Saturday, September 6, 2008

A Conservative Case for Supporting the Bellevue Teacher's Strike

"The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly. 'Tis dearness only that gives everything its value."--Thomas Paine

Let's establish first that Bellevue is an excellent school district. Education writer Jay Mathews has long put out a list of America's Best High Schools, and in the recent 2008 ranking there are 4 Bellevue high schools in the top 100, including The International School at #10; Sammamish makes the top 200, at #168. Consider, too, the long tradition of excellence that the Bellevue high schools have; by clicking on the plus sign next to the name of the school, you can see how it's rankings have fluctuated over the years. For a different look at the 2007 rankings, click here.

That's one metric; let's go to our state tests for another. Playing around with the school comparison tool at OSPI's website pretty capably demonstrates the good work that Bellevue's high schools are doing; stack Bellevue HS up against others from surrounding districts and see what you find. The "big picture" argument can be found by digging through the 2008 data files, also from the OSPI website. Download "WASL Scores by District", sort by whatever metric means the most to you (I chose reading), and see what you find--no matter how you slice it, the Bellevue SD will come out looking pretty good.

"That government is best which governs least."--Thomas Paine again

So, what's the problem?

Fair question. Let's ask the school district.

This 2007 article on the topic of scripted curriculum in Bellevue is a must-read to understand where the district and the teachers are both coming from, and it directly relates to the issue that I think is going to be the hardest one for the two sides to solve before this strike is over.

From the district perspective, they have an abiding interest in making sure that every child in the district receives the same quality of education. This is as it should be; the line about "the soft bigotry of low expectations" might be the best that President Bush came up with in 8 years, and it speaks to the point that no matter their background, a child at one school should get just as much quality teaching as a child at another school.

A difference, though, is in perspective. The Bellevue School District vision of every child receiving the same lesson from the same script ensures that they'll all receive the same lesson, but it's patently ridiculous to think that the input is the only variable that matters. The underlying assumption in a controlling curriculum like the one that Bellevue has put together is that every child is at the same place at the same time, no matter the events of the day or the make-up of the school or the differences in the children.

It echoes, eerily, the worst aspects of the Napoleonic system of education that was instituted in the 1800s under the Little General. No local control, no classroom differences, no teacher creativity. Consider these stories that the Bellevue Education Association recently put out on their website.

It's important to let our military commanders, who are in the best position, to manage the war on terrorism and to carry out the war on terrorism. They're the ones who are in the best position to call the shots.--Scott McClellan

So the decisions on what to do in the classroom are being made by those the very farthest away from the classroom, in central administration. The teachable moment is lost, the current event must be ignored, because the all-controlling curriculum mandates that it be so.

Here you can throw in all your "Yah, buts..."

"Yah, but the teachers suck!" Some do. Some are quite excellent. Under a system like this excellence is sacrificed for the mean, and that's not right.

"Yah, but striking is no way to protest!" Quite possibly. If the system as designed isn't good for the students, though, what other recourse is there?

"Yah, but the district has been willing to bend on the issue!" How far? The article cited above was from June of last year, 15 months and innumerable bargaining sessions ago, and yet the issue is still hanging out there. Apparently both sides think that the on-line curriculum is worth fighting over.

In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.--Teddy Roosevelt

It's a tough call for the teachers. It's a tough call for the district. What it's not, though, is a black/white liberal/conservative union/free market dichotomy. There's room all through the political spectrum to look and say, "You know, the teachers have a point."

Crossposted to Sound Politics public blog.


The Science Goddess said...

From your post: "Yah, but the teachers suck!" Some do. Some are quite excellent. Under a system like this excellence is sacrificed for the mean, and that's not right.

A friend of mine (who is also a teacher) mentioned that this strike is about the right for teachers to sit behind their desks and read newspapers all period, if they want to. There's some truth in that.

The thing is, without a union, administration could get rid of poor teachers and good ones would not have to be sacrificed for the mean, as you put it.

Until teachers in WA step up to the plate and are accountable for themselves instead of cowering behind The Union's apron strings, the worst among us are going to drive what happens for all of us.

Dr Pezz said...

At times I do think the union does protect bad teachers, but administrators hold quite a bit of sway; they often choose not to complete processes which could eliminate bad teachers. I see it in my building and sometimes wish they would do through with it. I'm on my union's exec board and wish it would happen at times.

Dr Pezz said...

I hope the teachers go back to work but only to work their contracted hours.

The Science Goddess said...

This is a NY example, but would likely play out the same in WA: How to Fire a Bad Teacher.

Still think it's the admin?

don said...

Excellent argument for the modification of curriculum requirements that we are looking for. Thank you for your insights.

Dr Pezz said...

SG -
I've seen the chart before. No two states use the same one, and I have personally seen how my own administration could have fired a drunken teacher who was nearing retirement. Instead, they didn't want to "do the paperwork" (one ast. principal's words, not mine) and waited four years for him to retire. He routinely didn't show, came in drunk or hung over, and was basically incompetent for those four years. He easily amassed in one year enough violations to be fired three times over.

Washington State has protections but we must be held accountable too. If no one ever starts the process or challenges the process, nothing will change.

Dr Pezz said...

Maybe we should get our own ten worst teacher list like on the East Coast (might have been DC). :)