough to do that "sort-of-arguably-polite-but-really-just-clever-and-snarky" thing they do when discussing a topic they mostly disagree on but which because it's in public and on the blog they forgo simply beating the snot out of each other. Since I can't be there in Chicago to watch the two of you do your "thang" live, this really is the next best thing and just makes my day!"

Thank you.

Oh come on, Kristen. Doesn't it get a little wearying? I mean, even Fraser and Ali only fought three times.

And though I may be Ali-like, Steve is no Fraser. More like a Chuck Wepner.

Nope! I never tire of the Steve and David show . . . of course I'm hundreds of miles away, AND in another country, so maybe, if I lived in Chicago and was invited to every foray to the corner bar with you guys - what 3-4 times a week every week? - it could *possibly* *maybe* get old, after a few years or so . . . but short of that - sign me up baby!!

Keep it coming!


The interesting thing is, neither David nor I have a dog in this fight, either!! My kid lives in the suburbs, and goes to a private school because that was his mother's decision (even thought he public schools where he lives are really good).

And, while David lives smack dab in the middle of the public school system in Chicago, he sends his daughter to an exclusive private school!!!

Old Ali might stick up for the public school teachers, but he ain't about to entrust his own child to them!!! Not with the system broke the way it is, thanks to the unions!

Sting and move, sting and move . . .

C. Wepner

Just to correct you: Since Scout started kindergarten last year, she has gone to a Chicago Public School.

Once, Sonny Liston broke Wepner's nose and jaw and caused Liston to have more than 120 sutures in has face.

"But you know," Wepner said, "he never really hurt me."

Steve is Wepner. Funny, and tough.

You all make good points here and I have to admit I'm an American that struggles with enormity and complexity of the issue.

What I do know is that the large majority of teachers are women. There are fact-based arguments supporting the notion that jobs predominantly held by women (also including nursing) are traditionally underpaid and undervalued. Maybe that's why we focus the negative attention on teachers (instead of firefighters, police and football players).

Just sayin'...


I take your opinions 1000 percent more seriously now that I know Scout goes to a public school.

I will be very interested to hear your opinions on that school, and that experience for Scout, through her eyes.

It will be interesting to see what happens when a really smart kid, with caring, very involved parents, goes through the system.

Good on you.

Steve C.

Well, I don't take my opinions much more seriously because Scout's in a public school.

And neither does my wife, who is sick to death half the time that Scout is in a public school. She thinks standard American schooling--public, and most private--is soul-crushing, by design.

I take the "I went to regular school and I turned out OK attitude." I watch Scout RUN into school every day. I do her homework with her every night and am amazed at how much she is learning--about math and reading and history--EVERY DAY. And how happily. I want to go up to Miss Waters and shake her hand and say, "Thank you."

Of course, she is at one of the best handful of public elementary schools in the city--it's a language magnet school, where she's going to have eight years of Chinese by the time she's in eighth grade--which she got into by lottery. (We had her in another neighborhood school when her school called and said, "You have 15 minutes to say yes to us or we'll give the slot to another kid.")

Things are FUBAR in the Chicago Public Schools. I just don't think the union is anything like the only problem.

Oh. A language magnet school. Chinese. Lotteries. Never mind.

Steve C.


Do you seriously think a person can only discuss public schools if he or she sacrifices his kid to the very worst of them?

This goes along with your old argument that someone with a pot to piss in can't discuss problems of poverty until he has given said pot to the poor.

That, my friend, is insane.


No, I was just kidding. Of course anyone can discuss public schools. But if you had a KID in a real public school, AND a wife teaching at one . . . well, then you'd really be a force to be reckoned with.

As it is, you're just like every other moron you describe in your post above. So overwhelmed with how screwed up it is, you don't know where to begin talking about it.

Steve C.

UNIONS! I love this all-day "discussion" about unions. Most of which none of us know much about. Including those people that are members.

I have nothing good to say about the Chicago Teachers Union from my own personal experiences. As a new teacher I had $70/month taken out of my $30k salary by the Union before I even knew I was a member. I was a good teacher who got fired in 2004 because of what I was told was a union "give-away" - What-the-fuck-ever that is.

I am not a Union expert in any way. But I can say with a fair amount of certainty that unions, collective bargaining, and not being able to get rid of bad teachers are only a part of the problem. Maybe even a small part. The education system as a whole is a mess and the rhetoric I hear in the news often has no real connection to what I see and deal with everyday on the west side of Chicago.

I will say that when I hear republicans talking about how public sector workers need to "share" the burden in this time of economic crisis, I get sick to my stomach. It makes me think of my favorite sign from the rally in Madison I went to which read,
"Fuck those rich teachers with their '93 Nissan Sentras"

Cristie - teacher

David, Cristie, Steve, Kristen Ridley, Kathy, Jason, James Green:

There are 103 important, critical, crucial, absolutely necessary, unskippable problems that MUST be met head on before any fundamental change will take place in American schooling. Want to know a few of them?

Here are a few, only a few:

1. The stupid, anti-intellectual older white men who ran, are running, and will continue to run American graduate schools of education. These white men, under the cover of an "advanced," false, sentimental "liberalism," allowed hundreds of thousands of near-illiterates to be graduated from their schools in the last seventy years, long before greedy teachers' unions became the prime villain in American education.

2. The teaching of "methods" to aspiring teachers in our university schools of education, instead of real school subjects.

3. The blatant hypocrisy of carrying on in ecstasies about the eternal, infinite importance of "education" while we STILL pay starting teachers in many school districts in Illinois $25,000 a year.

4. The infatuation of EVERYBODY in America with the latest experiment, model, study,"pilot program," "learning module," approach, or innovation that introduces seeming novelty into schooling, novelty that promises to banish the permanent difficulties of teaching and learning by substituting some method or machine that will miraculously make instruction and its absorption by students pleasurable, painless, fast, and easy. Our fatal belief that there is a technology OR a process that will overcome every difficulty in every human endeavor.

5. Our belief in standardized tests. Our belief that the so-called "IQ" exists and can be accurately measured by standard tests. Our assurance that the smartest high school graduates are those who scored 800 on their language and math SATs.

6. Our refusal to insist high school students do hard intellectual work in true school subjects, including much more reading, in history, political science, chemistry, physics, philosophy, English literature, foreign languages, economics, history of science, geography, and other important REAL school subjects. High school, except for the very best students concentrating in math and science, is a lie and a joke.

I still have 97 to go. Anybody want to stick around and read for the rest of the night?

American schooling will only be radically improved by a revolution in the manners of child and parent, a re-establishment of the classroom as a SACRED place in which real work gets QUIETLY done by dedicated, docile pupils, and a revolt by would-be teachers against the false science of "methods" and "approaches" they are forced to swallow in schools of education.

Does anybody in this discussion see any of these things happening?

By the way, what I've just said accounts for the hollow, bombastic sound of President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan's silly, shallow, conventional political rhetoric about what needs to be done to turn things around. These two AND their Republican party counterparts simply have no idea of the complexity and the hugeness of the mess they've created.

Bill Sweetland

Another teacher to weigh in:

I taught for 4 years in a CPS school as a union member. I have taught for 6 years at a charter with no union on the West Side of Chicago. My son goes to a CPS school (albeit a magnet, Montessori one which I daily hope provides just enough space to not crush his innate curiousity about the world). I’m not sure if I’m on the right side of history teaching in a charter at this particular point in history, but I do know I can be on the side of my students most days, and that is what keeps me there.

Unfortunaltey most teachers are too busy teaching to get their thoughts down on paper (or on the web).

So those of you who are charged with communicating about important issues – we need you to get it right. Aren’t you suppose to follow the money? I think the bullying and disparaging of teachers is more insidious than it first appears. There are major forces who are waging a war against teachers, teacher unions, public schools and even democracy. There are hedgefund managers and Walton billionaires taking a stake in disinvesting in public education and creating a new “marketplace” for education. The pseudo-documentary Waiting for Superman was a two hour commercial for charters schools and eliminating all teacher unions. Funny how they kept comparing the US to Finland – where they have a highly paid, unionized workforce of teachers. Finland also has one of the lowest rates of childhood poverty anywhere.

I could go on and probably should figure out ways to articulate my experiences since the narrative being written, filmed and fed is so far from reality and is so polarizing. Unfortunately I still need to make my son’s lunch and finish planning a family learning night for tomorrow night at my school. So that is all for tonight.

@Bill: Thanks for that. That's what I was trying to lay tongue to: Education is so thoroughly messed up that blaming the unions for the thing amounts to a red herring. (We'll take your other 97 diagnoses whenever you have the time. End of day today would be fine.)

@Liz (gee, you sure don't sound like a bum or a burnout case): I can't know how to assess the intent of moneyed interests to subvert education and transform it into a profitable marketplace. I do know that the charter you and I know and love wasn't created with that motive at heart. And I also know that Steve doesn't have a profit motive for believing the root of education problems is the teacher's union.

So these financial interests, however powerful they are, create an environment where one person can do something fine, and an excuse for another person to declare all of education a hopeless hostage to a gang of crummy teachers, and wash his hands of the problem.

We each, still, have lots choices.

I like your choices, Liz.

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