I don’t think of TFA as a perfect or even adequate solution to the problem of educational equality. Instead, I think of it as a step toward a new paradigm in which debates over reform aren’t about whether market logic or protectionism are better mechanisms for managing limited resources, but where we address the problem of those limited resources. Hartman is too tangled in that annoying first debate, and, committed so devotedly to defending one side, he shuns some promising possibilities.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Whereas TFA corps members leverage the elite TFA brand to launch careers in law or finance—or, if they remain in education, to bypass the typical career path on their way to principalships and other positions of leadership—most regular teachers must plod along, negotiating their way through traditional career ladders. These distinctions are lost on nobody. They are what make regular teachers and their unions such low-hanging political fruit for the likes of Christie, Walker, and Kasich.
Kopp is particularly enamored by high-performing charter schools, which succeed because they do whatever it takes to hire and retain good teachers, a zero-sum game that most schools cannot win without more resources—those dreaded “inputs.”
Reformers believe that if teachers are subjected to “market forces,” such as merit pay and job insecurity, they will work harder to improve the education they provide for their students.
Likewise, we need hiring and retention policy that accurately reflects the expected trajectory of productivity for a teacher and then is set up to allow individuals to make a lifetime of living off a teaching career, regardless of when or how they’re most productive. An 8-year veteran teacher might be more productive than a freshman teacher, but Hartman describes districts firing veteran teachers to make room for TFA-like recruits because they can be paid much less. Meanwhile, a 4-year veteran might be more productive than a 25-year veteran (especially a teacher who survived that tenure in a challenging, underfunded school), but the 25-year veteran deserves to be rewarded for his years. He deserves to be able to fund an entire life based on his output during his earlier, most productive years. It’s important to think through these dynamics, because once again neither unbridled market logic nor singular concern for retaining veterans get at the real issue.
Unions naturally don’t want people to be laid off and left destitute just because there’s fresh meat willing to work for cheaper. But I wonder if it’s the case that to some degree teachers do get legitimately burnt out after two decades or whatever, and whether it’s worth thinking more precisely about the point at which older teachers really should be replaced by young blood. In other words, what I’m pointing to is earlier retirement options and better pensions, both of which should be core union commitments but maybe aren’t anymore. There’s a reason ER surgeons, military personnel, and professional athletes retire early, and perhaps it’s worth thinking of teachers on similar terms. All those professions are designed to permit an even quality of life after the most productive years. A veteran teacher that earned better pay for years of service obviously isn’t dead-weight to be jettisoned, even if the quality of his output has plateaued. This happens in all fields: people deserve to get compensated for loyalty. These incentives are necessary for attracting talent and retaining it, which should be a separate concern from the task of getting the best work out of the teachers you do have.
This brings me to a larger point, which I’ve made elsewhere in the past: that union organizing must be part of broader and vehemently socialist politics to really make sense as a force for good. It hasn’t been in the last few decades, and I think that’s why unions have become so incoherent and unpopular. Maybe there’s something to say here about discourses of rights and protecting property versus more emancipatory impulses. I’ll think about this when I go to law school.
With regards to teaching, one specific example is what I was describing about lower retirement ages and better pension. That is a clear example of reform that requires unions to be tied to a broader socialist platform. In a properly socialist economy, each profession would be organized and incentivized according to specific needs. If good teachers need 2-3 to develop and then taper after two decades of peak productivity, we need to set up a system so worthy teachers can make a healthy lifetime living off that model regardless of how it compares to the demands and specific trajectories of productivity in other jobs. This is what I don’t like the idea of insisting we need to dump everyone into a “job” in order to improve society. Dumping everyone in the world into shitty jobs is a basic neoliberal prescription for paving humanity over.
Indeed, fuck jobs: you’re not really a leftist if you think wage labor isn’t essentially degrading, and that the sense of fulfillment or pride people get out of certain jobs (like I do out of mine fancy and inspiring job freeing inmates from the clutches of state oppression) are anything more than enjoyable side-effects. I’m not saying we should immediately abolish work. I just think the idea that wage labor is alienating and unnatural is an important place to begin thinking about ways to make important work more bearable. For instance, teachers would probably not burn out after 20 or whatever years if they worked in more supportive environments throughout their career. Relatedly, aging teachers could be eased into other roles, such as support, mentoring, and training networks for younger teachers, observing and training teachers, and also help expand and staff after-school and Saturday school program. I think TFA and other innovative re-toolings of how and why people become teachers could be a catalyst for this kind of change, but only if unions get on board, hard. It’s harder than it sounds though: what I’m describing requires a broad, targeted restructuring of the teaching profession that doesn’t make sense when you think of teaching work as basically similar to other work.
More generally, the point is maybe that we should stop thinking about jobs as an essential and uniform unit of human occupation. Honestly, everyone doesn’t need a job. What everyone needs is money, to be able afford what they need. Also, maybe people need something to keep them busy and fulfilled. But those are two separate things, and it makes no sense to suggest we should cede all organization of professional responsibilities to a completely free market, where people can choose between teaching, a profession where they can only expect to be truly productive for a decade or so, or a different, less important profession in which they can “contribute” consistently for four decades and therefore not worry about losing their job as they burn out. This is precisely what unions should be advocating for, compensation and retention models that specifically suit the particularities of each profession. But they can’t, because they’re up against other unions and worker interests in a system that insists on their competition not collaboration, a “marketplace” where teaching is primarily thought of as just another shitty job to be improved as market forces allow, rather than a critical cog in the radical experiment of public education. Once again, union organizing can’t bring true harmony unless it’s part of broader socialist agitation.