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?