The Worm in the Apple:
by Peter Brimelow
Harper Collins, 2003, hardcover, 336 pp.
Something certainly is rotten in American public education—actually, lots of things contribute to the sorry state of education—and Peter Brimelow shines a light where it's much needed, on the role of teachers unions. One might think that teachers, and by extension their union, would be highly invested in creating and maintaining work environments that enable them to perform well. Brimelow shows, in state after state as well as at the national level, that the reality is that unions are wealthy, powerful fiefdoms. They are bent on maintaining the status quo and the illusion of being "for the children" that they have carefully nurtured for their rank and file membership (not to mention the general public).
The Worm in the Apple offers a revealing look at the workings of the teachers unions, and how they got the remarkable power they wield. Brimelow does so with style, bringing a dry wit to the subject that enlivens his discourse. Approaching education issues from the perspective of an economist, Brimelow avoids becoming mired in minutiae of policy debates and instead focuses on a straightforward input-output analysis. With this ever in mind, it's clear that the teachers unions demand higher and higher input, while failing to produce an acceptable output.
Brimelow's philosophical approach is similarly straightforward and refreshing. In his view, the fundamental problem with the education system is its socialist basis, and only genuine reform—free market capitalism in education—will bring about meaningful improvements. This could involve vouchers (Brimelow points out the GI Bill was an adult-targeted education voucher program), charter schools, or any of a number of other ideas: Brimelow rightly declares that the form(s) doesn't matter as much as the substance.
Not content to deftly wield union execs' words against them, Brimelow offers twenty-four ideas on reforming teacher unions and education in general, organized along two themes: "disinfecting the apple" (getting rid of socialism in education); and "extracting the worm" (removing the teacher unions' legal privileges). Along with the usual suggestions, Brimelow makes the excellent point that the current education system does not fit all students' needs, and that reform—he specifically mentions GED reform—must address a wider spectrum of education.
The Worm in the Apple is a refreshing, hard-hitting examination of a longstanding problem in American education. If Brimelow's facts don't upset teachers and their union leaders, his occasionally over-the-top style will. Given the trends in education today, they ignore his message at their peril. Those who want to bring about free-market reforms in education will find The Worm in the Apple an invaluable aid, for its insights, ideas, and helpful ancillary material in the two appendices.