math is hard

That’s what Barbie taught us a few years ago. Could a hope that the national teacher corps would be intimidated by a flurry of numbers have fueled the craven attack on their profession in the WSJ earlier this week?

Outrageous, I know, but I would not put it past them. There’s a lot of data used very quickly in that piece, to pretty nefarious effect. Others (better at math than I) have already debunked a lot of their book-cooking, so I won’t reiterate it too much here.

I will offer that the piece’s real ugliness starts with how Biggs and Richwine take a swipe at teachers’ native intelligence, holding that if teachers were required to use their feeble brains in the private sector they wouldn’t make as much money as they can in the schools. And implying that teachers’ deep understanding of how they couldn’t keep up in the real world underlies their collective resistance to accepting base salary increases in exchange for “merit-based” evaluations of their effectiveness.

In DC, teachers correctly identified such promises as a sop designed to make it easier for administrators to “shape workforces” without acknowledging the factors that impact teacher outcomes. That’s a way more subtle thing to sell to the public than the image of teachers as welfare queens that gave Waiting for Superman and the Wisconsin collective bargaining flap so much ink. And this piece is still working it, noting that “the best public school teachers—especially those teaching difficult subjects such as math and science—may well be underpaid compared to counterparts in the private sector.” Translation: hey good teachers! Get out of there and earn! Or better: fight for the right to be compensated on your “merit,” even though you’ll have no recourse if your scores don’t climb or we decide to move the goal posts!

(By the way, we are also treated here to the rare sight of conservatives suggesting that 401Ks for teacher retirement funds are a worse idea than measly-earning pension funds. The economic downturn certainly has clipped some free-market wings. And those supposedly extravagant pensions are as weakened by the national aftermath of the private sector’s greed as any. So that’s just funny.)

I am also amazed at the durability of the argument that teachers are overpaid because they get so much time off. Teachers butt-in-chair prep, grading, and collaboration time goes far beyond their classroom time, and most of them are working in the summer to try to make ends meet. Biggs and Richwine’s beloved Bureau of Labor Statistics dropped another report in 2008 that tells that more-recognizable story about teachers’ work life:

  • that they are more likely to work on weekends than other jobholders;
  • that they are more likely to hold a second job;
  • that they get up early and get more done in the AM than most (and predictably collapse by 4:00);
  • that they, like most of us, try to take a vacation in the summer.

The same WSJ reported as much in an international comparison of hours that teachers spend at work last summer. So where’s the story here? Where are the government-dole fat cats that we need to police more closely to be sure they are doing what they’re paid for? I am not trying to selectively report these findings: I find them mostly unremarkable. They just say teachers work really hard. As we used to say: duh.

I think we can regard the WSJ article as last week’s salvo in the right’s efforts to devalue, defund, and ultimately eliminate the professional status of teaching. It’s in the oblique swipe of aligning teachers’ compensation to that of “occupations that some consider comparable, such as computer programmers and insurance underwriters.” No diss to computer and insurance workers, but I think they’d agree their occupations mostly consist of identifying the correct algorithm for the presenting problem and deploying it. Not a daily demand to use creativity, higher-level conceptual skills, team-building skills, and social acumen. Teaching work is more art and craft than algorithm, and requires all the highly-valued capacities of the knowledge economy. But if we can reduce it in the public mind to button-pushing, there will be less pushback as we de-skill, surveill, and ultimately privatize their work. And that will be the real crisis for our democracy: acceeding that education is not part of the public weal, but should instead be sold to the highest bidder and run by the bottom line.

“Education” was one of the Departments that Rick Perry managed to promise to eliminate last week (for him words are hard too, not just math – as we say around here, bless his heart). This story will have its numbers debunked, but the greater damage will be done as it puts one more drop in the bucket of public opinion that teachers care more about drawing a public salary without working for it than meeting the needs of their students. As that message becomes the new common sense, tracing the arc of that damage is almost harder than math. I hope we all continue to call it out when we see it, because the stakes for the children we serve could not be higher.

Your thoughts?

Image from the blog Carpricia’s Corner, with thanks.

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