Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

What is a captive audience, anyway?

Jerry Stratton, September 2, 2015

80-Micro February 1981 cover: Cover from the February, 1981 issue of 80 microcomputing. This was the Education issue for that year.; education; TRS-80; 80 microcomputing; 80-Micro

“As I’ve written before” probably refers to their Education issue, where he wrote “if we think in terms of helping people to learn rather than ‘teaching’ them it will help us focus on the future.”

In the October, 1981 issue of 80 Microcomputing, I read a teacher’s union reply to a Wayne Green editorial that had me going into the back issues. My first thought on reading the union official’s reply was, what did Green say this time? He was known for his epic rants.

I found it in the May issue. Green had written about the poor state of Erasmus, the school he once attended in Brooklyn. Once “one of the best schools in Brooklyn”, by 1981 it had become “the most dangerous school in New York”, according to an unnamed television program.

It takes a special police force to keep crime down to “acceptable” levels. It is an armed camp… At Erasmus teachers have police protection walking around the halls.

After the rant, he predicted that computers would ease the burden on schools by moving learning into the home.

Perhaps the computer comes to education just in time. Before we can accept the computer we may have to adjust to a fact of life: it is not our responsibility to force-feed education to children. Isn’t it enough that we make it available?

We’re a prisoner of our past in much of this. Schools developed for good reasons, but they evolved into giant baby-sitting systems for most families. Summer vacations may have been a blessing for the kids, but many mothers sighed when they came.

I believe that eventually we will provide a better quality of education by means of computerized teaching than is currently available in most schools. Truly interesting courses can be taught by some of the best teachers in the world. The computer, as I’ve written before, can control the speed of the teaching process, gearing it to the interest and intelligence of the student.

Once we have developed better learning systems, not dependent upon live teachers for other than minor support and advice, it may be possible to move these systems into the home. This may be a healthy change for society and result, in the long run, in more highly motivated children.

While none of this is outrageous today, I think it’s important to remember that when he wrote this, it was still for all practical purposes illegal in many parts of the United States to not send your kid to school. Homeschooling could put you in prison, in violation of compulsory attendance laws. The truancy officer that you run across in old books and movies had real authority and could cause real trouble. In 1981, only Nevada and Utah had home-schooling legislation; thirty-four states passed legislation specifically allowing home-schooling between 1982 and 1993, and by 1998 all fifty states recognized the right of parents to teach their children. But even as late as 2008, California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled that unless parents were educational professionals it was illegal for them to teach their children.1

So while this seems, if not obvious now, at least within the realm of possibility, it did not appear so at the time. The whole idea of homeschooling was practically seditious.

Green went on to describe one of the problems with compulsory education:

One of the problems of compulsory attendance is not only that it forces children to be in school but that it also acts upon the teachers, who address captive audiences, and thus have no responsibility to make work interesting.2

What he’s describing is, of course, the natural result of a forced monopoly, though he doesn’t call it that. Someone who is forced to buy your product, and only your product, is not your customer. Your customer is whoever is doing the forcing.

The disagreement that led me on this foray through a 1981 computer mag came from American Federation of Teachers official Marty Kranek:

I am a public school library media specialist in Jefferson County, Colorado, and president of Local 900 of the American Federation of Teachers. As such I have strong objections to Mr. Green’s 80 Remarks3 in the May 1981 issue. I agree there are lots of problems with public education today. However, public schools are not nearly as grim as he describes. Not all schools are armed camps with frustrated teachers and chaotic classrooms.4 Many teachers are doing an excellent job.5 These students are only a “captive audience” in that they are required by law to be there.

Emphasis mine. It is silly on its face. What Kranek probably meant is that while students are required by law to be there, it doesn’t mean they pay attention. But it doesn’t make students any less of a captive audience because they don’t want to be there!

The AFT’s Local 900 president goes on to complain that many teachers:

…are taking post-graduate classes—at their own expense, unlike their counterparts in the business world—to either maintain teaching certificates or to keep up with inflation (there’s no such thing as merit pay for teachers).

Even back then, government union leaders had no, or pretended to have no, understanding of how private businesses work. Yes, some businesses will pay for their employees to attend night classes; far more will only partially pay, and many won’t pay at all. In all cases it is up to the employee to negotiate what professional development their employer will support, and what form that support will take. Employers often will pay for it because it improves their bottom line, which is how they improve their own income. School administrators don’t have that incentive. Taking money out of the school budget to pay for teacher instruction does nothing for them but reduce the money available for their own raises. Schools don’t financially compete with anyone. They are monopolies.

Offer school choice, and school administrators will discover an incentive to improve teachers. It will mean more students and more money for them.

But what really jumped out at me was that this union official did not mention that the reason “there’s no such thing as merit pay for teachers” is that government unions really don’t like merit pay. Merit pay means being held accountable for job performance, in this case, student achievement. Unions prefer what Local 900 President Kranek was complaining about: “linking quality professional development… directly to the pay system”.6

Where do I get this information? Directly from the NEA:

“We all must be wary of any system that creates a climate where students are viewed as part of the pay equation, rather than young people who deserve a high quality education that prepares them for their future,” says Bill Raabe, NEA’s director of Collective Bargaining and Member Benefits. “We can all do a better job of linking quality professional development and career opportunities directly to the pay system.”

Why not measure whether students are getting a quality education by measuring student learning? Because, says the NEA, “the best indicator of student learning is teacher learning”. Why should students be part of the pay equation? The schools aren’t there for the students, the schools are there for the teacher’s union.

I’ve heard it argued that government unions don’t so much consider good employees—in this case, good teachers—to be their main clientele, because good employees will be able to negotiate good salaries for themselves without a union. This is something the NEA explicitly opposes:

“It is crucial that all pay plans or policies be negotiated with teachers in collective bargaining, or developed collaboratively with the Association where there is no bargaining,” says Raabe7.

Government unions are so afraid of teachers and other government employees bargaining on their own that they often negotiate to forbid non-members from negotiating on their own behalf.

The idea goes that government unions are most important for mediocre employees—in this case, those mediocre, bad, or downright criminal teachers who are so difficult to fire. That’s because it’s the bad teachers who are the real clientele. That’s why, despite there being great teachers out there, government unions oppose evaluations.

Teachers often complain that the real problem is a top-heavy and clumsy administration. I agree, at least insofar as this is one of the big problems. It’s also the natural evolution of a monopoly. The best solution to reducing the size of administrations rather than the number of teachers is to promote school choice. When public school budgets are cut, increased, or readjusted, they are cut, increased, and readjusted by administrators. Where there is competition, administrators have an incentive to make sure that their jobs are secure by hiring better teachers and supporting the good teachers they have. Good teachers, when there is competition, attract customers—in this case, parents and their children. Where there is no competition, administrators have an incentive to make sure that their jobs are secure by hiring more administrators—building a fiefdom, so to speak—and by creating an environment where more administrators are necessary.

In response to Can schools compete with the Internet by clicking?: Fat, drunk, and clicking is no way to go through life.

  1. The court later reversed that ruling.

  2. He also suggests allowing children who want to work rather than learn to enter the workforce early, as an “alternative to education”. He writes from the perspective that compulsory schooling might be so bad that kids would prefer working. What he says is typical Green—that perhaps we should repeal child labor laws. I don’t think he realized how extensive child labor laws are. They aren’t just about minimum wages. The union leader’s letter, as printed, didn’t touch on this remark, however.

  3. Note: “80 Remarks” was the name of Green’s column in 80 micro computing. The teacher isn’t responding to a lengthy diatribe with eighty points in it.

  4. By my reading, Green never claimed that all schools were like his Brooklyn school, only that the school he attended had, according to news reports, become that.

  5. Which is a point that Green actually made. He also wrote that such teachers are often misfits in the public school system because they care about students more than they care about union or teacher politics. Anecdotally I saw the same in my high school.

  6. “Professional development” is admin-speak for taking further classes.

  7. Bill Raabe, the NEA’s director of Collective Bargaining and Member Benefits.

  1. <- School choice
  2. Bill Gates’s education ->