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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Trials and Lawyers and Unions (Oh My!)

Back when I was in grad school, I had a colleague whose wife worked for the public defender's office in DC. One day at lunch, we got to talking about the criminal masterminds on Law & Order and other such shows, and he told us about one of her current cases.

A guy parked his car somewhere in DC, and came back an hour or two later to find one of the windows smashed. As it wasn't a very nice car, the only thing missing turned out to be the jack. He called the cops, who came and took a look at the car, and then drove around the neighborhood for a little while. Two blocks away, standing on a street corner, they found a guy holding the jack. And arrested him.

My colleague's wife was the court-appointed attorney for the guy found with the jack. His defense was that he was standing on the corner, minding his own business, when a man he'd never seen before came up to him, and gave him the jack. Then this mysterious stranger left, never to be seen again. She advised him to settle the case (the owner of the car just wanted his window replaced, which would amount to a hundred or two hundred bucks. He insisted on proceeding with that defense, though, meaning that the taxpayers were footing the bill for several hours of her time, plus the time of a DA, a judge, the various other court officers, and all the other expenses of running a trial.

The whole situation is more than a little absurd, but it's also a necessary part of our legal process. The way our system works, the defendant has the right to legal representation, no matter how silly or hopeless the defense may be. And similarly, no matter how silly or hopeless the defense may appear, the state faces the same burden in every case: to convince a jury beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty. If you start chipping away at those rights, even to save the expense of a laughably incompetent defense, you're chipping away at the fundamental rights of all citizens. If you set the precedent that stupid people can have their defense taken away, you open things up for a creeping definition of "stupid," and taking rights away from people whose cases aren't so clear-cut.

I started thinking about this recently after reading yet another school voucher thread over at Matthew Yglesias's blog. I really shouldn't read these things, but I can't help myself.

Mixed in with some entertainingly Marxist turns by voucher proponents ("Real vouchers have never been tried!") is the usual mess of gross misconceptions about how education works. It's nicely distilled in one comment from the middle of the pack:

Vouchers are a second best solution. The best solution for the public school problem, especially in the inner cities, requires restoring to principals the authority to hire and fire teachers (and fix their compensation) and to discipline students within the principal's discretion, and then holding principals accountable for what their schools do or do not achieve. This is basically what the good private and parochial schools do.

This best solution is, however, impossible, because of court decisions that severely limit the power of principals to discipline students and because of the growth of powerful teachers unions, which insist on tenure, seniority, and lock-step compensation.

This is so spectacularly wrongheaded that it's hard to know where to start (though noting that it's not usually the case that principals are dedicated disciplinarians faced with soft-hearted teachers who just won't punish students might be a good place). This comment reflects a deep misunderstanding of what education is about and how it works, and that's a hard thing to overcome.

But more than that, it reflects a deep misunderstanding about what unions are about. And this is, if anything, a problem even more pervasive than the confusion about the workings of schools. It's an article of faith among voucher proponents that teachers' unions are nothing more than collections of feather-bedding obstructionists who are protecting the vast numbers of incompetents in their ranks from being fired and replaced with better teachers. A depressing number of otherwise liberal commenters also seem to buy into this.

This is the point that makes it so hard for me to write about this issue in a civil and rational manner. My father taught public school for thirty-odd years, as did two of his siblings. He also served as an officer of the local teachers' union for most of the 1980's. Beyond that, I've got a number of other aunts and uncles (and now cousins), who are teaching in public schools, and many of our family's close friends are also in education. These are competent people, who love what they do, and are sincerely dedicated to teaching children. Hearing the entire profession slagged off as a bunch of venal incompetents is something that I tend to take as a personal insult.

The core mistake here is the presumption that because the union defends incompetent teachers against firing, they approve of incompetence in the classroom. That's just not the case-- when my father was grievance chairman for the union, there were several occasions when he had to defend people from problems they had created themselves through their own idiotic actions. In private, he chewed them out for it, but when it came to the grievance hearings, he defended them as best he was able. Because that's the union's job.

Which brings us back to the public defenders (you were wondering when I'd get to that...). In many cases, the teachers' unions find themselves in the same bind as the lawyers: they're stuck defending people who are foolish or incompetent, and who probably deserve to be disciplined or fired, but they have to mount a defense, because that's how the system works.

Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to punish or fire teachers who are incompetent. "Teaching incompetence" is in the list of causes for which a tenured faculty member at my institution can be fired, along with "moral turpitude," "mental or physical incapacity," and "violation of the Feinburg Law of New York State for Communist affiliation." The same is true for most tenure-granting institutions. Even with tenure, you can be fired for being a bad teacher.

But there are procedures to be followed in these cases. Documentation has to be provided to prove incompetence, it has to be reviewed by the committees that handle these things, it's subject to a couple of layers of appeal, i's to be dotted, t's to be crossed. These are procedures that have been agreed upon by the faculty and the administration. It's possible to fire a tenured professor-- it's not easy to do, but then it's not something to be undertaken lightly.

It's that process that the teachers' unions are sticking up for, not the right of incompetents to continue in the classroom. Even for people who richly deserve to be fired, the rules need to be followed.

Would it be more convenient to just dismiss the "obviously" incompetent out of hand? Sure. Just like it would be more convenient to send the "obviously" guilty to prison without the bother of a trial, and attorney's fees, and juries. We need teachers' unions to stand up for the incompetent for the same reason that we need public defenders to stand up for the stupid and guilty: because removing that check on the proceedings starts a process that can end nowhere good.

(The obvious response to this would be to question whether tenure is needed at all. Before asking that question, take a moment and try to imagine yourself teaching biology in Georgia, or US History in Texas. In education, there are always cases where doing your job properly will involve ruffling some feathers. Tenure is protection for those people.)

Posted at 1:16 PM | link | follow-ups | 18 comments

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Further Blogging Is Irrelevant

Josh Marshall sums it up:

Given the president's record as a businessman, and since he's now run the country hopelessly into debt, isn't it about time he sells the country off to some rich friends who will swallow the loss so he can move on to greener pastures?

That's a wrap, people. Drive safe.

Posted at 3:36 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Monday, February 09, 2004

Offered Without Comment

Matt Yglesias is usually your one-stop-shopping spot for stories about the mating behavior of college students, but he seems to be dropping the ball on this story about my alma mater. Some guys graduate, and start making the big bucks, and they forget all about the little people who made them famous...


Anyone surprised that classmates at a tiny rural college would have trouble meeting one another, Newman says, doesn't understand the college dating scene.

At Williams, the refrain is that everyone is either "married" -- inseparable from their significant other -- or prone to "hook up" with people in casual, usually drunken, encounters. Or they have no love life at all.

Other than the observation that it's amazing how the Globe manages to do pith-helmeted anthropological reporting without leaving the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I have nothing at all to say about this.

Posted at 10:22 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Dreadful Sports Metaphor Watch

Sports writers are sort of the kings of the terrible metaphor, and today's Washington Post article about Maryland's win over Florida State serves up two of the worst, starting with the headline:

Terrapins Withstand Pickett's Charge

You see, Tim Pickett for FSU scored 18 points in the first half, including some unreal shots from long range. This, of course, is almost exactly like a Civil War military debacle.

But it gets better. Referring to a John Gilchrist quote about getting some pep back after improving to 4-5 and clawing their way out of the league basement, they write:

But as with everything about this version of the Terps, the line between peppy and nauseous is thinner than Paris Hilton.

The scariest thing? I think I've actually met the reporter who committed these crimes against English. Specifically, I think I played rugby with his brother. How many people named "Barry Svrluga" can there possibly be in the world?

Posted at 10:15 AM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

Ummm.... Humptybert Slaptypants?

We're starting on the sixth week (out of ten) of the term, which means I've finally just about got all the names of my students down. I think. As long as they don't change seats, at least.

I have a terrible time learning names. Once, in DC, I passed a young woman on the steps of one of the Smithsonian museums, and she smiled and said "Hey, how's it going. Good to see you." as she went by. I replied in kind, then spent an hour trying to think of where I knew her from. The best I could come up with was that she was someone I used to say "hi" to in the campus center back in college. I don't think I knew her name then, either.

My inability to learn names quickly is a pretty big handicap in teaching. Students tend to expect that professors have some magic power to acquire names instantly, and get a little offended when a faculty member still has to say "And you are...?" three weeks into an academic term. I know it used to bug me a little, back in the day, so I put a fair amount of effort into trying to learn names. After all, one of the things their parents are shelling out $35K a year for is that warm, fuzzy sense of community, and it doesn't really make them feel better to know that I can't remember the names of some faculty members I've worked with for three years now.

Of course, I'm thwarted in my efforts to learn names by a number of factors. Similarity of names is a big one. My current classes are well stocked with Davids and Daniels (three of each, out of 35 students total). Should we find ourselves beset by lions or giant Philistines, this will no doubt come in handy, but it doesn't make it easy to figure out who's who. Particularly when Daniel-in-the-morning-class sits in the same spot as David-in-the-afternoon-class.

Of course, it could be worse. My very first term teaching, I had two Asian women in my class, who were the same height, same build, and had the same first name. They were also best friends, and sat together every day. That was hopeless-- when I handed things back, I used to just put both papers down in front of one of them, and ask her to pass the appropriate one on.

Fashion conformity is another killer. A colleague told me that he occasionally worries about coming off as a sexist pig, because he can get the names of the female students down quickly, but takes a couple of weeks to sort the male students out. The problem is, they all tend to have the same short haircuts, wear the same general type of clothing (particularly in the winter), and wear baseball caps pulled down low enough that it can be difficult to see distinguishing features. (I ran into one former student in the gym once, and it took several minutes before I realized why he looked familiar. I'd never seen him without a ball cap before...)

Of course, it's not actually an impossible task, and there are a few factors that make it easier. For one thing, our students tend to pick a seat in the first week of class, and sit in the same spot every day. The first step toward actually knowing names for me is usually to associate faces with particular spots in the classroom. It's effective, but it gets a little awkward when I have to stare vaguely off into space for a second, thinking "OK... you sit in the back left corner... afternoon class... you're David. Daniel. Damn it."

There are always a few people whose names I get almost immediately. People who are physically distinctive in some way are easy to associate with names-- really tall people, people with oddly colored or styled hair, people with interesting faces. I can also sometimes get names from particular clothing choices-- I had a student once whose wardrobe seemed to consist entirely of superhero T-shirts. The Thundercats logo shirt was enough to fix his name in my mind.

And, of course, the people who talk in class, or come to my office hours are easy to learn. Relatively, any way-- sometimes, they tend to show up in pairs, which helps narrow things down, but doesn't completely solve the identification problem. And it's not always a good thing to be known to the professor as "that guy who talks all the time"-- my own career in non-science classes can testify to that.

At this point, you're probably saying to yourself something like, "That's nice, but isn't this jabber about names just idle puffery to avoid having to grade lab reports?" The answer is yes. And it's very effective.

(In a similar vein, I added five books to my book log yesterday. Including my snarky comments about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume 2.)

Posted at 7:06 AM | link | follow-ups | 13 comments

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