May 30, 2012

Now that he’s clinched the GOP presidential nomination, Mitt Romney has discovered that we face a “national education emergency,” and that emergency has a villain. Romney is taking aim at teachers unions, charging that President Obama is “unable to stand up to union bosses” whose “cause in life is preventing parents from having a meaningful choice or children from having a real chance.”

Well, to echo Richard Nixon’s famous phrase, let me say this about that.

I’ve slammed teachers unions plenty. They make it too hard to fire bad teachers who blight the lives of countless kids. They defend a “lockstep” salary schedule even though districts need to be able to pay much more for recruits with math and science degrees who have lucrative options outside the classroom. They dominate school board races in big cities, putting themselves on both sides of the bargaining table. They embed rules in contracts and state law that make it extraordinarily difficult to change staffing, compensation, employment, curriculum or the length and schedule of the school day. Oh, and they send more delegates to the Democratic National Convention than most large states.

Have I made my point? Is my sense of the trouble with teachers unions sufficiently refined for you?

Good, because here’s the twist — there’s a deeper reality that people like Mitt Romney, me and the education-reform community need to grapple with.

That reality is this: The top performing school systems in the world have strong teachers unions at the heart of their education establishment. This fact is rarely discussed (or even noted) in reform circles. Yet anyone who’s intellectually honest and cares about improving our schools has to acknowledge it. The United States is an outlier in having such deeply adversarial, dysfunctional labor-management relations in schooling.

Why is this?

My hypothesis runs as follows: The chief educational strategy of top-performing nations such as Finland, Singapore and South Korea is to recruit talent from the top third of the academic cohort into the teaching profession and to train them in selective, prestigious institutions to succeed on the job. In the United States, by contrast, we recruit teachers mostly from the middle and (especially for poor schools) bottom third and train them mostly in open-enrollment institutions that by all accounts do shoddy work.

As a result, American reformers and superintendents have developed a fetish for evaluating teachers and dismissing poor performers, because there are, in fact, too many. Unions dig in to protect their members because . . . that’s what unions do.

When you talk to senior officials in Finland, Singapore and South Korea, it’s as if they’re on another planet. The question of how they deal with low-performing teachers is basically a non-issue, because they just don’t have many of them. Why would they when their whole system is set up to recruit, train and retain outstanding talent for the profession?

Whose approach sounds more effective to you?

It wasn’t always this way. Up through the 1970s, the quality of the teacher corps in the United States was, in effect, subsidized by discrimination. Women and minorities didn’t have as many opportunities outside the classroom. It’s wonderful for society that this has changed. But as other avenues for those who used to become teachers opened up dramatically, salaries for teachers have failed to keep pace. As union leaders have told me, this has proved a double whammy when it comes to getting great young people to choose teaching as a career.

This is a hard but essential conversation for the nation. How do we talk about upgrading the caliber of people who choose teaching as a career without disrespecting and demoralizing the current corps — a corps that includes hundreds of thousands of excellent teachers working their hearts out for our kids under trying conditions? Yet it’s these teachers who have told me with passion how mediocre too many of their colleagues are.

We’ll need to hire millions of new teachers in the next decade or two as the boomers retire. This is an enormous opportunity. If we adopted the strategic approach to talent that top-performing countries follow, does anyone doubt we’d make serious progress — and that our unions would end up with a different focus? (While I have much to learn about how teachers unions function in these high-performing countries, my early reporting suggests they are real partners in ensuring teacher quality and meaningful professional development. That’s where they spend their time and energy — not fighting to keep bad eggs on the payroll.)

All this helps explain why the answer to our education emergency is to think much bigger about teaching. What about starting salaries of $65,000 rising to $150,000 for teachers (and more for principals)? And federally funded “West Points” of teaching and principal training to model for the nation how it can be done? And new federal cash for poor districts now doomed by our 19th-century system of local school finance, so they can compete in regional labor markets for the talent that today gravitates to higher-paying suburbs? And shrinking today’s 15,000 unwieldy, archaic local school districts (where we’re also an international outlier) to, say, a more manageable 60 — one in each state plus 10 big urban districts, as former IBM CEO Louis Gerstner has suggested?

This is the beginning of what a bold agenda would sound like — not the fight over Washington, D.C.’s vouchers that Mitt Romney is picking, along with lip service about teaching without any policies or resources to raise the profession’s status.

To be sure, President Obama has fallen short in the boldness department as well. The question is whether anything can force the campaigns to move past symbols, blather and fingerpointing to ideas that might stand a chance of actually improving our schools.

Matt Miller, a co-host of public radio’s “Left, Right & Center,” writes a weekly online column for The Post. His e-mail address is mattino2@gmail.com.