Randi Weingarten Can’t Get No Respect

January 5, 2009

In what the AFT web site described as “her first major speech since being elected AFT president in July,” Randi Weingarten “decried the widespread scapegoating of teachers and teachers unions for public education’s shortcomings.”  Her comments have generated numerous reactions, including from NYT columnist Bob Herbert, Andy Rotherham, Joanne Jacobs, and our own Greg Forster.  They all raised interesting points, but none addressed one of the most curious aspects of Weingarten’s speech:  Why do teachers, perhaps more than other professionals, seek praise for their work (or are particularly sensitive to blame)? 

I don’t think other occupations have produced bumper-stickers that are the equivalent of “If you can read this thank a teacher.”  I can’t imagine plumbers distributing bumper-stickers that said: “If you flushed your toilet thank a plumber.”  Nor can I imagine: “If you still have your teeth thank a dentist.” 

Teachers particularly demand respect — and of course they deserve respect.  But why do they give speeches, print bumper-stickers, write letters, hold rallies, etc… decrying their social status when I am hard pressed to think of other occupations that do the same?

Of course, one important factor is that almost all teachers are public employees.  The demand for respect can be understood as part of the demand for resources.  My plumber doesn’t have to demand my respect to get my resources.  He just has to do a good job to get me to continue paying him for his services. 

But the resources devoted to education are largely unrelated to how well teachers serve their students.  Political popularity largely determines the level of resources available for teachers, so not surprisingly, teachers actively lobby the public to enhance their image.

The problem is that it is hard to sustain political popularity and community respect as results continue to disappoint despite huge increases in resources.  Teachers interpret this disappointment as a lack of respect, when it is really just frustration at being forced to pay for services that are chronically inadequate.  If people could hire teachers like they hire plumbers or dentists, teachers wouldn’t need to demand respect to get resources.  They would earn respect and resources by serving their voluntary customers well.

AFT and UAW – More Alike Than You’d Think

December 30, 2008

aft uaw1

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Lots of people are picking up on the temper tantrum about alleged “demonizing of teachers” begun by a Randi Weingarten speech and continued in Bob Herbert’s column on the speech.

Even that notorious right-winger Eduwonk points out that Weingarten and Herbert are hitting a straw man. I think the real problem is not that school reformers demonize teachers but that defenders of the government school monopoly angelize them. When we reformers insist that teachers should be treated as, you know, human beings, who respond to incentives and all that, rather than as some sort of perfect angelic beings who would never ever allow things like absolute job protection to affect their performance, it drives people like Weingarten and Herbert nuts.


A typical teacher, as seen by Randi Weingarten

But what I’d like to pick up on is the question of whether the troubles of the government school system are comparable to the troubles of the auto industry.

Of the alleged demonizing of teachers, Herbert had written:

It reminded me of the way autoworkers have been vilified and blamed by so many for the problems plaguing the Big Three automakers.

Eduwonk points out Herbert’s hypocrisy (though he delicately avoids using that word) on this point, because elsewhere in the column, Herbert praises Weingarten for expressing a willingness to make concessions on issues like tenure and pay scales. Union recalcitrance on these types of reform, Eduwonk points out, is precisely why the auto industry is in so much trouble, and Weingarten has been driven to make noises in favor of reform because a similar dynamic has been at work in the government school system.

On the other hand, Joanne Jacobs thinks the comparison between the AFT and the UAW is inapt:

 I don’t think skilled teachers and unskilled auto workers have much in common.  Auto unions pushed up costs, especially for retirees, making U.S. cars uncompetitive.  In education, the problem isn’t excessive pay, it’s the fact that salaries aren’t linked to teacher effectiveness, the difficulty of their jobs or the market demand for their skills.

But teachers’ unions have pushed up costs – dramatically. In the past 40 years, the cost of the government school system per student has much more than doubled (even after inflation) while outcomes are flat across the board. And this has mainly been caused by a dramatic increase in the number of teachers hired per student – a policy that benefits only the unions.

It’s true that high salaries aren’t the main issue in schools, although teacher salaries are in fact surprisingly high. The disconnect between teacher pay and teacher performance is much more important. But the UAW has the same problem! Their pay scales don’t reward performance, either.

The source of Jacobs’ confusion is her mistaken view that auto workers are “unskilled.” Farm workers are unskilled, but not auto workers. The distinction she’s reaching for is the one between white-collar or “professional” work and blue-collar work. But some blue-collar work is skilled and some is unskilled, and auto workers are in the former category. This matters because with skilled blue-collar workers, as with white-collar workers, there’s a dramatic increase in the importance of incentives as compared with unskilled labor.

In fact, a lot of smart people have been arguing (scroll down to the Dec. 26 post) that exorbitant salaries and benefits aren’t nearly as much of a problem in the auto industry as union work rules – including poor performance due to absolute job protection, pay scales that don’t reward performance, and rigid job descriptions that make process modernization impossible.

Sound familiar?


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