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Are Teachers' Unions the Enemy?

There are very few subjects in education that are guaranteed to polarize public opinion as much as teachers' unions. The latest example involved remarks that New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo made to the editorial board of the New York Daily News ("Andrew Cuomo rips teacher unions as selfish 'industry' more interested in members' rights than student needs," New York Daily News, Jan. 23). 

Cuomo warned that if taxpayers knew what was happening with the education of young people, they would "take City Hall down brick by brick." He charged teachers' unions with representing teachers rather than students.  His comments followed on the heels of his controversial reform plan to make it easier to fire incompetent or immoral teachers, alter teacher tenure and evaluation systems, and increase the cap on charter schools in the state by 100.

As readers of this column know, I try to see both sides of every issue affecting education.  But blaming teachers' unions for all the ills afflicting public schools in New York State qualifies in my view as classic scapegoating ("Cuomo's Stand and Deliver," The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 24). Teachers' unions came into existence for a very good reason. They are not faultless.  Yet I submit that if they were abolished tomorrow, educational outcomes would not significantly change. Yes, some teachers would be rightly fired for their ineffectiveness. However, after the initial purge, what then? At present, New York State is about average in virtually all measures of student performance ("Cuomo Cites School Crisis in New York: Data Suggest Otherwise," The New York Times, Jan. 24).  I seriously doubt if abolishing teachers' unions would make much difference.

In fact, doing so would make matters worse for students. Let's not forget that even teachers with exemplary records are not immune from abusive principals. I urge Cuomo to review the facts uncovered about events several years ago at Brooklyn Technical High School ("Principal's War Leads to a Teacher Exodus," The New York Times, Jan. 28, 2004). The principal at this elite exam school so poisoned the atmosphere by his bullying that some of the best teachers demanded transfers.  As a result, their students were deprived of outstanding instruction.  If it were not for the existence of the teachers' union, these same teachers could have been fired.

Cuomo also conveniently overlooks the powerful role that factors outside the classroom play in student learning. In fact, I maintain that if the best teachers were placed in the worst schools, they would not be able to produce sustainable improvement.  Typically, there would be better results the first year or two.  But these would soon fade away because nothing would change in the lives of their students when school is over.

Politicians love to grandstand. I understand the mileage to be gained by doing so. But before people accept what Cuomo says, I propose the following:  Spend two weeks teaching in an inner-city public school.  I predict that whatever opinions they hold will change.  That is, assuming they last more than a few days. I call it the Gardner challenge.

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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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