Scapegoating

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CULTURE AUGUST 25, 2011

Scapegoating

Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools
by Terry Moe
Brookings Institution Press, 513 pp., $34.95

TERRY MOE MADE his name in the early 1990s when, with John Chubb, he co-authored a much-discussed book arguing for a system of publicly-funded private school vouchers. The central thesis of Politics, Markets and America’s Schools was that “direct democratic control” of public education was “incompatible with effective schooling.” Chubb and Moe argued that private school vouchers would create efficient markets in education, and that “choice is a panacea.”

Two decades later, with vouchers and similar schemes serving one-third of one percent of the public school population, Moe has written a scathing critique of the single force in American politics most responsible for preserving public education against privatization efforts: American teachers and their unions. The book, which has glowing endorsements from Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, comes as teachers and other public employees are under siege from Republican governors in Wisconsin, Indiana, and elsewhere.

The book’s title, Special Interest, invokes a term historically applied to wealthy and powerful entities such as oil companies, tobacco interests, and gun manufacturers, whose narrow aims are often recognized as colliding with the more general public interest in such matters as clean water, good health, and public safety. Do rank and file teachers, who educate American school children and earn on average about $54,000 a year, really fall into the same category? Moe thinks so.

His indictment of teachers unions is an exaggerated version of one familiar to readers of the editorial pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post. Unions, he writes, make it “virtually impossible to get bad teachers out of the classroom.” They oppose school choice, oppose merit pay, and oppose efforts to have excellent teachers “assigned” to high poverty schools where they are needed most. But Moe goes further. Teachers unions “are at the heart” of our education problems. “As long as teachers unions remain powerful,” Moe writes, the “basic requirements” of educational success “cannot be met.”

This is a caricature of the teachers unions, and there are two main problems with it. The first is that the picture Moe paints is outdated. Unions now favor many elements of the education reform agenda, so long as reasonable accommodations are put in place. They now support school choice within the public school system, but oppose private school vouchers that might further Balkanize the nation’s students. Many teachers unions also favor getting rid of bad educators, not based strictly on test scores or the subjective judgment of principals, but through “peer review” plans which call for expert teachers to come into a school and work with struggling educators and in some cases recommend termination. And unions in New York, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere favor merit pay, so long as it includes school-wide gains, which encourage cooperation between teachers. If unions do not favor plans to allow administrators to “allocate” teachers to high poverty schools against their will (a policy that is reminiscent of forced student assignment for racial balance during the days of busing), they do favor paying teachers bonuses to attract them to high poverty schools. In New York City, teachers were recently willing to give up perks like sabbaticals in order to prevent layoffs—a development which would have been both bad for teachers and increased class size for students.

The second—and bigger—problem with Moe’s argument is the notion that unions are at “the heart” of our education problem. The American South, which largely lacks collective bargaining for teachers, has student outcomes that are worse, not better, than the North. Finland and Massachusetts—both heavily unionized—score at the top of the world and the top of the nation, respectively. These realities call into question Moe’s thesis that one cannot have both collective bargaining and effective schools. If unions are central to school failure, why do charter schools, 88 percent of which are non-unionized, only out-perform regular public schools 17 percent of the time?

Moe replies, reasonably enough, that the South suffers from other impediments to high achievement, such as higher levels of poverty, a history of segregation, and lower levels of school spending. Well, yes—but this response begs a question. If factors such as poverty and segregation matter a great deal more to student achievement than the existence of collective bargaining, why not write about those issues instead of claiming that the ability of teachers to band together and pursue their interests is the central problem in American education? Moreover, a review of seventeen studies by Robert Carini in 2002 found that when demographic factors are carefully controlled for, “unionism leads to modestly higher standardized achievement scores.”

Moe’s central, if somewhat unoriginal, point is that teacher interests “are not the same as the interests of children.” That is certainly true, but who are the selfless adults who think only about kids? For-profit charter school operators whose allegiance is to shareholders? Principals who send troublemakers back into the classroom because they don’t want school suspension numbers to look bad? Mayors who must balance the need to invest in kids against the strong desire of many voters to hold down taxes?

On many of the big educational issues—including levels of investment in education—the interests of educators who are in the classroom day in and day out align nicely with the interests of the children they teach. Unlike tobacco companies, which want to get more kids to smoke, and gun manufacturers, who want to sell more automatic weapons, a third grade teacher wants more money for school supplies and school funds to reduce overcrowding of classes.

As Jonathan Chait has noted, politicians, who have short-term horizons, are prone to under-investing in education, and teachers unions “provide a natural bulwark” against that tendency. Since most voters do not have kids in the public school system, parents with children in public schools need political allies. The fact that teachers, by joining together with one another, have achieved some power in the political process helps to explain why the United States is in roughly the top third of OECD nations on K-12 spending, compared with the bottom eighth in preventing childhood poverty. Yes, teachers have an interest in being well compensated—but presumably kids benefit when higher salaries attract more talented educators than would otherwise apply.

And what about cases when the interests of teachers and the interests of students collide? Moe argues that unions stand for the proposition that “no teacher needs to be fired,” which hurts kids. It is a myth, however, to say that teachers want their unions to protect lousy colleagues. Indeed, the average fifth-grade teacher has a powerful self-interest in getting rid of an incompetent fourth-grade colleague, which is part of why peer review programs in places like Toledo, Ohio, and Montgomery County, Maryland, have resulted in an increase in teacher terminations compared to previous systems in which administrators were in charge.

Doing away with tenure, moreover, would arguably hurt schoolchildren more than it helps them, by opening the door to patronage hiring and making it more difficult to attract strong candidates. As Moe’s polling suggests, teachers put great value on tenure. He finds that “most teachers see the security of tenure as being worth tens of thousands of dollars a year.” His survey suggests a majority of teachers would need to be paid 50 percent more to give up tenure. Unilaterally taking it away, therefore, would make teaching a far less desirable profession for many, substantially shrinking the pool of qualified candidates.

Some union critics, such as Jonathan Alter, claim that “It’s very, very important to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time. Teachers are great, a national treasure. Teachers’ unions are, generally speaking, a menace and an impediment to reform.” But Moe, citing extensive polling data, concludes that among teachers “virtually all union members, whether Democrat or Republican, see their membership in the local as entirely voluntary and are highly satisfied with what they are getting.” In a poll in 2008, 75 percent of teachers agreed, “without collective bargaining, the working conditions and salaries of teachers would be much worse”; and 77 percent agreed “without a union, teachers would be vulnerable to school politics or administrators who abuse their power.” In Moe’s telling, however, the lack of distance between teachers and their unions does not reflect well on unions but rather reflects poorly on teachers.

Indeed, Moe seems to have a very difficult time putting himself in the position of an average public school teacher. He identifies, instead, with the supervisor. Examining teacher contracts, Moe asks: “Why in the world should there be a formal limit on the number of times a school can have faculty meetings? Doesn’t it make sense to have them when, in the judgment of principals, they are useful or necessary?” But such provisions did not spring from thin air. They grew out of the experience of teachers, such as Albert Shanker, the late president of the American Federation of Teachers, who remembered his principal unilaterally calling largely pointless staff meetings that would drag on for three or four hours. “The teachers sat there seething,” Shanker recalled. “Never in all those hours, did we talk about anything that had anything to do with any professional matter.”

If Moe had his way, he would outlaw collective bargaining for public school teachers entirely. The idea that policymakers can work with “reform” union leaders is, in his view, “completely wrong-headed,” and “fanciful and misguided.” In advocating the abolition of collective bargaining, Moe would go further than 66 percent of school board candidates (who have a favorable view of teacher collective bargaining) and 57 percent of Republican candidates. He would go further than Governor Scott Walker, who has curtailed, rather than eliminated, teacher collective bargaining in Wisconsin. Out-Walkering Walker, Moe would have the entire country adopt the ban on collective bargaining for public employees found in just seven states—most of them in the former Confederacy.

Teachers unions are by no means perfect, but they are an essential instrument for democratizing the inner workings of schools, and—much to Moe’s dismay—for fending off efforts to privatize our system of public education. For most Americans, pursuing those democratic goals is not incompatible with effective schooling, but rather a crowning glory of our educational system.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy.

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