Teacher Union Smackdown


Intelligence Squared sponsored a debate in NYC on March 16 on whether teacher unions were to blame for our failing schools.  On the union side was Randi Weingarten and two union bosses whose names are not worth remembering.  On the other side was a dream team of Terry Moe, Rod Paige, and Larry Sand. 

Let’s just say that the debate wasn’t close.  Before the debate the audience was polled and 24% believed teacher unions were not to blame, 43% believed they were to blame, and 33% were undecided.  By the end of the evening 25% believed the teacher unions were not to be blamed, 68% believed they were, and 7% remained undecided. Given the quality of the arguments made by Moe, Paige, and Sand and the lame responses from Weingarten, et al, it’s easy to see how the union side gained virtually no supporters while the union-critics won over an additional 25% of the audience. 

 Here is Terry Moe’s opening salvo: 

What we are saying is that the unions are and have long been major obstacles to real reform in the system. And we’re hardly alone in saying this. If you read “Newsweek,” “Time Magazine,” the “Washington Post,” lots of other well respected publications, they’re all saying the same thing: that the teachers unions are standing in the way of progress. So look. Let me start with an obvious example. The teachers unions have fought for all sorts of protections in labor contracts and in state laws that make it virtually impossible to get bad teachers out of the classroom. On average, it takes two years, $200,000, and 15% of the principal’s total time to get one bad teacher out of the classroom. As a result, principals don’t even try. They give 99% of teachers — no joke — satisfactory evaluations. The bad teachers just stay in the classroom. Well, if we figure that maybe 5% of the teachers, that’s a conservative estimate, are bad teachers nationwide, that means that 2.5 million kids are stuck in classrooms with teachers who aren’t teaching them anything. This is devastating. And the unions are largely responsible for that. They’re also responsible for seniority provisions in these labor contracts that among other things often allow senior teachers to stake a claim to desirable jobs, even if they’re not good teachers and even if they’re a bad fit for that school. The seniority rules often require districts to lay off junior people before senior people. It’s happening all around the country now. And some of these junior people are some of the best teachers in the district. And some of the senior people that are being saved are the worst. Okay. So just ask yourself, would anyone in his right mind organize schools in this way, if all they cared about was what’s best for kids? And the answer is no. But this is the way our schools are actually organized. And it’s due largely to the power of the unions. Now, these organizational issues are really important, but they’re just part of a larger set of problems. Our nation has been trying to reform the schools since the early 1980s. And the whole time the teachers’ unions have used their extraordinary power in the political process to try to block reform and make sure that real reform just never happens. Consider charter schools. There are many kids around this country who are stuck in schools that just aren’t teaching them. They need new options. Well, charter schools can provide them with those options. But charter schools are a threat to teachers’ unions. If you give kids choice and they can leave regular public schools, then they take money and they take jobs with them. And that’s what the teachers’ unions want to stop. So what they’ve done is they’ve used their power in the political process to put a ceiling on the numbers of charter schools. As a result in this country today, we have 4,600 charter schools. There are like well over 90,000 public schools. So this is a drop in the bucket. And mean time charter schools have huge waiting lists of people who are desperate to get in. In Harlem, for example, the charter schools there got 11,000 applications for 2,000 slots recently. So just to give you an idea of about how the politics of this works out, in Detroit a few years ago, a benefactor came forth and said he was willing to donate $200 million to set up additional charter schools for the kids in Detroit who obviously need it. What did the union do? The union went ballistic. They shut down the schools, went to Lansing, demonstrated in the state capitol and got the politicians to turn down the $200 million for those kids. This is good for kids? I don’t think so. This is about protecting jobs. The same kind of logic applies with accountability. Accountability is just common sense. We obviously need to hold schools and teachers accountability for teaching kids what they’re supposed to know. But the teachers’ unions find this threatening. They say they support accountability but they don’t want teachers held accountable. Any sensible effort to hold teachers accountable, they brand as scapegoating teachers. They don’t even want teachers performance to be measured. Right here in New York City, Joel Klein indicated a while ago that he was going to use student test scores as one factor in evaluating teachers  or tenure. What did the union do? Now, this is something that Obama supports, that Arne Duncan supports. It’s unbelievable. What the union did is they went to Albany and they got their friends in the legislature to pass a law making it illegal to use student test scores in evaluating teachers for tenure anywhere in the state of New York. It’s just outrageous. And makes no sense from the standpoint of what’s best for kids. The “New York Times” called it absurd. This is how the unions approach accountability. Okay, well, I don’t have a whole lot of time left here. So let me just quickly say our opponents are going to say tonight, and Randi has already said, there is really no conflict between standing up for the jobs of teachers and doing what’s best for kids. But the thing is there is a conflict. And that’s why we can’t get bad teachers out of the classroom, because they protect them. That’s why the schools have totally perverse organizations imposed on them, and that’s why totally sensible reforms are seriously resisted in the political process. Now, what you’re going to hear, I’m sure, throughout the evening is that union leaders and unions around the country, they’re actually reformers too. They want to get bad teachers out of the classroom. They say they’re for charter schools; they’re all in favor of accountability. Well, not really. Talk is cheap. What counts is what they actually do. And what they do is to oppose reform. This is the reality. 
A union boss from Lowell, MA responded: 
 I’m from the commonwealth of Massachusetts. Which I’m very proud to say is number one in the country. Our students perform higher than anybody else in this country academically. Yet we have the strongest collective bargaining rights in the country. So do me it just doesn’t add up. And then I started thinking I’m also a doctoral student so I’m trying to learn as much as I can about research and so the next thing I did is I went straight to the literature. Even Professor Moe said publications are all saying the same thing. There is no research to support what he is saying. There is no research out there that correlates student achievement to collective bargaining rights to teach unionism, either for or against. 
And check out this exchange: 
[Moderator]: And I want to begin with a couple of specifics — specific charges that were laid out there without responded to. Terry Moe specifically saying that teachers unions operate against the whole notion of charter schools, that they try to stop them wherever they find them. I want to hear from the other side, true or not true. Let’s start with Randi Weingarten. 
 Randi Weingarten: Well, given that the United Federation of Teachers under my watch, started two charter schools in Eastern York, it’s totally and completely untrue. What we want to do is we want charters to be held to the same accountability standards including the ones that we started, as any other school and what the evidence has been in New York, like the evidence around the country, is that charter schools instead of, as Diane Ravitch said, should take more of the most at-risk kids are actually taking fewer special needs kids and fewer kids with limited English proficiency. So we’ve open to, we think charters could be a great incubator for instructional practice and could be a great incubator for labor relations practice. But Terry, I don’t want New York to be as much as an evidentiary zone as Washington D.C. seems to be, which means let’s look at the Credo story which were done with a pro-charter advocate. What they said was, where 17 percent of the charters are better than public schools, 34 percent are worse, and the rest are the same. The idea is to actually find what works, make it sustainable and make it replicable. That’s what we’re trying to do and that’s what I’m trying to do.  
[Moderator]: Terry Moe, Randi Weingarten is saying no, it’s not true that they are against all charter schools. 
Terry Moe: Well let me first point out that New York State has a cap on the number of charter schools. It has a cap because this union put it there. 

Terry Moe: And even under the pressure of race to the top, they wouldn’t lift the cap. Right, so this is not an organization that’s in favor of charter schools. They’ve done everything they can to keep charter schools down. What they’re doing now in New York City is they’re running three charter schools to show if they can, that unionized charter schools can work, because what they want to do, is to unionize all the charter schools. That’s the only reason they’re doing it….  


Randi Weingarten: I mean, what’s interesting Terry is that I didn’t know you were in my head so much. We are not running charter schools to unionize all charter schools. 
Terry Moe: Where’d the cap come from? 
Eventually the debate is opened to questions from the audience and someone asks how many teachers had been fired for poor performance in New York state.  Rather than answering Randi Weingarten begins to question whether the audience was packed with opponents,  She says: 


Well, but I think that the tone — what I have experienced in terms of New York City is that in a — most teachers right now, as we are speaking, are at home actually grading papers and marking lessons. And frankly, from my perspective when I was the teachers union president here, I never actually asked people to come or pack an audience or do these things, from my perspective. 
When someone dodges a question and says she doesn’t have enough allies in the audience because they are busy working at home, you know it’s over.  Put a fork in her, she’s done. 
There are too many great arguments from Rod Paige and Larry Sand that I’ve left out, so I urge you to read the whole thing.  

9 Responses to Teacher Union Smackdown

  1. Stuart Buck says:

    Right at the first, Weingarten makes the same illogical argument that Ravitch makes all the time:

    If teachers unions were to be
    blamed for failing schools, then we would assume that schools in less unionized states
    would outperform schools in more densely unionized states. So you’d assume that places
    like Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, who have relatively few unionized teachers would
    do much, much better. But that’s not the case. The states with the most densely
    unionized teachers, Massachusetts, New York, Maryland; they do the best. And the
    countries with the most densely unionized populations: Finland, Japan, they do the best.

  2. Stuart Buck says:

    And later, Terry Moe definitively dispatches the silly Ravitch/Weingarten claim:

    I’d be happy to respond, but I don’t know where this stuff comes from, really. Look, many, many, many, many factors influence student achievement. And to say basically that schools in the South don’t do as well as schools in the North, which is true, and that schools in the South don’t have unions and the schools in the North do, and to say, gee whiz, it must be because unions are good for schools. I — don’t try that at a university. It doesn’t wash.

  3. matthewladner says:

    Plus there is the little problem that teacher unions are powerful everywhere, including the south. This is the old “we don’t have tenure in _______ (fill in the blank)” trick when in fact the unions have elected school boards who compliantly negotiate tenure-like provisions in to district contracts.

  4. Greg Forster says:

    They’re still defending the unions by pointing to Massachusetts? I would have thought this would have put a stop to that. Although I guess Randi Weingarten isn’t really big on details like that.

  5. Busted says:

    Stuart Buck is AKA Doug Little, an Ontario teachers union paid professional troll who goes by several user names.

  6. Sorry, Busted, but you are mistaken. Stuart Buck is a graduate student in Arkansas and not a techer union person named Doug Little.

  7. […] the debate here (pdf) and here (click on Audio/Video to watch the debate). Jay P. Greene has more here. Share and Enjoy: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and […]

  8. […] After years of debunking teacher union spin, it’s always a pleasure to go face to face with these folks and expose their distortions. My first opportunity in this realm came in New York City in March, 2010 when Terry Moe, Stanford professor and expert-on-all-things-teachers-union, captained a debate team which included former Secretary of Education Rod Paige and me. Our opponents were Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a school superintendent from Southern California and a teacher from Massachusetts. In the town where the modern teacher union movement was hatched, we won the debate handily; in fact we clobbered them. In a review of the debate, University of Arkansas professor and esteemed education reformer Jay Greene referred to it as a smackdown. […]

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