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July 09, 2007

Elites and Teacher's Unions

For a complex tangle of reasons having to do with everything from residence in DC to New York politics in the 80s to sheer faddishness, it's utterly required for elite pundits to spend inordinate amounts of time bashing teacher's unions. They hate them. They "Sister Souljah" them at every chance, always thinking -- oh-so-admirably -- of the poor ghetto children, so terribly incapacitated by collective bargaining agreements. Over at The Quick and the Ed, Kevin Carey writes a blistering, and genuinely important, rejoinder to such types. First, on the DC schools, which are almost uniquely bad, and which thus serve as the base for such remarkable commentaries as Richard Cohen's blast at the Democrats, and Jonah Goldberg's decision to get rid of all public schools:

The salient fact about DC is not that it has education problems. Every big city in America has those. The overriding issue is that our schools are worse than other big cities that also have kids, parents, and teachers unions. In fact, the Washington Teachers Union has kept a pretty low profile since being humbled by a massive corruption scandal a few years back. In DC at least, they're not the big issue.

Something is wrong here. It isn't the unions. But it's very convenient for lefty types to blame the unions. This shows, among other things, that they are forward-looking, and free from organized labor's influence, and generally an independent thinker and analyst. Too bad it's all costume:

[This] creates space for people with an independent image to maintain--your Cohens and Mickey Kauses--to burnish their street cred by selectively adopting one or more of the conservative education principles. So Cohen denounces calls for school funding, Kaus is always looking for a chance to take shots at teachers unions, contrarian-by-design publications like The New Republic trumpet their support for vouchers, etc. As with the three principles themselves, little of this is about education policy per se. Rather, it's about using education policies as a proxy for other things. Maybe there was a time when this came across as gutsy truth-telling, but at this point it all feels like pro forma gesturing and nothing more.

It's not only nothing more, it's something less. By repeatedly ascribing blame to the teacher's unions, these pundits deflect attention from the endemic, root problems, and refocus on more discrete, and demonizable, culprits. This gives conservatives an easy way out of conversations on education reform, even as they lack an actual solution.

July 9, 2007 | Permalink


Ezra: good post. And I agree with you about the inanity of the rote denunciations of teachers' unions which issue with boring regularity from "pundits" from all over the spectrum. But what, exactly do you think the "endemic, root problems" with (presumably) education policy are that all the union-bashing is supposed to be deflecting from?

Posted by: Jay C | Jul 9, 2007 9:53:31 AM

Forgetting the unions for a second, imagine a 20 story public housing building. Imagine Jonah Goldberg opening a one room school in the basement of that tenement. Assume Jonah has to accept all the children in the tenement to his school, he can't expel anyone, and he's the only teacher.

On the first day, 50 kids show up from ages 5 to 14. How successful would that one room school be?

Posted by: stm177 | Jul 9, 2007 9:57:43 AM

I agree with Jay C, essentially - if you're going to say this about "endemic, root problems" you should probably explain what you think they are. I agree that blaming teacher's unions is a popular hobby horse of pundits, right and left, but knowing that doesn't make all the isses around the teacher's unions simply go away - solving issues in our education system does mean some sensible reforms of union practices (the really sticky part here being that since much of this happens at the local level, the reforms probably vary widely). But again - okay, teachers aren't the problem. What is?

Posted by: weboy | Jul 9, 2007 10:07:50 AM

Kevin Carey makes a good point, but it could be more convincing. "All big cities are bad, but DC is worse" isn't exactly a stirring rallying cry. The more pertinent observation is that most good suburban school districts have teachers' unions, just like the inner city does. Yet the suburban schools succeed while the urban ones fail. And on the other side of the coin, inner-city districts in many parts of the union-busting South suck as bad as the ones in the unionized North. Given this, it's very difficult to plausibly claim that unionization is a factor.

More importantly, exactly how much leverage do the union-busters imagine they will have if unions are abolished? It's not like we have a huge surplus of teachers willing to work for nothing if union rules go out the window. To the contrary, we have a substantial shortage of teachers, especially in many specialties such as math and science. We currently have a trade-off: we pay teachers less than many other professionals, but in return we provide them with a greater level of job security (at least in the North). Take away one of the few compensating advantages and no one except altruists and fools will enter the field. Of course, maybe this is what the conservatives want: to keep the population dumb and scared so they will continue to vote Republican.

Posted by: Josh G. | Jul 9, 2007 10:16:26 AM

Specifically in DC, the problems are less with the teachers and more with the civil service administrators who are the ones mismanaging the money, handing out jobs to their friends, and making it difficult for politicians and political appointees to reform the system. The failing physical plant is another issue, as well as school designs that make it harder for teachers (many DC schools have open floor plans, so there are no walls and doors for classrooms).

Posted by: Tyro | Jul 9, 2007 10:22:19 AM

I'm not one to defend teacher's unions, but I don't think they're the major problem. If the student doesn't come to learn, the teacher will have a hard time teaching. Perhaps we should look at the cultures that the youths in D.C. are coming from.

Posted by: Jared McLaughlin | Jul 9, 2007 10:30:18 AM

"endemic, root problems"

Of course unions can never be a bad thing, so it must be something else. Typical.

I will give you that teacher unions aren't the "root problem," but they are the roadblock that prevents any meaningful reform to try and cure our education system.

"We currently have a trade-off: we pay teachers less than many other professionals, but in return we provide them with a greater level of job security (at least in the North). Take away one of the few compensating advantages and no one except altruists and fools will enter the field."

Then pay them more with the added risk that they can be fired, just like everyone else.

Posted by: Jason | Jul 9, 2007 10:35:27 AM

I am a former member of a professional trade union. I am also a former member of a school board. The community was an inner-ring suburb with a student-body profile that ran from poor to upper middle class with a racial mix that cut across class lines, but with blacks concentrated on the lower end. In many ways, we were ground-zero on the achievement gap. We also faced severe budget challenges, having to cut programs and services, including many jobs, year after year.

In this context, despite my generally well-to-the-left-of-center-leanings, I came to conclude, most reluctantly, that the teacher’s union was part of the problem, not the solution. This is not to absolve the elected board of education or the administration of any responsibility, but the union steadfastly refused to work with either in addressing the educational and budgetary issues. In the mind of the leadership, cooperation was capitulation. Even between negotiations, it pursued an adversarial strategy designed to undermine the authority of management which, in practice, meant it wanted administrators to fail and, by implication, setting back educational progress for the kids. The union also irrationally clung to financial demands – esp. Cadillac-level, zero-contribution health benefits – when it was obvious the district could not afford them and the community – most members of which paid large sums out of pocket for health insurance – would not tolerate it.

The result of the last round of negotiations was almost unthinkable: the community, almost three-quarters of which voted for Kerry or Nader in the last election, turned against the union. And, I sense, it was not the normal anger at strike threats and job actions during negotiations that quickly fades once the deal is inked. This time, I sensed a real, long-term shift in attitudes. The majority of parents now see the union as an obstacle to educational progress; something to be overcome, not worked with.

If the teachers union has lost a liberal community like mine, it’s time to re-think the model. Clearly, unions still have a role to play, and it can be a positive one. But, they can no longer have it both ways. They cannot demand to be treated like the professionals they are while employing the hard-knuckle practices of an old-line industrial union. Today, there is just too much at stake financially and educationally.

Posted by: mert7878 | Jul 9, 2007 10:48:06 AM

Well, when I blame teachers unions it's for two things specifically.

1) Insisting on equal pay across schools and specialties. It would be a good idea to pay substantially more for hard subjects and hard schools than we do now; we don't need to pay more for suburban English teachers, of which there ar eplenty as is.

2) Using their political influence in favor of schools-as-currently-structured, even when that system is clearly broken.

Posted by: SamChevre | Jul 9, 2007 11:01:02 AM

Funding schools through local property taxes is a "root, endemic problem," because it sets up the system of having wealthy schools and poor schools. People like to say that you can't solve problems by throwing money at them, but schools in wealthy communities do better than those in poor communities. They have more money for salaries, for equipment, and there's a much higher percentage of single-income families, increasing the parent volunteer pool.

Another systemic problem has been mentioned already, which is the teacher shortage. If there's not enough teachers, then it's easier for unqualified people to get into the system. The problem is that instead of trying to increase pay and/or benefits, most school districts just continually lower the requirements for certification. People want great schools, but they don't want to pay for them. A good educational system is, unfortunately, not something we can get on the cheap.

One problem that has been forcibly turned into a systemic issue is that of standardized testing. These tests have replaced actual teaching in many school districts. Because, in part, of the casual union-bashing environment, teachers' salaries are tied to how well their students do on these standardized tests. So they play the system, forsaking actual education and critical thinking skills so that our children become experts at filling in the right circle on true/false and multiple-choice questions - all so the teachers' meager salaries and benefits aren't cut or are increased below the inflation rate and so our property taxes don't go up too much.

It's a hell of a way to treat our kids.

Posted by: Stephen | Jul 9, 2007 11:08:09 AM

Well, when I blame teachers unions it's for two things specifically.

Fair points, but those are only pieces of a larger problem. In plenty of DC schools, teachers don't even have classrooms with walls and a door. I'd say "more money to fix the physical plant" is what's needed, but then I know that the money would get funnelled through the low-level administrators, who would end up losing it or using the funds to hire their friends. Oh, and many of these administrators don't even have performance evaluations, so you can't set up a paper trail to fire them. And urban school boards are seen not as offices to run for in order to help the school system, but rather as springboards for higher political office. And in DC, since there aren't any political offices higher than mayor, the school board and the city council are pretty much the highest political offices one can aspire to. This is one of the reasons that the power over the schools is being removed from the school board and handed directly to the mayor.

Since the best public schools in the country and the worst public schools in the country both have teachers' unions, I suspect that the dynamic of failing schools is more complicated than simply "teachers' unions."

Posted by: Tyro | Jul 9, 2007 11:10:52 AM

There are a hundred of them. One of the biggest, and a huge part of the reason inner city schools are bad, is poverty, and the realities of ghetto life -- and I don't honestly know how you fix that. But it's not by reforming the teacher's unions.

After all, I went to a nice, shiny public school in the middle of a wealthy suburb. My school was ranked one of the best in California, beating a host of privates. Yet the teachers were unionized. So whether you believe their work rules are a problem or not (and I think they are, just not a huge one), they're not the critical variable.

Posted by: Ezra | Jul 9, 2007 11:13:03 AM

Unions are perceived as an obstacle and not a partner to school reform. If they made concessions on merit pay, even on a trial basis, it would go a long way in terms of reducing skepticism of their self-interests.

Posted by: Jon | Jul 9, 2007 11:18:41 AM

Ezra -

You are correct. Unions can't be a THE source of the problem if there are good schools in well-to-do suburbs. But, this is for a very good reason: there is enough money to go around. As noted by Stephen, a root cause is reliance on local property taxes. Plus, you have the educational challenges presented by poverty and the achievement gap, which differ from town to town. Localized education means that different communities face a different level of financial and education "stress." From where I sat on the school board, it seemed to me that the union refused to adapt to these realities. Instead, it reflexively resisted most changes simply because it could. In public schools, most things, even class schedules, are a term & condition of employment that have to be negotiated. Thus, resistance improved the union's bargaining leverage. But, this knee-jerk adversarial model of labor-management relations is no longer a positive. So, the problem is not unions per se but, rather, their reluctance to adapt to the new reality.

Posted by: mert7878 | Jul 9, 2007 11:36:41 AM

If they made concessions on merit pay, even on a trial basis, it would go a long way in terms of reducing skepticism of their self-interests.

Well, gee, if the unions all agreed that teachers should work for free, that would also "go a long way in terms of reducing skepticism of their self-interests." Merit pay is a shitty idea that won't do anything to improve the quality of teachers or education. It's just another way to keep salaries down. The unions are right to oppose it.

How many times must it be pointed out that bad schools, mediocre schools and great schools all have unions? Obviously unions are not the problem. A particular community or district may have a problem with the local union, but if our schools are suffering as a whole we'd be better served to look at the issues right in front of our faces.

Posted by: Stephen | Jul 9, 2007 11:39:33 AM

Good post. Weird, though, that you didn't mention Obama's latest attemtp to feign courage by Sister-Souljahing the teacher's unions.

Posted by: david mizner | Jul 9, 2007 11:50:04 AM

Well, I am certainly going to be a dissenting voice, but since no one here knows anything about teaching, learning, and what works, as an "Outstanding Teacher of America" award recipient, let me share what I know.

First, learning is impossible in a battle zone and most schools are, for most children, a battle zone. There is a long, virtually unsupervised commute in the "Cheesewagon," there is overcrowding, bullying, anonymity, and alienation. There are rigid meaningless exercises that have to be completed with even margins. There are grades for younger and younger children for those few things easily graded: spelling and addition, which crowds out anything of interest. And of course, once a child get his first bad grade, he will probably always hate school.

There are actually relatively cheap and easy solutions which require, unfortunately, a, shall we say "paradigm shift."

First we need small schools. Probably 300 max. Studies show that there is almost no bullying in small schools. Next delay or eliminate grades. This forces teachers to work with intrinsic motivation: that is, awakening the child's interest. All classes should be approached the way Gifted Education is. The sad thing is that slow students are sequestered into an arena of ever more rote and boring schooling to the point where all they wish for is to be out of there. It is completely ineffective. Once interest is awakened, every child can do incredible things. I'm not opposed to testing, but it should be diagnostic of teaching methods. When something works, other teachers can see if it works for them too.

If anyone here had actually spoken with a teacher, he or she would know that every day teachers spend almost all of their spare time trying to figure out how to get out of the teaching profession. It is dirty, thankless, high-stress work. You are EVERYONE'S enemy. You can't go to the toilet. If you bring something nice to school it will be stolen. By all means, let's just threaten to fire them all. That sounds like a wonderful solution to the problem.

I would suggest that the first thing you do is make it easier for first year teachers. They should teach fewer classes so they have time to plan wonderful and inspiring classes. We should try to attract the best and the brightest, which might be possible. Teaching has high intrinsic interest. At its best it is more meaningful and engaging than most jobs.

And yes, it drove me crazy that there were teachers who were not very effective. Let me give two such examples: One, a math teacher, did nothing. He gave out a sheet of problems and put his feet up, openly saying that he was waiting to retire. The other was a victim of circumstance. I was at the time in Alabama not long after desegregation, and there was a Black gentleman who had been a victim of the woefully inadequate education system available to Blacks before integration. He was an English teacher and could not spell. He was a good man, but he was in his late fifties. I didn't think he was going to learn to spell any more. But my students would come into my class laughing at him. What would you do? Well the union protected him. And in any case, there is no easy solution for the problem. So we absorbed him, and the children that were going to learn to spell probably did anyway.

There are schools of education who study exactly how teaching can be effective. But in the very schools where children most need those techniques, the pressures for minimum standards is so great that education is reduced to something absolutely dull and meaningless. Attacking teachers will not improve the situation. Allowing schools to become a place of joy, safe and clean and hopeful, might help as a start.

Posted by: Paula | Jul 9, 2007 12:03:18 PM

> Well, I am certainly going to be a dissenting voice,
> but since no one here knows anything about teaching,
> learning, and what works, as an "Outstanding Teacher of
> America" award recipient, let me share what I know.

That "no one here" knows "anything" about teaching is questionable at best, but let's grant the benefit of the doubt.

> First, learning is impossible in a battle zone
> and most schools are, for most children, a battle
> zone.

BUZZ! Game over. No proof provided for the claims about "most children" which can be easily refuted by examining the school tax rates and percentage of school tax increases passed for "most" school districts.


Posted by: Cranky Observer | Jul 9, 2007 12:13:12 PM

There are a lot of rotten kids and they are not separated from the kids who could be educated.

Anyone looking for a major problem with public schools, that's a big one.

No one wants to "give up" on some kids, but teachers can't turn rotten kids into well behaved ones. If public schools had the ability to expel problem students (or at least have a larger availability of alternative schools), then more learning could take place.

Of course, no politician wins by saying, "We can't treat all students the same. A lot are little bastards and need to be sent to separate facilities."

Posted by: goosen | Jul 9, 2007 12:13:27 PM

Good education is the result of good teachers with good resources in good facilities with good support systems such as parents or in dysfunctional districts (social supports). It was a Republican mantra in Reagan's time that kept saying education was a problem (it wasn't as much then) but that throwing money at it wasn't the solution and so schools became defunded. Well throwing money at a war machine is not a solution either but the resistance to defunding is amazing. Money is essential to attract good teachers and to provide good facilities. Also creativity and independence to really address the issues in the district.

The idea that children should learn the same things at the same time to the same level of competency assessed by the same standardized test goes against all we know about child development and learning. Some districts are in such dire straits that major overhaul is needed and perhaps a different focus. Merit pay will do nothing to help the mediocre teacher and his students trying to cope with a resource poor system. It is divisive and a set up for union busting. Yes the unions need to engage in more creative problem solving but the stresses of chronic underfunding won't be solved easily and yet must be tackled. The districts that are working should be left alone, and those that are not working need new ways of looking at the problem and need new sources of revenue.

Posted by: pioneer | Jul 9, 2007 12:30:57 PM

Paula: very interesting post, with some very interesting points, both for the discussion here and because I am considering teaching (ideally upper end of elementary school) as a profession. I would like to ask you about this statement:

Studies show that there is almost no bullying in small schools.

What sort of studies, and how do they define bullying? I spent third to eighth grade in a teeny tiny school--I think less than 300 and that was for nursery through eighth grade; my grade had 25 kids in it at eighth grade graduation--and while I don't recall any of the nightmare scenarios you hear about school bullying happening... a lot of kids were just mean. I think most kids have a mean streak that grows through seventh grade or so and then starts to dwindle as maturity begins to kick in (I think I'm one of the few people I know who feels passionately about taking care of the nation's children without actually liking children very much; but it's not their fault, really, so I don't hold it against kids personally when they're bastards). And there were definitely some girls who were very Mean Girls esque, lots of gossip and backstabbing and hating your so-called best friends, and a lot of beating up on this one poor boy by his male peers. But maybe I'm just really sheltered, and what I observed doesn't qualify as bullying at all, or my school (private, for what it's worth), was an anomaly.

That said, I do support smaller schools for younger kids (I think by high school big schools tend to do okay though I could be wrong). Also I very, very much agree with your point about grades (I would take it further and eliminate completely; there's nothing you can get from a grade that you can't get from your teacher's comments). Grades don't just hurt those who start out on the low end; my first grade was an A and so were most of the ones that followed, and that led to a nasty perfectionist streak coupled with an almost pathological fear of failure that has only recently started abating. Not to be all "wah poor me" here, but just thought I'd chip in my two cents so that no one misreads "grades are bad for kids" as part of what some perceive as an increased oversensitivity to children's specialness/feelings/whatever (which, they're children, I think sensitivity is a good thing. maybe I'm weird). Grades are bad for kids not because they hurt kids' feelings, but because they hurt kids' learning.

Posted by: Isabel | Jul 9, 2007 1:00:24 PM

Isabel, I also went to a teeny, tiny school and several huge schools. I personally did not have much trouble, and I do remember a kid with a mean streak. My comment stems from the studies that came out after the Columbine shooting in reference to mega-schools, continuing with a PBS special on the Harlem school project where they divided schools into miniature magnet schools. In less than a decade they went from less than half the students graduating to 90% college acceptance. I have recently been doing research online, but I haven't assembled and analyzed it yet. It would take a few days to dig up. One review said that children lose as much as six months academically every time they change schools because of the stress. That includes going from elementary to middle schools. Not everyone responds to stress the same way, of course, but if you are a sensitive teacher, you can tell. I guess you might say, I felt their pain.

I think you should teach. I like Alfie Kohn. Start with "Punished by Rewards" and "No Contest." I actually read them in response to my cousin who was studying with W. Edwards Demming (who developed Total Quality Management in Japan.) Even in the workplace, production is higher quality when they get rid of hierarchies and individual evaluation and concentrate on systems management. I'm afraid that that is a hard sell in the U.S. where we really believe that it is a dog-eat-dog world.
Here's a link to the Small Schools Project:

Posted by: Paula | Jul 9, 2007 3:36:40 PM

I'm still waiting for somebody to explain to my why DC school system is so bad because of poor funding, considering the fact that their per-student funding is the HIGHEST IN THE NATION.

You guys need to use some critical thinking skills to evaluate these problems instead of the tired excuse of "these schools dont get enough funding!"

Posted by: joe blow | Jul 9, 2007 5:23:20 PM

P.S. In Texas there is a "Robin Hood" law that allocates property taxes in an "egalitarian" manner where rich districts send up to 95% of their property taxes to poor urban school districts.

I'll let you do the research to determine if the poor urban school districts made one iota of improvement after tat law passed and their funding levels TRIPLED overnight.

If you want the short version, the answer is the poor urban school districts got WORSE after that infusion of cash.

So go ahead with your liberal delusions that more money solves all problems.

Posted by: joe blow | Jul 9, 2007 5:25:53 PM

Gee, I wonder how hard it would be to think of some reasons it's hard for schools to educate.

First, of course, slavery and segregation that robbed blacks of the fruits of their labor.

Second, the Drug Wars, which have virtually destroyed the black family structure, and may simply be regarded as segregation by other means.

Third, the chronic and ongoing starvation of funds for the schools, often by people who think it perfectly natural that the price of a new car is about six times as great as it was 30 years ago.

Gee, that wasn't hard at all.

Maybe the saddest part isn't how badly the inner-city schools do at educating people whose families have been impoverished and destroyed, not to mention poisoned by lead and other pollution, but how badly the very richest schools do as they continue to graduate rightwingers who fervently believe in a Big Government, headed by a virtual dictator, reaching into every aspect of our lives, and an invisible hand that will pass out free lunches forever so we won't really need to pay for schools or other infrastructure.

We have met the enemy and he is us.

Posted by: serial catowner | Jul 9, 2007 7:23:29 PM

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