Who's accountable?


This morning, I snapped open my newspaper to see on the front page that a longtime area priest was removed from his post because of charges that he once molested children, and that Toyota has violated discovery laws for years in product liability suits.  Meanwhile, the people of Pettus, West Virginia continue to mourn and bury those who were killed in the Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch Mine last week.  So forgive me if I’m skeptical to read on the editorial page that the root of all evil is tenure, and the key to reforming public education is tying teacher’s evaluations to their students’ scores on tests administered by for-profit companies.  Is it only public sector employees who are accountable?

The attacks on union workers and public employees in this recession seem meaner than ever.  In the boom years, those of us who are public employees (or other non-profit sector employees) were told that we were soft, we were uncompetitive, we were missing out.  Now those of us who have opted for greater job security–staying in grad school through the 1990s and missing out on the tech boom, trading cash bonuses for tenure, or better benefits packages or retirement plans for salary increases–are lectured that we’re enjoying outsized benefits and job security.  How dare we?  The lectures will never end, apparently.  “But it’s not fair that you’re tenured!  Why isn’t every other worker as vulnerable as I feel?”

Why don’t American workers look around and say, “why am I not entitled to job security and a defined benefits plan any longer?,” instead of siding with their evil corporate overlords, who would be happy to make schoolteachers, government workers, and professors as vulnerable as their own employees?  The stimulus has kept a lot of us employed, making mortgage payments, and buying groceries, toothpaste, and tube socks from local retailers.  Why would our fellow Americans want to remove this last backstop against 35% unemployment and another Great Depression?  What’s behind this small-minded ressentiment?

UPDATED, Monday afternoon:  You really must go read Dr. Crazy’s post, “Bad Gardeners, Bad Mommies, Bad Teachers.”  She says a lot that anyone in education–higher, elementary, or in-between, really should read, ponder, and discuss.  (See also her perceptive comment here below!)

0 thoughts on “Who's accountable?

  1. I have noticed a similar thing in the UK, where a number of companies have used the recession not only to make redundancies but effectively to restructure and give staff less wages and benefits for often more work and responsibility. When the workers strike, the newspapers and the generally response is- look at the bad workers- they should just suck it up during the recession. But, what is not said is that before the recession the workers generated huge amounts of wealth, which they never got to see, and a bunch of very rich people made some very bad decisions, and again the only people being asked to suffer is the average worker.

    Why aren’t we asking some of the very rich to suck it up- give something back, or at the very least to put worker’s rights in front of large profit margins. If the system isn’t working (and it clearly isn’t), then perhaps we need to rethink the relationship of employees to their organisations and how profits are directed.


  2. It’s pretty telling that here in the US all the “populist” anger during the recession is being directed at the *government* (although the general gist seems to be NOT that the gov’t failed in its watchdog capacity, but that it is encroaching on our “freedom”). The conservative and capitalist powers that be in this country have done an amazing job in the past 50 or 60 years in convincing American workers that capitalism=freedom and government (oversight, regulations, benefits, action)=oppression. Thus the outrage directed at the bailouts, health care reform, etc. In what other country in the world do people without health care say “I’d rather be without health care than let the government boss me!” They’ve totally externalized the gov’t to the point where it’s an enemy, rather than the extension and embodiment of the national community. This is naturally exactly where the corporations want them – at their mercy.

    “Accountability” as far as schools are concerned is basically just a made-up Republican concept implemented to undermine and hopefully destroy public education. It’s working great! Under the continual chorus of “You’re lazy and stupid and bad at your job!” should we all be collectively surprised that teaching doesn’t attract high levels of people?


  3. Why aren’t we asking some of the very rich to suck it up- give something back, or at the very least to put worker’s rights in front of large profit margins.

    In the immortal words of Dahlia Molloy: They never give you nothin’. You have to take it.

    I don’t know what it is that has so effectively tamped down, re-directed, and made corporatist use of real populist anger in this country. If I could figure it out, I’d be… I don’t what I’d be. But I’d be something. Maybe Betty Friedan? Gloria Steinem? Cesar Chavez? It somehow seems like there isn’t anything to organize around anymore except small-minded ressentiment.

    Partly, I think it’s the “my team v. your team” mentalitly that is modern politics. Beyond that, I haven’t a clue.


  4. Emma–I think you would be Mother Jones!

    I think that workers became accustomed to taking it on the chin back in the 1970s and 1980s. Government really went to work for the wealthy in the 1980s, and convinced a lot of working people that it was their own damn fault if they were poor, if their jobs were vulnerable, etc. A lot of GM, Ford, and other union jobs got moved into Southern anti-union states in the 1980s, then those plants went to Mexico in the 1990s after NAFTA, and then they went off to China in the 2000s. I don’t think the level of demoralization and nastiness that I see now would be possible without the erosion of organized labor over an entire generation.

    I also think there are some interesting gendered implications in all of this, too. It was the predominantly men’s unions that were targeted first by government and the corporations–because, of course, they made the most money and had the strongest unions. Now, union busters are down to AFSCME and other service workers’ unions, and the teachers unions, which serve a majority of women workers.

    I’m not sure what it all adds up to, but this may play into the perception that men have shouldered the burden of the so-called “he-cession.”


  5. “Why don’t American workers look around and say, “why am I not entitled to job security and a defined benefits plan any longer?,” instead of siding with their evil corporate overlords, who would be happy to make schoolteachers, government workers, and professors as vulnerable as their own employees?” This rush to the LCD is what I face when discussing providing college courses to the overwhelmingly poor and working class people who fill our prisons. And most often it comes from working class people on the outside who use a similar spoiler logic: I can’t afford a college education for my kids, why should a criminal get one.


  6. I’m especially interested in the call to evaluate teachers based on student performance, particularly in terms of the gender implications of such a move. I feel like this connects a lot to the whole “our boys are not succeeding” rhetoric (this is not to say that there aren’t issues with how K-12 education serves male students vs. female – only to call into question the rhetoric). Basically, the rhetoric in both cases constructs teachers as bad mommies who aren’t doing their jobs if students don’t “succeed” by whatever external measurement is imposed.

    If students (gendered male, whatever the “actual” sex) can’t excel, get into the right college, get a job, then it’s the teacher (gendered female, whatever the “actual” sex) who must be punished/regulated, much in the way that mothers must be punished/regulated for breast-feeding/not, making their own baby food/not, eating the right/wrong things during pregnancy, staying home/choosing daycare, as if a choice in one direction or the other would produce perfect children.

    The discourse reduces the development of children/students to the performance of the phallic mother/teacher, and it fails to take into account the actual children/students in question. Now, of course, this gives us somebody to blame, and it’s a much easier thing to do that than to actually look at the complexity of human development. So in that regard, I get it.

    But I entirely agree with you that attacking tenure isn’t the solution to anything here. It’s a convenient target for the vulnerability and anxiety that people feel (though I’d argue that teachers/professors feel vulnerable and anxious, too, even with tenure, given furloughs, pay freezes/cuts, etc., so that while they may be secure in *having* a job, they are not necessarily so secure in terms of their livelihood if they keep that job), but it really has nothing to do with improving education.


  7. Wow, Dr. Crazy–I hadn’t thought about this movement as casting teachers as bad mommies, but I think that’s a brilliant observation. (You really should write a whole post on your blog about this!)

    Your ideas and teachme’s observations can exist in the same universe if we understand the demand for “education reform” as really a demand for “disciplining the workers” rather than improving, y’know, education in this country. That is to say, the demand for “accountability” among teachers may not translate into an improvement in or expansion of educational opportunity, especially if teachme is correct and the people who need it most don’t want it or refuse to collaborate in letting everyone get it.

    I’m even more cynical now about this than I was when I wrote this post! Egads.


  8. As you said, this is also making lots of money to be handed over to the for-profit companies that test and evaluate, as well as the consultants to review schools, prepare schools and so on. Oh, and the staff who’ll be hired (just on contract, mind you!) to manage the paperwork to go to the for-profits and to the ministries or agencies that collect, collate and report upon the information to the think tanks that then go out and bleat about how the bad teachers are ruining our students.

    Face it, any teacher with tenure will be clawing his or her way out of the at-risk schools, then. Because we’ve already seen, time and again, that the vast majority of failing students come from situations where underlying socioeconomic pressures and family problems and community lacks make their chances to succeed fewer and fewer.

    But what does that count against the opportunity to mouth some free-market rhetoric and pocket a fair bit of money to “review and fix” the problems?


  9. @Perpetua: They’ve totally externalized the gov’t to the point where it’s an enemy, rather than the extension and embodiment of the national community.

    The modern history of this–which amounts to a denial that government can actually be democratically accountable–starts, I’m convinced, with the school integration battles of the 1950’s. Segregated schools were defended (by Southern governors like Orval Faubus and Ross Barnett) against “outside” Federal authority trying to enforce Brown v. Board of Ed. Then the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the mid-60’s reinforced the conviction that the Federal government had taken sides with Black people and thus by definition against white people. The Birch Society called for Earl Warren to be hanged, then (more modestly) for him to be impeached, because of Brown; the Tea Partiers focus their rage on Obama and the policies they identify with him. Same old racism. It worked for Wallace and Nixon and Reagan; we’ll know soon enough if it’s still got some mileage in its tank, but I’m guessing it does.


  10. It’s kind of multidimensional. The “right” has held on to the idea that the private sector, i.e. private companies, is efficient while the public sector, e.g. government; teachers; postal workers, are wasteful and inefficient. Reality shows that some private companies are terribly inefficient and their performance awful. Some public segments are very efficient.

    I spent about three decades in academia, i.e. teacher, and two decades in private industry. (More than a decade overlap.) I saw a well known private company waste $3 billion of government money with no tangible result.

    The “right” is still in a middle of two wars we thought ended decades and century back. The Civil War still rages for the right (and currently the confederacy is on top). They also still fight FDR, e.g. they never accepted social security, and still mean to vanquish him. The color and texture of these fights has changed but not the identification. The Union is now the government, teachers and educated people.


  11. Why don’t American workers look around and say, “why am I not entitled to job security and a defined benefits plan any longer?,” instead of siding with their evil corporate overlords, who would be happy to make schoolteachers, government workers, and professors as vulnerable as their own employees? The stimulus has kept a lot of us employed, making mortgage payments, and buying groceries, toothpaste, and tube socks from local retailers. Why would our fellow Americans want to remove this last backstop against 35% unemployment and another Great Depression? What’s behind this small-minded ressentiment?

    They hate niggers, spics, kikes, bitches, towelheads, faggots, professors, and all other non-real Americans, and they would rather increase their own suffering a million-fold than see such undesireable undeserving subhumans gain the slightest respite. As a historian, I’m surprised this is news to you.


  12. Great post and thread, even by the high standards of Historiann’s blog. Historiann and Dr Crazy really show how the language of this discussion operates.

    I also think two further considerations play a part.

    One is the rise of managerialism. In that particular theoretical world, tenure has no place, because it stands in the way of supreme values like efficiency. In a universe of discourse where neo-liberalism is as liberal as most politicians care to go, effective defenses of tenure are hard to formulate. You sound like Mario Savio, casting yourself on the gears of the great machine of progress. He’s an old hero of mine–but his language is hard to use well nowadays.

    The other is more historical. When effective tenure was put in place–basically in the decades right after World War II, for much of the education system–lots of jobs were relatively secure–far more so than most jobs are now. Of course this held especially in the white collar world and for white males (but also in parts of the blue collar world). We stand out a lot more more, for the security of our tenure, than we used to. Our salaries don’t look as bad, comparatively, as they did a few years ago, and in many cases, though certainly not all, our working conditions and benefits look pretty good. Getting rid of tenure won’t ameliorate any of these conditions, of course: but it would put us on a level with others who have lost other forms of security.

    Given all of these pressures, I worry a lot about how long real tenure can last.


  13. CPP–I’m such a good liberal that I think your take is far too cynical. I think people have been beaten down so far that they can’t see any other way. This is the consequence of adopting the managerial values that Tony points out–there’s little big-picture thinking and even less generosity of spirit. It’s all a zero-sum gain: if my neighbor the third-grade teacher has tenure and I don’t in my job, then I must be losing something.

    But, as we know from the last 25 years of global economic history (and as koshem bos notes above), there’s very little that’s actually free market, fair, or even efficient about the for-profit world. The biggest winners in our “free market capitalist” system these days are those who put themselves in line for geysers of taxpayer money (the banksters, GM, Chrysler, the for-profit testing companies that give children anxiety-induced nightmares every spring.)

    As Tony says, we hardly have the language with which to defend tenure any more. (But as those of us know in higher ed these days, most of us are a lot more productive than our counterparts of 25-30 years ago–we have to be just to get an interview, let alone a job offer or tenure & promotion.)


  14. Pingback: Tuesday round-up: Hell’s Bells edition! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  15. Coming late to this discussion, but trying to catch up: One of the things that I think complicates matters here, and disturbs me, is what kind of tenure we are talking about. Tenure for teachers and tenure for higher ed academics operate in different ways, and I am not sure they exist for the same reasons. Conflating them does us all a disservice, I think.

    Before I say anything else, I’ll point out that I am very much pro-union.


    I’ve been a member of both NEA and AFT (in higher ed) and have to say that being in union shops can be awesome. It was incredibly hard to get rid of bad professors, but that was not because the unions made it hard by requiring actual evidence and documentation of the faculty member not fulfilling her duties. Instead, it was difficult because administrators did not want to hassle documenting such things until they became truly egregious. I also found that parts of the contract actually prevented me from having some of the freedom to teach as I wanted, but that was down to the personal agendas of the union reps who negotiated the contracts as much as anything. It also was not nearly the issue for me that is was in programs like English, where senior faculty taught almost entirely lit classes, even those in non-specialty areas, and comp was taught by junior faculty and adjuncts. Not sure a labor contract should be guaranteeing what courses people can teach.

    I’ve also seen tenure used as and seen as ‘guaranteed job for life, no matter if I do my damned job’ at union and non-union schools, and it pisses me off. But again, there are remedies, if administrators are willing to step up and confront problems. And at least in most of those cases, the tenured faculty has had to do *something*job-related to get tenure in the first place.

    When we talk about tenure for K-12 teachers, what are we really talking about? The job protections and guarantees, absolutely. The privileges of seniority that may not serve the students or the school community as well as the preferences of the teacher, absolutely. A benefit granted by merely having survived and done a job that may range from the barely competent to excellent? pretty much. And this often after only three years or so.

    These are very different animals, and I think it’s really important that we realize that what most people think of when they hear about college/university tenure is based on the strict labor relations model they know from K-12. I think there are all sorts of other issues (off to read Dr Crazy now), but this is one I’d like to tackle a bit more, in part because there are some interesting *other* gender issues at play here, including, I think, the tendency of many of the female university bloggers to identify with the “teacher” part of this, when I’m not seeing that among our male colleagues so much.


Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s