“Then, they came for the 3rd grade teachers, and I said nothing”

German pastor Martin Niemoller is quoted as saying

German stamp issued 1992 figuring Martin Niemöller, designed by Gerd Aretz.

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Although there are many versions of this poem, this is the one that Niemoller himself apparently endorsed.

I was thinking of this when I was reading the twitter explosion of outrage over the Washington Post editorial by David C. Levy, a former administrator at the New School University and the Corcoran Gallery and College of Art and Design. He claims that college professors don’t work hard enough, because they are not putting in as many hours as they should be. It reminded me of many of the awful things said about K-12 teachers in the past few years. I hope my fellow college professors will start to realize there is a connection. When every problem with education boils down to something those pesky unions did, then the age of the students doesn’t matter.

I won’t be linking it, but here is a quote of Levy’s piece:

An executive who works a 40-hour week for 50 weeks puts in a minimum of 2,000 hours yearly. But faculty members teaching 12 to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks spend only 360 to 450 hours per year in the classroom. Even in the unlikely event that they devote an equal amount of time to grading and class preparation, their workload is still only 36 to 45 percent of that of non-academic professionals. Yet they receive the same compensation.

If the higher education community were to adjust its schedules and semester structure so that teaching faculty clocked a 40-hour week (roughly 20 hours of class time and equal time spent on grading, preparation and related duties) for 11 months, the enhanced efficiency could be the equivalent of a dramatic budget increase

His argument in a nutshell is that back in the good old days, professors traded low salaries for a cushy, leisurely job and lifestyle. But now “with the 1970’s advent of collective bargaining in higher education” (oh, those pesky unions!) these teaching college professors got higher salaries and kept the cushy lifestyle!

As I sat in my office at a teaching college this Sunday morning, I have to be honest that this upset me. I was grading, preparing class materials, reviewing a paper for PLosONE, corresponding with a student about a paper we are revising, organizing a visit for high school students to our psychology department, and yes, checking Twitter and reading a Washington Post Op-ed. But I really wasn’t that surprised, because as someone who follows K-12 ed reform, this argument sounded very familiar. In what must pass in their circles as calmly rational focus on efficiency, a successful business executive was merely putting together what anyone could see with a little common sense and some back of the envelope calculation.

It reminded me of when Michael Bloomberg says something like this:

“If I had the ability, which nobody does really, to just design the system and say, ex cathedra, this is what we’re going to do, you would cut the number of teachers in half, but you would double the compensation of them, and you would weed out all the bad ones and just have good teachers. And double the class size with a better teacher is a good deal for the students,” he said.

This is not an educational argument, based on the complex science of learning and motivation, recognizing that a kindergarden class is different from a high school physics class. This is a simple vision of reducing a massively complicated problem to a simple labor market problem, including assuming that laborers have fixed talents (or “quality”).

Similarly, the education manifesto (entitled: “How To Fix Our Schools”) by Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee and other architects of the modern wave of education reform:

There isn’t a business in America that would survive if it couldn’t make personnel decisions based on performance. That is why everything we use in assessing teachers must be linked to their effectiveness in the classroom and focused on increasing student achievement.
Let’s stop ignoring basic economic principles of supply and demand and focus on how we can establish a performance-driven culture in every American school — a culture that rewards excellence, elevates the status of teachers and is positioned to help as many students as possible beat the odds. We need the best teacher for every child, and the best principal for every school. Of course, we must also do a better job of providing meaningful training for teachers who seek to improve, but let’s stop pretending that everyone who goes into the classroom has the ability and temperament to lift our children to excellence.

Many of my fellow critics of the current wave of education reform (called Global Education Reform Movement or GERM, by Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg) often point to how these business-minded executives ignore the role of poverty in educating our urban poor. But for me, the far more relevant poverty is their perverse and limited models of both education and business as boiling down to cheaper and easier labor. This isn’t even necessarily a good way of running a business, as James Suroweicki aptly points out in his description of Uniqlo and Trader Joes.

But it is no surprise to me that this model is being applied to higher education, as I have seen the damage (and “success”) it has wrought in K-12. I only hope that my fellow college professors will now see the absurdity of treating every educational moment as a customer transaction, and teachers as interchangeable widgets of different quality. Because they have made it pretty clear they are coming for the trade unionists.


About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
This entry was posted in education, politics, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to “Then, they came for the 3rd grade teachers, and I said nothing”

  1. Robert Cooper says:

    I am no longer a university lecturer (college professor) but when I was I lectured in education. Many of my students went on to be teachers in schools and I hope I inspired their interest in thinking a bit outside of the blackboard-teacher-student matrix. I know that in the USA (where I do not live) lecturers come in for a lot of undeserved flack. I also know that in Laos (where I do live) lecturers come in for undeserved respect. The usual teaching methods between the two places could not be more different: the US teacher (‘lecturer’) often tries to assist the student to discover and draw out what is best in the student while recognising what is perhaps not the strong points, either to be worked on or dropped before career entry. The Lao lecturer lectures his/her students: the lecturer knows, the student learns from the lecturer.

    Perhaps the amazing thing is that whether in Laos, USA, UK (my land of nationality and education) and most places in Europe/world, lecturers at universities have no training for the job. They may have a PhD and be the world’s expert on one grain of sand on the beach, but they do not spend one day of ‘teacher training’. I did one year of it, but that was my choice (and only because I got a scholarship to do it). I was the only person among my lecturing colleagues to have ever considered what education is really about — so naturally when the university opened ‘Education’ as an option course, I ‘got stuck’ with it. The fact that my PhD was in a tiny sub-section of a section of anthropology and I had been recruited to lecture in Anthropology was never considered. The presumption was I could read a few books, stay a week ahead of the students and pass on all you really need to know about education. I started with ‘de-schooling theory’ because that’s what had most interested me during my training as a teacher in London. But it would not have mattered to the university had I started with Victorian-style blackboard-imperative ‘listen to me’ stuff — which indeed the students were expecting.

    It still amazes me that in comparatively progressive universities, lecturers/professors can be recruited entirely on qualifications and knowledge of a subject, with little if any reference to teaching technique and certainly no assessment of teaching capacity — preferably by students rather than or in addition to the professor (UK sense) who has the say in recruitment. Why are school teachers required to spend 1-3 years learning to teach before becoming a school-teacher (then get a low status in society/low pay) yet university lecturers have no training at all in how to teach and are not required to learn how to teach. With such fundamental oddity in the education system, it is perhaps not surprising that university lecturers are (in the USA) regarded ambiguously but mostly as people who do very little work, whatever their pay.

  2. Cedar Riener says:

    Robert, Thanks for commenting. The interesting part is that this op-ed is attacking the very “lecturers” that are selected for teaching experience and ability. I have served on several search committees here at my relatively teaching-focused institution, and in each we select those who have some teaching experience, and have demonstrated some aptitude and interest in it.
    I agree that the Ph.D. should come with more education on teaching and pedagogy in the states, and some research programs are moving in that direction.

  3. scicurious says:

    I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who’s mind immediately flew to the people criticizing K-12 teachers. 🙂 Well put!

  4. Pingback: Teacher’s Mind, Beginners Mind | Cedar's Digest

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s