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What’s Missing in Discussions of “Children’s Interests”?

August 25, 2011

signIf you follow education policy debates in the media, you’re sure to hear certain phrases that catch on for a while because they provide a quick and convenient way to simplify and label people.  “Defenders of the status quo” know all too well what I’m talking about.  I once commented that if I were to refuse education “reformers” offering me gasoline to put out a fire, they’d call me a defender of the status quo.  If you don’t want the change they’re selling, there’s only one possible explanation.

Another simplification I hear and read often is that school reform must be carried out with the interests of children placed ahead of the interests of adults.  Most recently, I found it (and commented on it) in a blog post by John Merrow.  What a beautiful sentiment!  You can’t argue against that, can you?  Well…

I’m going to.  Though first, let’s stake out some common ground.  I’m not going to defend every article ever negotiated by districts and unions.  I’m not going to pretend that unions are not labor organizations and are instead altruistic and philanthropic organizations.  I have been in situations (not at my current school) where I felt union representatives were more concerned about strict implementation of the contract than they were about staff cohesion and school improvement.  I’ve been told that one of my ideas for increased professional development would be “sacrilege” because I suggested compensation need not be tied to teaching experience when the day’s work is not teaching.  Still, on the balance, I’m a proud member and supporter of teachers’ unions, and I’m not airing these exceptions in any lead up to a waivering in that support.

So, let’s get back to this idea about the adults’ interests versus the children’s interests.  Sometimes the union is held up as the bad guy, and sometimes it’s the school, district, or even the whole notion of public education.  Now, as a daily reminder, a check on our actions, I do find value in the idea of putting the students’ first.  In my school, we recently discussed in a meeting where and when teacher advisors should make ourselves available to students who have schedule questions or problems on the first days of school.  In that case, I think it’s fair to push back if one side argues for the teachers’ convenience while the more compelling argument is to make the process work smoothly for students.

Other times, I think it’s fair to push back at someone arguing in terms of “the children’s needs” by asking, “which children?”  An administrator might take advantage of a sympathetic teacher who has great skill in supporting students with special educational needs in a mainstream classroom.  It’s best for the children to be with a teacher who can best serve their needs.  And so it keeps happening.  Eventually, you reach a tipping point, and it’s fair to ask if it’s best for the students already in that class to have their teacher pushed and stretched and taken advantage of repeatedly.  If my son were in that classroom, would his best interests be served by putting someone else’s son in an already over-crowded classroom?  It’s no longer so clear, is it?  Might a teacher turn to the contract, seek help from the union, and tell the principal, “Enough!” – and still be looking out for children’s interests?

Then there are issues of working conditions and pay.  For example, it really would seem to be in students’ best interests if my contract required me to be on campus an extra hour each school day.  If the proposed change does not include an increase in salary, I’m being asked to work an extra five hours “for the children” rather than for the money.  That’s five hours per week that I currently use to care for my family, manage my household, and maintain my health.  If my employer can invoke the greater good of “chidren’s interests” and expect me to give up my “pursuit of happiness” for free, then somehow I’ve lost my bearings in this country.

Just because a policy change will serve children well doesn’t mean that I’m obligated to accept it.  The logical extension of always serving the children’s needs is that teachers should give away their work and their rights, and forego their individual prerogatives.  There’s an exchange of pay and labor involved in this and any other profession, and a segment of society that has taken advantage of teachers for far too long and expects us to keep on giving.  As a career, teaching is already underpaid relative to other careers with comparable education levels and experience levels, even with the pensions included.  Career teachers have bent and bent for decades, but since it’s “for the children” some people just won’t be satisfied until we have nothing left to give.  (In fact, the overall debate right now about compensation in the public sector is rather depressing, as it seems any aspirations towards professional pay for professional work have been deemed greedy and unsustainable, despite the fact that our nation has a vast and growing income and wealth inequality, and relative to other modern industrial nations, a low tax burden as a percentage of GDP).

And yet, to turn the argument in another direction, I would also suggest it’s unfair to suggest that teachers’ professional interests are fundamentally or even consistently in opposition to children’s interests. My union promotes working conditions that best support the quality of my work with children; furthermore, deriving a reasonable living from my labor is what keeps me where I am, doing high-level professional work for the benefit of children in a public school.  Attracting and retaining quality teachers is not only in the best educational interests of children, but also in the financial interests of governments, as teacher turnover is incredibly costly.

Or, as I commented on John Merrow’s blog, if we’re going the route of pitting children’s interests against adults’ interests, then let’s be consistent; anyone who profits by providing an essential service to others should be held to the same standard as a self-interested group seeking to maximize their own income at the expense of those they serve.  I now call on employees in public broadcasting to work more hours and produce more stories for the same pay; they take our tax dollars, and it’s about time they put the interests of an informed American citizenry first.  And forget asking for any new equipment; they can use what they’ve got.  If they want anything more, it can only mean they’re putting their own interests ahead of the nation.

Another option: let’s have a serious conversation about really serving children’s interests as a society.  It would really serve children well if we helped more of them out of poverty in this country, or prevent them from entering poverty in the first place.  Instead, we lead the world in consumption and tolerate having a fifth of our children living in poverty, and the next fifth in low-income households.  If we really want to put children’s interests first, then it’s time we provided them all with proper health care, dental care, hearing and vision screenings.  And while we’re at it, wouldn’t children be better off if their parents also had guaranteed access to health care?  But when it’s time to pay for what children really need, we have a society that rapidly loses interest in (other people’s) children.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. August 25, 2011 8:20 am

    If we believe that it is essential to have a quality educator providing a quality education to every student, then the expectation should also be that we will have to pay for that quality.

    A teacher cannot be at their best if they are worried about an ever shrinking paycheck (due to increased costs to benefits, pay-cut days, and the like) or for that matter, the fear of losing their job every year due to shrinking district budgets.

    A teacher cannot be at their best if their working conditions are bad. Most professionals with a college degree or advanced degrees don’t have to work in buildings with leaky roofs, floors that aren’t routinely swept & mopped, or desks that are 20 or 30 years old.

    Almost every year, the district tries to eliminate a provision in our contract which requires the daily “cleaning” of our classrooms, such as sweeping the floors & taking out the garbage by custodians. This is it. The district has it down to the actual minutes that a custodian is “allowed” to spend per room.

    Meanwhile, the district office is cleaned every single day, several times a day.

    So, our students should deal with rooms not being cleaned every day, but the district can’t or won’t? When I say that our working conditions are the learning conditions of my students, then I guess I am being selfish.

  2. August 25, 2011 8:50 am

    Thanks for the link for “teacher turnover is incredibly costly.” It’s a good reminder.

  3. Lynne Formigli permalink
    August 25, 2011 2:39 pm

    My working conditions are your child’s learning conditions.

    I think what angers me the most is they are using this argument to silence our voices in the debate over pay for test scores. The “reformers” are pushing for reforms which hurt our students. The emphasis on test scores leading to narrowing the curriculum, drill and kill, loss of electives, the disincentive for collaboration, the incredible frustration of teachers held accountable for measures outside of their control, the scapegoating of teachers are doing major damage to our schools and our children. Yes David, it is exactly like pouring gasoline on a fire. Our schools are being harmed by these policies. Those of us in the classrooms are trying to get the attention of the public to stop the madness. Yet when we speak out we are being demonized. If the stakes weren’t so high I’d be really tempted to sit back and watch the system crash and burn so I can say, “See! I told you so! NOW will you listen to us?” Tragically, I imagine you would still have people arguing it was our fault for not placing enough emphasis on test scores.

  4. August 28, 2011 7:47 am

    For me, it manifests as the “don’t you care about the kids?” line that I hear whenever I resist the NTA (New Trendy Acronym) that is pitched every six weeks or so at staff meetings.

    What our country needs to realize is that “what is true” and “what we tell ourselves is true” are further apart than they have ever been in human history… partly because of the rapidity though which we can construct false realities thanks to the internet and television. We have politicians rewriting history in interviews, for pete’s sake. We are utterly disconnected with reality, and the prime example is that every talking head in the country will say that education is of primary importance and that our country values it. The reality is that our country does not value education at any level beyond individual households. Our popular culture demeans it, our newsmedia devalues it, and our policymakers de-budget it. That gulf between “what is” and “what we tell ourselves” is huge as well in the expectations of what superman schools can do: there is the perception that if we lazy public schoolpeople would just work harder, do more with what we have, and do it right (for crying out loud) we would be producing a crop of kids who are all above average, who all win the spelling bee and who all are in the top 10% of their class. They did it in Lake Wobegone, so if we just use the same Acronyms they did…

    The reality is this: if schools compete with each other, and if there is competition within schools, there must be a loser. In every Race (TTT) someone has to be left behind: it is essential to capitalism. There must be poverty, there must be haves and have-nots, there must be winners and losers. The people in power know this…. and by perpetuating the fallacy that schools are failures as long as kids “lose” in this inherently competitive environment, and then punishing schools through rhetoric and policy, the powers that be are maintaining the status quo wherein the rich stay rich, a tiny handful of the cream of the crop can ascend the socioeconomic ranks (those are the exceptions to whom everyone points to say “see, if you just did a better job with every kid, all kids could go from homeless to Harvard!”), but by and large the proles stay in their place…the system and the dominant ideology whispering orders to that system guarantee it.

  5. Marina permalink
    August 31, 2011 11:50 am

    As with parents it is not good role modeling to deplete yourself. If you are sticking up for fair pay, you are teaching them to stick up for themselves too.

  6. September 3, 2011 10:16 am

    The attack on public broadcasting misses the mark: ” I now call on employees in public broadcasting to work more hours and produce more stories for the same pay; they take our tax dollars, and it’s about time they put the interests of an informed American citizenry first. And forget asking for any new equipment; they can use what they’ve got. If they want anything more, it can only mean they’re putting their own interests ahead of the nation.”

    Around here, at least, many of the public broadcasters are volunteers and they have to beg people for donations to keep their equipment functioning and pay the electricity bills. The public broadcasters are in worse shape financially than the public schools and public school teachers (and in California, that means they are in very bad shape indeed).

    If you want to attack someone for greed, pick on someone that worthy of attack (like a corporate CEO making over $100 million, or a vulture patent company that exists only to collect payments for companies to avoid nuisance lawsuits, or any of the other really egregious examples). Picking on someone in worse shape than you financially makes you look like a self-centered bully, which I don’t believe was your intent.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      September 3, 2011 10:30 am

      Thanks for realizing my intent wasn’t to bully anyone! It was a satirical jab at John Merrow, using his situation and that of his (presumably paid) colleagues at the national level of public broadcasting. He seemed to be suggesting an almost inherent problem in unions advocating for teachers’ interests. My intent was to show that just because people have jobs that serve a public good, they should not be expected to forego extra pay for extra work, nor are they selfish if they want working conditions and tools that will help them do their jobs well. The sarcasm may have missed the mark this time – my apologies.

  7. cheryl permalink
    September 16, 2011 8:55 pm

    As a union representative for my school site, I am in a position which in the past has been viewed as “go to meetings, bring back info”. However, I see my position as a representative of teachers – teachers are members of the union, therefore I support the union. When the public attacks teachers’ unions they are forgetting an important fact: teachers are human. If a child comes from a home where he is told repeatedly that he is selfish, he doesn’t do anything right, it’s his fault his little brothers and sisters are being naughty, and he is a terrible child because his grades aren’t good enough – how is he supposed to go to school and be successful when he is burdened with so much negativity? How is a teacher supposed to be a positive, nurturing, role model who sets high expectations for every child when he is told year after year he’s a bad teacher based on ONE test, where he is in fear for his job because he’s only been teaching ten years, where he is told he is selfish for wanting to have good health benefits, a good pension, and a respectful salary for having a Master’s degree and is a National Board Certified Teacher…An environment of negativity breed negativity. We have got to turn around our nation’s skewed view of “who is to blame” concept of policy-making, and turn it into a “how can we create motivated, responsible citizens” view. I think what’s missing in discussions of children’s interests is that finding who’s to blame for “what’s wrong with education” isn’t a solution – it just polarizes communities. Children need role models for how to solve difficult problems in life – it’s time the public realizes those role models are teachers who stand up to bad ideas even in the face of criticism because WE know what children’s interests are better than politicians.

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