Thursday, March 12, 2009

They'll Teach Him a Lesson

I predicted that the lefties would freak out when their man in the White House started shattering their expectations about things like ending the wars, making significant changes in the Bush terrorism policies, nullifying the Patriot Act, getting less cozy with big business, and so on. These were all things that were obviously not going to change, but no one on the left would listen, so we had to leave them to their folly. So far, however, Obama's failure to create the sort of “change” that would excite the left, his turning up the volume on the Bush bailouts, and his stimulus plan that is no more than the same old crap repackaged with “emergency” wrappings – none of these has gotten much pushback from anyone except a few talk radio heads and conservative columnists. The left is still waiting for him to take the gloves off and nationalize everything down to bubble gum machines. The Republicans are not only helpless to stop the juggernaut, but most of them have signed on... and the conservatives (i.e. the usual sort) are in total disarray, like the Russian white armies in the face of the Bolshevik revolution. Only the people who pronounced a curse on both the Republican and Democratic houses in the last election have the right to hold their heads high... but one might as well say “I told you so” in the midst of a hurricane – no one is listening.

However, Obama's overreach has finally gotten the attention of a group that knows how to push back, and push back hard – and to win -- namely the teachers' unions. They were, of course, a core element of his support in the election, just as they have been a core element of the support of every Democratic politician from James Buchanan on. They are the most powerful and invincible interest group in the country... with the possible exception of the Israel lobby, and with Big Agriculture running third. Essentially, any politician who wants to succeed on the national level has to pledge undying fealty to them, because they know that if the teachers' unions turn on you, you're dead meat. So it is a measure of Obama's level of delusion and euphoria that he has taken them on by proposing performance-based pay for public school teachers.

Actually, he has proposed more than that, but the rest of his proposals are easily dealt with by the entrenched public education system. Take higher standards, for example. You can make virtually any level of student performance look better by either lowering the grading curve or dumbing down the material. This is child's play, and it's already been developed to a fine art in the process of No Child Left Behind compliance. Cutting the dropout rate? There are all sorts of ways of bribing kids to stay in school – of course they have nothing whatsoever to do with actual education, but at least they're “in school”, right? Again, no problem. Heck, you can even start giving out grades based on... oh, say, something called “Community Participation”, which basically means if you spend your day anywhere in the “hood” you pass. The only way to drop out from that program would be to get killed. (And in Chicago, even that wouldn't do.)

What else does Obama want? Longer school days and school years? Well, the unions could probably get behind that if they were paid overtime for all the extra hours and days, and not expected to actually do any more with that extra time. But how can more of something that isn't working be better? It would be more realistic if Obama were to propose _shorter_ school days and school years. And in the case of “inner-city” schools, _no_ school days or school years would have a better outcome than what we have now.

Then what about “charter schools”? Obama has called for more. But the unions hate them, of course, as do liberals in general. For one thing, they're “discriminatory” in that they give a lucky few a chance to actually learn something. Much better to confine everyone to equally-bad public schools where the leveling that liberals all strive for can take place, and ignorance is perpetuated, resulting in dependency, the inability to think critically, and political malleability. Plus, charter schools, by definition, come with accountability criteria – again, anathema to liberals and the educational establishment. So you can mark that idea down as DOA.

And how about “having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by the year 2020”? That goes beyond public education in the narrow sense. But again, it's easy to achieve, if you, in effect, bribe enough people to go to college and lower standards enough so virtually anyone can graduate. That last part has been under way in our state universities for decades; as far back as the early 1970s I was seeing university campuses that looked like a scene from “Dawn of the Dead”. People who would have to be told which end of a shovel is which were busy getting bachelor's degrees in... well, in just about anything you can imagine, as long as it didn't involve acquiring any real knowledge. And when they got out, they easily transitioned into the work force, in things like... government. And teaching!

But the unions could have overlooked all of these proposals, if only Obama had held his tongue when it comes to standards for teachers, and especially the universally-feared concept of “merit pay”. This is something that the government itself has been trying to accomplish for its own employees for decades, and no system has been found to work satisfactorily – and that's with relatively weak government employees' unions. By comparison, going up against the all-powerful monolith of the teachers' unions is nothing but suicidal... but Obama doesn't seem to realize that as yet (but he may very soon).

In the meantime, however, it is amusing to consider the preliminary response on the part of the NEA. They're all for increased funding, no problem. And when it comes to pay for performance, they point out that “Obama didn't speak specifically about linking pay increases to student test scores”. Well, that's a relief, I must say! Now let's all go out and de-link pay for professional athletes from how well they play. What other criterion, pray tell, would be appropriate as a basis for teacher merit pay besides student test scores? Maybe how students “feel” about various things? Ah, but the NEA has an answer – it's providing “additional pay for completing rigorous graduate training”. Now... anyone who knows anything about graduate education in education knows that “rigor” has nothing to do with it. You can get a degree in education from most places if you're in a coma the whole time. So the idea of sending teachers who are already on the job back to school for some sort of “rigorous training”, and basing their pay on that and nothing else, is a scam that would make Bernie Madoff envious. The ultimate criterion, “national board certification”, would be the sole standard, and actual results in the form of student achievement wouldn't even be on radar.

Thus we see that the teachers' unions – clever people that they are – have already laid the groundwork for pulling the wool over Obama's eyes, just as they pulled it over Bush's. I don't think they'll even have to bring out the big guns, unless he catches on to their scam... but what are the chances of that? He's cut from the same cloth they are – image is everything, substance nothing. But if he should ever threaten to wander off the public education reservation, they have ways of dealing with him, just as with any other politician. They didn't give him all their support in the election just to see him erode their power base, of which the main components include chronic failure, chronic claims of “underfunding”, and legal and regulatory sanctions against alternative forms of education. They didn't get to the position of power they hold by putting educational achievement first. Obama thinks he can get their cooperation by talking about American competitiveness, and about our educational system “once more (being) the envy of the world”. Well, I'm sure that our teachers' _unions_ are the envy of other _unions_ in the world, since they hold absolute power over education policy. And as far as American "competitiveness" is concerned, doesn't that sound an awful lot like some "captialist" concept? And aren't the teachers' unions as dead-set against "captialism" as any of the other interest groups on the left? Besides, the concept of "competitiveness" inevitably raises the concept of "standards", and haven't we already decided that "standards" are cruel, inconsiderate, a source of stress, discriminatory, racist, sexist, homophobic (probably), and mean-spirited?

So anyway... Obama has reached out and touched one of the “third rails” of American politics, but again, because he's “one of their own”, they won't undertake a full-blown campaign to take him down just yet. Instead, they'll use flattery and deception, kind of like with Jimmy Carter, to insure that huge amounts of money get spent, but that the livin' stays easy. This is what powerful, established entities do – they perpetuate themselves at great cost to the citizenry while maintaining their privileged status as sheltered workshops for the rank and file and playgrounds of power for those in charge. It's true in government at all levels, it's true in protected and/or subsidized sectors of the economy (these are increasing in number on a daily basis, note), and it's true in public education. And no pipsqueak president is going to mess up their deal, you can be certain.

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