Liberals turn on teachers' unions

Everybody Hates The Teachers’ Unions Now, writes Mickey Kaus, writing about a report by the liberal Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights.

How can we know when the tide of respectable opinion has decisively turned against the teachers’ unions? When a panel that includes Father Hesburgh, Birch Bayh. Bill Bradley, Eleanor Holmes Norton and Roger Wilkins goes medieval on them, saying their resistance to reforms designed to hold schools accountable has hurt “disadvantaged students” and led to “calcified systems in which talented people are deterred from applying or staying as teachers …”

The report charges:

The unions have battled against the principle that schools and education agencies should be held accountable for the academic progress of their students. They have sought to water down the standards adopted by states to reflect what students should know and be able to do. They have attacked assessments designed to measure the progress of schools, seeking to localize decisions about test content so that the performance of students in one school or community cannot be compared with others. They have resisted innovative ways-such as growth models-to assess student performance.

The unions’ defense of the status quo has harmed the neediest students, the report concludes.

Over the last decade, the national leaders of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have made their unions implacable foes of laws and policies designed to improve public education for disadvantaged children.

. . . The bottom line is that the NEA would permit different standards for different children, a system that was prevalent during the days of racial segregation in schools.

. . . Despite their insistence on educational inputs as the key to educational success, the unions repeatedly seek to block one of the most important of these inputs, equitable distribution of highly qualified teachers to high need schools.

The status quo is OK for middle-class students with supportive parents. For left-behind students, it’s very grim.

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  1. Teachers unions are, without doubt, a problem. But the bigger problem is the organiation(s) that led to teacher’s unions – ISDs.

  2. Looks like political plate tectonics are splitting the left along the axis of the education issue and some of the bigger names are starting to chime in on the “wrong” side the issue.

    It’s nice to know what these folks are against but it would be helpful to know, with some specificity, what they’re for.

  3. There might be a few problems with teachers’ unions, but I will quit teaching before I walk into a school without the protection of my union and the contact they bargained for me. In today’s economy, it’s the only way most of us are getting paid.

  4. SuperSub says:

    I have had some poor experiences with teacher unions being a new untenured (i.e. expendable) teacher, but I have to say that they are not the fault with today’s educational system. Systemically, if anything, they are one of the bulwarks against further quality declines.

    The reason that more highly qualified (i.e. adequate) teachers don’t want to teach in poor urban schools is not primarily the lack of pay, but the horrendous working environment. True, you will find the mercenaries who will justify the poor conditions with a significant bonus, but these schools will become much more stable if the working conditions change.
    Well, to do this, we’d have to tackle the communities that the schools are in. Of course, liberals aren’t going to do that because they’d anger the poor that overwhelmingly vote for them.

    The other way to improve academic quality would be to change what is being done in teacher preparation programs. Focus less on unproven ideology and more on practical experience. Let wannabe teachers fail and prevent them from squeeking through somehow.
    Of course, this would require liberals to challenge academia, which has a stranglehold on these teacher colleges.

    In the end, this was not a revolutionary decision… the liberals just turned their back on the least reliable voting block of the three – teacher unions.

  5. SuperSub,

    You make a really good point, but by focusing on the unions instead of disfunctional communities or the schools of ed, the liberals are defacto acknowledging the failures of the other two. Blaming the unions provides them with the political cover they need to support charters and vouchers. Liberals are only doing this now because their constituents from those poor communites are demanding that they do so. Have you seen the euphoria of the parents whose child got a placement, via lottery, in the Harlem charter school? Our local NYC news covered it extensively.

    Charter schools and vouchers weaken the unions but they also allow parents in poor districts to segregate their kids from parents who simply don’t care via lottery, spliting the communities into those that give a crap and those that don’t.

    Many of the higher performing charter schools have rejected the ed schools’ ideology of teaching and opt instead for more rigorous or traditional methods.

    Attacking the teachers’ unions is the path of least resistance, but it has the desired result of effecting communities and schools of ed who, in the end, will be forced to respond to changing circumstance.

  6. I can prove teacher unions are not the problem. Texas has no union protection, but our results are not even at the top of the US. One of the previous posters opined that it might be the community the children come from. You think? I am a teacher and I know the solution to poor performing schools will not be reached because it will be unpopular.

  7. “Everyone hates…” according to the neo-liberal Kaus is no more reliable than a statement such as “everyone agrees …” After all, Kaus has made a career out of attacking old-fashioned liberals. Diagram his sentences over the years and I bet you’d find the same pattern whether he’s wanting to reform the military, end welfare, or re-do whatever aspect of the New Deal that he wants to re-do.

    Of course, we need to reform unionism, as well as the old New Deal. Kaus, like MANY (not all), of the neo’s argues from analogy about things he knows to education reform. But how much does he know about urban education? Has he ever sent a child or someone he loves to a hardcore inner city NEIGHBORHOOD school? Does he know from first-hand experience about the differences between high-poverty elementary schools and high-poverty charter and magnet schools, and how they are fundamentally different? If he doesn’t have the concrete knowledge of the problems with replicating successes in outliers, then how is he supposed to be a good consumer of research and/or policy reports?

    Regarding the CCCR Board that signed the report, I also have questions that I can’t answer. I’ll admit to feeling hurt. I work so hard in the civil rights movement of the 21st century, and I don’t like being attacked by the heroes of the 20st century movement. But how many times have they been drenched in students’ blood, or worried over an unconscious teen not knowing if he or she will recover? How many funerals and hospital and jail visits have they made? How many punches have they taken? How many terrified families have they tried to help at 2:00AM? How many suicide and pyschotic episode interventions have they made? How many sleepless nights have they had worrying over their students? Do they realize that many inner city educators, in addition to their official jobs, go from one extreme crisis to another often not catching their breaths for days or weeks at a time?

    Basically, I “blame” the “Big Sort,” or the extreme self-segregation of the last generation. The leaders of the civil rights movement all had concrete knowledge of discrimination (as well as concrete knowledge of labor and the issues of their allies in the union movement). But look at their ages, not to mention their current economic class. Would anybody on the CCCR Board, or even their staff, even consider sending their kids to a hardcore inner city school? Do they have anyone on staff who taught in a NEIGHBORHOOD school, as opposed to a selective school? Being an academic on the Left, I would have been open to Kaus’ and the CCCR’s indictment BEFORE I taught. I came to teaching at the age of 39, and I remember asking myself in my early years what I was thinking about my previous beliefs.

    (For instance, being a former ACLU Board member who had written a history of civil liberties I remember being surprised that the system always gave far more rights to students than the law required; I’d never seen an institution that voluntarily ceded power to the extent of education. Its not teachers though that allow violent and chronically disruptive students to act with such abandon, but have Kaus, or the CCCR Board ever experienced that situation? I mention this because when a student on an IEP keeps stomping an unconscious kid because he’s thought to be gay or is an immigrant, and the System does nothing, the teacher can’t withohld love from the perpetuater [who almost certainly is a victim of previous abuse] while helping the victim and those experiences make teachers skeptical about simplistic solutions.)

    Regardless, I don’t think they have any idea of what a small porportion of a teacher’s job is done in the classroom, and taking quick visits to schools that are “outliers” or Potemkin Villages are no corrective.

  8. The report charges that unions “have sought to water down the standards adopted by states to reflect what students should know and be able to do.” In fact, AFT has always been, and continues to be, a staunch defender of rigorous national academic standards. NEA has publicly supported CCSSO/NGA’s Common Core State Standards Initiative, which aims to reflect international benchmarks and includes standards stalwarts like Checker Finn on its review committees.

    The report also claims that unions “have attacked assessments designed to measure the progress of schools, seeking to localize decisions about test content so that the performance of students in one school or community cannot be compared with others.” Who hasn’t attacked assessments designed to measure the progress of schools? Few people seem to be under the illusion that those assessments are of particularly high quality. And AFT most certainly doesn’t want to “localize decisions about test content.”