Just Imagine

“Demarcus Taylor, a seventeen-year-old junior at King, had had enough. He was tall and slender, with broad shoulders, and as he spoke, he shook his hands in exasperation:
I’m not here to put the blame on anybody. I’m here just to reflect. Just imagine being at a school where you sit down, get your education, you get back up, go home, next thing you know you brought bedbugs from school to your home. Now you have an infestation at your house. Just imagine being at a school where your teachers are all sick and tired, and they’re acting like they’re not able to teach because they’re not getting paid for what they do. Just imagine when your teachers say, “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me next year, I don’t know if I can afford my car loan. How can I afford to pay rent, how can I afford to even live with the wage I’m getting?””
—Alexandria Neason, “Held Back” in Harper’s Magazine

Will Losing Friedrichs Result in Better Unions?

Facsimile of an IWW stickerette with artwork by Ralph Chaplin. March 1916

So, as you know, I’m pessimistic about the outlook of the pending Friedrich’s case (what probability would you assign to Friedrich winning the case? Vote here!) It’s not the outcome I want–but I’m afraid that it’s likely the outcome we will get. Meaning that teacher’s unions will lose a large source of funding and thus, power.

If you pay any attention to the history of US public education, or of labor in general, then you most likely have some understanding of why unions matter. Unfortunately, however, there are a newer generation of workers and teachers who may not see this.

Increasing disengagement presents a large problem for unions, especially as our economy and workforce undergoes increasingly volatile shifts. And let’s be honest–most unions haven’t demonstrated the greatest sense of urgency in trying to adapt to changing conditions. My local union, the UFT, for example, has more than half of its voting during elections come from retirees. And the union leadership seems to think that simply asking teachers to promote or comment on policies and proposals they’ve already created is somehow democratically elevating teacher voice.

Speaking personally, I rarely engage with my union because I’ve found other avenues to have my skills and voice applied in ways that can further my profession. But I at least understand the need for professional solidarity when it comes to collective bargaining for decent wages and working conditions. Without solidarity and collective bargaining, individual workers have little sway in gaining concessions from either governments (such as the mayor or superintendent) nor private interests. I am therefore supportive of my union, at the very least, for providing a necessary counterbalance to government and private financial interests.*

But maybe losing the Friedrichs case might prove to be the tough medicine that will force unions to adapt to the rapidly changing conditions of our times, like Peter Cunningham suggests.

Or perhaps there may come a day of reckoning, when the future labor force has been Uberized completely, and all jobs made temporary and contracted-by-the-hour, that a few teachers will awaken to discover their previous rights have been sundered, that they are working (even more) inhumane hours, in inhumane conditions, with few protections. And they may then gather together to hold a discussion about how they might leverage their collective power to gain concessions from those who hold the cards. And they thus may relearn the meaning behind the word “solidarity.”

We will see. In the meantime, if my state, NY, the birthplace of collective bargaining and Al Shanker, becomes a “right-to-work” state, I will choose to continue to give my “agency fees” to my union.

 

*It seems to me like both unions and government have increasingly ceded power to private interests. But to be clear, I’m not anti-privatization. I believe in public-private partnerships.

Friedrichs v CTA, and Thinking Probabilistically

By Matěj Baťha (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Yeah, that headline was a mouthful.

But here’s the thing. You’re going to hear a lot of ed folks declaiming on the potential outcome of the Friedrichs v California Teachers Association SCOTUS case over the next few days. For good reason, as this is a case that may well prove to be more determinative of the future of public education in this country than ESSA.*

I’ve been reading Daniel Kahneman’s excellent Thinking, Fast and Slow lately**. Kahneman’s book is all about ideas we’ve touched on before here, such as cognitive bias and uncertainty. We’ve also looked at how “probabilistic thinking” could be used to overcome bias. So when I fortuitously came across this article on how “superforecasters” use probabilistic thinking, as well as a “base rate,” or “reference class” in order to make more accurate predictions, it jibed well with my understanding, and I think there’s useful lessons to heed as Friedrichs case is heard over the course of this week.

Rather than ideologically proclaiming sweeping predictions, as the experts are wont to do, “superforecasters” are less certain about their predictions, which ironically makes them better predictors. Professor Philip Tetlock delineates between “hedgehogs” and “foxes,” and notes that superforecasters are more akin to foxes:***

According to Tetlock, foxes are more pragmatic and open-minded, aggregating information from a wide variety of sources. They talk in terms of probability and possibility, rather than certainty, and they tend to use words like “however,” “but,” “although” and “on the other hand” when speaking. . . 

Unfortunately, most of the predictions you see in the media lack the specificity necessary to test them, like a specific time frame or probability, Tetlock says. . . 

Instead, Tetlock advocates for something he calls “adverserial collaboration” — getting people with opposing opinions in an argument to make very specific predictions about the future in a public setting, so onlookers can measure which side was more correct.

What does this have to do with Friedrichs? Well, I would suggest asking education “experts,” who will write about their ideas on the case, to assign a probability to their predicted outcome.

Based on my own, extremely limited understanding of the case, I think there’s a 65% chance that Friedrichs will win. I could well be completely wrong. But you’ve got my prediction here, in writing, with a timestamp on it, so you can hold me accountable to this.

I’ll write more on my thoughts on the case soon, but in the meantime, my thinking on Friedrichs v. CTA in a nutshell:

I think public sector unions need to change and adapt much more rapidly to a changing workforce and economy, but I believe strongly in the necessity for unions to present a necessary counterbalance to government and private financial interests. If Friedrichs wins, as I’m afraid she might, then we will witness a drastic further decline in the power of unions in our country. I believe this will be to the detriment of the long-term interests of our nation.

The only commentator I’ve seen thus far who’s beginning to think ahead to this outcome is Dan Weisberg of TNTP. He doesn’t assign a probability to the outcome, but implies it when he says the following:

Unfortunately for the unions, at least five Supreme Court justices appear to be more sympathetic to the teachers’ arguments than I am. The Court practically invited this challenge when it stopped just short of striking down agency fees in a similar case a few years ago.

I’m hoping our unions are already preparing for the worst, because no amount of impassioned op-eds can influence the outcome at this point.

*my apologies to all non-US residents for the US-specific jargon in this post.

**thanks to Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, who recently bestowed the book on educators at a dinner hosted by the NYC DOE Office of Leadership.

***We’ve looked at hedgehogs and foxes here before:

 

UPDATE 2/13/16:

Justice Scalia has just died, so that completely changes the odds. While I had first assigned a 65% probability to Fredrichs winning this case, my forecast has shifted closed to 40%. Read more on SCOTUSBlog: “The most immediate and important implications involve that union case.  A conservative ruling in that case is now unlikely to issue.”

 

The Chicago Teachers Strike and Schools as Ecosystems

Nearly 30,000 teachers and school staff went on strike today in Chicago. What does this have to do with Schools as Ecosystems?

In our original manifesto on Gotham Schools, Mark and I announced that “principles for maintaining a healthy ecosystem…can provide guidance in strengthening our school environments.” We wrote that, if we view schools as ecosystems, “then struggling schools are depleted ecosystems desperately in need of resuscitation and support. Such resuscitation requires a holistic, long-term approach.”

The City of Chicago is doing everything it can to starve its public school ecosystem so that it can be subdivided into charter schools operated by private, for-profit companies. As reported at salon.com:

“In Chicago, where teachers are already one of the city’s lowest-paid professions, the city public school system wants to lengthen the school day by 20 percent. In exchange, the district at one point agreed to a mere 4 percent raise for teachers, but Mayor Rahm Emanuel canceled that agreement and is now only offering a 2 percent raise

Prior to going on strike for the first time in 25 years, the Chicago Teachers Union won ‘concessions’ including that the school board would provide textbooks on the first day of school. Teachers have previously had to wait up to six weeks into the school year for instructional materials to arrive. And the union wants to limit class sizes, which are the largest in the entire state of Illinois. These aren’t the demands of greedy thugs. These are the demands of teachers who want to teach…

Meanwhile, under the guise of ‘reform,’ Emanuel wants to vastly expand charter schools in Chicago to eventually encompass half of the city’s education system. This amid evidence that charter schools siphon taxpayer money and strong students out of public schools and leave poor students and students with disabilities worse off. But Rahm Emanuel actually hired protesters to make his proposals look good while demonizing teachers. But parents are standing with the teachers and their union.”

Our mission at Schools as Ecosystems is intellectual: we want to change the way people look at schools. What’s become clear to many, including our friends at Gotham Schools, is that the Chicago strike is more a battle of ideas– an intellectual battle– than a financial one. Will teachers, parents and communities control their children’s school environments, or will these school ecosystems be turned over to profit-minded developers? Will state and municipal governments continue to starve their most depleted schools of funding, or will they give those schools and their students the infusions of resources that they desperately need?