StudentsFirst was formed by Michelle Rhee in 2010 after resigning as chancellor of D.C. schools. The name ‘StudentsFirst’ implies that they have a mission to oppose those who put students second, third, or even last. In very clear terms, they say that it is the teacher’s unions who are putting the needs of the adults above the needs of the students. When the New York franchise of StudentsFirst started a few months ago, they even described it as a “union for students.”
The name ‘StudentsFirst’ is well chosen. It definitely makes anyone who says they oppose them have to give a big explanation along with it. There are other organizations that have similar names, like ‘Stand For Children’, or that have slogans like it, most notably in New York City where the slogan of The Department of Education is “Children First. Always.” That ‘always’ kind of makes me chuckle. It’s like they are saying “Children First,” and then someone says “but aren’t there some times where putting the children first could be bad for the system as a whole?,” and they just answer “Always.”
In the late 19th century, the expression “Women and children first” was coined in reference to ship wrecks. But when it comes to air travel, we are told in the pre-flight instructions which I got from the Boeing website “If you are traveling with a small child or an infant, put your mask on first, then help the child.” So here is an example where the needs of the child are not met first since it is somehow safer for everyone that way.
So when it comes to education, there are, I suppose, four categories of policy: 1) policies that benefit both students and teachers, 2) policies that harm both students and teachers, 3) policies that benefit teachers while harming students, and 4) policies that benefit students while harming teachers. StudentsFirst, it seems, thinks that the teachers unions push for too many policies that StudentsFirst would put into the third category.
One oversimplification in the StudentsFirst narrative is that EVERY policy is either type 3 (helps teachers while harming students) or type 4 (helps students while harming teachers). They don’t say this explicitly, but as there is never any mention of the first two types, it is, at least, implied. I would argue, however, that MOST policies belong to the first two categories. An example of something that helps both students and teachers would be the reduction of class size. An example of something that hurts both students and teachers is the increase of class size, like in Detroit where they are now allowed to have 60 kids in a secondary classroom, from what I understand.
What category would teacher raises go under? To me, it is something that helps teachers and students. With higher payed teachers there could be more competition for the teaching jobs. Also, getting a raise might encourage some teachers to work a little harder, at least subconsciously. I don’t think raises is necessarily something that is good for adults and bad for kids. At worst, it is good for adults and neutral for kids.
A policy that would be ‘good’ for teachers, but bad for kids would be a rule that teachers can be as late as they want anytime they want. Kids in first period classes can just wait for their teacher. Of course no union is pushing for a policy like that, but I want to acknowledge that there are, at least theoretically, policies that would be of type 3, good for adults, bad for kids. An example of a type 4 policy which would be bad for teachers but good for kids would be to make it mandatory for all teachers to carry school-issued cell phones and to be ‘on call’ until 9:00 PM every night, for no extra money. Again, this is not a policy that I see anyone trying to create anyway.
For the rest of this post, I will focus on the third type, policies that are good for teachers and bad for kids, since these are the ones that StudentsFirst is dedicated to fighting. The first thing I want to point out is that just because something is good for adults and bad for kids does not mean that it is ‘bad’ overall. It really depends how good it is for the adults and how bad it is for the kids. For example, imagine a school district where teachers report for duty five days before the students begin classes. Then in a new union contract they negotiate that teachers only need to come in two days early. This is something that benefits teachers and, at least in theory, ‘hurts’ kids. Kids benefit from a well-prepared teacher so losing those 3 days of in school preparation ‘hurts’ the kids. But the question is (not in New York, where they have that extra “Always.”) how much does it really ‘hurt’ the kids compared to how much it ‘helps’ the adults. I’d say if there is something that really helps the adults while only hurting the kids a little, and if it really helps the kids while hurting the adults a little, these things should be open for discussion.
Since my second child was born, a little over a year ago, I have not gotten as much sleep as I like. When I’m up all night as the one year old wakes up the four year old and then the four year old wakes up the one year old, I know that I’m not as sharp in the classroom as I would be if I got to sleep at 9:30 PM. What if the New York City DOE tried to get into the next contract a clause that all teachers must be asleep by 9:30 PM every night. This would be good for the students and bad for the adults. But in this case the amount of ‘good’ for the students is overshadowed by the amount of ‘bad’ for the adults. I wonder how StudentsFirst would treat this hypothetical. If the ‘early to bed early to rise’ clause was put into my contract, it might be bad for adults AND for students as all the teachers quit or are just unhappy (despite getting a good night sleep) that their individual freedoms were robbed.
As bizarre as the ‘early to bed’ clause might seem, I bring it up to demonstrate that there are things that on surface are good for students and bad for adults, but which are really, in the long run, bad for both.
And this is where my disagreement with ‘StudentsFirst’ lies. Things they think belong in category 3 (good for students, bad for adults) I would put into category 2 (bad for both students and teachers). And it really is just a matter of opinion. I believe that StudentsFirst would agree that the ‘early to bed’ clause would be over the line and be bad for both teachers and students. But I feel the same way about their two signature issues, 1) LIFO and 2) using student ‘achievement’ (as defined by value-added) as a major component of teacher evaluation (and as the way of firing teachers after LIFO is abolished). I see these as belonging to category 2 (bad for teachers and students). Since value-added is so inaccurate, it really doesn’t help the students that much to have a random group of their teachers fired rather than just the newest teachers when layoffs occur. But it ‘hurts’ the teachers much more since getting fired, or living in the fear of being fired, because a computer has predicted that in a parallel universe where your students got an ‘average’ teacher instead of you, their grades on the standardized tests would be higher than what they did for you.
In the long run, replacing LIFO with Low value-added first out, will scare good people away from the teaching profession. Already we see it happening as teacher job satisfaction is at a 20 year low. Maybe StudentsFirst thinks that is a good thing since teachers have had it so easy for all these years, but my experience is that teaching was already a demanding, frustrating, and pretty low paying job already. And the teachers I’ve worked with at four different schools have taken their jobs seriously. At four schools I can only think of one teacher who truly deserved to be fired, and that teacher got suspiciously injured on the job and was getting workers comp for staying at home, the last I heard.
So this summarizes my problem with ‘StudentsFirst.’ 1) Not everything that is good for students and bad for teachers should be done since the bad for the teachers might outweigh the good for the students (the ‘early to bed’ rule) 2) Likewise, there are times where it is OK to put teachers first if the ‘benefit’ to teachers significantly outweighs the ‘harm’ to students. (for example, teachers get a ‘duty-free’ lunch period and do not have to do cafeteria duty. This benefits teachers a lot while not really doing a lot of harm to student, though there might be a few more food fights because of it), and most importantly 3) Most of the things they seem to think are bad for the adults and good for the kids (ending LIFO and replacing it with layoff firings based on value-added scores) are actually, in the long run, bad for both.
I’m not trying to be annoying in this post. I truly believe that this is the source of disagreement between opponents and proponents of StudentsFirst. I am going to send this post to Michelle Rhee — who I worked with back in 1996 and who is a lot nicer in person than many would figure. She actually helped resolve a conflict I was having with my school director when I was a corps member adviser, and also to Hari Sevugan, who is one of the top people there, and who I trained in that 1996 institute. I will report back if they are willing to comment on this.