Special Interest: Teacher Unions and America’s Public Schools


(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Terry Moe has spent years carefully researching this new book on the education unions.  I look forward to seeing Terry’s research, which informed his taking of the teacher unions to the woodshed in a debate a couple of years ago. Terry’s opening statement was very powerful: 

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.

In the MSNBC clip with Derrell Bradford a couple of posts below, you will see Derrell taking it to Randi Weingarten, and then an official for the Obama administration go into a litany of “this finger pointing has got to stop.” Derrell did not stop, nor should any of us, as this is exactly wrong. If we want a more effective system that provides the basic academic skills necessary for success in life we must first understand why we have the system we have today. The Dance of the Lemons, LIFO, charter school caps, rubber rooms, fake accountability systems with fuzzy labels and dummied downed tests- none of these things happened on accident. Nor will any of them go away by a “cuddle up to Randi and ask for reform nicely” strategy.

Borders is rushing my copy of the book to me as we speak. I can’t wait to read it.

4 Responses to Special Interest: Teacher Unions and America’s Public Schools

  1. Ben Boychuk says:

    My copy hit my front porch on Tuesday. I broke my standard rule and interviewed Prof. Moe for a School Reform News podcast before I read the book. If anyone is interested, the MP3 is posted here.

  2. M. Lyn says:

    As a teacher, I could not agree more with this article. The “system” has some great teachers, but they are so afraid of busting up the union to get rid of bad teachers that they are willing to sacrifice kids. After retiring from the military and becoming a teacher, I am disgusted with the “status quo” in our public and private schools. I envision a system that has students logging in and learning in a global environment (using Khan Academy) for excellent teaching methods. Good luck, keep fighting the good fight.

  3. matthewladner says:


  4. […] Terry Moe via Matthew Ladner the unions are and have long been major obstacles to real reform in the system… […]

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