Blame the teachers’ unions?

May 26, 2010 at 11:46 am 1 comment

The cover story of this past Sunday’s New York Times magazine asks, “Are teachers’ unions the enemy of reform?

What the reformers have come to believe matters most is good teachers. “It’s all about the talent,” [Education] Secretary Duncan told me. Thus, the highest number of points [on applications for a share of $4.35 billion promised to the most reform-minded districts and states in the country as part of the federal incentive program known as Race to the Top] would be awarded based on a commitment to eliminate what teachers’ union leaders consider the most important protections enjoyed by their members: seniority-based compensation and permanent job security. To win the contest, the states had to present new laws, contracts and data systems making teachers individually responsible for what their students achieve, and demonstrating, for example, that budget-forced teacher layoffs will be based on the quality of the teacher, not simply on seniority. (Fifteen states, including New York and California, now operate under union-backed state laws mandating that seniority, or “last in/first out,” determines layoffs. These quality-blind layoffs could force a new generation of teachers, like those recruited by Teach for America, out of classrooms in the coming months.)

If unions are the Democratic Party’s base, then teachers’ unions are the base of the base. The two national teachers’ unions — the American Federation of Teachers and the larger National Education Association — together have more than 4.6 million members. That is roughly a quarter of all the union members in the country. Teachers are the best field troops in local elections. Ten percent of the delegates to the 2008 Democratic National Convention were teachers’ union members. In the last 30 years, the teachers’ unions have contributed nearly $57.4 million to federal campaigns, an amount that is about 30 percent higher than any single corporation or other union. And they have typically contributed many times more to state and local candidates. About 95 percent of it has gone to Democrats.

A panel of educators at a recent Intelligence Squared forum debated the motion, “Don’t blame teachers unions’ for our failing schools.”(Click the link to watch or listen to the debate.)

Before the debate, 24% of the audience voted for the motion, 43% against and 33% were undecided. After the debate, 25% voted for the motion, 68% against and only 7% remained undecided. The “against the motion” team carried the day.

On a related note, a powerful forthcoming film illustrates the personal stories that are too-often drowned out by a frightening collection of dire education statistics.

A synopsis of the film Waiting for Superman, due in theaters this fall:

For a nation that proudly declared it would leave no child behind, America continues to do so at alarming rates. Despite increased spending and politicians’ promises, our buckling public–education system, once the best in the world, routinely forsakes the education of millions of children. Oscar®—winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH) reminds us that education “statistics” have names: Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy, and Emily, whose stories make up the engrossing foundation of WAITING FOR “SUPERMAN.” As he follows a handful of promising kids through a system that inhibits, rather than encourages, academic growth, Guggenheim undertakes an exhaustive review of public education, surveying “drop—out factories” and “academic sinkholes,” methodically dissecting the system and its seemingly intractable problems. However, embracing the belief that good teachers make good schools, Guggenheim offers hope by exploring innovative approaches taken by education reformers and charter schools that have—in reshaping the culture—refused to leave their students behind.

UPDATE: Click here for a video clip of Geoffrey Canada, visionary founder of the Harlem’s Children Zone, who explained at this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival that some teachers simply can’t teach — and offered an idea about what to do with them.

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The new three R’s: Reading, writing, and running Tinkering Outside

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Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More


Play is the beginning of knowledge.

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