Some years ago – perhaps as punishment for some forgotten sins – the people of the little Vermont town where I lived elected me to the school board. I have no one to blame except myself. I was, if not young then, certainly much younger than I am now… And I was naive beyond my years. I believed I could make a difference and bring on (all together now) change.
Unfortunately, I neglected to note that there were people who were fine with things the way they were. Our teachers and their union, to be precise. They might want more – money and time off, that is – but they didn’t want different.
As for me, I was full of ideas. These days, I would call them “fantasies.”
The ideas weren’t mine, in any true sense. You need to be smart and able to study policy with a fair amount of discipline to come up with new ideas in that realm. I was a freelance magazine writer, a profession which, when you look up “dilettante” in the dictionary, you will find in italics after the letters e.g.
Still, even if these ideas were not mine, they were pretty compelling and came with a strong pedigree. Most – not to say all – of them had come to me through Milton Friedman.
The Friedman Model
Not too many years earlier, I had conducted (with a colleague) the Playboy Interview with Dr. Friedman. Back then, the Playboy Interview was a thing. And Milton Friedman was considered… oh, extreme. Which was just about the worst thing you could say about anyone who was a competitor in the scrum of ideas. Friedman was a maverick and a heretic. Why, he was opposed to the minimum wage, of all things. And to… well, all sorts of other orthodoxies.
My colleague and I got that in our interview. He was less infatuated than I. But then, he’d been to Harvard. For my part, sitting with Dr. Friedman (I don’t believe I ever called him anything else) and listening to him explain, say, the nature of “incentives,” was… well, it was enlightening. And bracing. Something millions of PBS viewers would experience a couple of years later.
If I were compelled to distill those tutorials – which is how I thought of them – to a single word, that would be the one. “Incentives.” That word took on an almost holy aura in what might laughably be called my “philosophy of economics.” That was still true when I was sentenced to that stretch on the school board.
When it came time to negotiate a new contract with our teachers, the other board members asked me to take the lead. (And I still don’t know how to thank them enough.) Full of myself and the spirit of Milton Friedman, I agreed…
I didn’t need to study very much, or very hard, to see an opportunity to deploy what I thought of as the “right” incentives.
We had only a dozen or so teachers in our little school. Everyone in town knew who the good teachers were… also the bad ones. Parents would talk about how a child was having a down year with “Miss _______,” while others would tell you how their child was doing “wonderfully” with “Mrs. ________.” Most, but not all, of our teachers were women, which is – unfortunately, I think – true of most elementary schools.
Since teachers’ pay was a matter of public record, it was easy for me to learn that there wasn’t much correlation between performance and pay. An indifferent teacher who had been around a long time earned “step” raises. She was rewarded, in other words, for longevity (which I’ve always considered to be its own reward) and not for performance. That same teacher would be given points (or “steps,”) for attending those summer workshops which were supposed to enhance a teacher’s “professional skills.” In my view, these were classes where the only skill teachers learned was how to speak fluent bureaucratese (than which there is no uglier language).
So the plain fact was, good teachers who were young and lacking both seniority and a long record of attending the summer indoctrinations were being treated unfairly. And the only way for them to get a raise was to A) live and teach longer and B) attend more workshops. There was no way they could accelerate their own aging and, as for the summer workshops, it was commonly conceded that no teacher would endure a stretch at one of them if it weren’t for – wait for it – the incentives.
The board knew that we would be paying more in the new contract we were about to negotiate. We were prepared for that… Everyone knew how much the cost of living had increased. We might be able to hold the line at that number, but if we had to go over it just a little, we could live with that. But if we did, I argued, we ought to find some money for incentives – some way to reward good work, especially by young teachers… and perhaps even light a fire under some of the older teachers who were just coasting, waiting for the next summer seminar while they piled up longevity points.
I did some research and reached out to some think tanks where I was told, essentially, “Good luck and where do you want the body shipped?”
Where Common Sense Goes to Die
I found a couple of allies on the school board who were as naively idealistic as I. There were some people in the town who had experience writing contracts in the business world, and a couple of them agreed to help, though they couldn’t manage to conceal their skepticism.
We came up with a system (“contraption” might be a better word) that factored in teacher evaluations by our principal, input from parents, in-class observations by members of the board, and student performance on standardized tests. It was not ruthlessly empirical… But it was something. And it would reward teachers for something more than just staying above ground another year and killing two weeks at a summer seminar where the spoken language was bureaucratese.
My supporters on the board were pleased and cautiously optimistic. A couple of the old hands thought we were fools… well-meaning fools, but fools just the same.
Write that down to the wisdom of age.
I typed up an outline of our plan and submitted it to the teacher who served as union rep for our faculty. She sniffed and said she would get back to me.
Which she did, a couple of days later, and said that we needed to open negotiations and, oh, by the way, there would be someone from union headquarters attending.
The day arrived and I went to the school library with another member of the board. There were two men wearing neckties and cheap suits waiting for us. They had a look…
“These dudes,” I thought to myself, “are the muscle.”
Not real muscle, mind you… I could have taken either of them – and maybe both – out on the school playground. But bureaucratic muscle. The kind that will wear you down by citing regulation such and such, chapter two, paragraph one… and threaten to appeal to the oversight board… and, if that doesn’t work, the Supreme Court. They have nothing but time. And a deep understanding of the rules.
I introduced myself. They nodded. We didn’t shake hands. I’d been through speeding busts that were more cordial. We took our seats, across the room from each other.
One of the union reps announced, in tones that made it sound as though he were bored, the basic salary increases we were proposing were not enough, but this was “negotiable.” (Big of him.)
However, this business of “bonuses” (his word for what we thought of as “merit pay”) was out of the question.
When I asked why, he answered, like he was talking to a third grader, that judgements of that sort were “subjective.” And they would demoralize the teachers who did not qualify.
Which, I thought, was precisely the point… Maybe those teachers would try harder… or find another line of work.
But that was how the discussions proceeded. Focusing, that is, on the teachers who did not receive bonuses for good work and what effect that might have on their morale, though “self-esteem” is probably the term that was used.
We did not discuss the students and how they might prosper if a fire were built under a few lazy, long-term teachers… how sticking them in classes presided over by bored time servers was unfair to them (and, by the way, to the people whose taxes paid the salaries of burned-out teachers).
The reps made it clear that there would be no compromising on “bonuses.” This was non-negotiable. The word “strike” was never uttered. And a shutdown of the school was, I knew, insupportable. The incentives of the townspeople were dilute. They had things other than merit pay for teachers to worry about. If asked, they would say that it was not a hill worth dying on… Keep the school open.
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The Lowliest Common Denominator
To the teachers – and these union reps, especially – this issue was not life or death, as the old joke has it, but more important than that. It was plain from their body language and professional scowls that the reps simply could not afford to lose this one.
“And you know why?” a friend said to me that evening. He was a Boston Irish guy who had worked factory jobs, put himself through school, been lit on fire in Vietnam, and come out whole. He was an exec at the state’s nuclear power plant and a force in state Republican politics. Bernie Sanders would have hated him on principle. But then, the feeling would have been lustily mutual.
“Unions will go to the mat for the worst, lowest-performing people they represent because of the message it sends.”
“To the bosses?”
“Nah. To the members.”
“I don’t get it.”
“A union depends on solidarity,” my friend said. “That’s in its DNA. The way to demonstrate solidarity is to fight for the members who are losers. Say one of your old, burned-out teachers doesn’t get a merit bonus and the union says it’s OK with that. Well, that’s goodbye to solidarity. You’re going to lose. You never had a chance.”
And he was right, of course. The incentives were stacked in favor of those union reps. My service on the school board was a part-time thing. Steamrolling civilians in contract negotiations was their life.
I finished my sentence on the school board and was released on good behavior. I paid my taxes and bitched, along with other parents, about the indifferent teachers on the faculty who would neither retire nor try harder.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The Wrong Incentives
Still, I found myself following stories about teachers’ unions and school strikes and the woes of the nation’s public school systems.
I especially liked this quote from one of the articles I read:
Dismissing a teacher, as one school superintendent [said] is not a process, it’s a career. California ranks near the bottom in school quality but is able to dismiss only two out of 300,000 teachers in a typical year.
And this one, from Albert Shanker, who was the leader of one of the most powerful teachers unions, on why he seemed, like the two I “negotiated” with, to give so little thought to and spend so little energy on the students:
When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.
So with the teachers unions running the show in public schools, we now have, as William McGurn writes in the Wall Street Journal:
Of the 27 U.S. urban school districts that reported their results for 2019—from Boston and Chicago to Fort Worth, Texas, and Los Angeles—not a single one can say a majority of the black eighth-graders in their care are proficient in either math or reading.
It isn’t even close. In a number of these school districts, proficiency rates for black eighth-graders are down in the single digits (see Detroit’s 4% for math and 5% for reading, or Milwaukee’s 5% for math and 7% for reading). Most are in the low teens.
But not to worry, says a California teachers union leader and mouthpiece. That’s not the important stuff… Losing a year of in-class instruction is “no big deal.”
“There is no such thing as learning loss,” Cecily Myart-Cruz (head of United Teachers Los Angeles) said in an interview with Los Angeles Magazine‘s Jason McGahan. “Our kids didn’t lose anything. It’s OK that our babies may not have learned all their times tables. They learned resilience. They learned survival. They learned critical-thinking skills. They know the difference between a riot and a protest. They know the words insurrection and coup.”
(The bit about “times tables” is especially good.)
There are signs that the teachers’ unions may have overplayed their hands during the pandemic. But I remain skeptical. They are no more likely to quit or even bend than those two enforcers who came down from headquarters to put me and the other volunteer school board members in their place all those years ago.
It isn’t about the parents, and it isn’t about the kids.
It’s all about them…
And the incentives.
Geoffrey Norman is the author of a dozen fiction and non-fiction books. His featured articles appear in the Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated, National Geographic, Esquire, Men’s Journal, and the Weekly Standard.