)Doing Battle with the Bureaucratic Parasite.
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
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
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?
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