Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Single Most Destructive Force in Public Education

On Monday, I had some fun with Chris Christie’s desire to punch the teacher’s unions in the face. Today, I think it is much more important to deal with the substance of what Christie said to reporter Jake Tapper on CNN last Sunday. Speaking of one of the two large national teachers unions the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Christie said that the AFT was “not for education for our children. They’re for greater membership, greater benefits, greater pay for their members. And they are the single most destructive force in public education in America.”

Now I am sure that Christie was using hyperbole in an attempt to raise his sagging poll numbers, but what is inescapable, and most worrisome, is that so many people believe him. Of course, the moneyed, anti-union, American oligarchs like the Koch Brothers and the Walton family believe him, but the really scary part of this statement is that so many middle-class working people, people who we might expect to be on the teacher’s, i.e. the worker’s, side believe this also.

My earlier blog post was published in a number of news outlets and while many commenters expressed sympathy with my position many took the opportunity to vent their anger at teachers unions. Typical of the more rational comments was this one:

We have communities and municipalities and states near bankruptcy as well as their citizens, paying for benefits predatory and hostile teachers unions have managed to extract over the years. 

Many people, it seems, admire teachers and loathe their unions. My larger point in the blog was that you can’t separate the two. Not all teachers agree with all the positions that their unions take, but when politicians and others attack unions, they need to realize that they are attacking teachers as well.

How did we get to this point? Why so much vitriol against unions? Are the unions “the single most destructive force in public education” as Christie claims?

I think an August 4 essay by New York Times columnist, David Brooks, suggests some reasons why anger is being directed at unions. The column is about Donald Trump’s strange appeal, but the same words could be used to describe Chris Christie’s appeal. Citing sociological studies, Brooks says that in times of plenty there seems to be room for all Americans to achieve their goals, so groups on all economic levels are optimistic and don’t see others as blocking their paths to success.

In times of scarcity, however, people tend to see others as blocking their paths to success. The government doesn’t seem to be working to ease the path to success, and thus, Brooks says, the anti-government rhetoric of Donald Trump comes to appeal to many.  I would suggest that this sense of scarcity, this sense of frustration in the pursuit of the American Dream has also led to anti-immigration rhetoric as well as anti-teacher union rhetoric. Because teacher salaries and benefits are paid for by the public, many middle income people, who lack the job protections and health and pension benefits of teachers, vent their anger at teachers unions.

I don’t agree with these folks, but I understand where they are coming from. The economy is struggling and teacher unions seem to be fighting for entitlements that are not available to many. Unions become the enemy. People think, “They are in it for themselves and to hell with all others.”

Those of us with a long history in the teacher labor movement can cite chapter and verse about why unions are not the problem, but part of the solution. As I have said before, the teacher’s fight for reasonable working conditions is rightly seen as an effort to improve learning conditions for children, too. Before the teacher labor movement had an impact, I was teaching in classrooms with forty ninth-graders. After ten years of bargaining rights the class size was down to about 30. I benefitted, but so did my students. When my salary went from $6000 a year to $10,000, I benefitted, but my students did not have to be greeted by a bleary-eyed teacher who was working the late shift at the local Gulf station to make ends meet. When an air-conditioner was installed in my 100 year-0ld, third story classroom and the June temperatures went down from a steamy 98 to a balmy 74, I benefitted and my students learned more. All of these things were accomplished through union intervention.

Of course, in negotiations both sides need to weigh the costs and benefits. In those early negotiations we won some battles and we lost some battles, but the working lives of teachers and the learning lives of students improved. None of us felt we were being paid what we deserved and the school board members on the other side of the table always felt they were paying too much, but most of the time a reasonable compromise was reached.

I vividly recall an angry exchange with a school board member, who leaned across the negotiating table, waggled a finger in my face and screamed at me, “When I was in first grade we had 67 kids in my first grade class and I turned out all right.” I resisted indicating to him that his anger issues might be a demonstration that he had not turned out all right and instead cited for him the research I had done on the impact of class size.

I don’t think there is one parent out there who would champion first-grade class sizes approaching 67. Collective bargaining has worked to improve working conditions for teachers for sure, but it has also worked to insure good learning conditions for kids.

Of course, teacher unions are for better working conditions, better salaries and better benefits for their members. This does not make them evil; it means they are doing their jobs. Have they made missteps? Sure. Are compromises necessary? Yes. Is public education better off because of unionization? Yes.

It is interesting that most of our highest achieving states in terms of education are strongly unionized, while many of our lowest achieving states are not. As Matthew DeCarlo, of the Shanker Institute, has demonstrated in an article in the Washington Post, when we look at states rankings in terms of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores of the 10 states without negotiated teacher contracts

only one (Virginia) has an average rank above the median, while four are in the bottom 10, and seven are in the bottom 15. These data make it very clear that states without binding teacher contracts are not doing better, and the majority are actually among the lowest performers in the nation.

Meanwhile, DeCarlo says, states with strong union contracts do well.

In contrast, nine of the 10 states with the highest average ranks are high coverage [union contract] states, including Massachusetts, which has the highest average score on all four tests.

DeCarlo asserts that there are many factors other than strong union contracts that impact achievement, but at the very least this data would indicate that teacher unions are far from “the single most destructive force in public education.”

The single most destructive force in public education is income inequity. Poverty has a devastating impact on a child’s educational achievement. With 25% of school children living in poverty, it is small wonder public education is struggling in impoverished areas. 

The second most destructive force in public education is politicians and corporate education reformers who wish to ignore income inequity and blame teachers unions for the problems in public education. Teachers, and their unions, want a strong viable system of public education. We would like politicians and well- financed reformers to work with us and stop threatening to punch us.

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