Teachers' unions lose media support

Teachers’ unions have lost media support, write Richard Whitmire and Andrew Rotherham in the Wall Street Journal.

Quick: Which newspaper in recent editorials called teachers unions “indefensible” and a barrier to reform? You’d be excused for guessing one of the conservative outlets, but it was that bastion of liberalism, the New York Times. A month ago, The New Yorker—yes, The New Yorker—published a scathing piece on the problems with New York City’s “rubber room,” a union-negotiated arrangement that lets incompetent teachers while away the day at full salary while doing nothing. The piece quoted a principal saying that union leader Randi Weingarten “would protect a dead body in the classroom.”

Things only got worse for the unions this past week. A Washington Post editorial about charter schools carried this sarcastic headline: “Poor children learn. Teachers unions are not pleased.” And the Times weighed in again Monday, calling a national teachers union “aggressively hidebound.”

What happened? Public opinion shifted to favor accountability, “no excuses” charter schools showed poor urban kids can learn and President Barack Obama bucked the unions to push for charter schools, testing, performance pay and firing bad teachers.

Data collected under No Child Left Behind provisions has made it  easier to figure out which teachers are succeeding, Whitmire and Rotherham write.

“Data and results are challenging an industry that was traditionally driven by hope, hype and good intentions,” says Jane Hannaway, the director of education policy at the Urban Institute. Ms. Hannaway argues that in the long run these emerging databases may be the most important dividend of today’s school accountability policies.

Inner-city students are doing so poorly that many blacks and other Democrats are willing to try just about anything to get change.

About Joanne


  1. I can’t comment on the Washington Post, but I’ve been following the Times for years, and they’ve never much supported us. For them this is not much of a sea change. Newspapers are not particularly fond of unions, liberal though management may fancy itself.

    I’ll also say that the Times’ education coverage is sparser than that of the tabloids and consistently less edgy. Though the News and the Post editorial pages trash us consistently, the news pages will also expose foibles and inconsistencies about the Bloomberg administration. The Times has lagged behind and continues to do so. It seems strive for balance and reserve, often at the expense of accuracy and content.

    I’ve come to wonder whether the news reporting in the Times is accurate. For years I’ve been reading about education, things I know about, things that the Times doesn’t know about. It’s a little scary, to tell you the truth.

  2. Sorry–that should say “it seems TO strive.”

  3. Joanne,

    My recent article in the LA Daily News, copied below, is relevant to this discussion.

    Best, Doug

    Charter schools for LAUSD: Caveat emptor
    By Doug Lasken

    Updated: 09/20/2009 10:09:06 AM PDT
    Los Angeles Daily News

    With its recent vote to allow outside operators, including charters, to run new and underperforming schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the LA School Board has in effect put itself on record as saying that the district it regulates cannot guarantee a quality education for the children of Los Angeles. Considering the source, the public has little choice but to accept this judgment, but, as the saying goes, we should not jump from the frying pan into the fire.

    The important point to remember is that charters are not in themselves either better or worse than public schools. They are what the operators, staff, parents and students make them, so it would seem to behoove those in Los Angeles with a stake in these rapidly developing changes to make sure that the chosen charters are better than the public school they are replacing.

    The timeline is short. Superintendent Cortines wants proposals from aspiring operators submitted by the end of November and “expects to have all final decision made by January.” This gives a little over two months to write the proposals, and another two months to determine their acceptability, but the real concern should not be the short timeline, but the lack of specific criteria with which to evaluate the plans.

    Two elements in particular should be included in the evaluations, one which should have been a prime focus of discussion in the past, but was not, and the other a new concern.

    The element missing in past discussion is a focus on the charter school exemption from many state and district regulations. Like any freedom, this can be good or bad, depending on the specifics. For example, the state education code prohibits using attendance as a criterion for grades. A student can be tardy to class every day, but no impact on the academic mark is permitted. Charter schools are free of this rule and can require prompt attendance for passage of a class, as Granada Hills Charter High School has done. This is a long overdue correction of an archaic and counter productive section of the state code.

    On the other hand, charters have freedom to ignore arguable improvements in state law. An example is Proposition 227, passed in 1997, which mandates that students whose native language is not English must begin a study of English immediately. Before 227, students in California public schools whose native language was Spanish were required to study Spanish exclusively until they achieved a high proficiency in Spanish. In LAUSD, academic English was strictly forbidden- all subjects were taught in Spanish well into middle-school and beyond. The result: thousands of native Spanish-speaking students entered middle and high school without ever having studied English. Not surprisingly, the passage of 227 resulted in a dramatic increase in test scores. Charters, however, are exempt from 227, and 227 is in fact ignored by Green Dot Charter Schools, the main charter provider in LAUSD’s area, and a prime competitor for the new sites. At Green Dot’s Animo Charter High School in downtown L.A. students may write their essays in Spanish, then hand them over to teachers to translate into English. The grades are then based on the teachers’ translations. Such a practice would be illegal in LAUSD.

    Shouldn’t the criteria for selecting outside operators include a discussion of which state and district rules will be forgone and which maintained, and the reasons why?

    The other consideration arises from Cortines’ decision that charters must admit all the students in the original school’s attendance area. Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter School Association, opposes the decision, arguing that admitting neighborhood kids violates the tenet that “…parental choice is at the heart of the charter movement.” Wallace conveniently ignores the parental choice of the parents in the attendance area, as he ignores the question of where the neighborhood kids will go to school if their neighborhood school is closed to them. The schools open to charter takeover are the “Program Improvement” schools, where the neighborhood children are at risk. A lottery system, which Wallace wants, would offer admission to students from outside the school’s area, students from highly motivated families, bypassing the very students who need an improved school the most. A lottery system would thus defeat the point of the program (though making it much easier to show improved test scores).

    Cortines should stick to his guns on the neighborhood attendance requirement, and let’s hope that the two-month period to assess and choose outside operators will involve public discussion of specific approaches to state regulations.

    Doug Lasken is a retired LAUSD teacher and freelancer. Write to him at [email protected]

  4. Don Bemont says:

    I have certainly noticed the trend. I seems to appear with regularity in the insidious form of analyzing why some highly questionable idea of improving education has not yet taken hold. The idea is termed a reform, and the reason that it has not been adopted is resistance by the teachers’ unions.

    The possibility that the idea may simply look bad to majority of the people on the front lines is finessed out of the story by scapegoating the unions.

    I resent the underlying philosophy: People in the higher reaches are just so sure of some idea, and the view of people on the ground is to be steamrollered. The low regard for unions is reflected in this undertaking, but it is not the central intention.

  5. It’s nice to see that the split on the left over education has finally reached the level that the NYT can no longer studiously ignore the issue.

    As gratifying fallout of that split, the teacher’s unions are finally being stripped of their camouflage of concern for education. While those not ideologically or financially tied to the unions have known for a long time that the purpose of the teacher’s, indeed any, union is to get as much as possible for the membership with little to any regard for the consequences, it’s nice to see the Times tumble to the realization. I wonder where they read about it?

    It’ll be interesting to see where this goes.

    All the reforms I’ve ever heard of – charters, vouchers, accountability measures, merit pay – create situations not particularly conducive to the formation, maintenance of union organizations. That elicits a shrug from me since whether education is accomplished by a “sage on the stage”, a “guide on the side” or telepathy is immaterial. But one shouldn’t underestimate the power of self-interest or the creativity it inspires.

    It may just be that, seeing the course of things, the teacher’s unions might try to get out in front and lead the charge to dismantle the current system with an eye toward bending future policies in their preferred direction. But I don’t think that’s likely.

  6. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    I am a teacher and member of CTA/NEA. The raison d’etre of all unions is to advocate for wages, hours, and working conditions. Period. One can also be a caring, excellent professional at the same time. There is nothing inherently wrong with that advocacy, but union leaders and their membership need to be honest about it. Teachers unions do not represent education ‘reform’, any more than the UAW gives a rat’s you-know-what about automobile industry ‘reform’, AALA (Administrators’ Union) cares about educational administration ‘reform’ or the Teamsters care about trucking industry ‘reform’. The AMA, ADA and ABA likewise work against improving their respective professions, in favor of protecting the status quo for doctors, dentists, and lawyers. And the prospects for true ‘reform’ over time are very gradual, and usually in the form of ‘one step forward, two steps back’.


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