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September 2014 Policy Study, Number 14-5


Terry Moe's Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America's Public Schools


Chapter 10 – A Critical Juncture



I didn’t write this book to offer a solution to the problem of union power.  I wrote it to describe and document the problem – and to try to understand it.  As it happens, there is a solution, at least over the long haul.  But it is only a solution because of an accident of history.  The accident is that we live in a very special time: we are caught up in a historic revolution in information technology.  This is a monster development, entirely beyond the realm of normal reform activity, that is being thrust upon the education system from the outside.


I think it is quite likely that, were it not for this bombshell from without, there would be no solution.  As I’ve observed several times before, power is its own protection.  Under normal conditions, the Catch-22 of union power would guarantee the stability of today’s system, along with the stability of union power itself, well into the distant future.  Reformist efforts to address the problem through new legislation would tend to fall short, because the unions would typically be able to block.  The wistful hopes of reform unionism would fail too, because the unions are simply not going to set aside their fundamental interests and do what’s best for kids and schools.  And a pragmatic reliance on compromise, collaboration, and cooperation – while a reasonable path to incremental progress – is inherently quite limited and will never allow the nation to get where it needs to go.


If there is a nascent solution in the works, technology aside, it might possibly emerge from the accumulated effects of accountability and choice, Race to the Top, and the shifting political tides that have given reformers considerably more support and clout in the policy process.  These are exciting developments, and they may well grow in strength and intensity.  But they still leave the teachers unions with enormous power and, without a big boost from technology, are likely to prove insufficient over time to take education reform anywhere near the goal line.  Small victories for sanity are beneficial and much-needed.  But they are still small, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.


In any event, the future is difficult to know with certainty.  And in the long run, as Lord Keynes so famously put it, we are all dead.  The fact is, we live in the present, and it is our current situation that we most need to understand.  That is what I’ve tried to do in this book.


In the present, many children are sitting in classrooms and learning nothing.  Or at least not nearly enough.  These kids have only one opportunity to get a good education, and a good education is essential if they are to have productive careers, build promising futures, and contribute to the economic and social well being of the nation as a whole.  As the minutes tick by and the years drag on, they are being denied the educations they so desperately need and have a right to.  Lives are being ruined.  Generations are being lost.  In a globalized world of competition, high technology, and demanding work requirements – for independence, autonomy, creativity – kids without good educations are increasingly left behind.  And their nations are left behind too.  This was precisely the concern that motivated A Nation at Risk in 1983.  The very same worry is at least as pressing today, despite decades of effort to do something about it.


Why are America’s schools falling so short of the mark and failing so many of our kids?  Why are they organized in perverse ways that are so clearly unsuited to effective education?  Why have they proven so resistant to change and so difficult to improve?  These are the kinds of questions, along with many others, that naturally arise when we try to comprehend the reality in which we live.


If one central thesis arises from this book, it is that the answers to these questions have a lot to do with the teachers unions.  It is a fact that they are incredibly powerful, far more so than any other groups with a stake in public education.  And it is abundantly clear that the job interests that drive their behavior, and are woven into the fabric of their organization and leadership, prompt them to use their power in ways that often come into conflict with what is best for kids and schools.


In collective bargaining, they impose bizarre forms of organization on the public schools that no one in their right mind would favor if they were simply concerned with what works best for children.  The schools are organized mainly to benefit the adults who work there.  In the political process, the unions block or weaken reforms they find threatening, however helpful those reforms might be for schools and kids.  This is obviously true for major and eminently sensible reforms, such as accountability and choice, which, if seriously pursued, would bring fundamental change to the system.  But it is also true for extremely simple, easy-to-accomplish reforms, such as getting bad teachers out of the classroom.


Think about this last point for a moment.  Why is it, after decades and decades, that the nation has done almost nothing to get bad teachers out of the classroom?  What possible excuse could there be for inaction on something so incredibly basic and obvious?  There isn’t any excuse.  There is only a reason: the teachers unions are extraordinarily powerful, and they are in the business of protecting the jobs of their members.  That kids lose out when bad teachers remain in the classroom is just collateral damage, a cost of doing business.


Children should always come first.  But in America’s system of public education, governed as it is by power and special interests, they simply do not.  And in the near term, they will not.  As things now stand, we have an education system that is not organized to be effective for children, can’t be productively reformed in their best interests, and is powerfully protected to ensure that the interests of adults prevail.  This is our reality.  And in the realm of public education, it is the great dilemma of our time.  Technology is likely to resolve this dilemma, many years down the road.  But that is little comfort to the children of today – who deserve much more than they are getting, but don’t have enough power to do anything about it.




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