December 23, 2010

The NEA's Penchant for Bad Analogy

Justin Katz

Another RI Blogger has caught an interesting bit of the education debate:

Ok, I can understand why the assistant executive director of the teachers’ union would be upset, for one [Teaching for America teachers] are not dues-paying NEA members. If additional teachers are needed, of course he will want more full time, dues-paying teachers employed. Second, many of the numbers and results that these TFA teachers are showing are making his members look bad. TFA injects energy into the schoools that even they admit isn’t sustainable by the same people long term. Yet we keep the teachers in the classrooms for 20 years or more.

One other aside that is wrong with Crowley's analogy is teaching is an art and being a surgeon is a science. Do we require painters to get an education so they can be professional painters? Do we require singers and other musicians? No. Those are arts that you either can do or can't do. Either you can teach, or you can't. An education can get you better at it, but skills in the arts is something that you have.

He's reviewing an article about the innovative teacher-recruitment organization by David Scharfenberg in the Providence Phoenix, and the comment is from National Education Association Rhode Island Assistant Executive Director Patrick Crowley, who predictably is sour on the notion of expediting the teacher-certification of college graduates from other fields:

To contend that a college graduate with no formal training is qualified to teach, he suggests, is to contend that teaching is something less than a profession; a task worthy of amateurs. It is an attitude, he says, that would seem absurd in other fields.

"I know how to use a knife and I went to college," he says. "That doesn’t mean I can be a surgeon."

I'd suggest that Crowley's analogy is actually flawed in a way that doesn't require any such distinctions between art and science. Indeed, the art-science duality is an overstated factor in general, since most professions contain elements of both. Even a painter does well to understand the science of art — the theory and history behind the craft. The art of a profession comes in finding a way that one's own proclivities can be leveraged for maximum benefit of the end goal — whether that is creating compelling canvases or conveying intellectual concepts to children.

To return to the surgeon-teacher comparison, one could argue that teacher education programs are akin to curricula that give would-be surgeons in-depth review of the use of scalpels and patient-relations as their main focus, while a hypothetical Surgeons For America takes biology majors and allows them expedited lessons in the practice of working with an actual human body. Put differently, the question is whether it's better for a surgeon to know how to manipulate the organs or to know what the organs actually do and where they actually are.

Both routes will work, but in certain subjects, at least, it's not unreasonable to expect a content expert to be able to master the practice of teaching more effectively than an education-theory expert could master the content. After all, even those educated in the science of teaching have to learn the practice over time.

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Have you noticed that private schools do not require a "teaching certificate", while public schools do?

Posted by: Bob in Portsmouth at December 23, 2010 10:21 AM

What is your point Bob? That a teaching cert is some indicator of whether someone will be a good educator. Private schools get rid of bad teachers a lot more easily than public schools.

Posted by: tcc3 at December 23, 2010 11:05 AM

The other thing that stands out to me in the Phoenix article is that TFA stresses "keep changing, keep trying until you find the thing that really works". In talking to my public school teachers, they're actually told the opposite. They're being given a program, for example "Investigational Math" and told "Teach this way, do no deviate, because this way works." Is there any one way to teach something to everyone? Of course not. Some people are better siting and listening, others better with the Socratic Method, others better by doing with trial and error.

I have been a teacher, teaching very technical skills that were both conception and factual. I constantly worked on new and different ways to present the information and often walked into my classroom with at least 2-3 different ways to present the same information, as often one group of students would get it first time around and then later, some others would want more help and I'd re-present it a different way for them. That often helped. It sounds like this is what TFA is trying to do. It also sounds like it is something that some public school systems are trying to get away from.

Teaching is an art. Teachers are artists who are smart and creative. Many of the school districts are trying to take the art and creativity out of teaching. That's unfortunate. I believe that is the case because of the vast minority who do not belong in a classroom, who are lazy and fail the students but there's no easy way to get them out of the classroom. Why? Because "there's no way to evaluate a teacher." So rather than go down that fight, then standardize and force all the teachers to follow one method.

It's really a shame.

Posted by: Patrick at December 23, 2010 11:08 AM

I took Bob's comment to mean that the teaching certificate is overrated. It is actually no indicator about one's ability to teach. Private schools have existed for many, many years and a lot of those don't require a state teaching certificate.

A teaching certificate has a lot to do with CYA by elected public school officials who otherwise would have no idea who to hire to be a teacher, because they're incapable of judging good teachers from bad.

Posted by: Patrick at December 23, 2010 11:39 AM

if that is what he meant then I stand (sit) corrected.

Posted by: tcc3 at December 23, 2010 1:38 PM

Not sure where these facts come from but TFA teachers do in fact pay union dues and in the words of the national AFT president, "They make great union members." (I was in the room when it was said.) I think the only issue they have with TFA is that sometimes it bypasses their precious seniority process.

As for comparing public and private school teachers, you're being absolutely foolish. The clientèle is completely different. They can choose which students they keep and push out, they can enforce whatever discipline they choose, and so on. Even the worst teachers can teach a willing student.
I welcome the day when they'll send the kids from CF high to all the surrounding charters and private schools. We'll see once and for all if these schools are capable of solving the problem.

BTW didn't a private company take over the Hartford CT district a number of years ago? Didn't work out too well did it? They pulled out after 14 years of failure.

Posted by: Glockster at December 23, 2010 4:04 PM

How about we give vouchers and allow for school choice?

Posted by: tcc3 at December 23, 2010 4:49 PM

We need separation of School and State. Give the parents the choice. They can home school, they can go to religious schools, traditional private schools or the incompetent and failed Atheist Left, politically correct AFT and NEA schools.
School Choice needs to be THE conservative issue of the century. Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and the lower income income "base" of the marxist party all love it, while the commissars fear it like a crucifix.

Posted by: Tommy Cranston at December 23, 2010 8:25 PM

Back in RI visiting family for the holidays.

Perhaps I should catch up on some of the local headlines. Let's see... NEARI administrator arrested for impersonating public official... firemen scamming the pension system... bankrupt city of Central Falls teacher union holding "sick outs"... recycled hack politicians being appointed to every post in the Chafee administration... senate majority leader hired directly into lobbyist position... 9% sales tax looming...

Gee, why did I ever decide to leave this wonderful state? Ah yes, because I wanted a job that doesn't require campaign contributions to get.

You know, I didn't believe it at first myself, but "elected official" is not synonymous with "made man" in some states. And "municipal employee" is not synonymous with "union thug."

It's a big world out there. Do your family a favor and load up the moving van. RI is a lost cause.

Posted by: Dan at December 23, 2010 11:19 PM

RI is a lost cause.
Posted by Dan at December 23, 2010 11:19 PM

Likely you are right. Though a part of me wants to believe that after 2 years of "all progressive" governance the suburbs will rise in fury and give the "progressives" the same sort of forced teabagging they endured nationally on November 2.

As a Christmas gift to beleaguered taxpayers who have been told for decades that the unsustainable union pensions are somehow "vested" from yesterday's NY Times-sleep well union thieves:

PRICHARD, Ala. — This struggling small city on the outskirts of Mobile
was warned for years that if it did nothing, its pension fund would
run out of money by 2009. Right on schedule, its fund ran dry.
Slide Show
Where the Pension Checks Stopped
Enlarge This Image
Meggan Haller for The New York Times

Last week, retirees asked the City Council for some help before
Christmas. More Photos »
Enlarge This Image
Meggan Haller for The New York Times

After having good credit for years, Nettie Banks, 68, a retired police
and fire dispatcher who worked for Prichard for 25 years, declared
bankruptcy when her pension checks stopped coming. More Photos »

Then Prichard did something that pension experts say they have never
seen before: it stopped sending monthly pension checks to its 150
retired workers, breaking a state law requiring it to pay its promised
retirement benefits in full.

Since then, Nettie Banks, 68, a retired Prichard police and fire
dispatcher, has filed for bankruptcy. Alfred Arnold, a 66-year-old
retired fire captain, has gone back to work as a shopping mall
security guard to try to keep his house. Eddie Ragland, 59, a retired
police captain, accepted help from colleagues, bake sales and
collection jars after he was shot by a robber, leaving him badly
wounded and unable to get to his new job as a police officer at the
regional airport.

Far worse was the retired fire marshal who died in June. Like many of
the others, he was too young to collect Social Security. “When they
found him, he had no electricity and no running water in his house,”
said David Anders, 58, a retired district fire chief. “He was a proud
enough man that he wouldn’t accept help.”

The situation in Prichard is extremely unusual — the city has sought
bankruptcy protection twice — but it proves that the unthinkable can,
in fact, sometimes happen. And it stands as a warning to cities like
Philadelphia and states like Illinois, whose pension funds are under
great strain: if nothing changes, the money eventually does run out,
and when that happens, misery and turmoil follow.

It is not just the pensioners who suffer when a pension fund runs dry.
If a city tried to follow the law and pay its pensioners with money
from its annual operating budget, it would probably have to adopt
large tax increases, or make huge service cuts, to come up with the

Current city workers could find themselves paying into a pension plan
that will not be there for their own retirements. In Prichard, some
older workers have delayed retiring, since they cannot afford to give
up their paychecks if no pension checks will follow.

So the declining, little-known city of Prichard is now attracting the
attention of bankruptcy lawyers, labor leaders, municipal credit
analysts and local officials from across the country. They want to see
if the situation in Prichard, like the continuing bankruptcy of
Vallejo, Calif., ultimately creates a legal precedent on whether
distressed cities can legally cut or reduce their pensions, and if so,

“Prichard is the future,” said Michael Aguirre, the former San Diego
city attorney, who has called for San Diego to declare bankruptcy and
restructure its own outsize pension obligations. “We’re all on the
same conveyor belt. Prichard is just a little further down the road.”

Many cities and states are struggling to keep their pension plans
adequately funded, with varying success. New York City plans to put
$8.3 billion into its pension fund next year, twice what it paid five
years ago. Maryland is considering a proposal to raise the retirement
age to 62 for all public workers with fewer than five years of

Illinois keeps borrowing money to invest in its pension funds,
gambling that the funds’ investments will earn enough to pay back the
debt with interest. New Jersey simply decided not to pay the $3.1
billion that was due its pension plan this year.

Colorado, Minnesota and South Dakota have all taken the unusual step
of reducing the benefits they pay their current retirees by cutting
cost-of-living increases; retirees in all three states are suing.

No state or city wants to wind up like Prichard.

Driving down Wilson Avenue here — a bleak stretch of shuttered
storefronts, with pawn shops and beauty parlors that operate behind
barred windows and signs warning of guard dogs — it is hard to see
vestiges of the Prichard that was a boom town until the 1960s. The
city once had thriving department stores, two theaters and even a zoo.
“You couldn’t find a place to park in that city,” recalled Kenneth G.
Turner, a retired paramedic whose grandfather pushed for the city’s
incorporation in 1925.

The city’s rapid decline began in the 1970s. The growth of other
suburbs, white flight and then middle-class flight all took their
tolls, and the city’s population shrank by 40 percent to about 27,000
today, from its peak of 45,000. As people left, the city’s tax base

Prichard’s pension plan was established by state law during the good
times, in 1956, to supplement Social Security. By the standard of
other public pension plans, and the six-figure pensions that draw
outrage in places like California and New Jersey, it is not especially
rich. Its biggest pension came to about $39,000 a year, for a retired
fire chief with many years of service. The average retiree got around
$12,000 a year. But the plan allowed workers to retire young, in their
50s. And its benefits were sweetened over time by the state
legislature, which did not pay for the added benefits.

For many years, the city — like many other cities and states today —
knew that its pension plan was underfunded. As recently as 2004, the
city hired an actuary, who reported that “the plan is projected to
exhaust the assets around 2009, at which time benefits will need to be
paid directly from the city’s annual finances.”

The city had already taken the unusual step of reducing pension
benefits by 8.5 percent for current retirees, after it declared
bankruptcy in 1999, yielding to years of dwindling money,
mismanagement and corruption. (A previous mayor was removed from
office and found guilty of neglect of duty.) The city paid off its
last creditors from the bankruptcy in 2007. But its current mayor,
Ronald K. Davis, never complied with an order from the bankruptcy
court to begin paying $16.5 million into the pension fund to reduce
its shortfall.

A lawyer representing the city, R. Scott Williams, said that the city
simply did not have the money. “The reality for Prichard is that if
you took money to build the pension up, who’s going to pay the garbage
man?” he asked. “Who’s going to pay to run the police department?
Who’s going to pay the bill for the street lights? There’s only so
much money to go around.”

Workers paid 5.5 percent of their salaries into the pension fund, and
the city paid 10.5 percent. But the fund paid out more money than it
took in, and by September 2009 there was no longer enough left in the
fund to send out the $150,000 worth of monthly checks owed to the
retirees. The city stopped paying its pensions. And no one stepped in
to enforce the law.

The retirees, who were not unionized, sued. The city tried to block
their suit by declaring bankruptcy, but a judge denied the request.
The city is appealing. The retirees filed another suit, asking the
city to pay at least some of the benefits they are owed. A mediation
effort is expected to begin soon. Many retirees say they would accept
reduced benefits.

Companies with pension plans are required by federal law to put money
behind their promises years in advance, and the government can impose
punitive taxes on those that fail to do so, or in some cases even
seize their pension funds.

Companies are also required to protect their pension assets. So if a
corporate pension fund falls below 60 cents’ worth of assets for every
dollar of benefits owed, workers can no longer accrue additional
benefits. (Prichard was down to just 33 cents on the dollar in 2003.)

And if a company goes bankrupt, the federal government can take over
its pension plan and see that its retirees receive their benefits.
Although some retirees receive less than they were promised, no
retiree from a federally insured plan in the private sector has come
away empty-handed since the federal pension law was enacted in 1974.
The law does not cover public sector workers.

Last week several dozen retirees — one using a wheelchair, some with
canes — attended the weekly City Council meeting, asking for something
before Christmas. Mary Berg, 61, a former assistant city clerk whose
mother was once the city’s zookeeper, read them the names of 11
retirees who had died since the checks stopped coming.

“I hope that on Christmas morning, when you are with your families
around your Christmas trees, that you remember that most of the
retirees will not be opening presents with their families,” she told

The budget did not move forward. Mayor Davis was out of town.

“Merry Christmas!” shouted a man from the back row of the folding
chairs. The retirees filed out. One woman could not hold back her

After the meeting, Troy Ephriam, a council member who became chairman
of the pension fund when it was nearly broke, sat in his office and
recalled some of the failed efforts to put more money into the pension

“I think the biggest disappointment I have is that there was not a
strong enough effort to put something in there,” he said. “And that’s
the reason that it’s hard for me to look these people in the face:
because I’m not certain we really gave our all to prevent this.”

Posted by: Tommy Cranston at December 24, 2010 1:16 PM

Ah, similar to Dan (I'm not visiting RI) I'm not working today and decided to look in.

All I can say is "ditto." After over a year out of RI I have no regrets, would never move back to live, and wouldn't recommend it to others (for those who can afford it, perhaps a "second home" there, but under no circumstances for taxable residency or in which to locate a business operation.

Rather we regale people with stories of how screwed up the state is, and to never ever consider establishing residency there (I suspect that this is also true of tens of thousands of other "RI expatriots" and that this is one reason RI has such bad "word of mouth" and so ranks so low in surveys of business climate).

At this point, my wife and I only wish we'd escaped RI years (if not decades) ago.

The real shame is that it needn't be this way. RI is a physically beautiful state, is blessed with being strategically located between NYC and Boston, and is small enough so that in theory government could be well run, efficient and responsive.

But alas the prevailing culture (not universal, but dominant culture) is to accept corruption, mediocrity (or less) in everything, "working the system" instead of making an honest living, and "screw what's right, I got mine" not only as acceptable, but almost as badges of honor.

For all its potential, RI seems determined to follow the lead of Detroit and Newark and ... the cratered roads of RI are but an early and tangible manifestation of the rot that permeates the government and civic culture there.

Some have said that it'll take fiscal collapse before RI wakes up and starts to turn around. Given the prevailing culture, I'm not sure that even then this will occur.

Really sad, since it's so unnecessary and could be avoided.

Posted by: Tom W at December 24, 2010 3:11 PM

An old time Democrat who owes a close family member of mine a political favor was recently appointed to a high position by soon to be governor Chafee. I got an enthusiastic call from said family member asking me if I wanted him to cash in the favor and get me a job so I could move back to RI.

I thanked him but declined, telling him that I was very happy in my current job. I didn't say the reason I was thanking him, which was for reminding me exactly why I left Rhode Island in the first place. This state is all about who you know, never how qualified you are. To name one example of hundreds, look at judges from neighboring states: Harvard Law, Boston College Law, Chicago Law, etc. I saw recently 5 or 6 judges were appointed in RI, all New England Law, Suffolk Law, and that incestuous bottom tier spawning pool Roger Williams pops up everywhere you turn. And you can bet your bottom dollar they had maxed out Democratic campaign contributions for several years running. I was told point blank by the hiring official when I applied to the Attorney General's office: start making Democratic campaign contributions early. They remember their friends. Nobody even sees anything wrong with this in RI, it's just how it's always been, and how it always will be. This is a pay to play state, and that will NEVER change because everyone in power benefits from the status quo and the Feds don't want to touch this rotting, complacent, and entirely unnewsworthy state with a 10 foot pole.

The strange thing is that you'd never in a million years suggest that somebody move to RI from another state, because RI has so many obvious problems and so little going for it. But when you tell people they should move OUT of RI, they shuffle their feet and make excuses to stay. They caught the virus.

I have not once regretted moving out of RI. Trust me, your kids will make new friends. You'll find a new job, and odds are it will be a much better one given RI's perpetual 12% unemployment. You'll save money on the significantly lower taxes. You'll be healthier because your blood pressure will fall, not having to read about all the ways you are getting screwed each day in the newspaper.

Rhode Island died years ago and is in a state of full decomposition with politicians and public union maggots stripping every ounce of flesh left from the inside out. It's just sad more than anything when you hear about honest and intelligent people genuinely trying to cure the state of what ails it. If they moved to another state with an ounce of potential they might actually be able to affect something and make a difference. Join forces with the other good guys who fled the likes of RI decades ago for greener pastures.

Posted by: Dan at December 24, 2010 10:14 PM

Say, that would make a good New Years resolution for the producers and uncorrupted left in this state: get out of RI by 2012.

Posted by: Dan at December 24, 2010 10:16 PM

Not sure where these facts come from but TFA teachers do in fact pay union dues and in the words of the national AFT president, "They make great union members."

Not surprising, considering that so many of them are Ivy League grads (40% of the Yale Class of 2008 applied, by way of example).

Posted by: EMT at December 25, 2010 9:26 AM
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