Tilting at Diversity, Tilting at Teacher's Unions

Firing insubordinate teachers, what a novelty!

Emmett Till's murder  in 1955 helped start the American civil rights movement.  More than fifty years later, the controversy simmers on.

Two LA teachers at the Celerity Nascent Charter School were fired for bucking the administration and signing a petition asking that a poem honoring Emmett Till be read during Black History Month.  The reading was canceled because the school administration felt that the story of Till's murder was inappropriate for younger students and would have sent the wrong message.

This article quotes the school administration:

"Our whole goal is how do we get these kids to not look at all of the bad things that could happen to them and instead focus on the process of how do we become the next surgeon or the next politician," said Celerity co-founder and Executive Director Vielka McFarlane. "We don't want to focus on how the history of the country has been checkered but on how do we dress for success, walk proud, and celebrate all the accomplishments we've made."

That's very well said.  Would that more schools thought that way!

We're written about leaders who seek to unite our country and leaders who want to divide it.  The school administration is trying to get kids not to think about bad things of the past and to focus on their future careers.  This should be the goal of every school.  The administration's forward-looking approach is far more constructive than most ethnic celebrations.

Let's summarize the situation.  McFarlane founds a charter school in LA, a city not known for educational excellence.  Instead of focusing kid's minds on crimes of the past and getting them thinking like victims, the principal wants them thinking about their future careers, she wants them to be winners, not victims.

A teacher brings a book about a civil rights murder into her class, gets the kids to write a poem about it, and wants to read the poem to "celebrate" Black History Month.  Quite rightly, the boss points out that this poem is not what the school is all about and tells the teacher not to read it.  Give the boss credit for being on top of things; there's no point in the school having a vision unless the boss works to reinforce the vision every hour of every working day.

Instead of accepting the boss' order, two of the teachers stir up the kids to write protest letters and the teachers sign them.  They're fired for insubordination.

The article gives some background:

Many parents agreed with the school's decision to omit the Till presentation.  During February's Black History Month program, the seventh-graders' poem, based on the book "A Wreath for Emmett Till," was replaced by a reading on the civil rights struggle as a whole.

"There's no celebration in the Emmett Till story," said Stephen Weathers, president of the school's parent organization.  "He was beaten for whistling at a white woman, and I don't want my daughter to know that in the fourth grade.  I don't think a celebration of Black History Month is a forum for that story.  It's important, but that wasn't the stage for it."

The article also explains how the principal tried to handle the situation:

...Alba [one of the fired teachers] said that when the principal informed the class that they could not recite their poem, she gave the example of a construction worker whistling at her as she walked down the street.

"She said that she would be offended by that and that what Emmett Till did could be considered sexual harassment," said Alba.  "She used the phrase a couple of times and when I objected, she said 'OK, inappropriately whistled at a woman.'"

Give the principal more credit for leadership; she knew her kids would be disappointed not to read their poem so she went to the class to deal with the situation her subordinate had stirred up.  When she principal tried to explain why they couldn't recite their poem, the teacher undercut her to the class and complained that her boss told the class that Mr. Till's whistling would be called sexual harassment today.  What the boss said is perfectly true, why did the teacher object?

If you Google "sexual harassment wolf whistle" you'll find many articles equating the two along with this survey which Google summarizes:

As one personnel officer said: "I think sexual harassment comes into the class of crimes ... the most common in South Africa is the ubiquitous wolf whistle.

Mr. Till became a civil rights icon by getting murdered.  Is that why Alba objected to calling his whistle "sexual harassment?"  Was she afraid that any criticism of one of the heroes of the movement would make people doubt the Cause?  Or does she believe it's not sexual harassment for blacks to whistle at white women?

Discussing a 50-year-old murder is not "forward-looking" and doesn't help kids focus on their careers.  Is discussing Emmett Till going to help today's black kids get along with white people at work?

I know a retired airline pilot who nearly got nailed for a lot less than a wolf whistle.  He was in a hotel shuttle after a long, hard, "bad air day."  The bus stopped for a flight attendant he hadn't seen for a while.  As he tells it, he greeted her warmly and told her she looked nice.  He was amazed to be hit with a grievance for sexual harassment some weeks later.

Fortunately, he remembered who'd been on the bus with him.  One of the other flight attendants testified that the complainer had bragged that she was going to law school to learn how to "nail one of those rich pilots and retire."  The case finally went away, but it cost him lawyer's fees and loss of sleep.

Given the current cultural climate, it's entirely appropriate for a principal to warn students not to wolf whistle.  Why would the teacher object to her boss pointing out that a) sexual harassment is in the eye of the beholder, b) can be offensive, and c) can bring big trouble?

In Mr. Till's case, the response to whatever offense he committed was outrageously disproportionate, but shouldn't students be taught to avoid giving offense?  Isn't avoiding offense and upholding diversity at all costs one of the key tenets of political correctness?

Mr. Till had been warned:

Prior to his departure, his mother, Mamie Till Bradley, a teacher, had done her best to advise him about how to behave when interacting with Southern white people.

There's no way that Mr. Till's murder can be justified, but he did disregard his mother's warning.  If you were warned not to draw cartoons about Mohammad or name a teddy bear "Mohammad" while visiting an Islamic country and you were murdered for doing so, wouldn't it be appropriate to use your experience as a warning to respect other people's ideas about diversity when you're on their turf?

The principal was completely correct to use the Till incident as a warning to the class.  It's a good thing she had the authority to fire the teachers who tried to undermine her authority, undermine her teaching, and trash our national unity.

They both should be fired for insubordination, but there's a far better reason to fire Alba: she doesn't know the most important thing that schools should teach - the rules of business.  These kids are going to work for other people when they grow up.

If you're going to have a boss, you must understand the rules of business.  We've all seen the old sign:

The Only Rules Of Business
Rule # 1 - The boss is always right
Rule # 2 - When you think the boss is wrong, see rule # 1

Some years back I was working with a very bright recent college graduate and we got to talking about our boss.  "I don't really like him," I was told, "he treats me like a subordinate."

I knew what he hadn't been taught.

"Look," I asked with some indignation, "did you get the last paycheck?"  He nodded.  "What the heck do you think he's paying you for?  He's paying you for the right to tell you what to do!"

I'm not the sharpest tool in the box when it comes to the subtleties of human interaction, but I know stunned incomprehension when I see it.

I went on, "When you agreed to work here, you agreed to sell your labor, right?"

This seemed to be a brand-new concept, but I got a nod.  "You're selling subordination.  By taking his money, you're committing to do what he tells you to do.  You agreed to be subordinate to him in return for him paying you.  You're agreed to sell him subordination, and if you don't deliver, if you don't do what you agreed to do, if you don't act like a subordinate, you're committing fraud."

"He bought the right to treat you as a subordinate, he has the right to tell you what to do, you sold him that right.  There are limits.  If he tells you do to something illegal or to violate your conscience, you have the right to quit, but he has the right to stop paying you."

Alba didn't understand the rules.  What was she teaching her students?  When you don't like what the boss tells you, write letters, protest, give the boss a hard time.  Is that how you become a surgeon or a politician?  Is Alba training her students for success?  Or is she training her students to become victims?  Alba has a hard vacuum between her ears, she's utterly ignorant how things work in the real world.  Anybody that ignorant shouldn't teach.

Lessons To Learn

American society had serious problems with respect to civil rights when Mr. Till was murdered but few people recognized the issues with enough focus to do anything.  His murder galvanized the civil rights movement.  It takes years to change longstanding habits, but habits have changed and our society is far better for it.

Similarly, our present public educational system is nearly as messed up as our overall society was at the time of Mr. Till's murder.  Our schools have never trained enough technical workers; one of my clients imported 75 programmers from England back in the 1980's.  Public schools are required by law, they are free to the consumer, and they are losing market share.  What's wrong with this picture?

This incident with the two teachers shows that the problem with public schools is the same problem that has doomed Chrysler, Ford, and GM -- unions have made it impossible for the Big Three to compete, teacher's unions have made it impossible for public schools to compete even though their product is given away free!  As auto unions made it essentially impossible to fire workers who wouldn't work, who wouldn't do what they were told, or who even stole from the company, teacher's unions have made it essentially impossible to fire teachers who work against the school's vision.

Fortunately, McFarlane had founded a Charter School whose main characteristic is that they're non-union and don't have to put up with all the bureaucratic nonsense of public schools.  In particular, the principal can fire teachers.  In unionized public schools, there's no way to get rid of a teacher, no matter how corrupt or incompetent.

We've mourned as the Big Three auto manufacturers have lost market share.  We've criticized management, but the main difference between the former big three and their competitors is that the big three are unionized and their competitors are not.

As teacher unions make it very difficult to run public schools effectively, auto unions make it very difficult to run auto plants efficiently.  If you Google for other articles about the fired teachers, you'll find union-friendly rags condemning the injustice of firing teachers for speaking out; the unions will never admit that the teachers were fired for defrauding their employer.

Teachers' unions are far more interested in maintaining privileges for teachers than in teaching kids what they need to know.  This is tragic - we're defrauding the kids.  When we send kids to school, we're making an implied contract.  "Humor us for 12 years, come to school, sit in class, learn what we tell you, and when you graduate, you'll be ready to take your place in adult society."  Have we fulfilled our contract with the kids?  How many "graduates" can't even read their diplomas?

Unions know that non-union auto plants work better than unionized auto plants and that non-union charter schools work better than unionized schools.  Auto companies respond to unions by moving plants overseas; people who want to teach respond to unions by starting charter schools.  Unions know that if we get too many charter schools, we taxpayers will catch on and demand non-union schools as we demand cars made in non-union factories; they fight charter schools to the last breath.

Public education is not about teaching kids, it's about budget, power, privilege, and the right to do whatever you want in your classroom whether it helps the kids or not.

Back when Japanese car companies first started competing with Detroit, the unions put on political pressure to get the US government to limit Japanese car sales in the US.  That didn't work - the Japanese cars were so much better that dealers charged more than the sticker price; this strengthened the dealer network.  At the same time, the Japanese opened plants in the US and showed that Americans could build world-class cars if unions were kept out of the way.

When the Chrysler bankruptcy came along, my Japanese friends told me they would've let Chrysler go under - letting a player die makes everyone else play nicer.  Chrysler came back, no major changes were made, and the decline continued.

Parents are abandoning public education.  They're homeschooling, looking for charter schools, or sending their kids to private schools at great expense as early buyers of Japanese cars paid more than the sticker price to get a car that worked.  When homeschooling started, the educrats had two choices:

  1. Try to find out why customers were leaving and improve their product.
  2. Call the social workers, accuse their former customers of "educational neglect," and try to force them back into the system they hated.

Instead of cooperating with parents, the educrats persuaded Child Protection Services workers, who wanted more turf and budget anyway, to take parents to court to force them to put their kids back in public schools.  In response, more than 50,000 families have joined the Home School Legal Defense Association which sues school districts and social workers on behalf of abused parents.  Imagine that, parents banding together to protect themselves from public school bureaucracies!  The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) may have learned that suing your customers to defend an outdated business model is not necessarily a brilliant move.

As teachers tried for force parents to send their kids to schools they didn't like, the auto workers tried to force people to buy cars they didn't like from the Big Three.  At the height of the import restrictions, I saw a small Japanese car driving bravely down a Detroit highway.  It had been kicked, and keyed, it was all banged up, but the driver wasn't going to knuckle under - he had a bumper sticker, "Real Americans Buy What They Want."

Real Americans care as much about educating their kids as they care about the cars they drive.  Unfortunately, teachers' unions are making the same mistake the auto unions made.  Instead of finding out why they're losing market share and doing something about it, teachers unions try to kill home schooling through bureaucratic pressure, they try to de-fund charter schools, they lobby.  When Utah tried to pass a wide-ranging voucher system, the unions spent millions of dollars telling lies to defeat it.

Emmett Till's murder showed everything that was wrong with American society - a black man was murdered for whistling at a white woman, and an all-white jury acquitted his murderers.  The latest Till incident shows everything that's right about Charter Schools - two teachers violated their commitments to the school and were fired.

Some teachers are getting it.  One school administrator is reaching out to home schoolers in his district.  He admits he's more concerned with the state money he gets for each pupil than with educating the kids, but communicating with his ex-customers is a step in the right direction.  On a similar note, the Economist said:

In May, a majority of tenured teachers in Locke High School, one of the worst in Los Angeles, expressed a desire to convert the school into a charter. It was an astonishing gesture, since (as the teachers' union quickly pointed out) they would lose some of their rights.

The question is: will teacher's unions learn from history?  Will they fight for their rights, or will they get back to teaching?  Will they reach out and meet dissatisfied parents halfway?  Or will they continue to act like Luddites, hunkering in their bunker of privilege, ever-growing budgets, lack of accountability, and graduating students who can't read?

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments
Not a "very bright" college graduate. All book smarts, I supose. I think the writing has been on the wall with the DoE for a very long time. This is why I supported Ron Paul, who nows looks like he won't win. He wants to shut down the DoE all together.
January 12, 2008 3:16 PM
Will's statement about a public school's inability to fire teachers is false. A serious principal with documented evidence can remove those who stand in the way of the school's vision, or make their life unpleasant through "reassignment". Unfortunately, the school "vision" may be myopic or misguided or the principal may lack the intestinal fortitude to fire their "friends". Will is correct about the union's rather blind defense of many bad teachers. However, IF the documentation is there, then little defense can be mounted.
January 12, 2008 8:52 PM
Will's contention is accurate, in the context in which he puts it. Is it completely impossible for a principal to fire a teacher? No - if the teacher is a convicted murderer or pedophile, or is videotaped smoking crack in the classroom, or something extreme like that, of course the principal can sack them, and the union probably won't say Boo. But for "management issues" of what in other context would be insubordination, it is almost impossible to do so. In a normal job, the boss can say, "You're fired," and that's the end of that unless YOU can prove that he did it for an illegal reason, which is quite difficult. In a union situation, and particularly with teachers unions, the teacher remains on staff through the whole appeals process which the principal will probably lose, thus making it effectively impossible. This has been well-documented in newspapers across the land.

For any organization to be managed effectively, whoever is in charge must have the power to sack people at their discretion. This isn't the case with unionized public schools, which in large part is the reason they are such miserable failures.
January 12, 2008 9:01 PM
Sorry, Patience. It is really the strength of will of the principal. Our school district has sacked multiple teachers with the proper documentation, sometimes in months (still too slow), and the union couldn't do a thing about it. Problem is.... what replaces them isn't much better. You also don't hear about teachers who are "reassigned". So check the history of your principal. If he/she is an in-house promotion, then you've got the buddy factor to worry about. While the school situation is VERY dismal, the parent situation is even worse.
January 14, 2008 5:38 AM
Joshua raises an excellent point. Who cares about the schools so long as the parents are dropping the ball? You might as well not even care what your principal is doing if you're not willing to raise your own child right!!
January 14, 2008 8:01 AM
It seems to me that what you have is a vicious cycle. The schools are bad, so the parents don't think there's much they can do, so they don't care, so the kids don't care, so the schools in reality can't do much and stop caring... etc. etc. It's not possible to break the cycle for everyone all at once, obviously. That's why school choice is so essential - it allows the teachers who care, and the parents who care, to form a school that cares, and which works. Will this help everyone? Not immediately - but over time, the contrast and competition will improve everything, as previously non-caring parents realize that caring CAN accomplish something and start to do so, and so on, into a virtuous cycle. But leaving things as they are is hopeless.

I would submit to Joshua that there are, what, several hundred thousand public schools in the US at the very least. Certainly there are pockets of excellence, and no doubt sizeable areas of "not so bad." It may be that he is fortunate enough to live in an area like that. Consider on the other hand, Brooklyn, say, or Metro DC., where I stand by my previous statement.



As you say, it is not impossible in theory to fire bad teachers - but in practice, it might as well be.
January 15, 2008 9:11 PM
Today, the new York Times email edition said:

"I would much rather put a phenomenal, great teacher in a field with 30 kids and nothing else than take the mediocre teacher and give them half the number of students and give them all the technology in the world."
- ZEKE M. VANDERHOEK, 31, who is starting a charter school that will pay teachers
$125,000 a year.

I have no problem paying big bucks to teachers if they can be held accountable.
March 7, 2008 10:04 AM

California passed a law saying that if enough parents vote that way, a school can be closed and taken over by a charter operator. The teachers' union was not amused.

At California School, Parents Force an Overhaul
Using a new state "trigger" law, McKinley Elementary, a struggling school, will be taken over by a charter school operator.

COMPTON, Calif. — By Marlene Romero’s count, her son has had just one effective teacher in his five years at McKinley Elementary School here. Most of the time, she said, he has merely shuffled through classrooms, struggling in math without ever getting extra help.

So when an organizer came knocking at her door promising that if she signed a petition, her son’s school could radically improve, Ms. Romero immediately pledged her support.

Now, she is one of more than 250 parents in Compton who are using a new state law to force the failing school to be taken over by a charter school operator, the first such move in the country.

Voicing enormous frustration with the existing school, the parents handed over the petition on Tuesday to district officials. “We are completely fed up,” Ms. Romero said. “We’ve been told to wait every year and nothing changes.”

When Ms. Romero attended Compton schools in the 1990s, she said, nobody seemed to notice or care when she skipped school for days at a time. She dropped out at the age of 16. “I want my children to be able to have what I didn’t,” she said.

For the last several months, Ms. Romero has helped gather petitions for the school takeover, which is expected to face legal challenges from the school board and teachers’ union, which strongly opposed the new law.

Under the law, if 51 percent of parents at a school sign a petition, it “triggers” one of four actions, including takeover by a charter school. In this case, 61 percent of the parents signed the petition. When the State Legislature approved the measure in January, union officials referred to it as a “lynch mob provision.”

The move in Compton will likely be watched by educators and political leaders all over the country, as many advocates try to exert more pressure on teachers’ unions. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is supporting the effort and Rahm Emanuel has promised to introduce similar regulations in Chicago if he wins his bid for mayor there.

In many ways, the parent trigger is a nightmare situation for unions, threatening to pit teachers against parents, particularly in poor neighborhoods where schools have struggled for years. In essence, it is a union for parents.

“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Marion Orr, a professor of public policy at Brown University. “It really pushed to the edges of a strong democracy and could create real challenges for public officials who believe they know best how to run school districts.”

Compton has struggled for years. This summer, a state audit concluded that there was a focus on “adult needs as a priority before student needs.” And in October, the school board voted to fire the former superintendent, who had charged thousands of dollars in personal expenses to a district credit card.

Many of the parents involved in the effort to overhaul the school are immigrants who dropped out before earning a high school diploma themselves but hope their own children will go on to college. Several of the parents earned G.E.D.’s and piece together part-time jobs to earn enough money to pay for their modest homes in this struggling city a few miles southeast of Los Angeles. All of the students at McKinley are poor enough to qualify for free lunch.

Even among schools with similar demographics, McKinley is one of the lowest performing on state tests, with less than 25 percent of fifth-grade pupils at grade level in math and reading. Still, the school has shown some improvement in the last two years on state exams.

December 8, 2010 7:36 PM
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