Al Shanker identifies why margin tax wouldn’t improve Nevada education

Former union president’s honest assessment of US education hinges on lack of accountability

By Steven Miller
  • Monday, April 14, 2014

Let’s say that Nevada teacher-union officials get their wish this fall and voters approve the massive tax-increase measure that will be on the ballot.

Let’s also assume, for good measure, something entirely unlikely — that state lawmakers next spring obey the teacher union and pour ALL the hundreds of millions of dollars in new taxes into the state’s government schools.

Would Silver State public education noticeably improve?

Unfortunately for all concerned — Nevada school kids, parents and everyone with a stake in the state economy — the answer is no.

The ballot measure completely evades the fundamental problem with the state’s public schools. That problem — and the problem with government schools generally in the U.S. — was explicitly identified by, of all people, Albert Shanker, the late president of the American Federation of Teachers union, four years before his death.

In 1993, he was one of many education experts from around the English-speaking world invited to that year's Pew Forum on Education Reform. And when an apparently odd provision in an American teacher-union bargaining agreement attracted attention, Shanker spoke up.

One of the Australian guests, he noted, had “said that she was surprised to see that there was a contractual limit on the length of a faculty meeting."

“In a professional context,” observed Shanker, “that sounds, and really is, terrible. But the context that it came from explains it.”

That context — and “the fundamental framework for teacher unions" — he said, is that “schools started with and are still largely based on a factory-model authority structure. Union contracts represent some attempts to limit and curtail the powers of management.” (Emphasis added.)

Out of his own personal experience, Shanker explained how the contract provision in question arose. As he did so, he also illuminated the core limitation built into traditional public schools.

“I taught in four different New York City schools,” he said. “Each had a faculty conference the first Monday of every month. Anybody who had an after-school job was excused,” but

Those of us who remained were given a five-to-seven-page list of complaints by the principal — like too much noise up on the fifth floor during such and such a time; or the clocks on the fourth floor don’t match so the kids in these classrooms should be released three minutes after the bell rings. Housekeeping stuff that we could have read. And the faculty conferences often went from 3 in the afternoon until 6 or 6:30.

“The teachers sat there seething,” notes Shanker. “Never, in all those hours, did we talk about anything that had anything to do with any professional matter.

“And so, when we got collective bargaining, we [at the union] got thousands of letters from teachers urging us to abolish the conferences. We ended up negotiating a limit on the time that these faculty conferences could take.

“So that’s the reason for the contractual limit on faculty meetings,” he said.

Shanker recounted other examples of how, well before teacher unions gained power, public-school administrators could — and many times, did — routinely ignore the educational mission of their schools, to instead indulge their own egos or petty personal desires:

The issue of transfer and seniority rights is an example. When I was teaching, which was long before collective bargaining, you could transfer if you got four signatures: that of your principal, your district supervisor, the receiving principal, and the receiving district supervisor. Any of them could veto the transfer. If you had criticized your principal once, he might decide to punish you by never letting you transfer. On the other hand, if he thought you were a wonderful teacher, he might not want to lose you. On the receiving end, a principal might only want to hire his cronies. Or the principal in a desirable school might say, “Well, I’ve got a choice of 45 people who want this job. If you’ll agree to stay every afternoon and edit the student newspaper without compensation, you’ve got it.” So it created a situation that, from the teachers’ point of view, left them open to exploitation.

“So we started,” said Shanker, “with a transfer system in which administrators had arbitrary power and moved to a system where you had to have a certain number of years of service to move and then, for competitive transfers, seniority would determine who got the job.… we’ve gone from one set of rules or powers that had no necessary relationship to education to another set that still has none. Before, the teachers felt aggrieved; now the principals do.” (Emphasis added.)

America’s entire system of public schools, Shanker noted, essentially ignores the need for performance accountability — imposing few consequences when either the adults running the schools, or the students, don’t perform:

The key is that, unless there is accountability, we will never get the right system. As long as there are no consequences if kids or adults don’t perform, as long as the discussion is not about education and student outcomes, then we’re playing a game as to who has the power. Who’s going to feel bad, the teachers or the principal?

Unless you start with a very heavy emphasis on accountability, not end with it, you’ll never get a system with all the other pieces falling into place.

Shanker said he’d been thinking of that when an attorney at the conference — David Tatel, who would later become a federal judge — had been speaking:

David doesn’t have the right to transfer into another law firm because he has seniority. Nobody would even think of anything like that. All these pay issues that are such points of contention in school districts are not points of contention in his firm because the people working there know what the law firm’s about: that it has to attract clients and it has to have a pretty good track record or people are going to lose their livelihoods. (Emphasis added.)

Alternatively, in America’s public-school system, observed Shanker, no such imperatives operate with comparable force — upon the administrators, the union, the teachers or the students — in favor of genuine educational achievement.

Succinctly, he stated the reality when school districts are, by law, guaranteed captive students and taxpayer dollars:

You see, if nothing is at stake, everybody’s got rules that have nothing to do with outcomes. That’s intelligent behavior. So the accountability has to come first. (Emphasis added.)

In short, so long as administrators and teachers are not faced with the kind of real-world rewards and punishments that people in the private sector face, their personal "rules" will only sometimes "have ... to do with outcomes."

Once accountability is enforced, however, said Shanker, teachers will quickly adapt:

... they’ll find out that they need to get out of the classroom and talk to all of the other people in the school who are not doing such a good job because their pay will depend upon what all these other people do. They’ll be going on their own to people, asking, “How did you do it? Can you help us?”

But the question remains: how does one make the accountability come first? Candidly, Shanker acknowledged that teacher unions are deeply compromised on the issue, living within a powerful double-bind:

Teachers need unions as long as there are managers pushing them around to do all sorts of irrational things and things that they believe are unjust. The union leader dreams of a world in which all these injustices don’t exist any more; but in a way, he also doesn’t want that world because he won’t be needed any more.

So the question is: What does a union do in a school that doesn’t have that hierarchical management, where teachers themselves are making a lot of the decisions, not on the basis of union rules but on the basis of intelligent judgment?...

The NEA and I are not going to be able to sell this unless we canexplain why it is that in the new world teachers should still want to be members and be loyal… The union has to make itself indispensable to its members in a different way than it has been. (Emphasis added.)

So even Shanker acknowledged that the non-performing, often internally tyrannical, character of public schools is the foundation upon which the very existence of the teacher unions rests.

Recognizing that he had been, literally, telling tales out of school, Shanker went on to explain his motives in so speaking:

…I wouldn’t be saying these things or doing these things if I didn’t have the sense that we are at the point that the auto industry was at a few years ago. They could see they were losing market share every year and still not believe that it really had anything to do with the quality of the product. Then, when it was almost too late and they were about to go out of business, they pulled themselves together.

I think that we will get — and deserve — the end of public education through some sort of privatization scheme if we don’t behave differently. Unfortunately, very few people really believe that yet. They talk about it, and they don’t like it, but they’re not ready to change and stop doing the things that brought them to this point.

In a 2011 piece for The Atlantic, Joel Klein, New York City schools chief under Mayor Mike Bloomberg, wrote that, in all the years following Shanker’s extraordinary 1993 remarks, Klein had never seen them quoted by any teacher-union official.

What Shanker had done, noted Klein, was call “out the fundamental truth about the system: because it’s not anchored to outcomes, it ends up being about ‘who has the power,’ which [power] can then be used to serve other agendas — such as better pay, political support, or vendor contracts.”

He notes that Shanker had argued, at the 1993 Pew Forum, for accountability to be measured by students’ measured progress on standardized tests. Then Klein observes:

Accountability, in most industries or professions, usually takes two forms. First and foremost, markets impose accountability: if people don’t choose the goods or services you’re offering, you go out of business.

Second, high-performing companies develop internal accountability requirements keyed to market-based demands.

However, public education, wrote Klein:

…lacks both kinds of accountability. It is essentially a government-run monopoly. Whether a school does well or poorly, it will get the students it needs to stay in business, because most kids have no other choice. And that, in turn, creates no incentive for better performance, greater efficiency, or more innovation — all things as necessary in public education as they are in any other field.

Thus, for anyone who honestly wants to see Nevada public education improve, the conclusion is unavoidable even to Albert Shanker: Public schools must be deprived of their state-guaranteed monopoly over Nevada’s youngsters. The margin-tax ballot proposal goes in exactly the wrong direction.

Clearly, choice is the only genuine path to superior public schools in the Silver State.

Steve Miller is Vice President, Policy for the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more, visit http://npri.org.


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