Letter From Los Angeles
November, 2011
© 2011 Joel

Quotes of the Issue

What we need in the world is manners....I think that instead of preaching brotherly love, we preached good manners, we might get a little further. It sounds less righteous and more practical.–Eleanor Roosevelt

I don’t want to kill you- I want to sell you my refrigerators.–A Chinese entrepreneur

Free advice to the financial service industry: Stick to being bulls. Stop being pigs.– Thomas Freidman

Thanksgiving is about the best day in your life and what comes before it. Easter is about the worst day of your life and what comes after it.–Unitarian Minister Galen Guengerich

I Never!

I never had sex with that woman is one thing; I never had sex with those ten year old boys the stuff of horror films.

Keeping Occupied

I’m concerned about the protests in Oakland and Seattle. The Occupy movement must not degenerate into violent confrontation with the police, who, badges and bullets notwithstanding, are also being laid off and deprived of benefits left and right. If activists lose the good will of the majority of the 99% we could be headed for another 1960s, and we know how that played out. A polarized America; Vietnam extended to the 1970s; law and order; Richard Nixon.

Assaulting non-abusive police officers is indecent. Cops who over-react must be reprimanded and retrained; those who commit crimes sent to prison.

Stick ‘Em Up!

“The best way to rob a bank is to own it.”–Bill Moyers

This newsletter supports capitalism, and ethical, responsible trading of securities on the world’s exchanges. We rely on Wall Street to raise the capital our economy requires. A lot of what has happened in the financial service industry this past decade, however, is reprehensible.

That the system has become rigged to favor the very few over the many is undeniable, As I have written, private vice is no longer public good. Recently, as temperate a figure as Thomas Friedman blasted Citicorp’s sale of “toxic mortgage-backed securities” which they knew was good as “shit” (their word). “Stop being pigs,” Friedman advises, because if “transparency, regulation and oversight” are not restored, “we will have another crisis. And if that happens, the cry for justice could turn ugly.”

Freidman then borrows an idea “from the blogosphere” which I support wholeheartedly. “U.S. Congressmen should have to dress like Nascar drivers and wear the logos of all the banks, investment banks, insurance companies and real estate firms that they’re taking money from.” Freidman concludes, “The public needs to know.”

Political Undies (Briefs)

In the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine, Professor Sunil Khilnani offers a prescription for what ails the American presidency. When “every (presidential) mistake has the potential to go viral.....timidity and trimming inevitably become the order of the day,...(and) policy fogs up fast when one is trying to keep potential funders and voters happy.” Consequently, “presidents are condemned to making themselves likable rather than solving the country’s problems- forget about pushing through hard choices.” Accordingly, the author recommends giving American presidents “one long shot at writing themselves into the history books” by limiting their tenure to “one six-year term.” Any disagreement?

In another article, same edition, entitled “America Was Really That Great (But That Doesn’t Mean We Are Now),” Thomas Friedman (again) and Michael Mandlebaum paraphrase the wisdom of IBM’s chairman and CEO, Samuel Palmisano. “When you mistakenly start thinking of other departments and colleagues in your own company as the opposition,” the executive opined, “rather than the other companies against which you must compete, you have lost touch with the world in which you are operating. This can be as lethal for countries as companies. America’s political parties today have strayed off course, Palmisano told the authors, ‘because they have focused on themselves’ more than on the priorities of the country as a whole.”

Business leaders have something to teach us after all.

Tom Friedman One Last Time

In a recent Sunday column, Friedman predicts “one of the biggest leaps forward in the I.T. revolution” that tech challenged me can barely understand, but I think I get the following. We’re all about to become even more interconnected, and we can expect earth shaking consequences.

Will this connectedness lead to greater interpersonal, intercultural and international familiarity, and subsequently viewing others less as foreigners and strangers? Will less discord or feelings of aloneness result? Or will we have a wider theater for destructiveness and aimless chatter? My best guess: all of the above.

Eating Out Without Eating Your Heart (and Wallet) Out

“Tricks of the Restaurant Trade: 7 Ways Menus Make You Spend” by Marlys Harris appeared online this past April. Keep in mind what Harris calls “menu engineering” the next time you eat out,

The author’s son, a culinary student, regards a menu as “a sales vehicle.” Savvy restauranteurs know that customers “are more likely to order the first item” in a category, say, chicken dishes, so that’s where they place their “most profitable chicken dish,” “Unprofitable dishes, like a seafood plate that requires expensive ingredients and lots of work, are usually banished to a corner that is less noticeable, or in a multi-page menu stashed on page five.”

Under “visual aids,” Harris reports, “If you draw a line around it, people will order. That’s why so many menus box off something they want to promote.” Also, watch out for tempting illustrations and items that are not clearly connected with their price tags. They don’t want us to know before it’s far too late. As for the large sized salad that costs just a few bucks more than its smaller brother, “the restaurant will (gladly) throw on some extra lettuce, making the price differential almost pure profit.”

Finally, Harris cautions against “ingredient embroidery.” Don’t be fooled by copy that claims “the organic mushrooms were raised by a former duchess with an advanced degree in microbiology.” What’s that, you already have been? Yeah, so have I.

School Daze VI How Do You Solve A Problem Like A Teacher?

“Every constituency is lined up against the teacher. The students, parents, administration, school board....”– A young teacher who quit too soon

“I challenge anyone to go into a classroom today and try to teach. You should hear some of the stories my niece and nephew, both teachers, tell. They couldn’t pay me enough to do it. I admire anyone who deals with children.”– A Berkshire neighbor

“Teachers are the most overworked, underpaid people in our society.”– Dr. Phil

“Teachers have a racket.”– An old fool passing the first UFT picket line in 1961

“A teacher’s work affects eternity. He can never tell where his influence stops.”– Henry Adams

‘WANTED: Men and women with the patience of Job, wisdom of Solomon and ability to prepare the next generation for productive citizenship under highly adverse and sometimes dangerous conditions. Applicant must be willing to fill gaps left by unfit, absent or working parents, satisfy demands of state politicians and local bureaucrats, impart healthy cultural and moral values- oh, yes- teach the three R’s. Hours: 50-60 a week. Pay: fair (getting better). Rewards: mostly intangible.”– Time Magazine

Teachers come in three sizes- superior, merely competent and awful- and each demands a different kind of treatment. The best are to be entrusted with mentoring younger colleagues and with administrative responsibilities, the competent encouraged and shown how to improve, and the others shown the door. Controversy swirls around the issue of evaluating teacher effectiveness. Most teachers automatically receive satisfactory ratings from principals who either lack the time or tools for a proper evaluation, or who fear the consequences of rating their subordinates unsatisfactory.

Senator Lamar Alexander, a former U.S. Secretary of Education, understands “we’re in the Model T era of teacher and principal evaluation.” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten believes that better methods of judging teacher performance are “key.” Any human resource person worth her salt knows this isn’t rocket science. I favor charging teams of school professionals to devise evaluation protocols that consider classroom ambience and management, teacher- student rapport, evidence the teacher has gone the extra mile, and student progress that isn’t necessarily quantifiable.

An adept supervisor brings a seasoned eye to the evaluation process, not just a calculator, as does an expert teacher with his class. I understand parental and public frustration with low performing schools and districts, and in some instances objective measures of student progress may be key, at least for now. Yet teachers are far more than their student’s test scores. Would we want our kids also to be graded on the basis of standardized test results alone?

Because professional status and reputation, tenure, and even job retention may depend on a these evaluations, the task must be handled as objectively as possible. Retired principals, master teachers and student teacher supervisors are suited for this job. The last thing I want is for teachers to be judged for the record solely by their so-called peers. One can imagine colleagues using the opportunity to support their friends or settle scores, as they and principals have been known to do. I’ve witnessed teachers being informally judged by their colleagues on the basis of their likability far more than on their skill.

During the long, hot summer of 1967 I provided daily speech therapy to primary school children in Harlem. A well regarded professor from Queens College observed me at work and issued an evaluation. I was thrilled just to be in her presence, and motivated mightily when she praised what I had done. The visitor had neither ax to grind nor a personal relationship to maintain.

A speech teacher’s reputation at headquarters was not entirely performance based, I can assure you. Towing the line, serving on committees and pitching in in other ways counted for a lot. I was told they liked me at the Bureau more often than I heard they liked my work.

My supervisor, Joan Grandis, knew just what she was doing. “I’m coming to observe you, and you already have a good evaluation” she told teachers whom she trusted. Of course Joan pointed out our flaws and expected changes, but the confidence she inspired made us better teachers.

Teacher personality is rarely mentioned in this context. What if test scores show the kids are learning, yet their teacher is a jerk? A retired San Francisco social studies teacher who reads my letters has plied me with horror stories about his former colleagues. My third and fourth grade teachers, although technically proficient, were dreadful people. One required students to get under her desk and polish her shoes; the other had a serious personality problem. Psychotherapy for the latter; for the former- out!

The best teachers aren’t necessarily the ones you want to have a drink with, which makes it all the trickier. One I knew who behaved atrociously to principal and colleagues was such a good teacher that parents all but killed to have their children in her class. A bilingual colleague who had personal relations with no one on the staff was the essence of a model teacher. A superior fifth grade teacher threw a glass of water in a colleague’s face during a heated disagreement. Stars are often temperamental.

That human capabilities fall along a bell curve is indisputable. Some perform strikingly while others conspicuously lack, with most folks somewhere in the middle. And so it is with teachers. The California Education Plan recognizes that the greatest challenge is “improving the performance of the average teacher.”

If every child a winner, why not every salvageable teacher a winner also? Adults need to be counseled, motivated, held to expectations and nourished, too, you know. We need to hook promising beginners before they join the 14% who don’t make it to their second year or the nearly half who quit by year five, and to resuscitate stars who have lost their sparkle. So how about a little public humiliation?

Reformers favor public disclosure of teacher performance ratings, which teachers unions rightly oppose with all their might. The ratings are based solely on student’s performance on standardized achievement tests. Imagine the pressure to teach to the test if the results are made public and teachers’ fates hang in the balance.

Have the consequences of publicizing ratings even been considered? Will teachers who don’t measure up be required to wear scarlet “U’s”? Are poor test scores necessarily the teacher’s fault? And what are the parents of kids assigned to lower rated teachers supposed to do? A current trend has parents shopping around for the best schools in their communities, with all the pitfalls that implies.

A teacher I know in Boston reports that city’s schools are so “uneven” parents must be savvy and willing to push their children into better schools. Parents also know what veteran school chief Ramon Cortines says is true: a child is in the third grade only once. Some parents must be frantic.

Teacher Pay

Let’s put it this way: if raising teacher’s pay, especially at the entry level, doesn’t necessarily improve the quality of applicants, it won’t summon incompetents either. Adjusting teacher salaries to compete with more prestigious, more dignified ways of making a living makes common sense.

In 2009, The New York Times Education Life section reported that New England, Mid-Atlantic and Far West states pay the highest teacher’s salaries, citing averages in California ($63,640), Connecticut ($61,039), New Jersey ($59,730) and New York State ($59, 557). The national average for new teachers was $35,284. Advanced degrees can earn a New York City teacher in excess of $94,000, but charter schools pay “23 percent less than the average teacher overall.” Recently, it was revealed that in Wisconsin and Maryland, teachers with a decade of experience receive under $40,000. Some stares are known to pay their teachers less. Without unions, those who teach our children would continue to do worse. In the 1950’s teachers earned less than the men who washed their cars.

Although few teachers go to bed hungry, we pay our teachers peanuts. Warren Buffet thinks that teachers and nurses are important people who deserve much higher pay. I favor the highest salaries possible at the entry level, with longevity raises so that satisfactory and exceptional teachers won’t be lured away. Awarding salary differentials to teachers with relevant masters degrees makes good sense also. Holders of graduate degrees are likely better informed and more ambitious, although scholarship alone does not make a better teacher.

I advocate basing raises on a variety of factors, academic attainment being one among many. Typically, teachers are awarded pay increases regardless of their specialty or the kind of school in which they teach. Generally I’m comfortable with this kind of uniformity. A different salary scale for every circumstance and teacher would be unwieldy. High school instructors don’t necessarily work harder than their counterparts in elementary school or special education. Salary differentials for math and science teachers when their services are in short supply, however, is not unreasonable, nor is “combat” pay for service in our tougher schools.

The controversial alternative to uniform pay scales is known as merit pay. I support rewarding top teachers not with higher salaries, but with bonuses well in excess of the niggardly $5,000 from the Gates Foundation. I would insist recipients be chosen on as objective a basis as possible. It’s easy to imagine department heads and principals rewarding friends and punishing those whom they personally dislike.

Former NYC Chancellor Joel Klein was adamant that staffing decision be made like in a business. Business people don’t play politics and make mistakes? Schools. even private ones, aren’t businesses any more than governments are ordinary households, platitudes aside.

Americans are displeased that the best teachers are paid the same as their mediocre counterparts. I am undecided on this issue. Prima facie, rewarding the best is a social good and motivation for the average teacher to improve. Again, the business model does not necessarily apply. Private sector employees are rewarded based on their profitability and often get to negotiate their pay. Do we want inner city teachers to intimidate principals with, “If I don’t get that raise I’m moving on to Scarsdale?”

Who is going to make specific merit pay decisions? What substantiation would the principal, the most likely judge, be called upon to offer? Does a teacher who is passed over for political reasons have the right to a challenge and appeal? That would be chaotic and expensive.

An award winning inner city kindergarten teacher I know doubts we can measure all the ways in which a teacher affects student maturation. In his recent essay, “Measurements and Its Discontent,” Professor Robert P. Crease muses, “Are the tests administered by schools making students smarter and more educated, or just making us think we know how to evaluate education?” If we want to reward only teachers whose students excel on standardized tests, I say let’s be clear about it.

God must have loved the common man, Abe Lincoln told us, because he made so many of them. Let average teachers, then, be given respectable but average pay and excellent teachers in the $130,000 range in 2011 dollars. This may motivate the average ones to move on up. Consider this dilemma, though. Most parents know their local teachers’ reputations. How would they feel if their child were assigned to a teacher who has not been awarded merit pay?

Tom Brokaw mentions education in a new book he has written, and he gives examples of inner city schools in which teachers work on Saturdays both with kids and with their parents. One wonders if these teachers are earning extra pay and hopes their unions settle for no less. More actors in Hollywood than you imagine often work free on non-union projects because no labor laws protect them. I only volunteer voluntarily.

A New York City teacher recently declared that idealistic teachers work for little pay. Does that imply the adequately compensated lack ideals? If an empty stomach doesn’t make a better doctor or investment banker, why would it produce a better Ms. or Mr. Chips?

Teacher Tenure

Controversy swirls over whether teachers should be granted tenure. Judges and college teachers are tenured, although for somewhat different reasons. In the New York City I grew up in there was little doubt that without tenure, favoritism based on personality and ethnicity would have won out every time. New York’s history is of each succeeding power group protecting their own to the detriment of others. Civil service protections, including forms of tenure, were an important late 19th century American innovation.

Today’s teachers are said to have more than enough protections in law to justify the elimination of tenure. Reformers correctly argue that once tenure is granted- in most cases after a three year probationary period- removing a teacher for incompetence and even serious misconduct can be a herculean task. New York City maintains what are derisively called rubber rooms (as in padded cells) for teachers accused of incompetence or wrongdoing. Teachers have occupied rubber rooms while remaining on full salary, often reading the papers or playing cards. Since 2008 they’ve been required to perform administrative work while in this limbo.

Superintendent Michele Rhee offered to double the salaries of D.C. teachers who relinquished their tenure so she could break the union and fire those she didn’t like. One feels like shouting, “It’s the abuse of tenure, not the tenure, stupid!” Time Magazine once asked, “Ever Try to Flunk a Bad Teacher?” “Rigid work rules and languorous appeals procedures make teaching a profession from which it is almost impossible to be fired.” “Stalling tactics” include a year to improve, a myriad of written reports and a hearing, all of which cost districts thousands of dollars for every case. Between 2008 and 2010, New York City paid $2 million in legal fees and fired only three teachers for incompetence and forty-five for conducts as serious as crimes.

“In itself, tenure isn’t an awful idea,” Time continues. “Its noble purpose is to protect teachers from being fired unjustly because, say, they won’t teach creationism. And teacher unions point out that tenure confers basic due process.” Over a decade ago states began cutting down the time for performance improvement drastically, mandating speedier hearings, and in the case of South Dakota, repealing tenure altogether.

AFT President Weingarten claims that tenure protects senior teachers from being fired to save the expense of paying higher salaries. Experienced teachers are frequently offered buyouts for this reason. Back in my day, school districts routinely replaced senior teachers with those who worked for less. Tenure, says Weigarten, also protects teachers from principals acting on “personal grudges,” with which few would disagree.

We need to continue guaranteeing teachers the inalienable freedom of inquiry and expression required for the job. Teachers unions need to understand that making it easier to eliminate duds is to their advantage, and that their inflexibility on this point gives unions a bad name and their opponents powerful ammunition. No false choices here, AFT. Speeding up the termination process and maintaining proper protections aren’t mutually exclusive.

Teacher Unions

On Fareed Zakaria’s GPS broadcast of October 30, 2011, Harvard Business School’s Niall Ferguson, aka Know It All Niall, declared those damned teachers unions are what’s wrong with America’s schools. His facile conclusion has become rather commonplace.

In a recent book review, Sara Mosle, an education writer to whom I refer often, presents some contradictory evidence. “Many of the nation’s worst performing schools...are concentrated in Southern and Western right to work states, where public sector unions are weakest and collective bargaining enjoys little or no protection. Also, if unions are the primary cause of bad schools (as reformers often argue),why isn’t labor’s pernicious effect felt in many middle-class suburbs, like Pelham, N.Y., or Montclair, N.J., which have good schools- and strong unions?”

At the intersection of teacher pay and tenure sits that 800 pound gorilla, their unions. Politicians earn their bona fides by standing up to the AFT and NEA. In his 2011 State of the Union address, Barack Obama recommended weeding out a single class of “non-performing” workers, namely teachers. (Not a word about the corporate jerks who made a fortune screwing us.) This from the head of America’s traditionally pro-union political party. (Less support from labor, fewer Democratic victories; fewer Democratic victories, no civil rights, unemployment benefits or Medicare.) Perhaps liberals are scurrying to preempt their union bashing opponents. Dana Milbank shrewdly concluded that “if Democrats do not seize the initiative, Republicans may well prevail with a large, uncontrollable rush to vouchers.”

Some will be surprised to learn that American Federation of Teachers leader Albert Shanker wanted to include public service nurses, pre-school and higher education employees in his union. Shanker assistant Eugenia Kemble writes that “He asked all these constituencies to reshape their unions’ priorities to make it crystal clear that serving meant serving students, clients and the public, too.” This from the man who famously said, “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.” Whether the enormously complex Shanker had a change of heart or of political strategy remains unknown.

Protecting duds or supporting work rules which even inadvertently interfere with children’s education is unjustifiable, and on these points teachers unions have to self correct or expect to be stared down. At another other extreme, reformers bitch that were it not for unions the school day would start earlier. (Ask the kids if they agree with that.) Would they be satisfied if teacher’s reported for work at 4:00 a.m.? Rules governing items such as lunchroom and yard duty are fine with me. Districts can hire workers at minimum wage to perform such mundane functions or ask for volunteers. Doctors have better things to do than empty bedpans.

Anti-public employee Governor Walker of Wisconsin likes to tell that an outstanding beginning teacher, Megan Sampson, was laid off because union rules required her job be handed to a senior colleague. The implication is that the senior teacher is nowhere as good as Megan Sampson. Still, what accounts for such rigidity in an age of flagging political support for labor? That experienced teachers are part of the problem is the bludgeon of the radical reformer. After several years in a classroom even the most idealistic start looking tired, given what they have to work with- namely parents, principals, superintendents, mayors, legislators and voters who fail to do their part.

Without protections, the job of teacher would not be worth the having. Teachers unions need to sell that in a more convincing way. I recommend fashioning work rules that are demonstrably consistent with good teaching which younger teachers can support. Then have the new ones spread the word to politicians and the public. The AFT moves glacially, but under President Randi Weingarten movement has taken place. Weingarten seems to “get” the issues and the stakes.

I’ve seen union solidarity taken to the point of absurdity. A fellow speech teacher was excoriated for her opposition to an upcoming strike long, long ago. My colleagues acted like a herd of raging animals. Bureau Assistant Director Joan Grandis, who happened to be present, asked if she could speak. “When I was a teacher I was loyal to the union,” she said, glaring at the dissenting teacher. “If I don’t leave now I’m afraid of what I’ll say.”

Union leaders must convince their members to give on certain issues in return for heightened public standing. Teachers unions are essential; teachers unions also have to change. I offer no excuse for teacher union excess, but give us kids better prepared to learn, America, and you’ll see better teachers, mark my words.

Next edition: Inner City Schools

Joel: Letters