A Closer—if One-Sided—Look at Teacher Unions
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Republished on VDARE.COM on March 05, 2003

 by Jay Mathews

 by Jay Mathews


I don't write much about teacher unions. So, according to Peter Brimelow's new book, I am partially responsible for their ruining our schools.

Go ahead, blame me for being lazy and inattentive. I have those flaws. I am willing to admit there are many important topics I should deal with more often. But I believe that teacher unions are not one of them, for reasons I will get to once I describe Brimelow's book and why he thinks I am one of the bad guys.

Brimelow is an energetic and provocative financial journalist who has written for Forbes and Fortune magazines and is now editor of VDARE.COM, a senior fellow with the Pacific Research Institute and a columnist for CBS MarketWatch. The book in which he eviscerates slothful education reporters is called "The Worm in the Apple: How the Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education."

As you can tell from the title, my school-reporting colleagues and I are not his main targets. Those are the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Brimelow says the teacher unions, particularly the huge 2.7-million-member NEA, are fat and self-satisfied, yet often irritable dinosaurs who trample on every conceivable improvement in education policy that might interfere with their goals of more pay and less work their members, and more power for union leaders.

I think Brimelow would be the first to admit that what he has written is not journalism, but a polemic. He is snide and insulting. He refers to the unions as the "Teacher Trust." He mocks their assembly resolutions and trashes their leaders. When he quotes them defending themselves, there is almost always a little dig, such as the anti-NEA tale on page 98 that ends with this sentence: "The NEA affiliate denied it . . . of course." [The ellipses are Brimelow's, not mine.]

In America, such books have a long and honorable history, from Tom Paine's "Common Sense" to Ralph Nader's "Unsafe At Any Speed." Like all polemicists, Brimelow makes some mistakes and fails to back up some arguments. He puts too much emphasis on the decline in average SAT scores in the 1960s and 1970s, ignoring the significant change in the size and character of the test-taking population. He suggests public schools as we know them should be discarded yet does not provide any examples of free-market alternatives that have produced significant and sustained gains in the test scores of low-income children.

But his portrayal of the teacher unions, as one-sided as it is, has some truth. He wisely quotes Mike Antonucci, whose Educational Intelligence Agency research firm (www.eiaonline.com) has chronicled NEA and AFT pratfalls for several years. Brimelow cites the more inane moments at NEA Representative Assemblies, such as passage of a resolution opposing "the exploitation of women as mail-order brides" and another calling for better strategies "for handwriting instruction of left-handed students."

In a chapter called "the National Extortion Association," Brimelow presents evidence of union cronyism and political strong-arm tactics that squash the legitimate desires of not only parents, but also many classroom teachers. He gloats over the NEA leadership's loss of a 1998 secret ballot vote to unite with the AFT, but he still makes the important point that the upper echelon of the NEA is often out of touch with what its members really want.

And his chapter on NEA efforts to help fix schools, once you take out all the snickers and chortles, is an interesting account of the fierce resistance inside the unions to some promising innovations, like charter schools and more pay for teachers who meet certain performance benchmarks.

The NEA and the AFT have a different view of these episodes. I asked Kathleen Lyons, NEA's manager of news media services and web content, what she thought of the notion that her union wants to score big contracts, no matter how much parents are bothered by what they do to school budgets.

"NEA affiliates work closely together with parents on issues that make a difference in the quality of education children receive," Lyons said. "Together, we've worked hard to reduce class size, to make sure all teachers are fully qualified, and to make sure our schools are safe and conducive to learning."

Alexander Wohl, spokesman for the AFT, said, "In most instances teachers unions don't work in opposition to, but rather in coalition WITH parent groups, school boards, and principals on issues including funding, standards, school safety, and many others."

As for Brimelow's chapter on some NEA leaders' discomfort with charter schools and other school improvement efforts, Wohl noted that the AFT was an early advocate of charters, and encourages many innovations. "But it is important to recognize—something that Brimelow and others frequently do not—that we are a democracy and a federation," he said, and thus cannot dictate to local units and their teachers.

Lyons said "NEA and its affiliates rarely get credit for the many innovative approaches we have taken on issues, including—but not limited to—the involvement of many of our affiliates in charter schools and working to bring about better participation by parents in their children's education. In our opinion, there are some 'education reform' concepts that are very misleading to the public—such as vouchers, tuition tax credits, merit pay, and eliminating tenure—because they are politically based, not educationally sound. You should not confuse our organization's principled opposition to those measures and conclude that the association opposes all reforms."

I bet Lyons and Wohl agree with Brimelow on one thing: the many faults of us education reporters. I plead guilty to this Brimelow charge on page 159: "On those rare occasions when reporters do cover the teacher unions, they find themselves overwhelmed by the arcane and the incomprehensible, much the way a Westerner might feel while watching a kabuki performance. They have little understanding of the interrelationships of the various levels of the unions, little understanding of the interrelationships between union management and staff, and little understanding of the unions' mission."

But I think there is a good reason for that. Many education reporters don't spend much time looking at the unions because we don't think they have much to do with what happens in the classroom. (Brimelow suggests at one point that teacher union stories might be better assigned to labor reporters, a splendid idea.)

I have been a full-time education reporter for only six years. For many years before I got this job, while doing other things for The Post, I became very interested in the mysteries of teaching. That led me to write two books on high schools in my off-hours and spend a lot of time during the day sitting in classrooms when my editors thought I was doing something else.

During my two decades so far as a school room habitué, I cannot think of a single instance in which the NEA or the AFT have had a significant impact on what was happening in class. There have been occasional strikes, usually short, and sometimes teachers have bickered over union policies. But the difference between good teachers and bad ones, effective lessons and ineffective ones, has never had much to do with the instructors' commitment to the union or the language of their labor contract. The best educators I know have confirmed this in hundreds of conversations.

I read Brimelow's book very carefully, curious to see how he would prove me wrong and expose all the subtle but important union influences I had missed. But he doesn't even try. The book spends no time at all inside classrooms. Instead, he pins his argument on one distressing fact about American schools in general, augmented by one unproven, and perhaps unprovable, speculation.

The distressing fact is that American schools have not shown much progress in the past 30 years, despite enormous amounts of time, money and effort to give the bottom quarter of students the language and math skills they need. The unproven speculation is that this failure is due to what Brimelow calls the socialistic structure of the public education system. Brimelow accepts Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman's argument that productive innovation in our schools is stifled by government control, the lack of choice and the teacher unions' old-think focus on higher salaries, seniority and benefits.

Brimelow's subtitle (this is probably his publisher's fault) is inaccurate because he is not arguing that the teacher unions are destroying American education, but instead that they are blocking its renaissance. If the unions did not exist, he says, we might be able to create a free enterprise system in which the schools and teachers who raised achievement would prosper and all the rest would thankfully get out of the education business altogether.

It is an interesting argument. I suspect his book will be very popular with Republican political candidates who want rhetorical grenades to toss at their teacher union-backed Democratic opponents. It will also focus useful attention on union leaders who say they want to fix schools but stand in the way of many of the most interesting experiments.

American education is not in decline, but it is stuck, with urban and rural schools still needing to improve even as suburban schools are doing well. The problems, I think, are inadequate training of teachers, low expectations, insufficient class time and an overdose of kindness that keeps most American educators from pushing kids as hard as they need to be pushed.

The teacher unions could help with that, and I hope they do. But I am going to learn much more about what is going on by talking to their members and visiting their classes, rather than seeing what irrelevant resolutions the next NEA Representative Assembly has in store.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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