Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A TURN of the Screw

You may not have heard of the Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN). They have kept a lowish profile despite having been around for a couple of decades (founded 1995) (I hadn't really paid attention until writer Rachel Cohen contacted me for a piece she was writing). Mostly they've just kind of talked about stuff in an aspirational way, occasionally throwing their weight behind someone else's delightful idea as a way of putting a teacher and union stamp of approval on those ideas (more about that in a bit). But now they've decided to float an idea of their own, and we need to talk about that.

This is cold fusion, as far as you know

The group is a network of teachers affiliated with NEA and AFT, originally formed by a group of local union leaders. One of those leaders (Adam Urbanski) wrote a spirited defense of the idea of getting unions involved in reform and not seen as an obstacle. That piece appeared in the reformy journal Education Next in 2001, back before the reformy excrement really hit the fan. Their goal was basically “to promote progressive reforms in education and in teacher unions.” Nowadays their stated goals are a little fuzzy--

It brings local unions together to promote progressive reform in education and teacher unions, build relationships among key stakeholders and to cultivate the next generation of teacher leaders to influence education policymaking and improve teaching effectiveness and student learning

The idea of getting teachers involved and out in front of reform attempts in education has some obvious appeal (better, for some folks, than simply sitting and waiting for another batch of reformsters to drop another schoolhouse on us). I would be swell if more of us were "empowered." But collaborating and cooperating with people who mean you harm can be tricky business, and there are some red flags in TURN's history. There's the big chunk of money they took from Eli Broad. There's the time they apparently let TNTP come edu-splain to them about the damn widget effect (a made-up thing that TNTP never tires of using as "proof" that teacher pay and job security should be worse).

But let's leave it for the moment that we may or may not be able to trust these guys, and let's look at what they've come up with.

Our TURN: Revitalizing Public Education and Strengthening Our Democracy Through the Collective Wisdom of Teachers is a big title that makes big promises. And in the conclusion of the paper, they make a pretty clear statement about the broadest of goals:

The unprecedented threat to public schooling that we face requires us to think creatively about some basic questions: How can public education, once again, become “the great equalizer”  and the foundation for our democracy? And how could it be made to benefit all our students,  not just some?

Those are good questions, but they come at the end of a document that only sort of tries to answer them. They also come, it should be noted, at the end of a document that TURN thanks (in an endnote) Richard D. Kahlenberg for helping to write. Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a NYC-DC thinky tank. His involvement likely explains why a thinky tankish verbal fog seems to roll in and obscure plain English at many points of the document.

The document is organized around four "pillars" of educational swellness, which are then expanded into a four-part vision, which then is upped to policies and practice. And frankly, if you try to read the document too closely your head starts to hurt, due in no small part to a anesthetizing blend of repetition, self-contradiction, and billowy verbage. So I'm going to approach each pillar-policy once, rather than circling the track multiple times.

Pillar One: Learning Centered Schools

Many. many ideas have been dumped into the first pillar. The focus is not on "coverage" but on what is "actually learned" which s0omehow requires a "fundamental shift" (because none of us were paying attention to what our students learned?) from skills and facts to "preparing learners to understand ideas and processes" for applying "flexibly and autonomously." Somehow this means that teachers will need to understand student individual needs, learning styles, and cultural backgrounds. But in LCS, "students are rarely lectured to" but instead  "do most of the work themselves" through "well-crafted active learning opportunities."

And that's just the first three paragraphs.

This type of school connects learning to the real world, and "lessons often take place in real life settings, not just in classrooms," which betrays the belief here that a classroom is not a real life place.

But TURN believes this all has "enormous implications," including the idea that we must measure what we value, not the other way around. Which sounds correct, if not particularly new. Standards must be broad and assessments must be performance-based to "assess not only what students know but rather what students are able to do with what they know" which-- are you kidding me? This is outcome based education, with lesson plans built around TSWBAT ("the student will be able to...") So this is a thirty-year old idea that currently is stumping around as Performance-Based Learning aka Competency-Based Education, and now I'm suspecting that TURN has deployed all of this verbage as the biggest, lushest fig leaf that was ever grown to cover the naked naughty bits that are modern CBE.

It gets worse. We're also going to assess the students on "whether they are ethical human beings" and whether they can "get along with those how are different than them." Damn. Am I the only person who remembers that OBE was gutted and rejected over just this exact point-- the idea that schools would mold and judge the characters of tiny humans?

AND we are going to test all day every day, by integrating assessments into learning which is either A) exactly what every competent teacher has now and always done or B) a pitch for computerized CBE programs in a can.

Because TURN wants to see big exams "fully funded by the federal government" (like, you know, PARCC and SBA), I'm going to assume that TURN leans towards the big-brotherly CBE approach, though honestly, there is just so much raw jargon clogging this report, it's sometimes hard to tell. Big Standardized Tests have all sorts of problems, especially when norm-referenced, but we still want high-quality BSTs.

And finally, don't forget that having high standards and tests to go with them "can be powerful engines for equity," as the reformsters have been telling us since NCLB launched, without a shred of evidence or support for this notion.

It occurs to me that it's possible that TURN is trying to synthesize every education reform idea that has surfaced in the last forty years, somehow folding them into one gooey mass. It is not a good look.

Pillar Two: Recognizing Teaching as a Profession

This very pillar captures a feature that I alluded to in the previous pillar, a sense that TURN simultaneously remembers everything and nothing from the past several decades. Is teaching not already a profession? TURN (which, don't forget, is supposedly a union-spawned group) has some self-contradictory thoughts.

The United States today has a teacher shortage in part because educators are not paid enough and are tired of being micromanaged and  denigrated. The inability to consistently  attract the very strongest candidates to  teaching is deeply problematic, because  even the best redesigns will not be well  implemented without high-performing  professional teachers.

So on the one hand, as teachers have said,  teachers are poorly treated and paid. But on the other hand, as reformsters have charged, teachers are the bottom of the barrel.

TURN talks about what requirements would make teaching a profession, and they invoke Albert Shanker, which is almost always a bad sign because Shanker is usually brought up to say "This may seem like a terrible idea, but Saint Shanker of the Teacher Union endorsed it, so shut up." TURN says get a degree, get specialized training, pass an examination, be inducted and work your way up, collaborate with other teachers, keep learning, and be rewarded by autonomy and great pay. All of which sounds okay in the large, vague picture, but the details matter. Who creates the exam? Who measures the degree to which teachers do all these things?

The answer should be "teachers," but it isn't. TURN calls for "greater voice," but they cite the supremely unimpressive Teach To Lead token teacher project from USED. They think the Dewey lab school at University of Chicago is an exemplar, too. But once again they cannot make up their minds. Current teacher eval stinks, and good teaching is more than a student's score, but evaluation "can't ignore the importance of student learning" (aka test scores).

TURN wants a career ladder and differentiated pay and they have insisted elsewhere that they don't mean merit pay, but pay differentiated and certified by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standard. But while NBPTS has some thoughts about the career ladder part, I'm not aware of a differentiated pay plan. So they're just going to certify it? After it comes from... somewhere? But TURN is sure "the program rewards excellence" without creating any sort of zero sum game except that of course there's a zero sum game. Education funding can't be anything BUT a zero sum game because the pile of available money is always finite. "Just spend all the money you need and send us the bill," said no bunch of taxpayers ever. One of the reasons that districts like the lock-step salary scales (that this document quietly rejects) is because it makes rational budgeting possible.

TURN supports due process and job protections, likes peer review (actually, so do I) .

Pillar Three: Excellence with Equity

TURN would like to underscore that poverty makes a difference when it comes to education, and that although this has been established through plenty of research, modern ed policy continues to ignore it. True enough. They have some policy solutions to propose, like adopting policies "to increase wages and reduce poverty." Well, that seems like a simple fix. Surprised nobody's considered that before now. All right-- I don't mean to be a jerk, but if we're going to list grand policy wish lists that we have no practical ideas about implementing, let's also ask for cold fusion and a perpetual motion engine.

Also, TURN would like "high-quality" Pre-K as part of the public school system. And they would like more resources directed to high-poverty schools. "Students with the greatest needs deserve the greatest resources." How would this affect the student-centered school approach, or the differentiated pay of teachers? Shh-- we're not talking about those things now, because the TURN plan deals with much of its internal confusion by not trying to connect any of the pillars to each other.

TURN also calls for less segregation, somehow.

And teachers and parents should build stronger ties, including the idea of consulting parents during the collective bargaining process, apparently mainly for language items like class size. Though TURN says this has been done, it seems like a challenging choice. I'm imagining a negotiating team at the table as the administration team says, "Well, you've promised your parents smaller class sizes and your members better health insurance. We're only going to give you one. Pick."

But hey-- that takes us to the fourth pillar...

Pillar Four: Promote Collective Bargaining for Educational Quality

TURN calls for nationwide collective bargaining nationwide, and it's not absolutely clear whether they mean one nationwide contract for everyone or making all the right-to-work states that did away with teacher collective bargaining start doing it again. I think it's the latter, in which case maybe we should go back to discussing cold fusion feasability.

And if getting Scott Walker to give up all of his victories against the teachers union seems improbable, well, TURN would also like contract negotiation to include educational issues, basically negotiating teachers some say over issues previously considered management prerogatives. So double cold fusion.

TURN thinks the path to this is "education quality bargaining," in which bargaining is strictly focused on educational issues and contract decisions ultimately hinge on whether or not student achievement is aided, which strikes me as a way to tie everything in the contract to test scores, which seems like an epically awful idea. Also, higher teacher salaries can be financed by cutting administrative salaries, which strikes me as a hard sell and, in a district like mine where there aren't that many administrators (and my assistant principal makes less than I do and works in an office with a revolving door).

Even less helpfully, TURN advocates a "living contract," which seems to mean a contract that can be opened at any time because reasons. And a majority of the union could vote to change the contract. So basically an answer to the question, what would a contract be like if it weren't actually a binding contract.

My Pillar

So what have we got here? A policy wish list which A) dreams of huge things and doesn't offer much in the way of plans to achieve those things and therefor B) opens up all sorts of doors to reformy ideas that could easily fit under the broad tent that TURN has pitched. Common Core State [sic] Standards, test-based accountability, computer-centered personalized [sic] education, computer-driven competency-based education, merit pay-- these are all terrible ideas that would fit comfortably within TURN's four pillars. There are some grand ideas that would be achievable only after a massive culture change (like having Alabama welcome teachers unions) and others that would be achievable only with a breach of the physical law of the universe  (the school district budget can expand to handle any sort of expanded differentiated teacher pay).

It may be my cynical mistrust, but I suspect this is a bad bargain, like someone who says, "If you let me keep any change I can find in your house for the next ten years, I will give you all the fairies you can locate in my magic spaceship." If I turn off the cynical part of my brain, then this report looks like a spastic camel-- a horse built by a committee and then run through a xerox machine twenty times.

Whatever the case, I'm trying to imagine the audience for this paper, and I can't. Is some lawmaker to pick it up and start trying to make it real? Doubt it. Are a bunch of union members supposed to read it and say to their officers, "Get us this, now!" Also unlikely. Resume builder for TURN members? Possibly.

I can't tell for sure, but one thing I'm certain of-- this is no game changer.


  1. A “learning centered” school that rejects the importance of knowledge?
    Facillitators (not teachers)?
    Guides on the side (not sages on stages)?
    Critical, higher order thinking skills (without content)?
    21st century gobbledygook?
    Conflating the way highly trained professionals work on the job with
    the best ways for children to acquire requisite knowledge and skills.


    Another go round of disproved and debunked pedagogies
    promoted by . . . Egads – teachers! . . . and their unions!

    And definitely not a game changer – because there are no large scale, policy related, game changers to be had.
    The quest for the Holy Grail of education reform, the Great Game Changer is a fool’s errand.
    Just look at the very long list of fools that have tried and failed:

    et. al.

  2. It certainly does sound like "...TURN is trying to synthesize every education reform idea that has surfaced in the last forty years, somehow folding them into one gooey mass." Yuck.

    With fairies and magic spaceships on top.