Jonathan Chait

In Defense Of "Waiting For Superman"

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I've always been a big Gail Collins fan, but she loses me with this defense of teachers unions:

Then there’s the matter of teachers’ unions. Guggenheim is the man who got us worried about global warming in “An Inconvenient Truth.” In his new film, the American Federation of Teachers, a union, and its president, Randi Weingarten, seem to be playing the role of carbon emissions. The movie’s heroes are people like the union-fighting District of Columbia schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, and Geoffrey Canada, the chief of the much-praised, union-free Harlem Children’s Zone.

“I want to be able to get rid of teachers that we know aren’t able to teach kids,” says Canada.

That’s unarguable, and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program has turned out to be a terrific engine for forcing politicians and unions and education experts to create better ways to get rid of inept or lazy teachers. But there’s no evidence that teachers’ unions are holding our schools back.

If you concede that principals need to be able to fire bad teachers, then you can't fully defend the role of the unions. You can defend the concept of unions, and you can believe that some of the things unions do, like bargain for higher aggregate wages, help education. But most teachers unions demonstrably make it very difficult to fire bad teachers. That is currently a core function of teachers unions, and something that must change. You're also going to need higher salaries to attract a better caliber teacher into the profession, and that's something unions could potentially help. But being "treated like professionals" has to mean both the opportunity to earn a good living if you do well and the potential to be fired if you fail.

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