Sunday, March 27, 2011

Gov. Walker's legislation has teaching Unions caving already

Apparently Gov. Scott Walker knew exactly what he was doing. Before he signed the bill limiting collective bargaining privileges, teachers unions throughout the state were slow to respond to calls for salary and benefit concessions.

They believed their members should be held harmless during a period of necessary cost-cutting. They didn't seem to care that Wisconsin schools were operating with multi-million dollar deficits that were forcing the layoffs of younger teachers and the cancellation of student programs.

Their only answer was to raise taxes at a time when few people could afford it. They didn’t want to sacrifice anything, despite the fact that schools spend about 80 percent of their budgets on labor costs.

But now, with Walker's legislation set to become law once it clears legal hurdles, the unions are suddenly coming to their senses. They are jumping at the chance to extend their collective bargaining agreements, in exchange for meaningful concessions that will help schools survive the financial crisis.

In Madison, the teachers union has suddenly agreed to a wage freeze and increases in health insurance and pension contributions. The concessions will save the district an estimated $15 million next year, which would almost make up for the expected cuts in state aid.

In Oshkosh, the union has agreed to a wage freeze, increased contributions toward benefits and a change in the employee insurance carrier, which will save the district more than $5 million per year.

In the Slinger district, the union has agreed to commit 5.8 percent of teacher pay to pension costs and increase contributions toward health care costs. The concessions will save the district about $1.3 million per year. What are the unions gaining by accepting concessions at the last possible minute? Plenty.

They are salvaging things like automatic annual salary increases for teachers, a generous number of paid sick and personal days off, reimbursement for unused sick days, salary and benefits for union officials who do not teach, retirement bonuses, overage pay for teachers with a few extra students, and many other items.

Those contractual perks would have gone by the wayside if local collective bargaining agreements had been allowed to expire. Under the new law, the unions will not have the power to negotiate for many of the items listed in current contracts.

So the unions will save some time-honored perks and schools will save a lot of money. This type of compromise would not have occurred without pressure from Gov. Walker and his supporters in the legislature.

Perhaps the governor knew exactly what he was doing by creating a crisis and forcing the unions to face financial reality. Nothing else seemed to be working and schools were drowning in deficits.

Ironically, the loss of collective bargaining privileges would not have been necessary if the unions would have come to their senses months ago and started offering meaningful concessions. They lost most of their privileges by remaining stubborn for too long.


The compassionate teacher is the ideal

In his inaugural address, President Bush observed that “no insignificant person was ever born”: the specially valuable function of a good teacher is to perceive, in each student, his unique significance.

This work of doing justice to people, impossible in a crowd, is not easy even in a classroom. Though experience helps, compassion is the real origin of that insight that lets a teacher see through the superficial masks that young people so often wear, and to understand their deeper problems and possibilities. The German philosopher Johann Georg Hamann argued that only “love—for a person or an object—can reveal the true nature of anything,” an observation especially true of that most complicated and mysterious of objects, the human soul.

“My experience,” the poet Coleridge said, “tells me that little is taught or communicated by contest or dispute, but everything by sympathy and love.” Educators whose teaching is an extension of their powers of sympathy—think of Charles “Chips” Chipping in James Hilton’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips—develop the most remarkable qualities of perception. The reason is obvious: Shakespeare has one of his characters reflect on the folly of taking love out of learning, for love “adds a precious seeing to the eye.”

In the same spirit, Dickens dramatized the compassion of the true teacher in the character of Marton, the benevolent schoolmaster in The Old Curiosity Shop. Like Hugo’s bishop of Digne, Marton is the soul of charity; and he has awakened in little Harry, his “favourite scholar,” a love of learning and of “poring over books.”

Yet Harry’s reciprocated affection for his teacher perplexes Marton. “How did he ever become so fond of me?” the schoolmaster asks, modestly oblivious to the miracle he has performed in an English village. “That I should love him is no wonder, but that he should love me—” The reader understands what Marton himself does not: it is what Dickens calls Marton’s “compassion” that has made Harry love him and desire to please and emulate him—one of learning’s most powerful spurs. Harry ends by calling his teacher his “dear kind friend.” “I hope I always was,” Marton replies. “I meant to be, God knows.”

Marton’s compassion, Dickens shows, has enabled him to perceive, in the young people with whom he works, the “panting spirit” inside their “fragile form.” “I love these little people,” Dickens has the narrator of The Old Curiosity Shop declare, “and it is not a slight thing when they, who are so fresh from God, love us.”

It is because education seeks to nurture that “panting spirit” that compassion is so crucial to its enterprise. Education involves more than equipping a child with mechanical skills, filling him with useful information, and teaching him how to reason. Good teacher’s also try to awaken a child to the world’s possibilities—and his own. They nourish his moral imagination, his human sympathy, his understanding of himself as a citizen in a community.

The philosopher John Stuart Mill, whose father had famously educated him on strictly utilitarian principles, knew from bitter experience how defective an education only in skills, unilluminated by compassion, can be. James Mill’s machine-like efficiency as a teacher made his son into a prodigy of scholarship—he began Greek at three—but it left him unfinished as a human being.

As a young man, Mill published brilliant essays upholding the progressive political ideals his father had inculcated in him; but he had not learned how to cultivate the “material out of which all worth of character, and all capacity for happiness, are made.” He was, he said, like a “stock or a stone,” able to turn out quantities of prose for the Westminster Review but unacquainted with what he later called the “culture of the feelings.”

The result was predictable: after completing his home schooling, Mill suffered a nervous breakdown—a “habitual depression,” a “grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,” he called it, quoting Coleridge. The “whole foundation on which my life was constructed,” he wrote, “fell down.” He recounted how, after much travail, he came “to adopt a theory of life, very unlike that on which I had before acted.” The scholar educated on severely utilitarian principles now ranked “among the prime necessities of human well-being” what he called the “internal culture of the individual.”

My own first memory of the kind of education I am trying to describe, an education inspired by love and compassion, is inseparable from my early consciousness of a world beyond the mechanical and utilitarian. My second-grade teacher encouraged me to memorize Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Of course I was incapable of understanding much of it at the age of seven, but I soon discovered that adults were stirred by the words.

At Gettysburg, Lincoln went beyond Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence to give the most profound account we have of the ends of American life. The Declaration, for all its power as a civic touchstone, is of the eighteenth century in its depiction of men as machine-like assemblages of “inalienable rights.” The weakness of the classical liberalism that the Declaration expresses lies in what Lionel Trilling called its “denial of the emotions and the imagination,” its “mechanical” conception of “the nature of the mind.” Lincoln insists that the mind is more than a package of reason and passion: it possesses depths that the Enlightened philosophers never fathomed.

In urging me to learn the Gettysburg Address by heart, my teacher introduced me to the most cogent refutation we have of the idea that the American is merely a Yankee—rational Economic Man, a shrewd getter and spender, a Mill-like calculating machine. On this battlefield, Lincoln says, Americans offered up their lives out of love for ideals that transcended their material aspirations. These ideals sanctify their deaths: they “consecrate” and “hallow” the land where they fell.

Though my second-grade self could understand none of this, I was conscious at the time, in some inarticulate way (however improbable it may seem), of the growth within me of an ideal self—the person whom the second-grader, trying to memorize the Gettysburg Address, wanted to become, and believed that he could become. And, though I wouldn’t understand this until much later, it was the beginning of my civic education, as well.

Even in the best of all possible worlds, not every teacher will live up to this compassionate ideal, sparking each student’s intellectual, moral, and imaginative development. Not every school will be a community bound together by fellow-feeling. But compared with many private schools, whether secular or religious, today’s public education system—like so many creations of the liberal, bureaucratic state—smothers the embers of compassion under an encompassing blanket of pity.

Today’s progressive-ed pedagogy, with its focus on pupils’ self-esteem, shrinks from giving students the constant challenge they need to move on to a new level of mastery and insight. The dumbing-down of the curriculum, the unwillingness to make kids learn a body of knowledge and develop basic skills through drill, the easy tests and lack of consequences for leaving homework undone—all conspire to keep kids’ horizons low, instead of expanding them.

In inner-city public schools, especially, teachers tend to view their students with undiluted welfare-state pity, seeing them as unable to meet high, or even ordinary, standards. The result is the normalizing of social promotion and the multicultural assertion that the student’s own world is sufficient for him, that his education need not constantly challenge him with worldviews and ways of life higher and better than the limited world into which he was born—since how could he ever become the person fit to enter such a higher realm?

A teacher prompted by compassion rather than pity would say to a struggling kid: “You are not living up to your potential. You are frivolously wasting the gifts God gave you. You’ve got talent. Show it.” Compassion awakens a spirit of emulation; pity does not, for pity is afraid to judge, even where judgment is essential to growth. Nowhere is the secret contempt that underlies all forms of pity more evident than in this failure of teachers to hold their students to their own private standards or to try to excite in them a yearning to excel and transcend.

In their hearts, these teachers lack the very foundation of compassion: the ability to see their pupils as fellow creatures exactly like themselves. Denying that these young people can possibly live up to a higher idea of themselves, the teachers acquiesce in what President Bush has called the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Yet it is difficult for teachers to do better under their demoralizing working conditions. Caught between the it’s-not-my-job work rules of the teachers’ unions and the picayune regulations of the central bureaucracy, they find themselves imprisoned in a mechanical system organized like an industrial factory.

Anyone who has been put to cookie-cutter work on such a model knows how difficult it is to feel, in such conditions, that he possesses a soul and a destiny; only by a tremendous effort of will can such a person retain, in this situation, anything more than a faint idea that the human raw material he is charged with processing also has its unique human potential. A teacher’s contract requires him to teach for x hours a day; at the end of the xth hour his students become someone else’s problem. The merit of teachers who do manage to see behind their students’ apathetic masks goes unrewarded: teachers’ unions oppose merit pay and defend a perverse set of incentives that encourage not compassion but timeserving.

That mindset results in a community far different from one where compassion can work its nurturing transformations, and, were there any lingering possibility of creating such a community, the rights revolution that has swept over the public schools in the last several decades has vaporized it. The rights that students have been discovered to possess include everything from the right to due process before being suspended from school for misconduct to the right to wear a baseball cap during the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance to the right to play on the boys’ baseball team, even if one is not a boy. Earlier this year, a federal district judge decided who had the “right” to be the valedictorian in a New Jersey high school.

To view schoolchildren as rights-bearing citizens before they have reached the moral and civic maturity the schools are supposed to foster is to lose sight of education’s purpose. Where students can sue their teachers, there can be no spirit of order and community, no flourishing of fellow-feeling. A teacher cannot be expected to act confidently to make the classroom an orderly place, a little platoon of learning, when he knows that even a minor infraction on his part of the numerous rules that now govern every facet of school life may render him personally liable. Nor will a teacher who is straining every spiritual muscle to maintain authority in the face of his unruly students be able to see through the cocky pose to the struggling, uncertain soul.


More control over admissions for British schools as council lotteries face axe

Schools could get significant new powers over how they admit pupils in reforms to be proposed by ministers within days. The Sunday Telegraph understands that the current system which allows local authorities to stage lotteries to determine which children are given places at oversubscribed schools is to be stopped.

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, plans instead to let only individual schools stage lotteries if they are oversubscribed - a move which would hand them greater power at the expense of councils.

Lotteries staged by local authorities have been criticised because they can force children to travel miles every day after being turned down by a first-choice local school. They were introduced four years ago under Labour in an attempt to break the middle-class hold on the most sought-after places. Many families paid premiums of tens of thousands of pounds to buy homes in the catchment areas of successful schools, leading to claims of selection by wealth.

If only individual schools could hold lotteries it is thought there would be fewer overall.

Those that did, however, would effectively become their own admissions authorities - allowing critics to claim that ministers were allowing "back door selection" of pupils, particularly if schools were allowed to determine exactly how the lotteries should operate.

Earlier this month around 540,000 pupils who applied for secondary school places in September were informed where they would be going - with early figures suggesting around 17 per cent did not get into their first choice. The lowest percentage of pupils getting into their top-choice school is thought to be 60 per cent in the London borough of Westminster. At the other end of the scale the comparative figure for Leicestershire was 98 per cent.

Grammar schools are allowed to select on ability but other secondaries are not - except for some "specialist" schools with subject which can "prioritise" up to a tenth of their intake on aptitude for music, sport or other skills.

Admissions policies vary between schools and areas, although the closeness of a child's home, and whether they have a sibling already at the school, are usually key factors.

At least 30 councils in England, mainly in well populated urban areas, are understood to use lotteries - with more than 100,000 pupils applying in areas where their school admissions could effectively be decided "by a roll of the dice".

A DfE spokesman said: "Ministers are clear they want a simpler and fairer admissions code. We will announce more details shortly."

Overall, Mr Gove is determined to allow individual schools much more freedom and lessen the grip on the state school system currently exerted by local authorities.

His Education Bill unveiled earlier this year gives ministers more powers to intervene in failing schools, narrows the focus of Ofsted inspections and hands teachers extra powers to search pupils for "disruptive" items".

Meanwhile, ministers are to spend an extra £70million helping children from poorer families stay on in education. A new fund of £180million will soften the blow of the abolition of Educational Maintenance Allowances which are worth up to £30 a week for 16, 17 and 18-year-olds.Originally £111million was earmarked for the fund but Liberal Democrat ministers, led by Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, squeezed extra cash out of the Treasury. The measure was expected to be in last week's Budget - but dropped out at the last moment.

Most of the new budget will be distributed to colleges to award, at their discretion, to students from less privileged backgrounds.


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