Dear Steve, Part One. An Open Letter to the Education Reform Movement

I read the title to your article, Steve. It says, “How California can get better teachers.” Just that title made me want to write a letter to the editor when I read it. Then it made me want to write my own Op-Ed. But I figured why not lean in and tackle an issue I’m close to every day. In other words, Steve, watch out. I’ve got a whole lot to say to you.

Today I’m going to start just with your title and your introduction. There’s a ton to say right there. I’ll tick off your actual policy points eventually but I don’t plan to even address them until parts two and three of this essay. You see, I really do have a lot to say.

The first thing I have to tell you, and that you need to know, and that I think you are obtuse not to get, is that your title got me down when I read it in my I suppose quaint paper and ink Sacramento Bee at 5:45 am on August 10 over coffee. This was my first day back in the classroom. I’m guessing the people at the Bee knew this. As a present on my first day, I got to learn that you, and the Bee, seem to think that California students deserve “better” teachers than me. Better than us. You think we suck.

Perhaps students deserve teachers who are more intelligent, since what self-respecting intelligent person would opt to be a teacher anyway given how things stand now? Is that it, Steve? Or is it that you want people untainted by being part of a union? Or does it rankle the hell out of you that teachers are so unwilling to be capitalist tools that we rank lots of vacation high on the list of job benefits? Am I missing the variety of implications here, Steve?

I quickly felt better that August morning after a successful first period, after meeting 36 amazing new students, after following through on my goal of teaching classroom procedures so well that even the snarkiest eighth-grader would know exactly what was expected of them, after watching my committed and talented colleagues prepare to do the same thing and, yes, after remembering my school had the best track record of improving student scores of any school in my district, the largest in Northern California. You and I actually agree that student test scores matter, by the way. But I’m feeling too hurt and annoyed still to talk about the ways that I agree with you just yet.

Yes, I’m hurt. The way people like you frame the education debate affects me emotionally. By people like you I mean lawyers and rich guys (and gals like dear Becky DeVos) and a few college professors. In other words, I mean all the people who actually get to frame the debate. In other words, I mean not teachers. Us teachers seem to be just too busy and tired to get much press, despite all that vacation everyone resents.

Probably I should just ignore the news. Who reads the newspaper anymore, right? Even so I think that like any middle school student in my classroom, you really ought to be trained explicitly to avoid put-downs like that one in that title. Remember the school rule posted on the wall of the classroom, Steve? It says, “Be Respectful.”

But I’ve said enough already about your title. Now I want to talk about the worse sin, which is how you frame your Op-Ed in the first couple of paragraphs. You talk in your first graph about how “not everyone” is sharing in California’s success. True enough. Then comes the knife. Immediately you launch into your second paragraph by stating, “Reducing inequality requires getting smarter about bringing the best people we can into the teaching profession.”

That’s just great, Steve. Not only do you seem to think my colleagues and me suck, but you are more than prepared to blame us rhetorically for income inequality.

Yes we have a problem with inequality in this country. I think we agree on that. But I’m tired of the crypto-Republican implication that bad teachers (and packs of bad teachers in unions) are somehow at the root of the problem. Of course we should have better public schools for all children, and yes this definitely involves raising the status of the teaching profession, and of course unions too often serve narrow and even obstructionist agendas. But at some level, Steve, do you not recognize that public schools and the union movement are two of the only real counterweights to inequality that we have? The fact that we are losing the inequality battle in society should not obscure which side teachers and unions are on. Which side are you on, Steve? I ask this respectfully and seriously.

This is important enough that I’ll say it still another way. Certainly I think my job is meaningful. And certainly I think there are ways in which I can help nurture all my students, rich and poor and of all races, down the path toward higher educational attainment and hopefully even prosperity. This is both an honor of the job, and a deep responsibility, and I worry every day about the ways in which I sometimes fail. But no, it does not follow logically that that if inequality is increasing in society the moral responsibility somehow lies on schoolteachers, of all groups. In fact if primary responsibility for increasing inequality lies with any one group, I’d tend to say it’s with political and business leaders. People like you, Steve.

I’m almost ready to stop the rant portion of my argument, but first I have my own knife. I frankly don’t think your background gives you much credibility to weigh in on the teacher quality debate. To have any street cred with me, at all, you would need to have spent some meaningful years in the classroom yourself at some point in your life. Certainly you would need to have spent more than the short two years you complain are required for teacher tenure, and from reading your biography online you haven’t. Nor have most leaders in education reform circles, with the possible exception of Michelle Rhee, and I just can’t respect a person like Rhee. What kind of person takes pleasure in publicly firing people, like she did as DC public schools chancellor? Oh yes, there’s that guy. But I’m guessing we agree about him.

And there’s one last thing. Because the truth is I’m about to get to the points on which I agree with you, and the first of those points is that attracting quality people to teaching matters. But, listen, Steve. You have to know from the outset that I respect economists, although they annoy me. And a pure economist would say we have the best people we can get in the teaching profession already given the prevailing labor market incentives. The whole teacher quality discussion has to be framed on this premise.

Yes the issue is more complex than some Introduction to Economics diagram matching demand and supply at different price points. But then again the irritating truth is that basic, simplistic, reductionist price theory, for all its flaws, has an excellent way of describing the way the world really works. To get the most capable and best-trained people into teaching over time, we need to change the “price” (really the incentive structure) offered in the labor market.

But social status and price are interconnected. Lack of social status in the teaching profession affects the price point at which people will be prepared to enter the profession, given the options that exist. When education reformers like you constantly harp on issues like teacher tenure, when you constantly intimate we should “fire our way to Finland” as I heard education expert Linda Darling Hammond say on the radio program With Good Reason recently, you make it more expensive for people to enter teaching. There is a labor market price connected to you devaluing me on the first day of school. Your rhetoric, Steve, and that of many, many people like you, runs directly counter to your stated goals of attracting “better” people to teaching. What kind of better person puts up with being constantly belittled by elites like you?


Now I’ve gotten a lot off my chest about your title, and how you frame your article. Which means I want to turn to the specific policy suggestions you make. Some are good, frankly. Others I want to expand so much upon that there’s going to be a Part Two and Part Three of this essay. But before I leave off on Part One I’m going to tick off your basic policy points.

First, you say we should allow people to get into teaching without a long and expensive training program. This is an interesting proposition, but one that needs a lot more context. I’ll have a great deal to say about the matter in Part Two of this essay, having just been through the long and arduous process of getting into teaching myself. As a year six teacher I think I have some immediate perspective on this issue that deserves hearing.

Second, you make the point that we should improve outreach to college graduates. I think this is a throwaway issue, frankly. College graduates are pretty smart about the options that exist for them. I have nothing more to say on your issue number two.

Third, you say that retaining teachers is very important, and that we need to pay senior teachers to help with it. Here you are onto something extremely important, and I’ll have a lot more to add in Part Three of this essay.

Fourth, you have a ton to say about getting rid of teachers. You say it’s too hard to do it now. You insinuate that teacher job protections are the major factor reducing the social status of the teaching profession. You say that we need to get rid of seniority rules. You say that we should extend the tenure review period. I say that while you’re not totally wrong on all of this, your choice to obsess on this kind of thing is deeply wrong on a political and a practical and a moral basis. The fact that practically everyone else in the education reform movement is also making this choice to go negative on teachers does not make matters any better. You are diminishing the status of the teaching profession even as you make noise about bringing it up. This is what I meant earlier about you sounding like a crypto-Republican. I hate it. I think you have it in you to do better, and I will have a lot more to say about this in Part Three.

Fifth, and last, you say that we should look at merit pay. On this issue I am willing to go against union orthodoxy to say I agree with you (though I have a very different plan than the bonus system you suggest). I will expand on this point in Part Three. For now as I said before I admire the cogency and clarity of neoclassical price theory too much to ever argue against looking at the issue of pay (and price) in a policy debate about a labor market, which is just what this is.