The hypocrisy of Scott Walker … and whether teachers are becoming the enemy

EDITOR’S NOTE: In concurrence with the launch of John Merrow’s book, The Influence of Teachers, he’ll be using this space as a place to discuss some central ideas explored in the book. All proceeds from the book, available on Amazon for $14.95, are being donated to Learning Matters, a 501(c)(3) organization committed to independent coverage of education. We invite you to join in the conversation by commenting on these posts or reviewing the book online!

Is the direct attack on collective bargaining for teachers in Wisconsin likely to spread around the US the way the demand for democracy is spreading across the Middle East? I think it just might.

Other Republican governors, notably those in Ohio and New Jersey, have taken strong positions regarding the role of teacher unions (and in fact New Jersey Governor Chris Christie seems to be taking credit for the ‘movement’). If Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and legislature succeed in limiting or even eliminating collective bargaining, then a lot of other politicians will be emboldened.

There are a couple of points that are being overlooked or minimized in the press coverage about Wisconsin, though.

The first has to do with the hypocrisy of the governor, who is not challenging collective bargaining for the two unions that supported him: the cops and the firefighters. Why is this being reported as if it were a principled stand, when it’s clearly naked politics?

And what happened to union solidarity? Do the two unions who supported the governor’s election bid really believe that he won’t come after their bargaining rights down the road? Is that naïve?

There have been two issues here — pay/evaluation and collective bargaining. Wisconsin’s teachers have conceded on the first, a sensible and long-overdue step. As I write in my new book, The Influence of Teachers:

It may take a hard slap upside the head, but unions are going to have to acknowledge what we all know — that there’s a relationship between teaching and learning, and therefore student learning must be part of a teacher’s evaluation.

Suppose a swimming instructor told the 10-year-olds in his class to swim the length of the pool to demonstrate what he’d taught them, and half of them nearly drowned in the process? Would it be reasonable to make a judgment about his effectiveness as a swimming teacher?

Or suppose that nearly all the 10-year-olds studying clarinet for the first time learned to play five or six pieces well in a semester? Would it be reasonable to consider that when deciding whether to rehire the music teacher?

Wisconsin’s union has gotten that hard slap upside the head, and it has responded. Other teacher groups ought to take notice. The days of what I think of as trade union dealing are over; teachers have to bargain for more than pay and privileges. They need to be in the forefront of connecting their evaluations with student achievement. They need to be at that table, and I believe they ought to be arguing for school-wide evaluations. If it’s just teacher-by-teacher, we will end up with even more bubble testing in more subjects. If it’s school-wide, then everyone — down to custodians and secretaries — has a personal, vested interest in student success.

Finally, I see the influence of Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor in Washington, on what’s happening in Wisconsin and elsewhere. Because of Washington’s unique structure, she did not have to negotiate with a school board before imposing a teacher evaluation system. She would never have been able to do that in any other district in America, she told me, which is why she believes that people in her camp must go directly to state legislatures and governors and get them to take teacher evaluation and other aspects of the job off the collective bargaining table. That will, she said, make it possible to achieve her vision of real reform.

This has the potential for becoming very nasty. As a friend asked me quizzically, “When did teachers become the enemy? What on earth is happening?”

Stay tuned.

26 thoughts on “The hypocrisy of Scott Walker … and whether teachers are becoming the enemy

  1. You’re right that Scott has exempted firefighters and police officers, but it’s important to note that they are standing strong beside the teachers and other public workers in Wisconsin. They DO understand that this is an attack on labor unions and public workers across the board, and they are displaying their solidarity.

    Here in Ohio, those unions are included in the bill. We had a rally on our campus (Youngstown State University) on Monday, and along with members of OEA, AFSCME, OAPSE (Ohio Association of Public School Employees — don’t forget the lunch ladies, office staff, and bus drivers who also help our schools run well), and other unions that will be affected, we had members of the United Autoworkers and United Steelworkers, because they also recognize that this isn’t just about public employees. It’s about unions.

    As I said in testimony before the Ohio Senate committee on this bill last week, the United Nations says that collective bargaining is a HUMAN right. We need to fight these bills not only on the basis of how they affect education but also on basic claims about justice.


  2. John,

    I’m troubled by your oversimplification regarding evaluation, because you know better but you don’t offer a real comparison. These aren’t swimming lessons we’re dealing with. To make that analogy stick, and to be honest about it, you’d need to factor in information about which students have swimming pools at home, which swim teachers had different class sizes, which students have health conditions, which teachers have to contend with different pool conditions, different length lessons, students coming and going… Come on! It’s insulting to suggest that teachers ignore the relationship between teaching and learning. The real problem in the debate is that we understand it better than most policy makers and journalists who insist on telling us how things work in our own classrooms. Four our part, perhaps teachers need to do a better job of communicating that reality.

    You also know that when districts dedicate resources and effort to good teacher evaluations, unions are receptive to their use. When districts pretend to do evaluations or substitute test scores for evaluation, they receive the resistance they deserve.


    • It’s not to trivialize teaching, but, if children drown, the teacher has failed. If kids don’t learn, then serious questions have to be raised about the teacher–who cannot say “I taught them; not my fault if they didn’t learn.”


      • “If children drown, the teacher has failed.”

        What if one of those kids didn’t show up to half the classes, and when he did show up, he got into fights with the other kids?

        What if some of those children went home after every class to mothers who said, “I don’t know why you have to go to swim classes. I never liked swimming”?

        What if the person who enrolled people in swim classes purposely put those students likely to fail in the class of Teacher A and gave those students likely to pass to Teacher B?

        What if the swim class was in August, but the test was given in February, in an outdoor pool, in Wisconsin?


      • You are being too literal and unbelievably defensive. Are you determined to deny any connection between teaching and learning?


      • “Are you determined to deny any connection between teaching and learning?”

        Not at all. But, I cannot think of any way to make a fair, legitimate, state-wide, or even district-wide, system for evaluating teachers based on student performance.

        I am personally in favor of more vouchers and charter schools. Most people are very happy with colleges in America, and there’s no big effort to decide which professors should be kept and which should be fired. People are satisfied with colleges because there’s a free market (of choice, although both public and private schools are heavily subsidized). People choose the school that’s right for them.

        Imagine firing police officers based upon the amount of crime in their geographic areas. It would suddenly become nearly impossible to hire officers in high crime cities. And police chiefs could easily assign officers they don’t like to areas with high crime, or to a night shift when most crime occurs. And judging officers by crime ignores issues of economics, which greatly affect crime rates.

        Can an individual officer impact the amount of crime that occurs in a neighborhood? Sure. But, is that individual officer so influential that he or she should be fired based on crime rates?


      • John,

        No one denies that teaching and learning are related and that effective teachers help kids learn more. But simplistic, binary thinking about success and failure and false assumptions about causality are not helping you convince anyone of anything. You have no word limits here, no editor breathing down your neck. Why make things short and simple when they deserve length and complexity? I have great respect for your body of work and for the fact that you’ve visited more classrooms in more places than most of us probably ever will. But at the same time, to be honest, your analogies and analysis of teaching and learning just don’t ring true to many of the practitioners in the field. If I were a reporter and the people in the field I report on kept telling me that, I’d be a bit more circumspect about what I might be missing.

        By the way, you probably don’t know this about me, but my first job out of college was as a production assistant in a major market newsroom. I worked with every reporter and editor on my shifts to help get the news on the air. If I were to offer you my analysis of your work based on my inside knowledge of journalism, and I then I got some part of it wrong, I wouldn’t keep hammering away at your attitude about my analysis, but rather, I’d wonder if you, as the professional and the expert in the field, might be offering me something useful.


    • Right to call out the analogy of the simple swim test but still valuable in alerting to other issues. There is value in using the simple assessments. Wrong to justify teacher / union finger pointing and looking for the “right” tool to be developed without involvement. If teachers do make the link between teaching and learning (and most clearly do), then they have a responsibility to join others in the greater education community (administrators, teachers, students, families, researchers, developers, and interested citizens) in efforts to develop, utilize, assess, and continually refine the appropriate tool(s).


  3. John,

    Is it also safe to say that if DC schools are continuing to fail children, then Michelle Rhee is a failure. To oversimplify this problem by blaming it on the teacher is a dangerous mantra. Like Rhee, you have given little or no consideration to the many factors and constraints that teachers face on a daily basis. Many of these constraints are produced by the administrators and policy makers who want to attach teacher performance to pay. When the resources and support teachers need to do their jobs effectively are not provided, they are still expected to rise to the occasion–even when other stakeholders fail to do so. But its so much simpler and less messy to just blame the teachers.


    • I am not blaming teachers. I repeat, I am not blaming teachers. I am saying that teachers and their unions must be more aggressive about student learning than they have been about their own rights and prerogatives. More aggressive, not ‘as aggressive.’
      Someone above said “no one denies…” but that’s not enough. Teachers must assert the existence of the connection between teaching and learning, not explain away failure and disappointment with stuff about conditions, poverty, et cetera.
      I believe that teaching matters, and that teachers matter. If you don’t believe your teaching influences learning, then why are you teaching?
      The challenge is to define the problem. One segment is defining the problem as ‘bad teachers,’ and they are winning.
      But the problem is not teachers; it’s the job. Teaching is not a great job, so you have to define ‘better job.’ Right now ‘better job’ has been defined in trade union terms, not professional terms. That’s what my new book is about, by the way.


      • Thanks for offering a more detailed response. You’re right that we need to offer a clearer picture. Maybe journalists could help. Most of us teachers actually have a full time job that leaves little time and opportunity to counter the prevailing stories out there that get it wrong. Are you up to the challenge of showing what complex teaching and learning look like – without the celebrity angle (Rhee) or the rebuilding angle (New Orleans)? Without relying on test scores? Without pitting charter schools or TFA interns against traditional schools and teacher induction? Doesn’t sound sexy enough from prime time.

        Still, some of us working through Accomplished California Teachers have put out a report on teacher evaluation that argues in favor of using student learning outcomes, much in the way that National Board Certification requires evidence of learning. We’re also working on a report that discusses assessment of students, teachers, and schools in more robust and useful ways beyond state tests.


  4. John, I said this in a reply to you not long ago, and I’ll say it again: If teachers unions don’t take a firm, visible role in leading the way to improving student outcomes, they will be perceived as part of the problem, not part of the solution. I’m not anti-union, and I realize that the teachers unions have been part of significant reforms. However, even the most significant of those reforms have failed to scale up, and many have died quietly when the initiating leadership turned over.

    I am of the opinion that what we seek will not be accomplished by a coordinated national effort. As a country we don’t even agree on what we want to accomplish, much less what specifically we expect from education and how it should be measured. I believe that success, to the extent we realize it, will be the sum of many school-and district-wide initiatives. If I’m right, the teachers unions face a huge problem. They are a top-down force, using a coordinated national effort to enhance the compensation and job security of teachers nationwide. As such, their work is worthy, but also inconsistent with what I see as being required to achieve the student outcomes we want. If I’m right, their challenge is to empower the school- and district-based initiatives I see as vital. That is not what the unions were formed to do and they are not organized to do it. It remains to be seen if its possible for the teachers unions to make such a radical change in who they are and what they do. However, I believe that if they don’t pull it off, they will be on the defensive forever.

    In the short term, however, I see the Republican assault on teachers (and other) unions as an opportunity. I hope that all unions raise a sustained, loud cry about the cynical actions of Republican governors and legislatures. Holding up the Republican agenda and political tactics, at both the state and national levels, so voters can see it for what it really is may be the best strategy for bringing rational, informed voters back to the polls in the 2012 elections. Keeping the focus on what are in the first instance state-level conflagrations may be the best way to accomplish that.

    If the right wing is discredited at the polls in 2012, our teachers unions will have a more supportive environment for introducing appropriate, high-visibility leadership strategies for the future. They have less than two years to accomplish that, and they will be fighting for their lives the whole time. I hope they’re up to the challenge.


  5. There is really only one issue involved and it is poverty, we’ve known it for nearly 60 years and until policy makers can be convinced of this AND do something about it education is doomed. What we do know is that education alone cannot fix poverty and neither can the government, teachers have been holding up their side of the bargain but government has failed and poverty persists at unacceptable levels. The accountability movement is really nothing more than the final capitulation in the War on Poverty, the government has given up and all we are left with is who is to be blamed.

    When we talk about the relationship between teaching and learning pay and collective bargaining have no impact on student achievement. Evaluations have a bigger influence but even if every teacher in America were the very best the effects of poverty would trump. That said, I am absolutely in favor of rigorous evaluations that do not include standardized tests. We absolutely should improve the quality of our teaching corps for when society finally decides to eliminate poverty.


  6. I am community college English teacher who works the end of the line. I teach the last required English courses most students must take. Please pardon me, but the crap does hit the fan when chaos rules, but chaos when approached with creativity and fresh eyes can be managed and success achieved.

    The biggest constant I see at work among my students aged 18 to 80, who come literally from all over town and all around the world, is . . . . the teaching. Yes, some students are much more difficult to deal with due a lack of preparation or maturity (or both),but that sorry fact does not excuse the need to set up a system of instruction that achieves results.

    There is no greater constant, not poverty, not privilege, than the teaching my students have encountered on their journey through k-12. Teacher and teaching styles have the biggest impact on student preparedness.

    Naively, however, I didn’t forsee how ardently stubborn old school teachers and teachers unions would be in the face of the obvious need to change. Now I realize that, to quote Hollywood metaphorically (I hope!), there will be blood as change is forced upon the unwilling, who have never before been held accountable, not ever in their careers. Hopefully, the blood will not be mine; that’s a fear all teachers probably must share, secretly. I too am afraid of who will judge teaching and how learning success will be measured, but teachers and teaching styles must be held accountable.

    Personally, I am doubtful that the situation will improve within the existing traditional structure of administration versus teachers’ unions. With these two groups forever battling, students will never be at the center. (Note: I am a liberal tree hugging hippy on most other fronts.)

    I try to use my considerable academic freedom responsibly, but I don’t trust that all do the same, certainly not with same panache. I am not happy with a flat pay scale. Scantron machines? Bubble tests? They appall me, in many ways. I will be found cold and gone under a stack of student papers one day.

    Here’s my concern and pitch: Traditional one size fits all reading assignments are killing reading and critical thinking. My biggest worry is that the reading crisis I see is also a thinking crisis, which stuggests ramifications for our society that I find to be terrifying.

    Students graduate high school with poor attitudes toward voluntary reading and numerous reading avoidance techniques, which work well and encounter little resistance. I am convinced that large numbers of teachers must ignore the nonreading going on in classrooms because teachers are too smart not to notice what’s going on.

    But traditionally no one forces to teachers to change teaching styles as times change.

    Here’s an idea I’d like to see explored: extend federal whistleblower protection to the education industry and teachers in unions. Achieving students first will require a strong national effort popping up locally everywhere. But if teachers are to admit that teachers should be held accountable, teachers will need outside support, for it is not likely support for teacher critics will come from any party within current school structures.

    (Hey! Help a busy teacher out! Where is the spell check?)


  7. Its seems to me that teachers do a lot of clerical work. I suppose if a teacher is lucky his students’ parents will volunteer to help with some of that clerical work. But maybe one thing we can do to make the job of teaching better is to hire more secretaries. Maybe that way teachers can do more teaching. Perhaps day care workers would be able to help with classroom supervision. Again maybe that would help teachers to do more teaching. I did a little searching and it does seem that secretaries and day care workers on average earn significantly less than teachers. Perhaps relieved of these types of duties teachers could actually teach more students and help our schools be more productive. Or maybe this is just nonsense, but at least it seems like something that should be explored. I have a strong suspicion that teachers unions don’t look favorably on ideas like this as it might end up reducing the numbers of teachers. But maybe not. Either way I do think it is getting at the spirit of what John is suggesting.


  8. I think Scott Walker and the other Republican governors who are attempting “union-busting” are hypocrites of the worst order. Walker is cutting taxes when there’s a budget shortfall, to the benefit of his big-money backers, like the Kochs. Hmmm . . . what short memories we all seem to have. Wasn’t it corporate and financial greed that got us into this money crisis in the first place?!? Why aren’t those people the ones getting pinched financially, instead of teachers? We aren’t the ones who caused the problem, so why are Wisconsin teachers being made into the fall guys? Simple answer–politics. This ploy is right out of the conservative playbook. And it stinks!

    I was also quite interested to read the comment above that the United Nations asserts collective bargaining as a human right. I guess that means those of us who live in “right-to-work” states that deny us collective bargaining are being denied a basic human right. No wonder I feel so frustrated with the “good ole’ boy” politics here in Virginia!

    And, of course there’s a connection between teaching and learning. As soon as someone comes up with an evaluation system that accurately captures all the variables that impact that connection, I’ll be the first one to support it.


    • Get a grip, Gail. Virginia’s “right to work state” status is part of the very reason i got such a fabulous education there.

      And before you start proclaiming “collective bargaining” as a “right”, check those critical thinking skills teachers are supposed to encourage. A human being’s “rights” do not come from the government or any legislative body. As a man of words has said: “They come from someone greater than you and me. Greater than the deep blue sea. Greater than the tallest tree.”

      Do yourself (and your readers) a favor and refrain from quoting “the United Nations.” They have lost credibility on so many fronts i have lost count. But we could begin with their silence when it comes to the protection of women in 3rd World countries.


  9. John,

    I live in the Midwest and the union’s belligerence is practically in my backyard.

    Please help your friend. The teachers are not “the enemy”, as she is mistakenly believes. The unions are.

    Having said that, I am sickened by the way the union has lassoed “doctors/physicians” to hand out “sick notes/excuse” for the teachers. What does this teach our children? I can see it now:

    “Mommy, I don’t like what they are having for lunch.”

    “What’s wrong with the lunch, Johnny?”

    “I feel like my rights are being taken away cuz they won’t let me eat a cookie. I have to eat brocolli.”

    “Awww, sweetie. Too much emotional stress? Let me write you a note and get an excused absence.”

    Then there are the “missing 14”–the 14 Democratic State Senators who shirk their responsibilities to serve the people of Wisconsin and instead, like cowards, flee to IL.

    Perhaps Gov. Walker did not approach the firefighters and police because their numbers are fewer and their burden on the state budget is not as heavy as the teacher’s union. You can’t bite off more than you can chew. As for solidarity–look, if my kid is a bully, why would i stand with him. The teachers unions have bullied their own–as well as the average taxpayer of the big cheese state of Wisconsin.


  10. Politifact:

    “We then contacted the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, the statewide union that endorsed Walker’s opponent last year. Executive director Jim Palmer said the statewide organization is much larger than the local Milwaukee police union that endorsed Walker. The state group has approximately 11,000 members versus Milwaukee’s roughly 1,400, he said. [ The Milwaukee group endorsed Walker, the much larger Wisconsin group endorsed his opponent]

    “Similarly, the state firefighters association has more than 3,000, compared with the Milwaukee union’s 875. [ The Milwaukee group endorsed Walker, the much larger Wisconsin group endorsed his opponent]”


  11. I am type of disappointed that I only just discovered your site a week ago. But, Concerning added you to my Google Reader, right next to my own feeds, plus between a couple Arbitron feeds. Keep feeding my brain. Many thanks


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