« If We Want Schools for the Future, not the Past... | Main | The Schools Belong to "Us" »

Unions Are Not the Problem


Dear Deborah,

I well remember when we first met. As you mentioned, it was Al Shanker who suggested that I call you. This was after you had pretty well lacerated two of my books. Al said, "You should meet Debbie. You'll like her." He was right. I was very impressed with what I saw at Central Park East, and I recall that we talked nonstop for about two hours. Thus begins an interesting friendship!

On the subject of the teachers' unions, I must confess that I have always been puzzled by people who insist that the unions are the cause of everything that is wrong with education. If we only could get rid of the union, they say, then we could raise performance.

Recently, an old friend who is a businessman and philanthropist sent me a copy of a speech that he gave at Channel 13's Celebration of Teaching and Learning. For many years, he and his family have very generously supported a school for gifted children in one of New York City's poorest neighborhoods. The main conclusion of his speech was that the obstacle to educating all children well is the union because the principal cannot hire and fire and assign teachers as he or she wants. He asked me what I thought of his ideas.

I responded that I was puzzled. The unions don't seem to cause low performance in the wealthy suburban districts that surround our city. They don't seem to be a problem for the nations that regularly register high scores on international tests. If getting rid of the unions was the solution to the problem of low performance, then why, I asked him, do the southern states—where unions are weak or non-existent—continue to perform worse than states with strong unions? And how can we explain the strong union presence in Massachusetts, which is the nation's highest performing state on NAEP? I suggested that low performance must be caused by something else other than teachers' unions. I have not yet received a reply, so I suppose he is thinking about it.

It actually doesn't seem to be all that hard to get rid of incompetent teachers. It appears that 40 percent of all those who enter teaching are gone within five years, according to research that I have seen. In every district, to my knowledge, teachers do not gain due process rights for three years (in some places, it takes five). During those three to five years, their supervisors have plenty of time and opportunity to evaluate them and tell them to leave teaching.

Then, when they have passed the three- or five-year mark, they have due process rights. They cannot be terminated without cause and due process. Although that is usually referred to as tenure, it really is not tenure. In higher education, tenure is an iron-clad guarantee of lifetime employment except for very egregious causes. Teachers do not have that. They have the right to due process. Many administrators would like to fire teachers without due process. I can't blame teachers for wanting protection from arbitrary administrators, especially now, when there are quite a few high-profile superintendents who like to grab headlines by threatening to fire teachers.

The right to form and join a union is one of the rights enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 23). I made several trips to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union before the end of the Cold War and met many teachers who were eager to belong to a union that would protect their interests. The state did not want unions or tolerated only faux-unions.

I read recently that membership in unions is now under 10 percent of the private-sector workforce. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich wrote in the Los Angeles Times last week that the unions helped our nation build a solid middle class. Now, in these difficult times, we may again see a turn to unionism, and for all the predictable reasons, having to do with protection from arbitrary and capricious management to economic security to the demand to have a voice in decisions about the workplace.

By the way, I can't end without a suggestion: See "Slumdog Millionaire." It's the best movie I have seen in a long time, and it is successful without all that computer-generated fakery that we have grown accustomed to. I hope it wins the Oscar. It is beautifully written, directed, and acted. And it shows us a world of grinding poverty, of life on the edge, of a struggle for survival. It also is a world without unions!



Hi Diane,
I must admit that you had me taking pause for a moment to reconsider my opposition to the harm the teachers unions do to public education. Then I remembered a couple of key points you had inadvertently forgot to mention. The first is that the schools in the wealthy suburban districts get the cream of the crop teaching candidates to choose from in the first place. The teachers working in the inner cities and rural south are not the same caliber of educator one finds in the wealthy suburbs. I realize that is a generalization and that there are of course fine teachers in poorer districts, but they are the exception and not the rule.

The second point you touch on but fail to follow through with is your statistic that 40 percent of those wanting to teach don't make it past the five year mark. The truth behind that statistic is that in recent years, with budget deficits and staff cuts, the union structure willingly sacrifices new teaching recruits to protect the old guard. The union does willingly sacrifice new teachers in bargaining sessions rather than negotiate concessions in health care or time off. These are not unrealistic concessions that are being asked for at bargaining tables across the country, but rather concessions that would bring teaching benefits in line with what the rest of the U.S. companies offer there employee's, in these touch economic conditions. As a result, we are forced to cut new and innovative thought leaders while having to keep teachers that haven't done anything to enhance public education in years. If you are good at your job, you won't need a union to protect you. It costs more and is much harder to bring in a new teacher than it is to keep the ones we have. We would rather see them succeed, but the union structure allows for teachers and thereby the educational system as a whole wallow in mediocrity.

Well said, Diane!!

Michael, it's very hard to follow the logic of your post. I wonder what you use to compare the "caliber" of teachers who work in the wealthy suburbs to those in the poorer cities and rural areas? It's hard to believe you can make a categorical statement like that. You obviously can't use student test scores since those are strongly correlated with family income. But even if you could say that teachers in richer districts were somehow more qualified than other teachers--how could you blame teachers in poorer areas? It seems they have a much harder job. My question would be: how do we lure more highly qualified teachers to teach in poorer districts--and to stay there?

Your second paragraph is a doozy. Teachers are paid too much, right? Their benefits are out of line with the rest of the economy, eh? And that's the problem with today's schools? (how are we going to lure people into teaching and keep the there again?) Unfortunately, it's not so clean cut on who is a "better" teacher. It's easy to fall into the mindset that since schools are not reaching "our" expectations then we must blame the lazy, overpaid, overprotected teachers. But Diane's point is still true. If underpaid, non-unionized teachers were necessarily better, schools in the south--and non-unionized teachers worldwide--would outperform those in the north and unionized states, but they don't. One last correction: new teachers are much cheaper than more veteran teachers, not the other way around.


I saw "Slumdog Millionaire" and enjoyed it as well, for the reasons you mentioned. It may also be worth paying attention to some of the controversy surrounding the film, especially in India (that it reinforces certain western stereotypes, that it encourages greater use of the word "slumdog," that the child actors were underpaid, that it shows westerners as victims while the guns in the slums come from the west, for example)




I personally think it's a credit to the film (as well as to those who raise a stink) that some of these important issues are being discussed as well.

Diane, is it not fair to ask if teachers followed the lead of 90% of the workforce, and a far higher percentage of professionals,...could we not see a more of the miracles we see every day coming out of the private sector?

Could we not for a just couple columns look at the upsides of education done the way other knowledge workers do it?

I wish you and Deb would play with this in your mind..much better than fiat declaration!

Ed Jones,

When you refer to the "miracles we see every day coming out of the private sector," you give me pause. Are you talking about the collapse of our financial institutions? Please explain why we don't see miracles coming out of the non-unionized schools in the South, and why our top competitors in the world have unionized teachers.



A thought provoking column but you still have not changed my view on unions.

Massachusetts does have a strong union presence, primarily through the Massachusetts Teachers Association, but their presence is not the problem. The problem is their focus: anti-MCAS, anti-charter schools, anti-merit pay, anti-school choice, etc. That makes them congruent to most state and federal unions in their resistance to most anything to do with education reform. In this posture, they have implied there was/is nothing wrong with our public schools regardless of the undeniable data we now have to verify the achievement gap and the multitude of problems associated with educating poor/minority children. Of course, all this has contributed to their diminished public credibility.

Accompanying their focus on anti-accountability and anti-competition initiatives is their seemingly relentless pressure for such disingenuous measures as additional resources for the children as well as multiple measures for evaluating students. It’s all a rouge. Their never ending insistance for additional resources (it’s code for more teachers) is an attempt to increase their power/clout at the state and federal levels. The multiple measures for assessment are an obvious attempt to mask how students are actually performing in class. Projects, reports, portfolios, dioramas, etc. are all a charlatan’s attempt to get weaker students to “pass” state tests. Does anyone really believe a school could ever guarantee the validity of any of these measures? Just how would anyone guard against any of these measures from being compromised by someone trying to “help” the student in question? Impossible.

Union strategies are excruciatingly transparent and as old and tired as the rhetoric that accompanies them. “Education of the whole child.” Please!!! What have teachers been educating all these years anyway?

One additional note; with the passage of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 Massachusetts eliminated tenure for teachers. It’s now called professional teacher status and is similar in nature to tenure but with a slightly different legal status as it relates to due process.

The lack of unions in a number of southern states and how that potentially translates into the performance of their students is another posting for another day.

Paul Hoss

Paul says...

"The multiple measures for assessment are an obvious attempt to mask how students are actually performing in class. Projects, reports, portfolios, dioramas, etc. ... "

Ouch! Harshly put, but I think that there is truth here.

This week I saw a good school district go out of its way to cripple a good evaluation study design of (what I think may be) a good program. Ensures that there will not be strong evidence available to conclude whether or not the program is actually achieving its goals.

Why don't we want to know if what we are doing is actually helping kids or not?


I'll be interested to see how you respond to that last question (Diane's main question) about non-unionized teachers in southern states. Isn't that the critical question? So what if unions try to gain smaller class sizes and additional resources for teachers and schools? Couldn't this be perhaps one of the reasons unionized states/countries outperform non-unionized states/countries?

If you are upset about what your union pushes for, you can get involved and try to change your union's policies. But it would be hard, since the vast majority of teachers support what the unions argue for--pushing against high stakes testing, merit pay, vouchers and charters, etc.

I happen to think the union positions are correct on these particular policies. High stakes testing, for example, overly penalizes poor students and schools since test scores are strongly correlated to family income, they also don't give teachers helpful data in time so it's useful, among many other problems. Merit pay tied to test scores compounds the problem. Al Shanker was one of the first to envision charter schools and push for them, so your insinuation that unions are always against them is false, although it has become clear that many charter school proponents are dead set on busting the unions, since no one seems to be able to show that charter schools are better than traditional public schools by almost any measure.

And why shouldn't a majority of teachers, joined together, have a say in what happens in educational policy? Obviously, they don't always get their way, but without unions (especially at the state and federal levels) teachers voices would not be heard on a set of topics about which they have some expertise.

On a different note--Diane, I saw Slumdog Millionaire and liked it as well, for all the reasons you mentioned. It might also be good to also pay attention to some of the controversies surrounding the film (that it reinforces western stereotypes about India, that the use of the term "slumdog" is not helpful, that the child actors were underpaid, that the westerners in the film are depicted as victims while the guns in the slums come from western nations, etc.)

The film deserves credit, I think, along with those raising a stink, for getting these issues talked about as well...

Evening Diane and all, and a pretty nice evening at that, all considered.

Diane, when you ask of miracles, I see so many. Far to many to even hint at. Mom's new titanium joints. GPS to locate a dog or property corner to a centimeter. The breadth, length, and depth of the Internet in uncountable variety (though I'd go with less porn). The clean air and streams here near the Ohio, Cuyahoga and Lake Erie--all flammable three decades ago. Thousands more!

And the by-products of our businesses! The Harvard endowment fund (at $30 billion) and all its peers; The Huntsman Cancer Institute, a miraculous place funded (with many other charities) by the fortune of John Huntsman's egg carton business grown. Tens of thousands of charitable foundations. My little park system, funded by a ceramic frit manufacturer; Wooster High's school and community rec center built by Rubbermaid.

By miracles, I mean Amazon, UPS, Fedex, and their suppliers, who can get me your book to my door in rural Appalachia by 10 tomorrow morning. Or the system that lets me view you and Checker Finn speaking at AEI. What a country!

Are 90% of private sector employees are misguided? They might be, but for a moment,...

What if..just for a bit, you and Deb suspend disbelief and play mentally with the idea of bringing their world to yours?

Look across the land and see how people work with each other. Imagine, briefly, education functioning in the fashion of other professionals; what might it look like on the plus side?

Skip the banks for a bit, they're not a very good group to model at the moment, nor the US auto industry, though I'd include many of their excellent suppliers.

What about relationships between staff and management at say, Northrop? Northrop and its peers can put 5000 engineers and professionals on a project, crammed into cubicles which would make a teacher faint with claustrophobia. Or Eaton, an office of which makes electric meters for the new age of power the President describes. Or Edgecase, a small software development shop in Columbus, or Nucor, which thrived in the steel industry when the-bound mills all around me here in the Ohio valley failed.

Or Nationwide Insurance, which must make its huge marketing, billing, adjusting, IT, customer service, and agent networks happy. How do they do this without bargaining units? What benefits do workers see in the arrangement that they don't find in the union?

What processes do these places have to deal with "arbitrary supervisors"?

How do such workers protect their wages? How do they earn enough to put Olive Gardens and Aeropostales and Starbucks across the land; to pay for $50 football tickets and $5 hotdogs and $18.95 a month XMradio subscriptions?

How have they earned enough to grow the economy and innovation so much these past 25 years?

It saddens me, actually, to hear the gloomy view with which you see American business. (If business is so bad, did the schools fail at staffing these businesses? Where did teachers go wrong? I have the same question when teachers woe parenting. Who taught the parents?).

Yet I am not with you in being ready to bury American business. Rather, we have seen nearly three decades of remarkable achievement. And, indeed, the US economy showed growth again for 2008.

You mention the southern states, yet I am not so much addressing the local level as the national, and there aren't enough non-union states to shift the overall culture.

What would a more professional arrangement be?

What if the NEA spent its dues and sponsorships as professional organizations (IEEE, AIChE, ASME, ACM) do, not on partisan politics?

What if such change inspired the voters?

What if the American public saw the NEA as an organization of world-class professionals, not as partisan hacks?


You seem to be one of the few who has a sunny outlook on the current state of the US economy!

But I think Obama won the election because your description is only part of the story (people stopped believing Bush's sunny outlook for a reason, I think). Obama argued, and people believed him or already felt, that change needs to happen to get the country back on track.

Take wages. Adjusted for inflation, they are lower than the early 1960's (guess which country was more unionized back then?).

Look at health care. More than 46 million people are uninsured in the US, and those with insurance pay through the nose and do not have full coverage. These uninsured and underinsured people almost never have someone to bargain for them.

Look at the recent unemployment numbers. Look at the number of people who are homeless. Look at the stock market crash. Look at any number of economic indicators that show people's standard of living is going down, not up.

You mention some corporations that are able to do amazing things. I don't disagree with you. But how is describing a company that puts "5000 engineers and professionals on a project, crammed into cubicles that would make a teacher faint with clausterphobia" going to persuade someone that they don't need a union?

As Diane alluded in her column, by citing the Reich piece, the driver of the economy is wages. Currently, they're not high for most people. And the economy is not going to rebound until people will spend again. Gone will be the "$50 football tickets $5 hot dogs," etc. You know, it doesn't matter if a corporation puts out a product that will make you dinner, rub your feet, scratch your back, and do your taxes; if people don't have money to buy it, it won't sell.

There are multiple views on why unionism has declined in the US. I do not believe it's because the US economy, and the "miracles" of business innovation grow/increase when unionism is on the decline. It is because workers are intimidated, because rabidly anti-union politicians have been in control and have cut union rights and protections, because unions themselves are not perfect and have been tainted with corruption, because companies have eliminated union jobs and sent those jobs overseas, among other reasons.

But there's a new guy in the White House, one who already has indicated that companies receiving bailout money cannot spend that money on anti-union activities, a decent indication of where he's going.

Teachers are among the most unionized workers in the US. Their jobs can't be shipped overseas. They work for non-profit institutions. They want to be part of the deliberation on how schools are arranged and managed, and how they are treated. How does this conflict with what we want for schools and for the people teaching our children?

You say you are "puzzled" by why business leaders always blame teachers' unions for all of the problems in education.

Attribution Theory explains how members of an in-group (peers) judge members of an out-group (others) when it comes to success and failure. Business in-group members believe their own success is due to internal factors ("great leader") and their failures due to external factors ("market forces," "bad economy," "government intervention"). Business leaders often see education leaders as junior members of the group. Principals and superintendents are in the in-group because they are leaders, especially if they are "reformers." But teachers are definitely not in the in-group. Attribution Theory predicts that the in-group will attribute out-group members' success to external factors ("great students," "great community") and their failures to internal factors ("bad teacher"). As theory would predict, that is exactly how many business leaders judge the educational system.

Business leaders know that the problem is bad teachers. Business leaders then wonder why bad teachers can't simply be fired, forgetting how seldom they themselves fire individuals for cause and how laborious a process it is, union or not. Business leaders turn to their junior members and ask principals and superintendents: Why don't you just fire the bad teachers? Their junior members, eager to please their peers, need an excuse and have found a convenient one. The unions won't let them. Oh, say the business leaders, we understand that problem. Unions are bad. Thus, unions are the problem because they won't let good leaders fire bad teachers.

It is no wonder that business leaders have embraced value-added measures. Business leaders only hear the headline in a scientific study: Teachers can accomplish anything despite any odds. That confirms their "bad teacher" hypothesis. But their hypothesis ignores the fact that all of these findings show the teacher is the most important factor only when you control for the child's IQ and motivation, the child's previous achievement, and all of influence of SES, curriculum, and so on through a longitudinal model. The teacher is the most important factor only when you control for (i.e., statistically eliminate) everything else that might influence achievement, including many factors that could be affected by better policies and practices having nothing to do with firing anyone.

In the same way, teachers are their own in-group and they see business leaders in the same monolithic, biased way. Business leaders are successful because the system is designed to make them rich; they fail because they are greedy or narcissistic. Teachers succeed because they are good teachers; they fail because they can't control every aspect of a child's life. In this way, teachers and business leaders are a lot alike -- all are human.

The real question is to what extent each group is right about the other. There is probably a good amount of truth in both accounts. Attribution biases used to be called "errors," but social psychologists soon abandoned that word because the attributions were sometimes actually correct.

But the biggest challenge in uncovering the truth is overcoming the extreme misreading of the data. Daniel Willingham has started to tackle this issue. He has written a column on how Alfie Kohn has grossly misinterpreted educational studies on homework and other issues. Perhaps for his second act, he will explain how Klein and Rhee have misread the value-added studies. It would be interesting to document how single-sentence summaries of those studies, which now pepper endless policies papers and stump speeches, have evolved over the past few years, drifting further and further from the facts. It makes you wonder if the policy wonks who cherry-pick a quote from the Discussion section ever read the Results or Procedures....or are they just quoting each other from reports about reports?

I have been trying to put some thoughts together on all this. In the meantime, Heider's Ghost's interesting comment brought to mind the lively song "Your Fault" from the Sondheim musical Into the Woods. Here it is, performed by Chip Zien, Kim Crosby, Ben Wright, and Danielle Ferland, and Bernadette Peters.


Diana Senechal

Good Wednesday morn!
Matthew, yes, the US economy has been pretty good these past years! But, no, I am not optimistic today.

One of the reasons I am not is because of the memes teachers use to think about the economy, and the memes they pass on to their pupils. Those ideas tend to focus on the sensational and short term, not the evidential and long term.

While, alas, few teachers paid attention in econ 101, they could just look around their communities.

During my teen years, Matthew, the economy eroded steadily. You not only read about it from worried academics, you could actually go out and observe it everywhere. In winter, the roads were not plowed enough. In spring and summers, the potholes were not refilled. Restaurants were few and empty. Buildings were being left empty and unkept everywhere. Crime started a steady climb up.

Strikes went on everywhere, as real wages fell to the points where people were desperate. Violence was sometimes the result.

Contrast this with the past 20 years, where downtowns came back to life, buildings everywhere were filled with were shops and restaurants, and people using them, in summer eves outdoor concerts and festivals could be found most every day, art and theater were found aplenty, amazing new venues were built and used in nearly every city.

Wages have been high for most people! You can see in in the remarkable ways they have been spending the money! Sure we all want more, but no sane person who has been out and about these past 20 years could say that we have not seen remarkably robust and growing standard of living. Even here, in Appalachia, though we still have our problems with developing new business, partly because of how we thing of money.

Healthcare? I am one of those underinsured. What does thoughtful economics tell us about that? It tells us that if we spread the cost out fairly, and make it efficient, we'll all get healthcare cheaper. Alas, a quick look at tax law tells us why the cost is not spread fairly, and why there is no incentive to efficiency. Why don't we fix the tax law? Because too many of us are focused on the short term and sensational.

Your argument that workers are intimidated is just flat out wrong. Don't know about you, but I hang with plenty of workers of many stripes, and I've never heard such a thing.

Where we do agree is with the wages of the unskilled. The stagnant minimum wage has not kept up with the nation's growth rate. Sadly, even the best of studies compares minimum wage laws with inflation.

Who cares about meeting inflation; What workers really want is their fair share of the growing pie!!

That low skilled workers have not so kept up has less to do with organization than with their own views of what they are worth. This low self-worth I blame on one thing: the big Fair Labor poster in every break room in the country which declares that you are worth $6.55 per hour. Why would you fight for more? The Feds say that is what you are worth, and if you have kids, they give you money to feed them, and ancillary services, and thus you think that is all you deserve.

Of course, that was all during the long, good times. We are in another era now, the era that began with a cyclical burst of a credit bubble, but went into full panic when consumers and business owners discovered what the governments' response would be. We're all running for cover now in fear of a pathetic Congress (approval rate: 9%) and an unlearned President.

The current crowd in DC rode in on a wave of the short term and sensational, but their plans, sadly, cannot sustain.

Which all brings me back to the professional education and organization of teachers:

Content matters. It matters if you're a social studies teacher and you do not grasp the concept of a sine curve. It matters if you've never heard of feedback loops in control theory, and of second-order effects in such systems. It matters if you've never built a profit and loss statement per Generally Accepted Accounting Practice.

It matters if you find yourself in a 8th grade or high school classroom, and you've never read Hayek. Or at least the Cliff notes therein. It matters if you've never read a critical look at the New Deal such as this one.

For that matter, it makes a difference if you work with sixth graders and you don't know how long the Revolutionary War took, what the Renaissance had to do with the Black Plague and the Ottoman Empire, or what was significant about Julius Caesar.

Or if you teach and have never been intimately introduced to Bach, Mozart, Rafael, Rodin, Waters, Jarreau, Lead Belly.

In the Summer of 2008, the NEA was not focused on assuring that its members had the training and support it needed to make all these things available to students. It was not embroiled in conversations and standards setting and training and reorganziation nationwide to further bring all these wonderful ideas and more to students.

Instead of professional concerns, in the summer of 2008, the NEA was focused on endorsing and getting out the vote for its partisan candidates.

Hence the need for a change to a professional way of thinking.

Matthew is correct. Teachers with seniority can often pick where they want to teach and the nicer schools are often where they get transferred to. Newer teachers at the bottom of the seniority rung get the worse schools. I've seen it happen in my town where the turnover rate at my son's previous school (he is now in middle school) was alarming at best. The good teachers flocked.

Ed - you need to look at the 3 E's by Chris Martinson. Notice how we have likely reached peak oil in the world (Energy), our ecology is getting crapped up with dirty water (and food!) (ecology), and our government's idea of fixing the economy is by inflating our money to pay the interest on our debt (economoy). How are all those things sustainable? We call it WTSHTF (when the poo hits the fan). It is now hitting the fan. You can call me on it by the end of the year - way more job loses and mortgage defaults - up to 50% more - on top of the ones we've already suffered. It simply looks terrible - the writing has been on the wall for a long time.


I noticed that you didn't include "labor history" as an important thing for students to study and learn. Indeed, it's rarely included in school curricula. I wonder why that is. Is it because it doesn't exist? It's not important? In fact, there is a long and sad history of worker intimidation in this country. How does the absence of this history in our schools affect how we see the world? I would say it allows many people to live with harmful misconceptions about the world. Here is a link to recent instances of worker intimidation: http://walmartwatch.com/blog/archives/wal_marts_worker_intimidation_exposed/

I noticed that you included a few particular ways to analyze data and the economy, suggesting it was important to know these tools. But it's interesting to me that you then depend on the "social science method" of "hanging out with plenty of workers of many stripes, and I've never heard of such a thing," to assume that therefore nobody suffers from worker intimidation! What happened to rigorous methodology?

Ed, I'm not discounting your personal experience, but there are other ways of knowing what's going on than just looking around our own neighborhoods. For one thing, as we age many of us gain wealth and see the world differently.

I do agree with you on one thing, though--your emphasis on the problem of focusing too much on the short term. This is also what I wanted to say in reply to Heider's Ghost.

Heider's Ghost wrote about a particular theory explaining adversarial relationships in the workplace. While this might accurately describe certain relationships, I wouldn't put so much emphasis on "human nature" as the cause. Rather, it's built into the corporate structures. Specifically, corporate law in the US is focused on short-term profit. Corporations must maximize profit for their shareholders or their shareholders can sue the corporation and win. The almighty bottom-line means anything in the way of short term profit can be seen as a problem. Those things "in the way" include worker wages, protections, and working conditions, as well as environmental protections and stewardship. There may be some "enlightened" CEO's and corporate leaders who view good care of workers and the environment as part of long term gain, but it's not built into corporate law!

It's a good thing public schooling is not controlled by corporate law.

Matthew, indeed, Labor history is a good topic, more in a sec.

First, a gentle reminder that "the almighty bottom line" at public companies pays for those nice teacher retirement packages. CALPERS, the state retirement system of California, managed $260 billion in funds in 2007, much invested in corporations from which it expected profitable returns. The Ohio State Teachers Retirement System held $66 billion in financial assets.

OK, yes, I really enjoyed studying labor and industry in the early 20th century! I was studying in the heart of the steel industry, Pittsburgh, in a hall built by Andrew Carnegie--one he had designed with sloped floors so that that if the educational facility failed, he could make it into a steel rolling mill. You've read Out of this Furnace, I hope? My professor brought it back to print; it takes place in the valley below the above hall.

When I was so studying, though, the steel industry was collapsing. It was a very tough time across the US, but toughest in the old steel towns, where the grief lingered years longer. Everyone scrambled to figure out new ways to create and maintain jobs.

If you want to follow the history of the end of Steel, check out And the Wolf Finally Came.

The steel industry collapsed not because of labor, or of management. It died because all the energy of both parties was used up in the struggle with each other.

"Steel's industrial relations system contained an even more basic flaw than the method of negotiating wages. How a society organizes itself to be productive is a fundamental building block of civilized life, and the organization of work is at the core of an industrial relations system. In Steel, the Tayloristic structure of jobs and control management alienated workers and caused a deterioration of group relations. The companies clung to these methods long after they had ceased to satisfy the production needs and the psychology of modern workers--if, in fact, the methods ever were supportable on economic and sociological grounds. Even after iron and steel production moved away from dependence on the old craftsmen of the 19th century, most mill operations were run by key wage earners, such as rollers and first helpers. ..."

I'd also recommend studying labor as it is currently viewed by modern leadership writers.

Fine discussion. No doubt labor unions, in education and elsewhere, are a mixed bag, exerting effects ranging from the beneficial to the harmful.

Nevertheless, I do not agree with significant amounts of Ravitch or Knoester's analyses of unions.

Richard Posner drew a useful distinction between adversarial and non-adversarial unions. It seems that adversarial unions, like the United Auto Workers, do more harm than good: they extort as much as possible from employers (beyond the reasonable concessions related to procedural rights, safety accommodations, reasonable compensation increases sought by non-adversarial unions) and unflinchingly think in zero-sum, myopic terms (that concessions to employers automatically harm workers and the union). These adversarial unions detract from worker productivity, raise production costs, and slow down the rate of innovation and adaptation of their firms (employers) to a competitive, global economic environment. Over time, more and more teacher unions across states are adopting adversarial stances and therefore, are becoming increasingly burdensome to their states, including Massachusetts and Western European nations (see their stagnant average labor productivity and cutting-edge technological innovation rates over the past several decades compared to the U.S. and Japan {how powerful are unions in Japan?})

Moreover, the unions’ negative effects are less detectable, given the indirect influence of unions (and teachers) on student outcomes. The negative effects are present but operate in nonlinear fashion (e.g. beneficial early on but negative as unionization increases in intensity) and through various mechanisms (e.g. allowing low-quality teachers to hide through the cracks of a bloated education bureaucracy, creating disincentives for talented teachers to remain in or flow towards low-performing students and schools, opposition to reforms that increase the supply of teachers).

Please bear in mind that public schools do not operate in a competitive environment unlike business firms which utilize readily interpretable metrics such as the “bottom-line profits”, which, of course, are useful to establishing a long-term outlook (after all, all long-term “socially responsible” corporate/business visions are contingent on short-term survival). We all care about post-materialist values when materialist values are being satisfied. Public schools do not have to worry about survival; they are educational monopolies that encompass union cartels extorting economic concessions in exchange for varied quality of labor from school districts and taxpayers – to the detriment of societal welfare, especially since unions reside beyond democratic accountability: society (e.g. parents, taxpayers) cannot exert influence on the behavior of unions and their leaders.

Also, the net impact of educational unions is, on average, negative but limited given the influence of other factors that are more damaging (i.e. the low SES of minority students and their families, especially in the inner cities and in the South) or that counteract the negative impact of unions (e.g. the higher SES of non-minority and minority students and their families in the suburbs and exurbs, the pre-existing high levels of human capital in numerous unionized states). I agree with Ravitch that there is too much focus on unions but their net impact is, on average, more negative than positive.

I don't quite see how you can have "non-adversarial" unions or workers. This makes about as much sense as having a "non-adversarial" management. Bargaining and the marketplace are inherently an adversarial relationship. This is the case when we go shopping for food, shop around for a loan, and shop around for someone to fix our plumbing. Teachers are in the labor market too, and should not be expected to have a different relationship.

This is the case even when labor relations are (hopefully) smoothed over by gracious behavior by management and labor alike. Effective managers, and strong labor negotiators can have a mutual empathy for each others' positions and problems. But in a society centered on the marketplace, the relationship is still inherently adversarial.


Finally, someone in a position of influence has said what I have been saying for years! The lack of unions (especially in Georgia) does affect teacher quality, but not directly. Teachers are scared to speak-up when students are not getting what they need because they fear losing their jobs. These overzealous administrators make it nearly impossible for good, dedicated, and qualified teachers to enjoy what they love: Teach! I am confident that the atmosphere would be noticeably different if teachers actually had rights.


Thank you for setting off hours of thinking with this column. I find this discussion interesting and intricate. I believe our teacher's union (the UFT) does more good than harm, and I greatly enjoy the AFT publication American Educator.

Beyond a basic support of the union, I have all sorts of uncertainties. If we accept that the teachers' unions are not the cause of the schools' troubles, what then? How can we make them better?

I like what Monise Seward said. Teachers should be able to enjoy what they love. For teachers' unions to have soul, every member should be able to speak without fear--at school, at union meetings, anywhere. We should be able to defend those things that keep us in the profession.

Currently, even with a union, we have a climate of fear in NYC. Teachers hesitate to speak their views openly, for fear of reprisal. Of course some matters are sensitive and confidential. But no teacher should have to bow to senseless pedagogical mandates and excessive test prep. No teacher should have to close the door in order to teach a lively lesson that departs from the "workshop model."

Job security, health insurance, and salary are nothing to scoff at. But job quality means at least as much. I would leap at the opportunity to help defend our professional freedom. I realize such freedom has limitations, but given those, we still need it.

When teachers feel they cannot speak, the level of discussion deteriorates. Gossip and rumors take over. Personalities count for more than principles. People start focusing on "who's who" rather than "what's what." The fear builds on itself. Even within a union, distrust grows when people equivocate. Is teacher X really on our side? Did so-and-so really mean such-and-such?

It is not easy to put the fear to an end. The school or district administration can take revenge against individual teachers in subtle ways. I have heard of blacklists, suspicious layoffs, and reassignments. I have heard of administrators closely monitoring teachers who seemed to be stepping out of line. These things are difficult to prove and stop.

Yet it seems that must be one of the first steps. In order to sort out some of the problems in our schools, we must be able to speak as honestly and clearly as possible. Fear creates muddle. It separates people and compromises language.

Diana Senechal

Diana has raised her concerns before about the climate of fear for teachers in NYC schools. It has to be intimidating and demoralizing for these professional educators.

Puzzling to me is how this can happen in a school district with the largest teacher union in the country. Bulletin boards must be just so. Student seats must be arranged in a certain way. Teachers are afraid to speak their mind publicly. Blacklisted teachers, suspicious layoffs and reassignments, vindictive districts and administrators. Come on! What’s going on here?

Diana, I'm certainly not blaming you for any of this, you’re just one of the hundreds of thousands of NYC teachers that have somehow fallen victim to this horrendous situation. The question begging to be answered; why are NYC teachers paying such hefty dues to then be treated like inmates at some local stalag? Ms Randi negotiated this one, did she? I’m sure glad for the citizens of New York that Governor Patterson didn’t decide to give her Hillary’s US senate seat.

I guess teachers in some of those southern states Diane referred to earlier will need to look elsewhere for their due process and worker protection language.

I wish I had more time to contribute to these discussions, but alas I am an educator with little time other than to catch the conversation in passing. I admire those contributors who are educators that muster up the energy to make this blog worth reading.

Feeling I must weigh in on this critical topic of unions, I am making the time to make a few points.

Firstly, Ed, much if not most of the private sector's "miracles" are a direct result of the work of government and wouldn't exist otherwise. The US economic system is one where the government does most of the research and investment so that it can be exploited by the private sector for their gain, at a huge loss to the government. For instance, the internet was developed by the military, with government spending. But profits made from the internet are in the private sector. And no, not because the government is inefficient at business, but because that is how it is set up. Socialize the losses, privatize the gains.

It also occurs to me that little of the private enterprise could ever occur without the knowledge provided by government education (of which the profiteers would like to privatize also). Government also provides the seed money that starts so many great ideas off that would never otherwise get underway. We the people also provide the money (and many times manpower) for the roads, bridges, electrical grid, etc. that allow business to conduct its business. So the private sector is inherently subsidized by that nasty government some people so abhor.

As for NYC, where I also am an educator, while the UFT is not as progressive as I would like it to be, it has worked to mitigate to some degree the worst ideas of Bloomberg/Klein. One needs only to look as far as Washington, DC and other urban areas around the country to realize how much worse it could be and what an overwhelming national political force (farce?) teacher unions are up against.

That being said, the ineffectiveness of any particular union or union movement can never really be chalked up to its leader. Strong leaders come from strong membership, and as we can see here in these comments, there is a fracture in the education community that prevents a united voice from taking strong stands to protect teachers and students, and allows those in charge to exploit that division to further agendas that have very little to do with providing quality education to minority students, namely busting unions so that have no political opposition to privatization, pension and health care reduction or elimination, narrowed curriculum that serves their private business interests, etc., etc., etc.

Notice I said that it is those in the education community, namely teachers (along with a few other) who protect the students. I will never for a second submit to the idea that politicians and businessmen know what is best for the students, while the teachers are the ones looking out only for themselves. That is exactly backwards, otherwise we wouldn't be teachers - and they wouldn't be who they are. I'm not in this for private profit, and they're not in their business to help children, generally. Once again, a teacher's working condition is a student's learning condition.

Lastly, speaking to the insinuation that teachers are just passing students and avoiding accountability, I'll say this. However poorly many of the NYC schools generally performed before Bloomberg/Klein (and many did), students more or less got the grades they earned and it was an open and transparent process. Now, the pressure to meet graduation and credit accrual requirements at any cost has lead to massive grade inflation, and more and more students are graduating without any real academic skills. This is not a process the teachers want, and their desire for political action and alternate forms of assessment is partly rooted in the fact that teachers know the testing craze is necessarily driving the obfuscation of learning, and the real truth must come out. It takes the teachers, through their unions, to push back in these ways against those is power, and advocate for strong educational practices that lead to strong student achievement.

I don't know where we've gone wrong in society that we somehow perceive teachers, acting in concert to protect their profession and their students, as the enemy. My first guess is it's the private sector media working to set the paramaters of the debate to further the private sector interests, which are profits not people.

I apologize for such a long post, but I've been reading with such interest for a few weeks and have been given much to consider.

Jason, thank you for your comment! Many of your points resound with me. Like you, I attribute many of our current problems to the anti-union, anti-teacher climate. I do not point the finger at Randi; I know that I could not possibly run a union as well as she.

That does not mean I hold her above criticism. She has compromised on many matters. But she has spoken out on others and pulled us through difficult times. The membership itself needs to advocate for sound practice and curriculum, as you say.

You are right that children are graduating without any semblance of academic skills. Our state standards (especially in ELA and social studies) are pitifully vague and lend themselves to equally vague teaching under the auspices of Balanced Literacy and test prep. The emphasis on strategies leads to the "obfuscation of learning" that you mention. Students need to read excellent books across the subject areas--literature, history, science, and more. They need to learn how to put together a sentence and express their thoughts logically.

I want to say more, but I am running late! And Paul, I appreciate your outrage. I just do not point my finger in the same direction.

Diana Senechal

Thursday morn, -2.8 and beautiful out!!!

Jason, thanks for your honest and clear words. I love your heart.

An important question: Why such disdain for the private sector--the majority of your fellow countrymen, the destiny of the majority of your students?

And a clarification: People like me love teachers. We love the work they (you) do, the schools they represent, and the students they serve. I feel they are underpaid, under-resourced, and under-respected. When they fail, as they do with many of the 50% of black and urban American students who do not graduate, we feel it is not teachers fault, but the systems which serve teachers.


If some people dis on teachers as a group, it is likely because of that disdain you as a group hold for us.

You simply don't try hard enough to understand how the private sector works.

You grow up in public sector schools. You go to subsidized or outright public university. You go directly back into public schools, read books written by people with the same limitations, and you never try along the way to understand how all the money you spend is generated, and how the other 250 million of us get along with each other each day.

That's a harsh paragraph, and it nowhere near expresses the subtleties of the situation, but it does capture some of my frustration with teacher undergraduate and continuing education. You-all need to learn much more nuance about how we all work.

Jason, your example of the Internet is a great illustration of such misunderstanding! So is your use of the word profit, though I can't blame you personally for either lapse.

Profit is the money that funds your favorite charity. Say your college Alma-mater. Or your pension fund. Your kids college fund, or the local arts group or YMCA. Profits keep all these things going, via funds invested in private companies, which in turn provide work to feed families.

Every teacher should have to run a small business (OK, simulated) for a semester to see how hard keeping people employed and paying interest to investors (see my remarks on CALPERS above) really is. Before people are allowed to use the word profit, I think they should somehow have to at least think about what its like to be responsible for generating it!

Jumping back, the Internet, its true, was funded by a very small amount of government spending. A handful of universities were funded by DARPA to link up with each other via this cool new hardware and set of communication protocols.

Those few hundred schools, and the DoD, is where the Internet (actually DARPANET) would have lived and died left to government.

It was people risking their own time and money who made the next step, spend the late, unpaid nights sweating the small stuff, working the mathematical models into cheap, reproducible hardware, and doing the hard work of selling it door to door; it was these high risk accepting entrepreneurs who made the next step; they turned the idea of a military network into the reality of a worldwide public infrastructure. People like Martin L. Schoffstall and by William L. Schrader, who initially funded the company using credit cards and by selling the family car, by some big companies like Xerox and 3Com, but mostly small startups like Apple, Microsoft, Google and Yahoo.

These people--and more importantly all those who dreamed, tried on their own dime, and failed--should be among the heroes you teach at length about to your students.

Its hard to be a teacher with a fixed salary. Its harder to risk your financial, social, and professional life to try to bring something to people; and to come up short because no one hands you a paycheck, a heated workplace, at least some of the tools and resources you need.

Its hard, too, to go to work for a small business you want to believe in; to risk your family with a flawed leader, as flawed as any school principle or department head; to hope that person is not only an expert in widget making, but in widget marketing and widget distribution and widget advertising; and accounting and law and finance and banking and health plans and retirement plans and human resource management and just plain people skills and leadership.

Jason, Diana,

Thank you for your intelligent and sensible posts. I wonder what you think NYC teachers could do to empower (or "pressure," depending on your point of view) UFT leaders to oppose more effectively the testing madness and related problems.

Jason, I forgot to give you a truly sincere thanks for helping clarify something for me. The idea of a semester small business management class for teachers will now be a critical core of my thinking and writing. It's something that would have been impossible yesterday, but is possible with simulation software today.

Diana and Margo, I owe you an apology from earlier confusing your statements.

Jose, thanks for jumping in! Maybe we could bring some of those thoughts into simpler language with examples?

Dickey45, no time yet to go into energy and environment, but there's plenty of place for optimism.

All, thanks so much for great discussions!!!

If getting rid of the unions was the solution to the problem of low performance, then why, I asked him, do the southern states—where unions are weak or non-existent—continue to perform worse than states with strong unions? And how can we explain the strong union presence in Massachusetts, which is the nation's highest performing state on NAEP? I suggested that low performance must be caused by something else other than teachers' unions.

Are you asking this seriously? Surely you're aware of the concept of controlling for other variables. Here are two completely obvious reasons why, say, Mississippi would have "low performance" compared to Massachusetts:

1) Mississippi population: 61% white, 37% black. Massachusetts: 88% white, 7% black.

2) Mississippi median income: $26,908. Massachusetts median income: $56,592.

Anyone remotely familiar with social science should know this stuff.

A review of the literature suggests that Diane Ravitch is correct: students from states where teachers belong to unions outperform students from states where teacher unions are scarce or nonexistent. However, there are some mitigating factors that seem to make the correlation a bit foggier than it appears on the surface.

The Wagner Act of 1935 allowed states to form unions. However, at the insistence of Southern legislators, Congress exempted agricultural and domestic workers from being able to form unions. By permitting these exceptions southern states were allowed to preserve their heritage of cheap labor from the time of slavery. Somehow, this legislation remains in place today.

"The South historically was just a poorer part of the country and didn't have the focus on education that other parts of the country had," said Jeff Kuhner, a spokesman for the Fordham Foundation, an education think tank in Washington. "Part of its strategy in the past…has been cheap, undereducated labor, and they don't have labor unions."

Also contributing to poor school performance of children nationwide is poverty. Historically, poor children do not perform well in school, are more likely to drop out, less likely to attend college, more likely to go to an emergency room for health care, more likely to wind up in prison, and less likely to pay taxes. As well, their children are more likely to repeat a similar cycle of poverty.

According to 2007 figures for median household income by states, only one southern state makes the top fifty percent, with Georgia sneaking in at number twenty three. Perhaps worth noting, "After accounting for just 12 percent of the state's population growth during the 1960s, net migration from other states was responsible for 50 percent of Georgia's population increase in the 1970s, 52 percent during the 1980s and 60 percent since 1990." Georgia of 2009 appears to actually be Georgia 2.0.

Of the ten poorest states in the country by median household income, eight are from the "Old South" along with New Mexico and Oklahoma. The five poorest in median household income: (46) Alabama, (47) Kentucky, (48) Arkansas, (49) West Virginia, and (50) Mississippi.

Is it then safe to presume that non-union states coupled with the South’s high incidence of poverty have combined to doom millions of these children to a future of diminished opportunity? Sadly, I can't help but wonder if the South continues to suffer from its defeat of almost a century and a half ago.

Perhaps Diane (because she is the educational historian, not me) could add to the dialogue from here.


My union activities have been few so far. I have written for the UFT blog and newspaper, under both my real name and the pseudonym "Otter" (I only use my real name now). I spoke at a UFT High-Stakes Testing Task Force two years ago.

Looking back on the task force meeting, I'd guess that it's easier to unite membership against excess testing and test prep than in favor of an alternative. The reasons are clear: most of us feel the testing has gone overboard, but we differ somewhat in our reasons and priorities.

Yet those different reasons should be heard. Many of us who oppose the current testing regime want a challenging curriculum and tests to match it. We want to teach--not facilitate--grammar, spelling, writing, etymology, logic, literature, and the ideas surrounding all of these. We would like students to memorize poems, parse sentences, look up word origins, and debate serious questions.

Others might have a different perspective. They, too, should be heard. It is not even necessary to reach a consensus; it is more important to hear from many teachers who care deeply about these matters and have given them much thought.

Is it the union's role to determine what is taught and how? I am not sure. But certainly the union can help and defend teachers in their efforts to influence policy.

In an open forum with principals, superintendents, public, and press, we should propose clear alternatives to the testing madness. This would dispel some of the union stereotypes and raise the level of discussion.

Diana Senechal

Well, one of the favorite parts of my job is that most days I come to work, the students teach me something new. I love it and I'm not above it. It's usually a collaborative experience, something along the lines of, "you don't laugh at my Spanish and I won't laugh at your English." It's a forum where people don't "lapse" in their thinking, or "misunderstand" others because they're not up to par. And we try to dispense with the condescension (although we can't always help it) so that we can keep a respectful learning environment where much can be accomplished.

If only the adults in our system could always operate in such a respectful manner! We'd have so many fewer problems with our school systems.

As for my views on profit, I don't recall saying it was a dirty word. Maybe I could have been clearer that I was talking about private profit, as opposed to public profit. Certainly one must work for a profit. As much as I love teaching, I'm not about to do it for free, though no merit-pay scheme will ever make me work harder at a job I never chose for the money anyway. My point is that if their are public expenditures, there should be public profit.

As for all those private sector entrepreneurs Ed brings up, I find it interesting that along with them was not one mention of all the workers, the vast majority of people in this and any other country, who developed, built and expanded upon their ideas. It's little reach to say that without those many thousands of workers who provided the entrepreneurs' wealth, those ideas are pretty much DOA, at least in big business. And those jobs can be created whether the boss is an individual or a state. No body nor entity is indispensible.

I'm glad there are so many hard-working entrepreneurs in this world. It's valuable work if you do it well. But more valuable than mine and other teachers'? Ha! I wouldn't be so arrogant in reverse. I work just as hard and risk just as much. If I lose my job, I don't eat. What is that worth? Not to mention that if I do my job poorly, I potentially can destroy the lives of others. Maybe it is just so in the business world, but no more so.

I respect what people choose to do and expect the same respect back. And maybe that is why I don't want businessmen interferring in the field of education they know nothing about. And I agree not to tell them how to run their businesses in return.

As to Diana, I agree with your nuanced view of the union. In defense of the UFT, I do not mean to give Randi a free pass either. Speaking also to Tom's inquiry as to what the membership could do to pressure the union to be more progressive, I believe the membership must insist that their activities are more grass-roots based, starting with strengthening the chapters and chapter leaders, and thus the schools. I also believe that Randi must be encouraged to actively begin building up a more united, forceful front that will stand strong against the onslaught without cracking.

Part of this is forming alliances with parents, community organizations, working people, health and environmental advocates, and other like-minded people and groups with similar interests as pertains to the struggle to provide the people of our city, state and nation with the quality services they deserve at fair compensation.

Diana, Exactly!!!!

So glad you brought the conversation back to the matter of teachers and the test!

"I'd guess that it's easier to unite membership against excess testing and test prep than in favor of an alternative."
This really is the heart of it all.

Calling the task force after the politicians have been forced to act is exactly the sort of bass-ackwards approach that I have been lamenting these past two and more weeks.

Unions are REACTIVE.

Professional organizations are PROACTIVE.

Testing never should have been given over to the pols in the first place; we the public did so because the teachers failed to act as normal professional practice would have had them do.

The reasons and perspectives you cite? They should have been aired and debated in open forum two decades ago. That was when other professions were looking hard at metrics for knowledge based enterprises. Where were you all?

This isn't to woe the past, but to look at how to organize the work for the future. Look at Jason's words, for example:

"I also believe that Randi must be encouraged to actively begin building up a more united, forceful front that will stand strong against the onslaught without cracking."
Are these the words of a professional taking personal and collegial responsibility for working out a creative way forward? Is it a call to take on the problem of assessing children within the profession; to do the hard work of negotiating standards and alternatives of the kind you list in your comment?

Jason, not dissing on you personally. Its the language that has developed among teachers--the language of unions--the language of reaction.

What I'm suggesting here is that there is another language. The language of confronting these problems ahead of time and keeping them away from the politicians before it is too late.

Fun to read y'all. I forget that there us one dialogue going on in two places!



Teachers were forced into being reactionary because the "problem" with our schools had to be pointed out to them. The initial response from teachers and unions (with the exception of Shanker) to A Nation At Risk was denial. They thought there was nothing wrong with our schools and the report was nothing short of teacher bashing. Shanker had to go out on a limb to declare that not only was the report correct but the leadership of the union should say that before its membership.

There are many teachers today, a quarter century later, who are still convinced there was nothing wrong with our schools, then or now. They are genuinely convinced that if education reform and No Child Left Behind simply disappeared, our schools would be better for it. Many of these same educators are the first to wonder why they’re not included in today's reform dialogue.

Diana asks, "Is it the union's role to determine what is taught and how?" As conscientious, involved, and intelligent as Diana is (she's a pro), this is a question that should have been posed a quarter century ago, before a Nation at Risk and clearly long before No Child Left Behind.

Paul Hoss

Paul and Ed, you are dead right: teachers have done a terrible job in the public policy debate. That’s why kids across America are being tested instead of taught.

I’m not trying to make excuses, but I’d like to tell you why I did nothing all those years. Like many teachers I know, I’m not really into education policy. All I really care about are the kids in my class. I’m not saying that’s right; I’m saying that’s how it is.

Paul, I would revise slightly a statement you made. I think that what teachers are convinced of—what I myself am absolutely certain of—is that if all the TEST PREP disappeared MY STUDENTS would be better off for it. Over the years I have learned a great deal about what works and what does not. There are now many things that I can do for kids that I KNOW would be better for them than test prep. I know this, having experienced it, as certainly as I know that I am sitting at my desk typing.

Now, belatedly, I would like to set things right. I now realize the need to make the public see what I (and mostly all the teachers in America) see. But I don’t know how to do public policy debate; I only know how to teach. So I went on this blog to ask for advice.

Diana, your comments seem to me dead on. Everyone agrees about the tests, but disagrees about what we should do instead. This precisely sums up the state of education today: there is no consensus about what should be done. (This is a fact steadfastly ignored in policy debates. “Accountability,” in particular, is all about identifying failing schools and nothing about what would fix them.)

Given the disagreement, what is the way forward? I agree with you that having the dialogue in itself would be helpful, but I worry from a public relations standpoint. The public has little taste for inconclusive dialogue. They like clear, uncomplicated prescriptions. Are they apt to say, “See, they have no idea what they’re doing, only that they don’t want to be held accountable”?

Jason, yes! More grass-roots, more alliances with parents and people outside the school. How do we actually make that happen, in practical terms? My first impulse would be to rally people around what we agree on. That’s the tests, and that gets us back to Diana’s problem.

I get the impression that both of you are thinking fairly long-term, which is sensible. But I wish there was a way to stop the testing madness and soon.

Finally, Ed. As a representative of the public: suppose we teachers did get our act together. Not impossible to imagine, since opposition to testing is overwhelming among teachers, parents, professors of education. Suppose a grand coalition came together and said, “We disagree about what to do for kids, but we agree that all this testing is not helping and is getting in the way.” Would that cut any ice with anyone? What would?

Diana, Jason: we know this is not working for kids, and there are lots of us around. There must be a way to turn things around. With the union? Parents? What has to happen? How does it get started?

I think most people have a more successful life or successful participation in organizations and other institutions when they organize and work as a group, whether ad hoc or more formal, social or political. Unions are part of that.

Tom, the way you voice your frustration tugs at my heart, I can certainly sense how much this hurts in your work.

Let me get back to the test in a minute; first I want to consider your remarks about 'doing nothing' all those years.

Its OK that you did 'nothing'. We need people who just do their jobs and do them well.

What we also need, though, are those special leaders who step beyond the day to day work, and address the future. These people and their empowerment are the subject of most of my writing.

Our schools need the flexibility to let such people work together and talk and think. You can't do that if you teach 6 classes a day and grade homework and do lessons plans all night. There simply isn't time, save for superpeople who need no sleep and have no lives.

There also isn't time to do the sort of real content mastery one should do to become a really good teacher. Nor is the system set up to deliver such lifetime content mastery to teachers who are more auditory learners, or who don't know where to look to read.

If you look at the 270 page Chicago public schools contract, with its ancillary memoranda of understanding and arbitrator rulings,..its hard to find the flexibility in there to create organizations which support the leader-learner-teachers I'm imagining our schools need.

Tom, your "I didn't know" comment reminded me of Connie Weber, the truly wonderful teacher who founded FiresideLearning. Connie's an avid reader; lives in a very intellectual household, is highly gregarious and high energy, goes to training like Harvard's Project Zero, and seems all you could want from a teacher.

Yet this time last year (and Connie is over 40) she had no awareness of the terrible plight of our urban and Black children, 50% of whom do not graduate from high school, and many more of whom were graduated without even a 9th grade education to show for the diploma.

Its a terrible, terrible thing we have done to these young people the past 30 years, and most Americans still have no idea the full extent (Click my link below for more) of the problem. Nor do most teachers.

Not Connie's fault, and not most teachers' fault, but a direct result of the way teachers are organized, and the mission they gave their chosen leaders these past decades. A mission of "fight the onslaught" as Jason puts it, rather than "lead us upward".

So we have this dual problem of improving all schools, and also remediating the awful plight of the urban/minority youth.

The tests are designed to help those kids. If your kids are in an average school, and they must suffer so that these urban minority schools can get the leverage the test scores provide boards and their administrators, I don't care. I'll help those kids at others' expense any day.

Yet I believe that a false dichotomy.

One problem we have here is that there is no one "test". Is your state's test measuring what it should? I have no way of knowing. If it doesn't, you probably ought to somehow be working with the teachers in your state to make it better.

What we do know about testing is that we the public need to know that the kids can read at their peer's level, can tell that 1/3 lb of lunchmeat rings in at .33 on the digital scale, can point to Iraq and DC on a map, and can write a paragraph that makes sense.

The second question is, if the test asks the right questions, why would you need to do test prep? The answer, of course, is that you wouldn't. If the test is done right, and the teaching is done right, the kids will be learning all this naturally, and, come test time, the answers will roll out so easy that the kids say, "Wow. What was the big deal? Any fool could do that."

Which is the case in your class? I imagine a combination. Some of the questions shouldn't have been asked, and some of the things that were properly asked, you and your colleagues weren't covering well enough before.

How to work to make the assessments better? Where are teachers doing such work? Beats me. I haven't been shown such 'standards work' as we in the engineering trade call it. I have noticed that the domain HowCanWeFixTheTests.org is not used. It would be a good place for a professional social network like Ning. A place for teachers from each state to discuss specific testing instruments and how to improve or replace them.

I doubt the result would look anything like what we have. (
And, I am trying, too. I've built a web app to both teach and assess. Alas, its impossible to find funding. ...Another place the system breaks.)

However we go forward,...
Once teachers get a handle on this, and have the right suite of diagnostic tools, and the right set of guidelines for how, when, and where to use them, then the government can get its clumsy hands out of this.

Bring on that day!!!

Ed, did I say I didn’t know about the plight of poor and minority students? I didn’t mean to. Everybody knows about it.

The tests were sold as a means of providing leverage to demand improvement in poor schools. That is not how they operate in reality.

In NYC where I work the test results are deliberately manipulated to obscure the failure of poor, minority schools: the school performance formula awards extra points to these schools, and rates them only in comparison with each other.

And so Middle School 267 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where two-thirds of the students failed their reading tests, receives an A on its report card. Hey, it’s doing better than other failing, poor, minority schools.

What this says is: We don’t expect disadvantaged children to achieve as well as other kids. Or even improve as fast. Thus the whole goal of narrowing the achievement gap they completely take off the table.

In the bad old days before all the tests, New Yorkers used to point to schools like M.S. 267 and demand action. (Of course we didn’t get it; I wonder why not.) The Bloomberg-Klein administration labels the school an amazing success story. No action needed. That seems like the opposite of the leverage effect they sold us on.

Ed: you and Bloomberg and Klein all say you care about these kids, and you think because you mean it, they must mean it. They don’t.

If you really want to solve a problem, you try to figure out what’s causing it. Educational research incontrovertibly locates by far the biggest chunk of the problem in SES, and specifically in the early childhood experience of disadvantaged kids. Bloomberg and Klein refuse to go anywhere near any of the policies this implies. And again, if you really want to solve a problem, you adopt those measures that have proven effective. Bloomberg and Klein have fought smaller classes tooth and nail.

Everybody knows, not only that there’s an achievement gap, but that it hasn’t narrowed in the past seven years. Neither more tests nor better tests nor a variety of tests are ever going to narrow it. They’ll only continue to divert us from addressing the problem at its roots.

(By the way, providing time and help to develop leader-learner-teachers seems to me a big, excellent idea. I hardly think teachers unions would stand in the way. I think I misunderstood what you meant there.)


I don't have as many answers as I would like to have. But one comes to mind: specifics! To end the testing madness, we must demonstrate, with concrete examples, how the state standards, tests, and rubrics allow students to slide through without being able to write coherently or read anything memorable. We must demand tests that truly assess knowledge and thinking. We must demand a curriculum that exposes students to excellent and important works of literature and nonfiction--for their own sake, for their significance, and for their structures of argument.

Too often, children's writing lacks both coherence and logic. Again and again, I see sentences along the lines of "Frank wanted to be a sailor because his father was a sailor because he knew if he tried he could do it because he went out on a boat and almost got drowned but came back home safe and that is why you should always go after your dreams."

How do students learn coherence and logic? Through example, practice, and explicit instruction. If the teacher is not supposed to correct errors, how will the students learn? If they only read mediocre literature, how will they have something to emulate?

We could do much better. Students (say, in middle school) could study and memorize a few sonnets and become familiar with their structure and meaning. They could read and analyze speeches and essays. They could memorize, parse, and discuss the Preamble to the Constitution. In all of these examples, they could study the form and meaning of these works. They would study grammar on its own as well. And there would still be time for independent reading.

Those are only partial suggestions, but it seems we need this sort of specificity in the standards, on the tests, and in the classroom. I understand that many would balk at the idea of a universal curriculum. But short of that, surely we could establish a few specifics and concepts that children should unequivocally learn. And let us clearly distinguish them from the "strategies" currently dominating test prep and classroom instruction.

Diana Senechal

A long-time reader, first-time poster, I have been reading this conversation with rapt attention, and thank all of you for your thoughtful arguments, which have enriched me to the point that I have way more than $0.02 to toss back in.

Ed's comments about the private sector and profit first made me want to contribute. I spent 8 years in industry (mostly hi-tech and consulting) and am now in my 12th as a teacher. I agree that educators benefit immeasurably from having experience in the business world. But I disagree with Ed's assertion that Jason and Tom and Diana demonstrate a disrespect for or lack of knowledge of the private sector or profit anywhere in their comments. What I saw in there was the suggestion that private industry and public education are far less analogous than pundits often say they are; the transplanting of metaphorical organs that work in the one into the body of the other is likely to cause at least partial rejection.

Ed and Paul, you may feel that this is due to unions (which do have a little bit of "immune system" about them, but the facility of forming analogies, I believe, is part of the communication problem we have) but again my experience suggests otherwise. Unions are slow-moving and, yes, often reactive, but they don't generally get in the way of innovation and hard work in the classroom, or come between teachers and children. One thing they do (that those in the private sector might misconstrue) is forestall some intrusions that could do serious damage in search of what Matthew called short-term profit.

Kids may be resilient, but schools are less so: a "big idea" that upends a school could take years to undo, but, even before it gets to that, I have rarely seen the education world have the commitment to stick to the time and attention needed to see a plan through. Policymakers tend to come up with an idea, take credit, and move on. The teachers stay to see it through, often without enough funding, and the students and teachers bear the brunt.

When I think of maintaining/building quality teaching, the thing that is often forgotten is the value of a good instructional leader, especially in terms of providing healthily objective feedback. Teachers are not anti-accountability, but not every measurement provides real accountability.

I don't blithely lay this on principals, but one improvement might come about if their jobs focused more on the teaching quality in their buildings. How many schools have supervisors who don't know enough about what happens in classrooms? This is not due to the unions, but due to district practices that keep principals busy with bureaucracy, PR, and other admittedly important but less essential things, and to the intrusions of testing that may be well-intentioned but ends up changing the focusing from learning to measurement. Niels Bohr (I think) told us that measurement changes the thing, and he was right. Tom and others who make that point know this from observing and knowing students, and not being obsessed with data.

Finally, I'd like to add to Ed's wise suggestion that teachers get a taste of the private sector my corollary that private sector employees also should have a taste of being a teacher. Having done both, I am certain that 10 months of 50-60-hour weeks as a teacher makes for a year at least as grueling and stressful as one that involves 12 months of 55-65-hour weeks in hi-tech. Teachers don't need pity for this, but it would be a better "bridge" for the discourse overall if both sides empathized more fully with the concerns and stressors of the other. I loved the business world, but I now have the most important job in the world, and agree with all posters here that nothing would be better than to have me and all my colleagues able to do that job even more effectively. From reading Diane and Deborah, I think they'd agree that stakeholder buy-in is the main thing that will put us on that path.

NY Times
Teachers Say Union Faces Resistance From Brooklyn Charter School

KIPP seems to be willing to put up a fierce fight.

Michael says it costs more to bring in a new teacher than to keep older ones around. Then why do so many school districts try to entice veteran teachers to retire early? Virginia is currently considering a provision for early retirements for teachers 50 and older....and it is doing so because it has a $3 billion budget deficit it needs to shrink.
As a writer pointed out in Sunday's Washington Post, if localities would pay "world-class" salaries (Anne Arundel County, MD has over 100 teachers and counselors making more than $100,000 a year) then they'd bea more likely to hire and retain employees.

As to Michael's belief that public servants should have pensions and benefits stripped (reduced), perhaps he should read Fullan's Six Secrets of Success or The Teaching Penalty by Allegretto, Corcoran and Mishel.

Michael says it costs more to bring in a new teacher than to keep older ones around. Then why do so many school districts try to entice veteran teachers to retire early? Virginia is currently considering a provision for early retirements for teachers 50 and older....and it is doing so because it has a $3 billion budget deficit it needs to shrink.
As a writer pointed out in Sunday's Washington Post, if localities would pay "world-class" salaries (Anne Arundel County, MD has over 100 teachers and counselors making more than $100,000 a year) then they'd bea more likely to hire and retain employees.

As to Michael's belief that public servants should have pensions and benefits stripped (reduced), perhaps he should read Fullan's Six Secrets of Success or The Teaching Penalty by Allegretto, Corcoran and Mishel.

The achievement gap in education wasn't caused by teachers, unions or lack of tests, and won't be fixed by focusing on them. No test has ever helped any kid.

There are so many false presumptions that have entered the public discourse on education that the majority accept as true. Accepting them has led many to blame teachers and use standardized tests as the solution.

Any teacher can know what their students have learned; they don't need a noneducator at a testing corporation to write assessments for them. Any teacher can tell you why this student can read and this one can't. Most of the time the teacher has to beg, borrow or steal to get the time and resources to correct the situation. Often the obstacles lie outside the schools and probably can't be fixed by teachers. Spending increases in education haven't been directed toward the teachers' needs and resultingly have not narrowed the achievement gaps.

Ed, it's very difficult to address the future unless you already stand on solid ground. Teacher leaders who step out generally become isolated and forget what the problems were they hoped to solve. Involvement in politics and the market have erased the memory of many of the well-intentioned.

As a science teacher I encourage the independent thought process involved in critical thinking. Any model used to explain or make predictions of a complex system will eventually reach it's limit of practicality, and be rendered ineffective. Anyone who believes that a particular educational, political or economic philosophy is the panacea to correct all problems strains credibility pretty quickly. Most of us in the classroom might seem liberal because we constantly struggle against the anti-intellectual pigheadedness that seems to be the path to political power in this country. If the US was run by Marxists, I'd be in the classroom helping students to see the folly in accepting that system. A good teacher helps students to spot the BS, whether on the left or the right. I'm not interested in getting into an ideological discussion over the wonders of the freemarket system and the glorious honor of meeting a payroll. I also believe that an employee has responsibilities and should accept the consequences of his/her performance.

John Doe,

Never intended to steal your thunder regarding the poverty of southern states. I was in the middle of researching my entry before I had the opportunity to read yours. I guess great minds DO think alike.

I'm still waiting for Diane to weigh in on the prevalence of poverty throughout the South as it relates to poor student performance. I was puzzled she never included it in her original argument especially when she stated, "... low performance must be caused by something… other than teachers' unions." A variable such as poverty would have been a natural if raised next.

Paul Hoss

So then we are all agreed: Biloxi or Bed-Stuy, academic failure is about poverty, not teachers' unions.


Teacher unions remain a problem for me because they are primarily interested in promoting their own agenda which is too often at the expense of what might be best for kids.

Your SES concerns as they relate to your school system need to be aired. Your entry from above (2/7) could be the premise for a letter to the editor in the New York Times. The next time they publish a story related to education reform, testing, etc., you need to craft a response (as a NYC teacher) that will express a teacher's concerns to the Times' readers.

Diana also needs to write a letter outlining her concerns with the absurdity of the city's classroom regimentation.

Find other teachers of a similar mind and have them do the same. The problems you folks are encountering are NOT going away and they need to be articulated in some place more prominent than a blog.


That union agenda sure is selfish. I mean, they want to reduce class size which is one of the only actions that will improve achievement.

They want to raise teacher salaries so there will be a larger pool of qualified candidates interested in the profession.

They've been offering PD to teachers for decades when no one else was.

They've been resolving conflicts between teachers so that personalities don't get in the way of education.

I definitely understand why you don't like teachers unions.

Wow--I didn't realize that this discussion was still going on, and it remains very interesting. I think it was Tom who suggested that we could all agree then, that tests were the problem and unite against them. I disagree--and for many of the same reasons that I disagree that unions are "the problem." I thing that the need to identify "the problem" may be "the problem" or a part of it.

Yes, poverty has a measureable impact on learning. But we should also be paying attention to the countries where poverty has a much smaller impact (and fighting to bring in some of the programs that are available but not always utilized, such as school breakfast). Yes, there is some research to support smaller classes, but mostly in early primary grades--and the benefit can be corrupted if in the rush to shrink classes a slew of inexperienced teachers are hired in.

Yes--teachers who are afraid to speak don't help the situation. But I don't see this as being tied to union presence or lack thereof. Diana, I believe, teaches in NYC, represented by a union. In my own district, the union is at every table where decisions are made--yet the union reports that teachers are afraid to participate in anonymous surveys--unless the surveys are administered by the union. But if all communication regarding problems has to be via anonymous survey, it becomes very difficult to arrive at participatory solutions.

I am grateful that no one here has suggested that parents are "the problem," but I hear that often enough elsewhere.

I really appreciate Tom's efforts to find a way to go about this differently. So--let's take a look at his finding that learning is impacted by poverty. Having worked in the War on Poverty, and various offshoots across the time span, I would say that this is not a bad beginning point, if we allow ourselves a place in the picture. In other words--poverty is a social condition, and one that derives from the society of which we are all a part. I saw on the news last night that someone in my state had organized a meeting to consider poverty. It's amazing how high the interest level goes up when we are all threatened by the possibility. But, poverty is the result of choices that we have all had access to.

The amount of school funding and school decision making that is allotted to the local level is no accident. The formation of bedroom suburbs attached to every city in this nation is no accident. Selling the houses in those suburbs based on access to "good schools" is also no accident. There was a time when those houses were also blatantly limited to people of one color.

Desegregation efforts crumbled when those suburbs offered shelter to those with higher means who fled outside the jurisdiction of court orders. As a younger idealist, my personal solution was to refuse to be a part of the white flight, then quite active in my district. I bought a house within the city. I utilized the school choice lottery knowing that all schools in the city would be held to a level of assortment of students (prior to deseg, the district was blatant in their willingness to bus white kids "around" a primarily minority school to maintain racial separation). By the time my son started school, the court had not only released the district from its order, but organized factions had begun to campaign for a "return to neighborhood schools." The schools in my neighborhood are now almost exclusively minority. While there are no longer any exclusively white schools, there are schools where the population is about 40%, and poverty is also lower. The popular lottery schools are included among these. At the high school level, an element of selectivity has been added (think: guaranteed seats for kids with good grades)to these popular schools.

A kid growing up in the midst of this absorbs many lessons. They see teachers who come and go from school, never a part of the neighborhood--they live somewhere else--so their kids can go to good schools. The kids in the good schools grow up understanding that their lot is a better one than those others. We preach at the poor kids that they should do better in school--so they can get out, get away--leave their homes behind, become a part of that other world, the one they are not a part of now. That's not a message we pass on to middle class suburban kids. We are not afraid to walk on their streets. We don't cower when their relatives come into school. We tell them to excel in order to maintain their place in this world that has already welcomed them. We never suggested that they have to earn their acceptance here. This is home. This is where they belong.

But, I also have to speak to the great gifts that I have received by choosing to continue my life as a city-dweller once I could purchase a home. All the school struggles aside, I have, and hope that my children have, a sense and a belief that where I belong has to do with many things. I can walk amongst strangers and find a place. I can appreciate commonalities that lie under the obvious differences. This is all just to suggest that there is a possibility of community across differences. I don't regret not having taken my children to the suburbs.

But, I think the point is, knowing that poverty is a part of the problem only directs us to look at how education is a part of the problem of poverty.


Let me apologize beforehand on this posting. Sometimes someone else's skepticism can lead to unfettered cynicism.

Please be so kind as to direct us to the studies which would corroborate your theory that, "reduced class size...is one of the only actions that will improve achievement." Please be sure to cite more than one and make sure they are from reputable researchers, if possible.

Then please explain how higher teacher salaries or more professional development points (for teachers) will significantly improve the world of students. Again, feel free to cite all the studies you can find to corroborate these canards.

Unions resolve conflicts among teachers so that personalities don't get in the way of education? You've got me there because I have no idea to what you are referring.

My opening salvo from the 2/9 posting above should have included a qualifier. Unions are not the only deterrent to improving our schools but they should be no deterrent at all.

Reputable research seems to be in the eyes of the beholder, Paul. I mean, anyone can cite a study to defend any position they want, if they dig deep enough. But I don't think anyone seriously believes that smaller class sizes are ancillary to improved educational outcomes. There is more than enough research to defend the small class size movement - independent, non-biased research. And please don't ask others to provide it. It is out there in droves, if only one was interested in looking for it. Or maybe they have another agenda.

It never ceases to amaze me how twisted things can get when large private interests get control of the debate to further their own interests at the expense of the many.

I mean some people are still saying that global warming is a hoax, irrespective of the vast majority of the research - and they have their own research (paid for by Big Oil to be sure) to prove it!

To the fair-minded, it's corollary is in this debate about smaller classes.


A disclaimer: I represent the interests of no large corporations. I'm just a geek who likes to get to the bottom of things and is willing to read legislation and research reports in order to do so. As I said above, I am aware of no consensus based on research to support a blanket assumption of smaller class sizes driving success--although I have heard this stated as fact by many teachers. There is some research to suggest that smaller class sizes have an effect in the very early grades, and perhaps more of an impact on lower income or struggling students than others. However, it is very important that teaching quality be apples to apples in order to see an impact. California blanketed in lower class sizes, creating a teacher shortage that was filled by less qualified teachers--an expensive failure.

I must disagree with the notion that unions do not impede education. The union that my school is associated with has defended things that cause me to wonder how they can sleep at night.
A untenured/tenured teacher must have two unsatisfactory evaluations in a row to lose their tenure or be considered for termination. Then they must another smester of an satisfactory. The tyeacher is evaluated once smester by an adminsitrator and the other by the chair. The chairs, no matter how you teach, proof, etc. are extremely reluctant to give unsatiosfactories because they are peers or the etacher is "nice". Perhaps there is a piece of incompetent chairs and or teachers here as well. However it is next to impossible to remove anyone here.
And as I stated above, the union defends things that I find it apalling and totally unacceptable in a classroom.

I have yet to see this union try to "solve' anything. Instead grievances abound and a feeling of them against us is perpetuated.


"...anyone can cite a study to defend any position they want, if they dig deep enough." Therein lays the problem.

My post to Loren above was of a rhetorical nature. Grab a position, peruse the research and you can probably find a study that will substantiate your claim(s). So? It’s a deplorable system for any profession.

I've had class sizes from 17 to 33 as an elementary classroom teacher. The seventeen was clearly easier but I have to admit, the kids in the class of 33 did just fine as well.

Thank you Margo and Kathleen for weighing in on my behalf. It is appreciated.


You said: Teacher unions remain a problem for me because they are primarily interested in promoting their own agenda which is too often at the expense of what might be best for kids.

I said: The agenda of the union includes lower class sizes, increasing the pool of qualified teachers to choose from, improving inservice teacher training and resolving disputes between colleagues. What part of that agenda do you believe is at the expense of what might be best for the kids?

Is it perhaps because your original "salvo" was an unsubstantiated "canard", you are shifting the burden of proof to me?


Your post sounds like an indictment against the chair and the administrator, not the union.

When a school administrator tries to remove a teacher, the role of the union is to make certain that the teacher's right to due process is protected. The union makes sure that the firing isn't just a whim. If the administrator's case is justified, the teacher is fired. I think the teacher deserves their day in court.


"Unions are not the only deterrent to improving our schools but they should be no deterrent at all."

Why have teacher unions fought education reform so vehemently since A Nation At Risk? Fought competition from private entrepreneurs and such entities as charter or pilot schools at every turn? Attempted to maintain the public school monopoly at all costs? Fought student/teacher accountability which has kept so many poor/minority students underserved? Fought merit pay for teachers and insisted on remuneration based on years of service and graduate work as opposed to excellence in the classroom? Protected documented lousy teachers when they should have shown them the door? Proposed multiple measures of assessments for students knowing full well these projects, reports, dioramas, etc. could never be monitored for authenticity?

I observed all of the above from the NEA and the Massachusetts Teachers Association for three and a half decades and I didn't care for much of any of it. They're constantly screaming for additional "resources" and that's not for the kids as they attempt to lead the public to believe. That’s code for more teachers which leads to more dues thereby fattening THEIR bottom line and giving them more clout in state and federal politics. They are as transparent as the bark on a tree and you apparently can't see them for what they are or you're one of their entrenched bureaucrats

I also noted you took the easy way out of my suggestion from above. You made global remarks about how smaller class size, additional professional development, etc. would all be beneficial to students but never cited any studies to substantiate your generalizations

I don't grant you the right to misquote me. You said that the union agenda is often at the expense of what might be best for kids. I stated what I believe to be the union agenda and asked you what part was not in the best interest of the kids. You asked me to prove that the agenda is going to help the kids. You shifted your original unsubstantiated position, and then demanded that I disprove with research your new position. Is your argument so weak that you have to keep changing it?



Usually I have been against particular reforms because I believe the reforms to be ineffective. I do so BECAUSE I am looking out for the best interests of my students.

Most of the reforms you mention have had sizable opposition from all parts of the education community, not just unions. To many intelligent people the reforms were just bad ideas.

The unions haven't opposed entrepreneurs or charter schools. They've opposed money being taken away from public schools to pay for them. They've also pointed out that the "successes" of those schools result from models public schools are not even allowed to emulate(by law).

The agenda of teacher merit pay and accountability is mostly about the millions of dollars edtech corporations make in contracts with public school systems. They would never be totally implemented even if the union was totally behind them. The union makes an easy scapegoat for a plan that is completely impractical.

Unions didn't invent the pay system based on seniority and college credit. Universities have always used that system, and nonunion schools systems still use it. Many corporations pay according to degree and years of service. The military uses it and so does the government. If someone came up with a better system I'd support it, but no one has. Every model I've seen is totally unworkable and blatantly unfair to most parties involved. As a successful science teacher in an urban school, I would make out great with current models of merit pay. If I can see what's wrong with it, anyone should be able to.

When Joel Klein asks for more money from the state of NY, he always has the support of parents and teachers. We've gone to Albany together every year since Klein became chancellor. Are the NYCDOE and the parents co-conspirators with the union? Are we all entrenched bureaucrats?


Just a reminder that above and beyond all the individual trees, this usefulness of unions issue has long been resolved by the wider world.

However, if the discussion remains bogged in the here and now or education, or in the distant past of the industrial age, we'll never move forward.

Any book on the shelf dealing with leadership in organizations will introduce you to modern ways of thinking about these things. Go back to the 'HP Way', and work your way forward through the Japanese system, and Edward Demming, John Maxwell's leadership series, even FM22-100 (now FM6-22) the Army Leadership manual.

90% of American workers recognize this. While most support collective bargaining in theory for their neighbors, less than 20% tell pollsters they're interested in seeing it in their place of work.

These ideas would all apply at the building/personal/district level. At the larger level of the entire profession, we have the IEEE, the AIChE, the ASME, and many many other professional organizations which advance the interests of their profession.

...without collectivization confiscatory dues, punitive legal action to stall innovation, or, least of all, blatant, pervasive, political partisanship.

I'll stand with Loren when she says many intelligent people don't think so highly of Paul's righteous ideas of reform.

To the extent that the unions are resisting many of these reforms, it is BECAUSE so many teachers think they are bad ideas. Too many times people think of union leadership as somehow separate from union membership. What union leadership does is give collective voice to the teachers because the individual voices of teachers have so much less power than an individual say, like, the mayor, or the chancellor, or the billionaire philanthropist.

The teachers know what really is taking place in the classrooms - way more than those in the ivory towers and boardrooms do.

No democracy has yet to be perfect, so neither are the unions, but the leadership's voice generally speaks to the concerns of the majority of the teachers in that union and gives them the power to set the record straight. I mean, teachers know how much more effective they can be working with smaller classes. They experience it, and no individual teacher has such oh-so-devious macro- thoughts such as increasing union membership when they advocate for this. They just want a better working and learning environment. And teachers know that merit pay is a bogus idea. The whole concept is an insult to teachers. As if they aren't really working hard enough at a job they almost universally chose to help children. As if that would create the collaborative atmosphere that is vital to student achievement. As if they ever did it for the money. And for those who in that sense like to call the union reactionary as opposed to proactive, see Loren's post above about some of the other things they do and for which they advocate.

So those who attack the positions of the union, or even its very existence, are really attacking the working knowledge of the teachers themselves. I'm not saying teachers should be the only people to be listened to (though that clearly isn't the prevailing problem), just that they deserve a seat at the same table as all the other stakeholders.

I'd just like to add one more thought about the reforms Paul talks about and Margo/Mom seems to buy into (from the same talking points, interestingly, as the corporate agenda).

The real sniff test for these reforms is - are they instituting them in the white suburbs? The answer to that by and large is, well - no.

It's funny how people say more money isn't the answer, except that wealthier people will go into hock paying property taxes so their children will have a very good, and expensive, education.

An expensive education that generally has class sizes of around 18 or so, far from the 34 or so in the cities. I also don't see any high schools being broken up into smaller units so students won't have the ability to take honors and AP classes and all other types of enrichment programs that actually require a fair number of students to run. Etc., etc., etc. Amazingly, I also see plenty of unions.

The smelliest part of it all is that these social experiments on poor usually minority students really only take place in high-poverty areas, enforcing the notion that high poverty is a large part of the problem - anathema to the self-proclaimed "reformers." But if you actually say that in your capacity as a teacher (even if you fight the rising tide every day to combat it while the others dither), you are making excuses and have low expectations for your students. Once again, the teachers are the problem.

In other words, who really has the low expectations, and what really is the problem?


If an individual is making most of their income through investments and not salary, they probably don't like unions. It's worth noting that workers with the highest standard of living reside in European countries whose unions are still quite strong. I don't think anyone has come up with a way to use the free market to pay soldiers, civil servants, police, firemen or teachers. If I guess right you believe that we should get rid of collective bargaining altogether. I'm pretty sure that puts you far out on the political fringe and out of touch with what we do in the classroom. As long as the right continues to bash teachers we'll have to remain a partisan organization. We don't have a choice.


You state, "... teachers know that merit pay is a bogus idea." Have you ever been in a school where you know of teachers doing the absolute minimum yet are still getting the same pay or (because of their years in the system) better than some less senior teachers working their fingers to the bone? It's nauseating, not just because of its injustice but often times because some of these slugs are actually laughing all the way to the bank while their students suffer. Yes, teachers who have been brainwashed by their unions might well believe that merit pay is a “bogus” idea but for those who can see beyond the nose on their face, merit pay is the manifest destiny of education reform. It could well be coming to a school district near you, SOON.

Step outside the box for a minute if that’s possible. Beyond the situation described above, could you ever imagine a teacher of quality who would not jump at the opportunity to be part of a merit pay system?

Below, please find one of countless attempts by the NEA at extortion. Notice, this heavy-handed threat is not leveled at some fifteen cent local school board from East Overshoe, USA. It’s simply another example of why they need all your dues from their 3.2 million members.


October 31, 2007
The Honorable U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515-4903

Dear Congressman:

On behalf of the National Education Association's 3.2 million members, we are writing to remind you that the National Education Association (NEA) is seeking cosponsors of proposed House and Senate bills described in the attached document.

Included are 17 House and Senate bills to amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act or the No Child Left Behind Act. While NEA has endorsed more than 100 such bills, the attached memorandum necessarily highlights only those proposals that are most comprehensive in scope or address NEA’s highest legislative priorities. The list also includes priority bills on other issues.

Cosponsorship by November 16, 2007 of bills on the attached list will impact positively a Member of Congress’ score and overall grade on NEA’s Legislative Report Card (voting ratings) for the 110th Congress, 1st Session. Please note: the NEA Report Card for this session will only reflect cosponsorships on record as of close of business on November 16, 2007.

Thank you for your attention. If you have any questions or need any additional information, please do not hesitate to contact the NEA lobbyist assigned to your office:

Diane Shust
Randall Moody
Director of Government Relations Manager of Federal Advocacy

Unions are usually on the side of the angels for the simple reason that teachers’ interests and children’s interests tend to coincide. Loren’s examples are cases in point: smaller classes and better paid, better trained teachers are surely in kids’ interest. And I agree with those who say that the reason unions opposed Paul’s list of “reforms” is because we don’t believe they’ll work.

What is nagging me is Jason’s comment that the union simply represents the viewpoint of teachers. I’m afraid he may be right.

But I’m not sure. On merit pay? I agree, Jason, that the idea is insulting to teachers and useless in improving student performance. Why isn’t the UFT saying that?

On testing: teachers are beside themselves about it; I don’t see that frustration reflected in what’s coming out of union headquarters.

And then there’s the undeniable fact that the union really gears up only for pocketbook issues. Members are not asked to wear blue or black, or picket at our schools, or rally at City Hall for smaller classes. It’s at least possible to see where the negative attitudes of many civilians could come from.

I don’t believe, as Paul says, that Randi only wants to pad union coffers. I think she believes that economic issues are the ones her members care enough to turn out for.

Is she right? Or are there lots of teachers like me who wish our union would be just as aggressive on matters of policy?

So-called reforms like accountability and merit pay don’t become as popular as they are because they are such great ideas; they do so because there is a network of people endlessly promoting them. The right thing for children and the smart move for teachers is for our unions to pound away, as persistently as the politicians and right-wing think tanks, on a clear strategy for addressing academic failure. In the face of every outcry about accountability or union rules or teacher quality, the unions must be there saying, “The real problem—proven by research—is that these kids have profound learning deficits that began in early childhood. We need programs to address the problem at its source, and interventions later on specifically targeted to the problem. Everything else is a diversion kids can’t afford.”

If teachers don’t get together to show the way, we’ll keep following one bogus reform after another, children will continue to fail, and teachers will be keep on being bashed.


I think Randi is a thousand times better than anyone from the NEA. She has clearly made some concessions in both New York City and Washington, DC (not that those systems are perfect by any means) that are beneficial to kids. I absolutely applaud her for those efforts. You won't find much of that emenating from the NEA.

"...then there’s the undeniable fact that the union really gears up only for pocketbook issues." Now you're beginning to see them (especially the NEA) for what they are -power-mongers.


I think Randi is a thousand times better than anyone from the NEA. She has clearly made some concessions in both New York City and Washington, DC (not that those systems are perfect by any means) that are beneficial to kids. That’s a good thing. I absolutely applaud her for those efforts. You won't find much of that emanating from the NEA.

"Then there’s the undeniable fact that the union really gears up only for pocketbook issues." Now you're beginning to see the light (especially about the NEA). They’re interested in one thing and one thing only – political clout at the state and federal levels.

You hit another one out of the park when you observe, "What is nagging me is Jason’s comment that the union simply represents the viewpoint of teachers. I’m afraid he may be right." Unions have too often been interested only in the preservation of their members, good or bad.

Have you ever stopped to wonder why the NEA (or UFT) has not advocated more forcefully for pre-K and early childhood education, especially for poor/minority kids from urban districts, the ones who need it the most? Could it possibly have something to do with them knowing the likelihood of unionizing those teachers is minute? Oh sure, the NEA and AFT will put in an obligatory effort at promoting either or both of these potential savior programs but they won't push for them the way they'll push for other "necessities" such as smaller class size and higher pay for existing teachers.

I’m sure you’re both familiar with Al Shanker, past president of the UFT. For a thorough education on the topic of unions you and Jason would both do well to read Richard Kahlenberg’s book Tough Liberal. It chronicles Shanker’s efforts from union representative to education reformer. It is very informative and a great read as well.

Have you ever stopped to wonder why the NEA (or UFT) has not advocated more forcefully for preK and early childhood education, especially for poor/minority kids from urban districts, the ones who need it the most? Could it possibly have anything to do with them knowing the likelihood of unionizing those teachers is minute. Oh sure, the NEA and AFT will put in an obligatory effort at promoting either or both of these potential saviors but they won't push for them the way they'll push for other "necessities" such as smaller class size and higher pay for existing teahers.

Apologies for the errors in my previous post. If you muddle through though you will get my message.

Paul, when you ask "could you ever imagine a teacher of quality who would not jump at the opportunity to be part of a merit pay system?" you take the nearly universally accepted concept of higher-pay-for-better-performance and assume that concept = reality. I have studied a number of these plans, and have found them to be fraught with problems, inequities, and flaws in implementation. And I like the concept as much as you do...as a concept.

Just because it's a good idea doesn't mean every or even any implementation is a good one. Just because it's simple -- correlate pay with standardized test score, for example -- doesn't mean it will actually lead to better teaching or learning, although it certainly might be easily measurable. Can you point me to a merit pay system that you think is a good one?

Paul, your apparent contempt for (some?)teachers is "manifestly" contempt for the children they teach. Slugs?! Ugh! Is that what I'm supposed to think about my poor performing students? Just get rid of 'em, those deadbeats? Wait, sorry, that's exactly what the reform movement does so often. Geoffrey Canada anyone? Ahhh - right-wing elitism in all its glory.

Secondly, the UFT has been a STRONG advocate for pre-K and kindergarten programs. In your view, I guess, because teachers who can't think for themselves are told by the union to support it because it will simply boost union numbers. (A-ha! Now I know why teachers are held in such contempt - they're incompetent) And if you know how labor works in NYC, you would know that those teachers would become instant members of the UFT, without a doubt, thank goodness for them and their students. In my view, it is because teachers - and thus their unions - think it is educationally sound practice, and you seem to agree that it is. But then how is it that you understand whereas the teachers don't, though both of you support the same position? Who, exactly, is incompetent here?

As to Tom, I'm afraid it's true also, for the same reasons you mention. I'm one of those teachers who seems to believe, like you do, that our struggle should be just as much over matters of policy as economics. I've felt this for years, and at the behest of its members, the union, being the messy democratic institution that it is - just like the imperfect democracies that are Boards of Ed., elected legislators, etc. - has given short shrift to these issues, unfortunately. I suspect this is due, in part, to the feelings of powerlessness that teachers have traditionally had in this domain, exacerbated by the heavy hand of the mayor and chancellor to impose their will. It clearly is also about the traditionally low pay afforded teachers, which is explained a lot by it being considered "women's work" decades ago.

I really feel that this economic climate, where even moderate increases of pay are probably not forthcoming, at least affords the unions a great opportunity to make the issues about policy instead.

But the leadership does have a responsibility for which the teachers have yet to call on them. And that is to organize (or as you say, "get together") the membership at the grass-roots level to proactively push their principals, superintendents, chancellors, mayors and legislators to pursue sound educational practices, in concert with parents and community groups. In my mind, this lack of organization within and without the union is the critical piece missing to combat the politicians, businessmen, right-wing think tanks, their cronies in the media, and the people who buy into their line of thinking.

And so because there is this lack of organization, the teachers' unions feel it necessary to compromise on even some of the worst items at times, and put their best face on it.


At least 90% of teachers are doing a remarkable job. I have no problem with most teachers. Unions are VERY different from individual teachers.

The only thing teachers are guilty of is being so busy and focused on getting the job done in their classrooms that they don't have time or the inclination to pay attention to what the union is forcing down their throats. I don't fault them for this one bit. I was in that situation for years as well.

Who gives a rat's behind what Reg Weaver thinks about merit pay or multiple measures? I was too overwhelmed with the intricacies of running my classroom to pay attention to some out of touch bureaucrat like him.

If you asked a hundred teachers who pay dues to the NEA to tell you what the Representative Assembly is, I'd be amazed if five could accurately define what this body does. But this group is the minority that dictates policy to its membership, good or bad. These are the folks who put the union ahead of students and give teacher unions such a deplorable reputation.

Go to the archives of the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Globe for the past five or so years. These are easily some of the most liberal papers in the country. They are pro-Democrat on almost every issue and every candidate. Yet if you search teacher unions on any of these papers you'd be hard pressed to find a single editorial putting a positive connotation on national or state teacher unions, especially the NEA. Bear in mind teachers have historically been solid Democrats in this country for at least the past half century. So why is it these liberal papers have nothing good to say about teacher unions? Think about it?

Again, I have no problem with most teachers. They work hard and do the best they can. It's the NEA's Representative Assembly and their behind the scenes shenanigans that I have a disdain. They are out of touch with twenty-first century America and have clearly lost their way.


Merit pay is a good idea and is also easily measured. Its problem: It's only in the infancy stage and many kinks need to still be remedied before it's ready for prime time.

The surge of interest in such experimentation is bolstered by research findings that some teachers are far more effective than others in raising student achievement. Compensation changes that reward talented teachers so that they stay in the profession, and encourage ineffective ones to improve or leave, potentially could have a large impact on student learning.


Boy are you bitter! I'm sure ranting is somewhat therapeutic, but it's making it difficult to take you seriously.

In the whole scheme of things the NYCDOE forces thousands more things down my throat than the UFT does. And I agree with 95% of their agenda and policy statements.

Liberal newspapers rarely have anything positive to say about teaching in general. I don't know about the others, but the NYT seems pretty elitist when it comes to education. I doubt that anyone on their editorial board sends their kids to public schools. I mean, come on, they have a weekly column on "Your Second Home." Furthermore, I read it every day. Do they really need to preach to the choir?

Back to your "extortion" letter: Do you seriously think that those educational entrepreneurs and charter school proponents behave any differently? The NEA is being an honest upfront lobbyist, and being very clear about who will get financial support from them. It would be naive to think differently about educational politics.


So we need to experiment with teacher salary for a few decades until we get all the kinks out? Maybe we should start with retired teachers and reduce their salaries accordingly. Ha Ha...

I know that I would be one of 5 or 6 out of 50 teachers at my school who would see the greatest salary increase with merit pay. Most of the great teachers at my school would be royally turned in a twisted motion into a small hole. There is no fair way to implement merit pay.

"And, indeed, the US economy showed growth again for 2008."

Um, our growth is stats from the government which has been twisted and given out of context.

We are entering a depression.

The only thing that will help our education system is creative ways of teaching that does not require as many teachers and cutting costs. Your open history project is just one of those ways (I would have used it with my 4th graders had I of seen it when I was student teaching).

Jason, what you say about how the union got to be this way makes perfect sense to me, seems firmly rooted in the reality of the situation. I’m wondering how networked teachers could facilitate a more activist stance. We need to get there somehow: in the battle of ideas, teachers are getting mauled.

(Paul: Newspaper editorial boards represent management; I wouldn’t expect them to say nice things about unions. As to the one paper I know about, Loren is quite right: the NY Times is far from liberal on education policy, and it’s not just about unions. Case in point: your own suggestion that I send them my piece about how the DOE games the school report cards to the detriment of poor, minority students. In fact, I did send it to them, on two separate occasions. That they didn’t print it annoyed me more than it surprised me. They have an appalling record of spiking both news and viewpoints that tend to discredit the Bloomberg/Klein regime, in any way.)


Don't give up on those letters to the editor at the Times. They get a ton a day on multiple subjects and are VERY selective. Don't take the rejection personally as it will only make you feel worse. Suggestion: if the Times won't print your views try the Daily News or the Post. They seem very receptive to letters from people who live in the city.

Additionally, is the Times conservative on education policy or pragmatic (as in watching out for what's best for kids)?


I think of that cluster of "reforms"--accountablility, merit pay, "teacher quality," etc.--as conservative because it is usually championed by conservative pundits and politicos. And as I think about it, those policies do seem to reflect what I think of as a conservative ideology that private sector equals good and public sector equals bad. But I don't insist on the term.

I'm not okay with "pragmatic." ME . . . ME! I'M pragmatic! No choice: I've got the kids, and have to do what works for them.


You and Jason both seem more than well intentioned. I keep reflecting back to your comment about how teachers are getting mauled and need to be part of a more activist stance in the battle of ideas.

Read everything you can get your hands on regarding a topic (both sides of the argument), keep an open mind going into any investigation of ideas, and above all, keep kids foremost in mind.

It’s always interesting to rationally discuss a variety of topics with people of a different mindset. What do they call that? Bridging Differences comes to mind.


Amen to that.

But is it best to address this issue/that issue? It seems like the issues come in sets. The teachers posting on the current strand, for example, despite our differences, are basically lining up on “one side,” with others lining up on a different one. No?

The differences on specific policies reflect more basic differences in perspective—if that’s so, then it seems like the way to bridge differences—key goal—is to work back, away from specific policies to identify the fundamental differences in perspectives/beliefs that are driving the policy differences.


I'm sure we'll continue this dialogue somewhere down the road. It's been interesting.

could we not see a more of the miracles we see every day coming out of the private sector?



A laid off worker

Comments are now closed for this post.


Most Viewed on Education Week



Recent Comments