The Teachers’ Union is the Source of All Evil in the World

Shelley finds a flowchart that documents how hard it is to fire a tenured teacher in New York, the idea being that if only the evil teachers’ union stopped demanding that teachers not be arbitrarily fired, the state of American education would be a lot better. Of course, as Mark Kleiman notes, in the South it’s already the case, and public schools stink even more than they do here…

Focusing on individual bad teachers misses the point. The point is that there’s a severe shortage of good teachers, which has gotten to the point that California has to accept teachers who flunk a tenth-grade-level reading test. Now, California’s schools are severely underfunded – per student funding in California is below national average even though housing prices are the highest of all states – but similar problems with teachers happen even with decent funding.

People who think the teachers’ unions are the source of all that’s evil in the world just focus on the wrong problem. There already exists a process for getting rid of bad teachers; it’s called not giving them tenure in the first place. And even if they’re fired, the state has to find an alternative teacher, typically a rookie who won’t necessarily be any better.

Look, you don’t need mega-pay to have good teachers. On average, schools in the US spent $8,300 per student in school year 2003-4, of which three fifths went to teacher pay and benefits. Stuyvesant’s per student spending is about the same (it was $8,200 in 2003 by a definition that leaves a small amount of spending out), so its teachers can’t be paid that much more, even though New York is hardly a cheap place to live in.

The American school crisis is mostly a low-income school crisis. Upper middle class suburbs like Westchester and Nassau Counties have non-selective public schools that do perfectly well. Part of it is because of an insane cash infusion, but that’s only true for some suburbs.

So it makes sense to ask how come low-income schools have teachers who stink. Is it because good teachers would rather get paid $40,000 a year to teach at a magnet school that produces Nobel Prize winners than get paid $40,000 to teach in a ghetto? Or is it because low-income schools naturally lack one of the most important control mechanisms, parental involvement (there’s a reason scripted learning works in low-income schools)? Or, is it really a funding question, with a few exceptions for glamorous places like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science.

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11 Responses to The Teachers’ Union is the Source of All Evil in the World

  1. SLC says:

    Re teachers unions.

    The folks who blame the state of the nations’ schools on teachers unions, like the wife swapper George Will, are the same people who blame the state of the US auto industry and the state of the Us steel industry on the UAW and the USW respectively.

  2. muppt says:

    France is a fascist state.

    France can hold terror suspects for 72 hours without access to a lawyer. Terror suspects can be held for up to four years(!) before being tried by a court.

  3. Ran Halprin says:

    Re the subject, education is a problem all over the world. There aren’t many countries where you will find good education, and I don’t think money makes the difference. In the former USSR, high school teacher was one of the most prestigious jobs you could hope for, and the pay wasn’t good (communists don’t pay well). Seems like in the western world today, being a teacher is simply not something to aspire to.

    Re muppt, can’t you even pretend to reply on topic occasionally?

  4. muppt says:

    Bertrend Russel once said: education makes you more stupid.

  5. jd2718 says:

    The working conditions matter, big time. And the prestige level; is there a country where teaching is considered as undesireable a job? And it doesn’t help that curriculum is left to the states.. and to their frequent whims.

    I’m hesitent to blame parents, but I do wish there was more reading going on, and just among kids.

    Jonathan

  6. Alon Levy says:

    And the prestige level; is there a country where teaching is considered as undesireable a job?

    I know for a fact Israel is just like the US here. Of course Israel has a national teachers’ union with similar hiring and firing rules to New York, so there’s no easy within-country example to give to the people who think firing teachers is the solution to everything.

    It’s been suggested that East Asian schools are better than Western ones because Sinitic culture venerates teachers, so that people aspire to become teachers even for far lower pay than in the US. Personally I’m skeptical, because I know Singapore does well on international tests not so much because its system is intrinsically good as because it’s geared toward such tests, it has so little emphasis on thinking for oneself.

    And it doesn’t help that curriculum is left to the states.. and to their frequent whims.

    Oh, it certainly doesn’t. But that’s not something that anyone can fix except the federal government; the problems of patchwork curricula and textbook adoption guidelines spill over even to states that don’t have them.

    I’m hesitent to blame parents, but I do wish there was more reading going on, and just among kids.

    I’m not blaming parents here. The “It’s legitimate to ask” standard applies here, too; if low-income parents are persistently less positively involved in their children’s education than high-income parents, it’s likelier that the problem is poverty rather than a moral failure of the poor. It also intersects nicely with the cost issue, since about 15% of the USA’s education spending goes to giving teachers health insurance, and the main reason Stuyvesant’s per student spending is so low by New York standards is apparently the paucity of students poor enough to be eligible for school lunches.

  7. Ran Halprin says:

    And it doesn’t help that curriculum is left to the states.. and to their frequent whims.

    If most teachers are incompetent, letting them choose the curriculum seems dangerous. In such a case, I would rather have at least most of the curriculum handed down from national comities made of professors in the different subject, as well as professors of education psychology to guide the methodology.

  8. The American school crisis is mostly a low-income school crisis.

    I certainly agree that normal school tumoil is exacerbated by the problems of poverty, and that teachers who teach at schools in these areas should be better compensated. However, I know from experience that rich schools have their fair share of problems too: by all accounts I went to some pretty decent public schools however the science programs were all dismal. (I did attend SC public schools, so most of the problem might be right there.) No, teachers’ unions are all things evil, I certainly wasn’t suggesting such a thing. But firing an incompent teacher really shouldn’t be any harder than firing any other incompent worker. Unions are allowed to protect teachers, but they shouldn’t stymie the process of booting out a teacher who’s burned out, or shouldn’t be there for whatever reason. I’m sure a compromise could be found so that teachers can’t be fired on a whim, yet when good reason exists, it doesn’t take a year.

  9. Alon Levy says:

    Firing an incompetent teacher isn’t much harder than firing any other professional. Professors have tenure, though granted, it’s more difficult to get tenure in academia than in the K-12 system by an order of magntiude or two. Getting a lawyer disbarred or a doctor’s license revoked is closer in its difficulty to firing a teacher in New York than to firing a greeter in Arkansas.

  10. There’s a major difference there. A disbarred lawyer or doctor can never be employed under that profession again. Period. A fired teacher can go be a teacher anywhere else they please, as long as they are hired. They have nothing precluding them from finding employment elsewhere. A disbarred lawyer or doctor just wasted many years of their lives and a lot of money on an education they will never be able to use again. That is orders of magnitudes more serious than being dismissed, and therefore rightly deserves extra levels of scrutiny.

  11. shane says:

    Even the best school in the US sucks ass when compared internationally. Even rich kids in the US are stupid by comparison to kids in other countries. And the US spends so much more money with nothing in return.

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