Search This Blog

Monday, October 12, 2015

Response to Mike Sporer's Comments, SFT Strike

Writing in response to Mike Sporer's comment made to THIS posting.

* * * * * *

Thanks, as always, for commenting Mike.

I think we basically agree on most points when it comes to the strike.

Regarding education in the United States, I also agree that it's best.  More realistically, I think it's broken beyond a simple repair.  Everything, from the length of the school day to the school year, from teaching methods to materials needs to be examined.  Therein lies one of the problem I have with teacher unionization though:  Through the union, teachers will fight most core/structural changes to education by treating them as bargaining chips (in order to get something in return).  Put another way, public school teachers should be at the forefront of bold experimentation and innovation in education, yet we don't see very much of that, simply because the labor unions will want to negotiate every little change made to work rules and methods.  Why?  Because that's what labor unions do:  They are designed to protect and promote union members, not, in this case, students.  That's one of many reasons why I think professionals should not be unionized.

Another problem?  Older teachers aren't necessarily better teachers, yet seniority based systems, such as those required by labor unions, are designed around that very concept.  I want the best performing teachers to be paid the most; schools shouldn't simply be rewarding "sticking around for a long time".  One can be the same as the other, but not least not in the real world of performance management.

I'll reaffirm though that while philosophically I don't think teachers should be unionized, practically speaking they have to be under the current circumstances, as there needs to be something to protect them, as individuals, from grossly incompetent and politically motivated school boards.

With regards to Ms Boland, I actually think I had her as an Art teacher at East Scranton Jr High.  I could be wrong, and I've tried to find a biography on her to verify that fact, but I've come up empty.  Assuming she was my teacher back then, I'll say that she made a positive impression on me, and I can't say that about most of the teachers I had back in those days.  Present day she does sound tough, but her union members should expect that of her.  Truth be told, I don't have a problem with a tough union negotiator.  Where things break down for me is when there are falsehoods repeated as facts and thuggish tactics are employed by unions.  Two examples -

a) Falsehoods - I actually heard a few weeks ago, from a very good source, that the "35 kids in a classroom" mantra that the union was spouting as being a chief reason for the strike was sheer and utter nonsense.  That fact was confirmed by the Scranton Times in its Saturday edition.  Simply put, the union lied about this one because it makes them seem more sympathetic to the parents of children who are not currently being educated.  It's a better story than "we want more money".

b) Thuggery - I was very glad to hear that the SFT decided not to demonstrate in front of the school board president's home, although it was disheartening to hear that it was seriously considered.  Board President Douaihy deserves a fair amount of grief for this whole situation, but everyone else...should be allowed respite in his own home.

Nothing and no one in this situation is clean, but in the end it's the students who continue to suffer because the adults can't act like adults.

Now as alluded to above, I don't share your opinion regarding unions being the savior of the middle class in this country.  I do think they have their place in the working world, but my opinion has always been that organizations with labor unions have them because they deserve them...with the possible exception of Walmart (who does deserve them but doesn't have them...and that's a whole different topic)...because they failed to treat their employees as true assets.  Unions can, in many instances, create as many problems as they solve.  For example,  unions homogenize employees into buckets not based upon performance and unique contributions to results, but instead based almost exclusively on tenure.  That's simply wrong, as compensation and opportunities should always be based upon performance.  What's more, unions encourage the notion that individuals are incapable of speaking for themselves, which I find demeaning, harmful and encouraging of a victim mentality.

Finally, while I don't think unions (as currently constructed in the United States today) are the answer to the problems that plague the modern workplace, and speaking as an HR professional, I do recognize that a new model for the workforce is definitely needed.  There is a need to protect employees from unreasonable demands, and in some instances employees should have the benefit of expertise available to them to help solve problems with management in an organization.  Personally, I think a good place to start can be found in the concept of co-determination in the workplace, as, for example, practiced in Germany.  It's not a perfect model, but that's okay, as it doesn't have to be.  Either current extreme in the U.S. today, be it the insane anti-union tactics of a Walmart or the thuggish tactics employed by some unions*, is not getting us anywhere.

(*) True story told to me by a colleague who used to work at a unionized employer:  During a strike, he, as a member of management, had to cross a picket line in order to go to work.  Approaching the door, he got wet, even though there wasn't a cloud in the sky.  The liquid in question had a particular odor to it...the kind of smell that you might encounter in a men's room at Fenway Park during a Dropkick Murphys concert.


Tom Borthwick said...

Hey Steve,

I want to clarify something important: Teachers have no say over curriculum, class structure, class size, scheduling, materials, the Common Core, or educational policy. What core/structural changes would we oppose? They aren't part of our purview. We have no opportunities to "be at the forefront of bold experimentation" -- and believe me we would -- because we have absolutely no say in managerial decisions related to our profession. This has nothing to do with unions and everything to do with politicians and bureaucracy. If teachers had an actual say in policy, then this country would be better off.

In fact, teachers routinely offer suggestions to Administrators, Superintendents, and School Boards. Guess what happens? I'd love a seat at the table. It's why I ran for School Board. Twice. Despite how obviously silly a decision it was for me to run, I still believe teachers need a say in how districts are operated.

As for the co-determined workplaces you describe, I'm 100% with you. A good friend of mine, who is a labor leader and avowed socialist, surprised the hell out of me by saying he'd absolutely be behind getting rid of unions-- as long as they aren't needed. The German system works very well and it would be lovely if school districts were organized this way. Then teachers would actually have that opportunity to innovate.

As for now, though, we certainly need them. They are one of the last lines of defense a dying middle class has. They fight for decent wages, benefits, and protect against employers who would otherwise run roughshod over employees. Granted, not every employer is awful, but it's good to have somebody to defend you.

In any case, the big thing here is my paragraph #1. If I'm missing something, let me know. But I can't think of any major structural changes to education that a union would even be able to stop if it wanted to. See the Common Core.


Stephen Albert said...


I always respect your opinions, and I think you're dead wrong in the first point you make.

If teachers aren't driving innovation in education, then who is? Well the answer is simple: NO ONE IS, which is my central point. Shockingly, I expect professional educators...the folks actually be leaders in the this area, to be offering ideas, to be trying new things, to be squeezing school boards (with the same gusto that was used to fight for economic gains) to allow experimentation. What should be changed? I'm not the expert here...I'm not a teacher! Your opinions about structural improvements to public school educational systems, as a professional teacher, have far more weight than mine.

What I do know is this though: When I think about the education I received vs that of my daughters, the only structural difference that I see lies in the area of technology; they had computers, but I didn't. Otherwise it's basically the same, and that's indicative of a sad, sad state of affairs.

Regarding the school boards and educators, the SSD Board routinely has former teachers as members (including current president, "Cousin Cy"), and yet there are no substantial changes in education. It's as if everyone in public education simply shrugs their shoulders and says "we can't change anything" and "it's not my's theirs". Now if public education were a blinding success, the status quo would be acceptable, but we all know that's not the case.

By the way, I do hope you run again for the SSD Board (and it was far from a silly decision for you to do so in the past). I don't agree with your stands on a few issues*, but I admire your passion and commitment to education, something that is in short supply on a Board filled with political hacks, the uneducated and those who simply want to run the SSD as some form of employment agency. Scranton is in its current state precisely because smart folks other than you make the choice to sit on the sidelines instead of getting involved.

- Steve

(*) Unions, Bernie Sanders, the non-existent gender pay gap and most likely F. Scott name a few.