Monday, February 14, 2011

Putting Children First

Obviously, when it comes to education policy, we need to put children first. That is why when we are faced with the potential of teacher layoffs, we need to make sure that we abolish seniority as a criterion. Because we value children and education so much, we must make sure that the least “effective” teachers are laid off first, not the least senior. After all, children first.

Or so say an enormous number of people, relatively few of whom actually work in classrooms every day.

Most of the arguments against this line of argument address the question of teacher effectiveness and how we might recognize it. And there are a lot of good objections there. But I want to address the ridiculous idea of putting the needs of students ahead of the needs of adults. I want to question this idea of children first.

Over at Gotham Schools, I challenged commenters to come up with a workable alternative to seniority for layoff decision-making. That meant an alternative that would cover all teachers, would not be subject to easy manipulation (e.g. from favoritism or backlash), and would produce to unambiguous priorities in layoffs. The only response was a Bad Attendance First Out (BAFO) plan.

As I wrote over there, BAFO is legally unworkable. It could run afoul of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act Family and Medical Leave Act, the federal Uniformed Servicemembers Employment and Re-Employment Rights Act and the New York Human Rights Law. That's a problem. But in my view, that's not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is the children first thinking behind this proposal.

Should teachers be allowed to take sick days? Should they be allowed to take their own children to doctor's appointments? Should they be allowed take a day off to attend a funeral? What about their parent's funeral? What about -- god forbid -- their own child's funeral? Or, should they suffer the punishment of being higher on the layoff list if they do any of these things?

What about being stuck on a train that has had mechanical problems? What about their car being broadsided by a car that ran a red light? What about having a heart attack and therefore being hospitalized? Should these teachers  be held responsible for the time they miss and be put higher on the layoff list?

If you want to suggest that teachers get too many vacation days in addition to the scheduled school vacations, I might agree with you. But sometimes, teachers need personal days. Sometimes they really need sick days.

The children first thinking of so many non-teachers is premised on the idea that teachers should have less rights than any other workers in this country, because -- after all -- children first. Unlike other workers, they should not be able to take vacation. Unlike others, they should not be allowed to get sick. Unlike others, they should not be allowed to go to funerals. Unlike others, nothing in their own personal lives should ever be more important than their jobs. They should take pay cuts, give up the pensions they were promised, suffer arbitrary (and often capricious) judgments at the hands of their undertrained and undersupported supervisors. Unlike others, they should give up their lunch hours and work beyond any reasonable number of “work hours.”

According to non-teachers, the laws that protect all other workers and the rights of all other workers should not apply to teachers. The contracts that schools and districts sign with teachers should not be binding on the schools and districts. The standards for workplaces and treatment of employees that matter in other contexts should not apply to schools and teachers. After all, children first.

I'm sorry, but we cannot always put children first.

Oh, wait......I'm not sorry.


  1. There is another line of argument that the "children first" reasoning is stupid. This post, however, is about it being immoral.

    The argument that it is stupid depends on the notion that teachers matter, and that smarter, harder working and more talents teachers are better for kid than less smart, less hardworking and less talented teachers.

    If you treat teachers poorly and if potential future teachers know that teachers will be treated poorly, it will be all the harder to attract the smart, hard working, and talented to the profession. So, if incentives matter -- and that is one of the fundamental of economics -- then treatment of teachers is critical to attracting good candidates.

    And good candidates lead to better teachers.

    And better teachers lead to better outcomes for students.

    So, as a practical matter, if you really care about children, you actually have to care about treatment of teachers, too.

    However, the moral argument stands, as well.

  2. When I hear Mayor Bloomberg or Michelle Rhee talk about "Children First," I immediately hear, "Screw teachers." Their every action reinforces this message. The fact is their "reforms," universally, are unproven nonsense. Their goal is privatization, teachers replaceable as McDonald's employees, and the end of teaching as a viable path to middle class for the very kids they put "first."

  3. woohoo, amen to this! excellent dismantling of something that sounds good but really can demean teachers. it's bad enough that kids think teachers aren't 'real people'--certainly the government and the population at large seems to think so too, to the detriment of teachers themselves.