Education Opinion

Blame It All On Teachers Unions

By Walt Gardner — March 12, 2012 3 min read
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Scapegoating is a powerful tool to sway public opinion. That’s why I’m not surprised that teachers unions are consistently being singled out for the shortcomings of public schools (“Can Teachers Unions Do Education Reform?” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 3). After all, they are such an easy target at a time when the public’s patience over the glacial pace of school reform is running out.

The latest example was an essay by Juan Williams, who is now a political analyst for Fox News (“Will Business Boost School Reform?” The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 28). He claims that teachers unions are “formidable opponents willing to fight even modest efforts to alter the status quo.” Their obstructionism is responsible for the one million high school dropouts each year and for a graduation rate of less than 50 percent for black and Hispanic students. Williams says that when schools are free of unions, they succeed because they can fire ineffective teachers, implement merit pay, lengthen the school day, enrich the curriculum and deal with classroom discipline.

These assertions have great intuitive appeal to taxpayers who are angry and frustrated, but the truth is far different from what Williams maintains.

First, if teachers unions are responsible for low student achievement, then students in states where teachers unions are weak should do much better than students in states where teachers unions are strong. This is not the case. In Massachusetts and Minnesota, where teachers are heavily unionized, students post the highest scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s report card. Conversely, in Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas, which have few teachers union members and virtually no union contracts, students have the lowest NAEP scores (“Beyond Silver Bullets for American Education,” The Nation, Dec. 22, 2010).

Second, teachers unions are not obstructionists. New Haven has the full cooperation of the New Haven Federation of Teachers in transforming its schools (“The New Haven Experiment,” The New York Times, Feb. 15). Two years ago, the district and the union reached an historic agreement whereby job security would be sacrificed in exchange for better pay and benefits. And the National Education Association, often thought of as a hidebound organization, has agreed to re-evaluate its stand on determining employment and advancement of teachers (“NEA proposes criteria reform for teacher jobs,” The Washington Post, Dec. 11, 2011).

Third, teachers unions do not have a chokehold on teachers. Educators 4 Excellence in New York City, NewTLA in Los Angeles, and Teach Plus in six cities, including Boston, Chicago and Memphis, want to change how teachers are evaluated and retained (“Teacher Faction Expands to L.A.,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 1, 2011). Although the overwhelming majority of members are young teachers, there are also veteran teachers who share their vision for overhauling schools.

Finally, teachers unions are not nearly as powerful as critics claim. In Los Angeles, home of the nation’s second largest school district, United Teachers Los Angeles no longer exerts the influence it once did (“Once-mighty UTLA loses political muscle,” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 18, 2011). The change is the result of UTLA’s slowness in adapting to the demand for school reform. Depicting UTLA as calling all the shots is a caricature.

I don’t know why Williams chose to perpetuate hoary myths at this time, but his charges will only set back the cause he claims to espouse. Teachers unions are not saintly, but neither are they evil. Bringing about change first requires the acknowledgement of reality.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.