Is there any more self-serving, harmful group in the US than teachers unions?

Nearly every public school teacher in the USA belongs to a teachers' union. The unions have big lobbies in Congress, and donate lots of money to legislators, so they are favorable to the union agenda, which happens to be, keeping current members of the union employed. The teachers unions are responsible for laws that make it extremely difficult to fire teachers who receive tenure, and it only takes teachers two years to be granted tenure in most states. They also require that new teachers get certification, increasing the cost of entering the profession, even though education degrees have little effect on teacher performance. They are also responsible for a pay structure which rewards teachers for getting college degrees and for experience, neither of which correlates very well with teaching success. They oppose school choice, which would allow more parents to send their children to private school (or neighboring public schools) and provide competition for the public school system. The end result is that the teaching profession is resistant to any force which would make it better. In part because successful teachers are not rewarded, mediocre teachers are comfortable and there's no incentive to improve performance anywhere. The obvious losers are the kids, especially poor kids, who are receiving a worse education than they could get, and dropping out of high school in large numbers (the nationwide graduation rate in 2006 was 69.2). I'm not saying that we can get students to like school if we encourage better teaching (our brains are not designed for thinking), but we might be able to improve on the percentage of Americans that can accurately summarize data from a table (currently, 11%), compete in the modern workforce, and lift themselves onto a higher income track. The teachers unions will tell you they support "education," but that's wrong - they only support education as much as it helps keeps union teachers in jobs. That's why unions exist. So when the new head of the Education Department, Arne Duncan, gives a speech to one of the largest teachers' unions in the country, making the tiniest hints at positive steps we can make, to improve our nation's education system and give our kids, and other people's kids, a more prosperous future. The LA Times article included these gems:
A group in the California section of the audience booed loudly when Duncan praised Green Dot Public Schools, which independently operates more than a dozen schools within the Los Angeles Unified School District with union contracts.
Green Dot has increased attendance at its schools, made its campuses more safe, boosted graduation and college attendance rates, and standardized test scores. The founder, Steve Barr, "has mobilized thousands of black and Hispanic parents to demand better schools," resulting in Green Dot's takeover, and subsequent improvement of, a horrible Los Angeles high school. Not to mention that Green Dot is one of the only independent school systems that actually uses unionized teachers. But rather than use their success as a model for our own failing schools, let's boo and hiss.
Not that the crowd was won over Thursday. "Quite frankly, merit pay is union-busting," said one educator to loud applause during the question-and-answer period.
I agree that merit pay is union busting. But if you're a good teacher, what is there to be afraid of? And why isn't the half of the teacher union that contains good teachers saying, "Yes let's have merit pay, please! I want to get paid what I'm worth!" Union members are not dumb; it's an easy mistake to accuse people that you disagree with as lacking in general intelligence. They've found excellent ways to protect their members, ensuring they have good benefits, high salaries, and protection against getting fired. It's natural for them to continue to protect their interest, and even to develop rationalizations for why teachers union policies are good for the country, and for education in general. But reading about the reaction to Arne Duncan's speech makes me feel sick to my stomach. He's trying to help, but faces massive opposition from dinosaurs like the teachers unions. Let's hope they go extinct soon. Update: Here is another example of how unions are bad for students; a union in Massachusetts voted to turn down an $860,000 grant, to help students improve their AP scores, because some teachers would have been paid more than others. I cannot believe that we as a country tolerate this sort of behavior.

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4 thoughts on “Is there any more self-serving, harmful group in the US than teachers unions?

  1. steven germain

    Starting in kindergarten I noticed something about my teachers. Most if them were bored and could not relate well to kids. Every once in a while you had a good teacher. Parents craved good teachers and in small towns its a bit of local chatter to know before hand what teachers are good in whatever grade your kids is about to enter. I suspect some parents are even good at getting their kids enrolled in the good teacher’s class (this is sometimes called “advocating”). I have no idea if the problem is unions per se but for sure the system we have now makes no sense at all. There is no incentive to get better at what you do as a teacher. Instead teachers are encouraged to take in service credits in order to move up the pay scale. The theory is that these in service classes provide training and new ideas. In fact they are completely light weight make work classes that teachers simply go through in order to get a raise. College professors are not much better. For the most part very bored by their students and by their subject matter. There is so little genuine excitement about learning and about the subject matter – Its bad enough at really “good” schools in middle class suburbia. In urban schools its a nightmare. I put a lot of blame on the system but a lot lies at the feet of the teachers themselves too.

    Normally I would not comment on this state of affairs (its easy to be an outside critic and often not of much use) but I do now because I think something else is going on now that may have an impact on the system – state finances and the economy. Schools are funded by local property taxes and subsidized by state governments. Property taxes revenue is, on a net basis, going down along with property values as have state revenues due to the economy (e.g. California). This actually will result in higher property taxes for thise who do not move, sell or lose their house). Schools are going to get squeezed as a result (that started this year but is going to accelerate as school budgets are met with resistance from voters). Over the last ten years school budget increases rose significantly in excess of inflation, two reasons: increasing teacher costs and a strong economy that enabled parents to indulge their materialistic impulse to “buy” the best they could (a very questionable approach when it comes to pubic school education). A generation of parents who grew up with a sense of entitlement wants nothing but the best of their above average children. The result is that school budgets are out of control, the art of good teaching is too rare and the system has very few rational built in checks and balances to encourage any self correction.

  2. Chris

    There is a more self-serving harmful group than teachers unions: Corporations! Thats why they exist. The more susceptible we allow education to be to market forces the worse it will get for the kids with or without teachers unions.

    1. kburke

      I agree that corporations can be harmful, when they seek rent (when they lobby for protective laws), but for the most part, they are actually a good thing. When corporations pursue profits, they are usually selling products that we the public want, and competition ensures that they sell them at a low price. Too many people tend to think of buying products as a transfer (as in, Boy these guys are ripping me off and only getting richer) instead of as an exchange (money for a product or service, which you value more than the cash). When corporations pursue their own interest (profit), everyone wins because they have an incentive to maximize revenue (selling a product people want) and minimize expense (keep costs and prices low). Furthermore, most people can buy shares in a corporation if they desire to capture some of the profit for themselves. When unions pursue their own interest it is always at the expense of everyone else, a decline in net welfare.

      If corporations were to become more involved in schools, the result would probably be a product that’s more responsive to consumers and less expensive than schools are currently.

  3. Candice

    Thank you for your insight on the ridiculous vote of the Mass. union.

    The elimination of AP courses caps the advancement of a child’s knowledge, and the expertise of a teacher’s practice.

    A lot of rhetoric circulates about differentiation for students performing below grade level. However, it is the moral obligation of a school to provide differentiation for students and teachers willing to work the extra hours, look differently and more closely at literature, art, or history.

    AP courses not only refine a teacher’s practice, but offer students the chance to develop a critical eye, and their reading and writing skills in a way that assures college preparedness.

    If you would like to believe that all children and teachers perform at the same level, none worthy of a reward for better work, and you are willing to cap the progression of a child’s knowledge at the expense of such a belief, you are certainly meeting your goals.

    Equality is not fair.


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