The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Don’t blame teachers unions for bad schools. Worry instead about inertia.

Innovative teachers tell me that unions don’t bother them but that unhelpful administrators do


My favorite breakfast table reading, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, recently explained why teacher unions are preventing improvement in our schools. That conclusion was wrong, but, sadly, many people agree with it.

The June 7 editorial, “The Parental School-Board Revolt Continues,” celebrates recent election victories of school board candidates backed by parents. They want something done about school closings and curriculums they feel are hurting their kids.

“This surge in successful challenges is welcome because the root problem with public schools has long been traceable to failed monopoly governance,” the editorial said. “School boards are dominated by teacher’s unions, which have an intense interest in the outcome.”

Often, those unions do good work. They have fought for better salaries, pensions and job security for hard-working teachers like my mother. They also spout falsehoods in political ads. One of the worst was the California Teachers Association 2018 commercials saying billionaires were diverting “money out of our public schools and into their corporate charter schools,” without mentioning that 97 percent of the state’s charters were nonprofit.

So, unions, like most of us, can be helpful or hurtful. But are they quashing attempts to make our schools better, as the Journal suggests? My reporting on the most productive school reforms indicates they are not doing that. For several decades, I have been asking teachers who have successfully raised achievement whether unions got in their way. In every case, the answer has been no.

The real villain is the administrative inertia found in nearly all human organizations, including school systems. Innovative teachers discover their best ideas look too risky to principals or too expensive to district administrators. School boards have never spent much time on what happens inside classrooms and thus rarely engage with such reforms. The same is true of teachers unions.

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The Journal doesn’t agree. “Teachers union leaders these days, even at the local level, aren’t focused on student performance as they once were,” the editorial said. I would like to see evidence of that. Union emphasis has always been on salaries, pensions and security. Those issues are unrelated to the most effective advances in teaching.

Jaime Escalante was a math teacher at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles in the 1970s and ’80s. He inspired the film “Stand and Deliver” and has been key to the most fruitful change in high schools this century — a significant increase in enrollment of average students in college-level Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses and tests.

Escalante disliked his school’s teachers union representative, but mostly because as a product of the Bolivian middle class (his parents were teachers) he grew up thinking unionism was only slightly better than communism.

Escalante told me the main obstacles to raising achievement were fellow teachers who didn’t like his criticism of their work and principals who didn’t embrace his efforts to get low-income students into accelerated courses. He and the teacher he trained, Ben Jimenez, were able to produce 26 percent of the Mexican American students in the country passing AP Calculus exams in 1987 only because their principal at that time, Henry Gradillas, was a former Army Airborne Ranger who liked Escalante’s toughness and high expectations. The union rep didn’t interfere.

Mary Catherine Swanson was an English teacher at Clairemont High School in the San Diego school district. She created a study skills and tutoring program in 1980 called Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID). Operating in more than 8,500 districts, it has become the largest effort in the country to prepare average students for challenging classes. Her problem was not the teachers union but administrators who resented the favorable publicity she was getting.

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When she refused to combine her program with that of the district’s gifted student seminar director, he told her, “I will see to it that your career is ruined in the San Diego city schools.” When the new principal at her school showed his distaste for her success by giving her busywork, Swanson quit and was warmly welcomed by the county superintendent of education, an AVID fan.

The largest and one of the most academically successful public charter school networks in the country is KIPP, with 270 schools and more than 160,000 students. Its founders were Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, then teachers in their mid-20s. The unions in Houston and New York City where they planted their first schools in the 1990s paid little attention to KIPP. There were some KIPP vs. teachers union battles later in New York, but by then the charter network was too successful and too politically connected to be stopped.

Levin and Feinberg’s greatest obstacles to growth were not unions but district administrators who didn’t take them seriously. They sometimes had to be outrageous to get ahead. Feinberg gained access to a larger classroom facility by staking out the Houston superintendent’s car for several hours until the man showed up. To get home for supper, he agreed to see Feinberg the next day.

Levin found a way to harness inertia in his favor one summer by having his staff and students quickly move boxes and equipment into one school’s empty fourth floor with only a tentative promise that he could have that space. The superintendent returned from vacation wanting to keep KIPP out of there but gave up when word came that Levin had already settled in.

The Journal has more faith than I do in the power of elections to improve teaching and learning. School board members and administrators are usually good people. But rarely do issues come before them that have much chance of raising achievement. And even then, their instincts are usually to do nothing if the project is large or likely to annoy parents.

Angry parents elected to school boards find they don’t get far without compromise, which means little gets done. Energetic educators with great track records have a much better chance of improving teaching. But they need to get intrusive supervisors off their backs. Showing children how to learn better helps teachers gather parent support in a more effective way than school board elections ever do.