(Isabel Lyman's blog)
Doing Battle with the Bureaucratic Parasite.
Peter Brimelow's much-praised book, The Worm in the Apple, calmly explains how government schools are in the grip of teachers' unions. The book is often wickedly funny. The 1999 National Education Association convention, for instance, is described as "a sort of indoor rally for human hot-air balloons," a reference to the marked absence of lean bodies among the NEA delegates.
Mr. Brimelow, a native of England and the father of two children, is a columnist for CBS MarketWatch. His work has appeared in Forbes, Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. We won't hold that last one against you, Peter. Let's hear what the man has to say about the reformation of education.
THR: The syndicated columnist, Paul Craig Roberts, has said of your book, "If you have a child in public school, you need to read The Worm in the Apple ... " While that's certainly a grand compliment, why in the world would any parent with half-a-brain place their precious child in an American public school? It seems that a real reformer's message would be "Free the captives."
PB: WORM's message is that the captives should be freed - the teachers, let alone the children and the taxpayers. But in the short run, the practical reality is that most people cannot fight a pitched battle with the system and have to adopt a guerilla strategy. There are many reasons why families might chose to endure the public school.
They're throwing an average of $7.5K per kid per year at you - babysitting alone is worth something. Your home situation may not permit homeschooling (i.e. My wife is very ill.) You may need two incomes. You may think you can work around the problems - I tell my children not to believe what the teachers say but not to argue, as if we were in an occupied country. Plus, Izzy, we have to recognize that some government schooling is effective. Of course, it ought to be, given how much it costs.
THR: You offer a 24-point "wish list" - your suggestions for loosening the vise that the teachers' unions have upon American education. Some seem doable, like laws which give union members the chance to withhold the portion of their dues that goes to political causes or privatizing school services like transportation. But there are others which, with all due respect, are just pie-in-sky proposals, like the one suggesting abolishing the U.S. Department of Education. President George W. Bush - he of the No Child Left Behind Act - isn't about to downsize, let alone, abolish this department. Right?
PB: Yes, I think Bush is just falling into the trap of imagining getting tough is what the system needs, when it really needs systemic reform. It's like shooting peasants in the Soviet Union. It may improve things in the short run, but it is ultimately hopeless. It's vital to understand the root of the problem, even if you can't attack it directly because no one really knows what's politically practical.
THR: Your general thesis is that teachers' unions, like the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, are the pesky worm in the apple - the apple being public education. How does the Teacher Trust, as you call the unions, influence the classroom on a daily basis?
PB: Izzy, there's a great quote on p. 37 from Terry M. Moe (of the Hoover Institution) that sums it up: rules. The school environment is paralyzed by rules in the heavily-unionized states. But the unions' primary impact is negative - preventing reforms. Management is deprived of the power to hire, fire, and otherwise incentivize.
A portion of Moe's quote:
"Rules about the assignment of teachers to classrooms, and their (non) assignment to yard duty, lunch duty, hall duty, and after-school activities. Rules about how much time teachers can be required to work, and how much time they must get to prepare for class. Rules about class schedules. Rules about how students are to be disciplined. Rules about homework. Rules about class size. Rules about the numbers and uses of teacher aides. Rules about the school calendar. Rules about how grievances are to be handled ... "THR: You argue that while the student-teacher ratio has decreased (it's 16.5 students to one teacher), the quality of American education has declined in that we have more illiterate graduates. The unions got what they wanted (smaller class size), but schools have not produced the advertised results. Why don't more of the taxpaying public call their bluff?
PB: Cowardice and ignorance. I don't think many people realize how dramatically the pupil-teacher ratio has fallen, there's no journalism about it. The Teacher Trust is a new phenomenon (since the 1960s), and people don't realize it's driving higher local taxes and the state and local fiscal crisis.
THR: You write very favorably about homeschooling and charter schools. What do you especially like about these two options?
PB: Charter schools are like perestroika - it's good to loosen up a socialist system, but the results can only be marginal.
Homeschooling is fascinating because the homeschoolers did get the legal reforms they needed to get around the compulsory-attendance laws showing it can be done. (The homeschoolers) have proven that the substantive content of K-12 education can be delivered quicker than we think.
THR: One proposal that I thought was 'spot on' was your argument that "the cloud over the GED should be removed. A reformed program certifying genuine basic education should be designed. Then students who want to get out of school and go to work would have a goal to aim for." Is getting a high school degree overrated?
PB: Yes, the ideal of the comprehensive high school has never been achieved and makes no sense given the Bell Curve problem. (i.e. By definition, you have to graduate people with very low IQs.) This is why the British socialists designed the 1944 Education Act to allow most kids out at age 15. Plus there's the boredom problem with very bright kids. So, both sets should be encouraged to get out. Of course, this is the last thing the union wants - fewer victims!
Generally, I think education should be unbundled and individualized. It can't be done in the current government bureaucratic system.
THR: Hear! Hear! Thank you so much for discussing your book. Please visit Peter's favorite web site.