No Backing Down Against Teachers Unions

No Backing Down Against Teachers Unions November 13, 2012

Alain Leroy Locke Senior High School was created after the Watts riots to provide the families of South Los Angeles with a safe, secure, and intellectually rigorous educational institution.  Born from a violent past, Locke was intended to create a more peaceful and more prosperous future, “to transform students into critical thinkers, decision makers, effective leaders, academic achieves and responsible citizens.”

By the 2000s, all that remained of Locke’s aspirations were a broken shell of a school and generations of drop-outs.  The students it received had already suffered through a staggering failure of the educational system.  Of the 1200 students who enrolled in the school as ninth-graders, the vast majority demonstrated reading skills at a first-, second- or third-grade level, and only 400 would return for the tenth grade.  Located at the center of rival gang territories, Locke had among the lowest test scores and the highest dropout rates in the nation.  In 2008, a brawl broke out that involved 600 students.  The deterioration of the neighborhood hastened the deterioration of the school, and the failure of the school over the course of forty years returned to the neighborhood 40,000 teenagers (out of the 60,000 who came to the school) without diplomas, job prospects, or a vision of life beyond gangs, crime and imprisonment.

While Locke was amongst the worst, across the country there are over 2000 “dropout factories” where over forty percent of the students do not graduate.  In 2008, the graduation rate in Detroit was under 25 percent, 30 percent in Indianapolis and 34 percent in Cleveland.  Seven of the nation’s fifty largest cities have high school graduation rates under 50 percent.  As Geoffrey Canada says, “Millions of kids are walking the streets with no vested interest in living.”

Even the students who do graduate are under-educated and under-prepared for the global marketplace.  According to the Third International Mathematics and Social Science study (TIMSS), compared to other industrialized nations in Europe and Asia, American fourth-graders in the 1990s were in the middle of the pack in math, eighth-graders were 28th out of 41, and twelfth graders were third from the bottom, only besting Cyprus and South Africa.  Our scores on science were similar, starting off well in fourth grade and descending rapidly to the bottom of the pack for high school seniors.  Even America’s top students, when compared with other nations’ top students, came in second-to-last in advanced mathematics and dead last in advanced science.  The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) has shown similarly poor results throughout the 2000s for American 15-year-olds in science, mathematics and reading literacy.

I’ve seen the consequences personally.  After three years in prison chaplaincy, the Zip Code Lottery was painfully clear.  Born into the right zip code, your chances of obtaining a decent education, going to college, beginning a career, and having children within wedlock are high.  Born into the wrong zip code, the odds against you are overwhelming.  Beautiful children — boys and girls like yours and mine, with gentle hearts and curious minds and souls filled with dreams — are born into broken families, crime-ridden and gang-infested neighborhoods, and schools that are more like prison yards than academies of learning.

“It’s like there’s a train that starts in Newark,” said my supervisor, Rev. Sam Atchison, “and it picks up a bunch of young men and ships them here to Trenton State Prison.  If you’re born in Newark, chances are you’ll be boarding that train as soon as you become an adult.”

The rot underneath the architecture of the American public education system is the legacy of economic failure, social and cultural failure, and family breakdown.  It’s the legacy of a massive education bureaucracy that has, at least in many districts, failed spectacularly — and it’s also the legacy of a coalition of political co-belligerents who have defended that bureaucracy tooth and nail.

Try firing an ineffective teacher.  Roughly 1 in 50 doctors lose their medical license.  Only 1 in 2500 teachers ever lose their teaching credentials.  Process that for a moment.  It’s much easier to become a teacher than a doctor, yet teachers are fifty times less likely than doctors to be removed from the profession.  One of the statistics cited in Waiting for Superman, an extraordinary documentary on the crisis of American public education, is that only 61 out of Illinois’ 876 school districts have attempted to fire even one teacher, and only 38 of those districts were successful.  The tenure system — designed to give the most accomplished university professors the freedom to advance new ideas in their teaching and writing without fear of reprisal from their employers, and gained only after many years and rigorous examination — has become an iron shield protecting ineffective teachers who earned their tenure after two years.  Good teachers are a national treasure.  Bad teachers who refuse to change their ways are leeches on the system who cannot be removed and who miseducate our children into truancy and joblessness.

It’s no mystery who protects the teachers.  That would be the teachers unions.  And it’s no mystery who protects the teachers unions.  The NEA (National Education Association) and the AFT (American Federation of Teachers) together are the largest campaign contributors in the country.  In the twenty years prior to the recent election cycle, they gave over $55m to federal candidates and their parties — more than the teamsters, the NRA, or any other organization.  Over 90 percent of this money goes to Democrats.  When it comes to education policy, the Democratic Party is given its marching orders by the NEA and the AFT.

This is not about teachers but the unions that defend their entrenched interests.  While there are cases of parents and teachers working together with local teachers unions to move schools in the right direction, on the state and national level the teachers unions are immense obstacles to effective reform.  They oppose longer school days, the elimination of the tenure system, meaningful teacher accountability, and increasing competition and choice through charter and voucher systems.  Last week’s election day was telling.  It took four tries and millions of dollars from Bill Gates and Alice Walton (of the family behind Walmart) to finally push through a charter school measure in Washington, which will establish forty charter schools and give the “parent trigger” right so that parents at any public school can band together, seize control of the school and turn it into a charter.  But California continued its own political suicide by rejecting an effort to break the unions’ political stranglehold on that state, and the unions spent millions to defeat measures in Idaho and South Dakota that would have phased out tenure and offered bonuses to teachers who improved their students’ test scores.  The idea that teachers should be held accountable for the effectiveness of their teaching is, apparently, “insulting.”

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rosie Perez and Viola Davis

Another part of the coalition in defense of educational failure is the entertainment establishment.  When Won’t Back Down reached theaters, it was roundly denounced by media liberals for presenting the teachers unions in a less-than-positive light.  Released by Walden Media (whose co-founder Mike Flaherty is a former education reformer from Boston and a widely admired evangelical businessman), the film presents a nuanced, enjoyable, inspiring story of a distraught parent (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and a jaded teacher (Viola Davis) banding together to take over a failing school.  The performances and production values were top-notch, and the pro-union side was given fair time.  It was an excellent film.  While the white elites were making fools of themselves in their sputtering rage at the “noxious” politics of a movie that actually questions the motives and methods of the teachers unions, the largely African American audience that attended the screening with me roared with applause and loved the film.  Yet the film was effectively hushed up after it evoked a negative reaction in screenings at the Democratic National Convention, and passed from most theaters in two weeks.

I recommend watching Waiting for Superman and Won’t Back Down together as soon as the latter is released on DVD in December/January.   They present a jaw-dropping portrait of America’s economic crisis, and a stirring story of what can happen when parents and teachers join forces for the sake of the children they both love.  They present, in fact, the path eventually taken by Locke High School.  After parents and teachers petitioned the district, a charter school organized reopened the school in 2008 as a family of smaller, college-prep academies.  In 2011, 256 students, out of 379 students in that class, graduated on schedule.

This is only a partisan issue because the teachers unions own a huge share in the Democratic Party — but we, our nation and our children cannot afford to lose the issue of education reform in the partisan meat-grinder.  Perhaps education reform should be one of the great objectives for American Christians in the twenty-first century, and perhaps here white evangelicals can find common cause with minority Democrats.  We need to break the stranglehold and we need to begin making meaningful reform, one community at a time.

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  • Excellent, Tim. As a former schoolteacher (four years in the hood in Memphis), I can offer firsthand testimony both to the power of the unions and to the ability of Americans to stand up to them, for the sake of kids and for the sake of our country as a whole.

  • Matt

    I worked at a charter school for 4 years without a union. Over the course of those 4 years I got a one time pay raise of 1.5%, never had a planning period, coached for free (I wanted to coach but everyone had to do an extracurricular without pay), was subject to increases in hours without my say and without additional pay, and, at any point, could have been sued by a parent for anything that occurred in my classroom without any support whatsoever from the school. Of the 5 best young teachers in the school when I taught, 2 are now in PhD programs, 1 jumped ship to a white suburban school, and 2 decided to go into other fields. This is, of course, my personal experience but there are many studies that suggest that similar things occur in non-union charter and public schools throughout the country. I would suggest, from experience and academic studies on education, that losing good teachers does more damage than keeping bad ones. I would also suggest that if charter teachers unionized you would see many more good teachers stay. The teacher retention rate for charter school teachers is woeful for many reasons, but the primary reason is that schools without unions do not create the conditions that keep teachers around. In addition, conservatives have pushed back so hard against unions that there is no room for teachers unions to budge at all. I think that the vast majority of teachers would be willing to have a conversation about removing bad teachers but it is impossible because the strongest opponents to unions want them to be totally destroyed. If Unions give an inch, I fear, conservatives will take a mile. Also, there is absolutely no evidence that unions in any way decrease the quality of education. In fact, most countries with great education systems are heavily unionized. Blaming teachers is a convenient thing for those who want to ignore poverty but it is certainly not a serious way to end poverty or ‘fix’ education. If you were serious about fixing education you would start with wealth disparity, institutional racism, generational poverty, and, yes, bringing people in poverty to Christ through inner-city missions, etc. I can’t take arguments against unions seriously until those issues are addressed. It is sort of like fixing a hangnail on a broken hand.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      The argument that unions cannot give an inch because conservatives will take a mile is bollocks. Sorry, but it’s true. In the vast majority of cases, conservatives do not have the power to take a mile. They’re seeking compromise and progress. Saying that unions cannot make adjustments because conservatives will take advantage is just a convenient excuse.

      “Blaming teachers” is not what we’re doing here. I was clear on that. This is about teachers unions, not teachers.

      We do speak of wealth disparity, racism, poverty and conversion. As I said, cultural change is necessary. But it’s all organically related. You *cannot* fix the culture before fixing the schools, because fixing the schools must be a *part* of changing the culture. And by the way, most of the things you describe as the negatives of your experience with the charter school are precisely the kinds of pressures people face in other work situations.

      I wish you’d had a more positive experience with your charter school, but one of the great things about introducing competition into the system is that the ones that do well survive and the ones that don’t do well perish. Over time, we’ve seen charter schools performing better.

      • Matt

        You say that conservatives don’t have the power to take a mile so I don’t suppose you know about Governor Walker’s anti-union push in Wisconsin or SB 5 in Ohio. You should read up on them. You claim that you are not blaming teachers but you are mistaken in your assumption that teachers unions and teachers (as a whole) are somehow vastly separate things. They are not. Teacher unions’ leadership roles are mostly filled by teachers or former teachers and their primary concerns are those voiced by the teachers. If there are individual teachers who claim they don’t want unions that is fine but I doubt they would volunteer a pay cut, take on more hours, or increase their class sizes. They certainly benefit from unions!
        A few questions if you care to respond:
        1) You claim that charters have improved over time–Where did you get your evidence for this?
        2)You suggest that it is possible to improve schools in a community without taking drastic measures to alleviate poverty and improve the economic situation. I suggest that as long as you have a school with high rates of poverty you will never have a “successful” school. Economic development must come first, then you might see some improvements. Even then, there is not a lot that educators can do to pull students out of poverty. Can you back up your claims about poverty and education with any qualitative or statistical research studies?
        3) You suggest that a Darwinian approach to education is somehow a good thing. Care to flesh that one out a bit? It sounds terrible for the communities, parents, students, teachers, etc. involved with the school. Furthermore, there is no evidence that “competition” actually helps schools to improve. Christopher Lubienski found that competition mostly drives charter schools to advertise themselves in more creative ways to attract students.
        4) Do you believe that there are “high performing” public schools? If so, where are they and what makes them work? What are their key demographic traits?

        • Timothy Dalrymple

          “1) You claim that charters have improved over time–Where did you get your evidence for this?”

          No, I said that the good thing about competitive systems is that they tend to lead to improvement.

          “2)You suggest that it is possible to improve schools in a community without taking drastic measures to alleviate poverty and improve the economic situation…”

          No, I didn’t. I said they have to be done together.

          “3) You suggest that a Darwinian approach to education is somehow a good thing.”

          Well, Darwinian is an overly dramatic way to put it. Think of how competition in the free market for computers has led to improvements in computers over the last several decades. They’ve gotten smaller, faster, more powerful, more user-friendly. Or cars, or any other product. Ot take professional services — like medical services. Or take competition amongst athletes leading to swimmers and runners who are faster than ever before. Yes, I believe in competition, and you and I both know that citing a single study is the easiest thing to do for just about any point of view.

          “4) Do you believe that there are “high performing” public schools? If so, where are they and what makes them work? What are their key demographic traits?”

          Of course. But the existence of high performing schools does nothing to mitigate the fact that our public school system is right now in a state of catastrophic failure.

  • RL

    Let me preface by stating that I’m not a teacher.

    I had high hopes for this post. And then I kept reading. There’s plenty wrong.
    But let’s start where we agree:
    1. Education reform is necessary.
    2. Education reform that involves teacher accountability is necessary.
    3. Special interests are often – but not always – an impediment to any meaningful reform.

    But where is the connection between the unfortunate performance of the LA school and the teachers unions? You don’t spell it out or make a connection. There’s just a general jumping from “here’s a bad school” to “look at all that bad data about unions, so it must be the cause.” You may very well be right, but this column doesn’t explain why.

    And what about at least a courtesy nod to the arguments that teachers – unionized or not – might be more open to accountability measures if they at least had their basic needs met in a classroom? I’m not talking anything posh. I mean simply having textbooks that aren’t ten years old, more than 20 minutes for a lunch break, or knowing that you won’t be evaluated on material for which you’re not responsible. No mention of those real concerns here unfortunately.

    I read the article you linked regarding accountability. “Accountability” was used in the context of merit pay, which is not altogether the same thing as accountability. Each state treats each concept uniquely, but you wouldn’t gather that from your article. In Tennessee (with near unanimous support from Republicans AND Democrats, under a program begun under a Democrat governor and continued and applauded by the succeeding Republican governor) and many other states, the TEA and teachers endorsed stronger accountability measures. Teachers don’t mind – and even welcome – higher performance standards. They realize it as a sign of respect to them and their profession that much is expected of them.

    Why the excessive use of generalizations, stereotypes, out-of-context quotes, and undefined terms?

    And when you say that the teachers unions have such a “huge share” of the Democratic party, what about all of the Republican candidates – in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and many other states – where teachers unions have endorsed Republicans? Or the fact that a Democratic President began teacher evaluation reform despite opposition from some teachers unions? Democrats against teachers unions. Republicans endorsed by them. Don’t see any mention of either in your piece.

    Any mention of the Democratically supported charter school movements? None. Any shared, bipartisan responsibility of the “rot underneath the architecture of the American public education system” you mention? None. You simply connect that to educational bureaucracy. Really? That’s it? That’s all there is to blame?

    And the fact that Locke High School’s success – something we’re all grateful for – came as result of a lot of people pushing a charter school with the help of Democrats? Not mentioned here. You demonize Democrats throughout. But no credit where it’s due? Why the double standard?

    I think many would agree – myself included – with the problems you’ve outlined and the fact that many public schools are in a very unfortunate state. What may surprise you, is that your case is not compelling here. The facts don’t even loosely lead to the conclusions you’re trying to draw, even if your conclusions are right.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      RL, thanks for noting the points of agreement. I could note other points of agreement with your comments. Some of your complaints really have to do with the need to keep things reasonably brief in a single blog post. I used Locke High School to give a specific, concrete, relatable example. Then I went to the failure of the system generally. Then I went to the culpability of teachers unions (while mentioning that many smaller union chapters have worked together toward reform). A case study of how exactly unions were responsible for the failure of Locke High School was beyond the purview of the post and would have proved nothing beyond that single instance in any case.

      As I’ve mentioned in another comment, I support the work the President has done with Race to the Top. There was *some* opposition from teachers unions but also some support. I’m grateful for that. But generally speaking, teachers unions remain a major impediment to the kind of far-reaching reform our public school system needs. I would also caution against your generalization that “Teachers…welcome higher performance standards.” That’s not universally true, and teachers unions on the national level and in many cases on the state level have worked to gut meaningful standard-raising and accountability to reach those standards. I credit the teachers unions with recognizing the need for reform, but to date they have — again, speaking (necessarily) generally — they’ve resisted the harsher medicine the system needs, especially the introduction of more competition and freedom through charters, vouchers and home schooling.

      I’m sorry you did not find my case compelling here, but it’s impossible to identify a problem and make a case that will convince everyone in 1200 words. Blog posts, columns, etc., are not really meant to present ironclad arguments. That’s what dissertations are for. In blog posts you can present the outlines of arguments, you can give specific examples, tell specific stories, insert ideas into the conversation, and use generalizations that you hope are generally accurate (thus the word “generalizations”) even if there are many counter-examples that provide a more nuanced picture. While many readers did find the case compelling, there’s no doubt that there’s more to be addressed in order to substantiate every point. When I write that 90 percent of the NEA and AFT support has gone to Democrats, I assumed it was clear that some goes to Republicans. There are always exceptions, but exceptions do not make generalizations inaccurate. They just make them generalizations.

      I can’t think of any out-of-context quotations here in this post, but feel free to enlighten me. Stereotypes? Of what? I never said that teachers were only after their own interests, or even that teachers unions care nothing for kids. I said that teachers are by and large great, and teachers unions do consider the interests of kids but are primarily oriented toward the interests of teachers. And we need to be honest about the fact that the interests of teachers are not always the same thing as the interests of students.

      Hope that helps a bit.

  • rvs

    I agree that the unions are a problem, but robber barons are worse still. Many teachers are rightly concerned about the trends in education toward hiring minimum wage adjuncts (if minimum wage) to fill jobs, thus providing a few administrators with all of the money and power. Or, some solutions involve a Big Brother approach to pedagogy (i.e., put a bunch of nitwits in charge of telling teachers how to teach, sigh).

  • Rick

    Evangelicals never met a public school they didn’t want to ridicule, an urban community they didn’t moralize about, or a union they didn’t want to break. I’m also evangelical but I find this repugnant. Your critique of culture is unfailingly negative but then you wonder why you find yourself marginalized in that culture. Yeah, can’t imagine why.

  • Timothy Dalrymple

    Keith, the problem is not too little tax money. There certainly is bureaucratic bloat in a lot of places, and that results in less money actually reaching the schools, but the amount of money spent per student is more than sufficient.

  • Juan Pena

    This article is dead on. I’ve lived on the east side of Denver for 4 years and have seen first hand the injustices that take place in inner city schools everyday. Earlier this evening I sent the email below to my sister’s teacher. Please read it to get a feel for the types of things that are taking place in low income communities all over America. It’s time for the Christian community to stop talking about these injustices and start getting personally involved in holding school districts accountable for their lack of results. The educational achievement gap is the civil rights issue of this era.

    Here is the email:

    Ms. [Teacher’s name],

    I’m writing on behalf of [mother’s name] regarding her son [student’s name]. She had a parent teacher meeting with you two weeks ago. In this meeting she learned that [student’s name] is reading at a 3.8 grade level. It is my understanding that when [student’s name] enrolled at CASA 2-1/2 years ago in third grade, he tested at or very near grade level. Now, two years later we learn that he has only grown .8 years! This is extremely concerning to us. As far as I know, [Mother’s name] is diligent in making sure that [Student’s name] is in school every day unless he is extremely sick. I know this because my wife takes care of [Student’s name] during vacation or sick days so that [Mother’s name] can go to work. I also know that for most of these two years, [Student’s name] has been a part of Fit Fun where he is required to do whatever homework is given to him. If he doesn’t finish his work during Fit Fun, [Mother’s name] makes sure he does it at home. So, from our point of view, [Mother’s name] is doing everything the school is requiring of her to make sure her son achieves his goal of graduating from college.

    It would seem reasonable to me that any parent who makes sure his son goes to school every day and has his homework done should expect that the school would ensure that he is at grade level. However, this isn’t the case, and we are concerned for [Student’s name] academic future. In light of this, I would like to schedule a meeting with you for next week. Since this matter is so important to us, we are bringing several people that love and are willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that [Student’s name] is successful in meeting his goal of graduating from college. These people are as follows:

    Juan Peña: Executive Director of Providence Center for Urban Leadership Development, pastor at Providence Bible Church, former Truency Officer at CASA
    Greg Hahl: Anchor Ally for Upstream Impact
    Lane: [Student’s name] Big Brother for one year

    The three of us have committed to support [Mother’s name] in making sure that [Student’s name] gets the help that he needs to bring him up to grade level. Our goal in this meeting is not so much to point fingers but to come up with an immediate and measurable solution to the problem. We are interested in hearing your robust plan for ensuring that [Student’s name] gets the help he needs right now.

    Please give me a couple of time slots for a meeting next week so I can make sure everyone makes the meeting.