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Teacher Unions in the Dock

The long awaited trial of teacher unions in the court of public opinion has finally arrived. In the view of many, the day of reckoning is long overdue. They see teacher unions as self-serving entities that need to be found guilty for the damage they have done to the education of the young, and be punished accordingly.

At the heart of the indictment is the proclamation that the U.S. spends more per student than any other country but gets little back commensurate with its investment. The alleged cause are teacher unions, which aid and abet mediocrity by protecting ineffective teachers from being fired. And since teachers are considered the single most important factor in the educational process, it follows that the agents representing them must be held accountable. In fact, the subject was the cover story in the New York Times Magazine on May 23 ("Teachers' Unions' Last Stand").

This is a serious charge that cannot be allowed to go unchallenged. To weigh its merits, it's necessary to examine evidence that has not yet made the headlines in the debate. Whether it is exculpatory is for taxpayers to ultimately decide.

First, the accusation is not new. Teacher unions in the U.S. have never been accepted in the way they have been in other countries. When Albert Shanker was president of the American Federation of Teachers, he often commented on the contrast between America's attitudes toward teacher unions and the attitudes of other industrialized countries. In Tough Liberal (Columbia University Press, 2007), Richard D. Kahlenberg wrote that Shanker believed trade unions were not merely special interest groups. He saw them as vital institutions in a democratic society that gave teachers a voice they never had before.

Second, the accusation that teacher unions are responsible for allowing incompetent teachers en masse to remain in the classroom doesn't stand up to scrutiny. If it were true, then states where they are strongest should post poorer results than states where they are weakest. But that is not the case. Student performance on standardized tests is "significantly better in states with high levels of unionization with all other variables held constant," according to a study by the Institute for Wisconsin's Future. Moreover, countries such as France and Japan, which have dynamic teacher unions, rank high on tests of international competition.

Third, the accusation that teacher unions have created essentially a sinecure is contradicted by the evidence. If it were the case, then why don't more people make teaching a career? After all, if the pay is so good, the pensions so lavish, the benefits so generous, and the vacations so long then top talent should be clamoring to become teachers and stay in the classroom for the rest of their working days. But teacher turnover in public schools is appalling. Half of beginning teachers quit within five years. For all their alleged power, teacher unions haven't been able to make the profession attractive enough to alter this fact.

It's important to remember that unions developed because teachers thought they needed them. In one of his "Where We Stand" paid columns, Shanker described the conditions teachers taught in before unions came into being. It's hard to believe they ever existed because they seem almost medieval. Today's teachers unfortunately take for granted what their colleagues before them fought so hard for. They assume the rights they enjoy will continue unabated even if the changes reformers want are implemented. But they are wrong. It will be a completely different environment.

By the time teachers realize what has happened, however, it will be too late to do anything about it. Clawbacks are notoriously hard to achieve in the business world. In the new world of union-free schools, they will be even harder. Critics say that's fine because students will be far better served without teacher unions. We'll see about that.

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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.

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