Monday, September 5, 2011

Public Schools and Teachers Unions ... Hard Work Lies Ahead

Learning the Hard Way was written by Joel Klein who served as head of the New York public schools from 2002 to 2010. In the editorial, Mr. Klein discusses the many problems of our public schools and reviews two recently published books on the subject. The books are "Class Warfare" by Steven Brill and "Special Interest" by Terry Moe.

"Special Interest" focuses on the power and influence of the teachers unions. My own view is that teachers unions are the biggest obstacles to a strong, effective and affordable system of public education in America, a system where parents and taxpayers are in control.

Klein summarizes the book's focus on the teachers union issue, "Mr. Moe's thesis is that the unions' ability to protect the interests of their members is virtually unmatched in American society. Their four million members are readily mobilized members, and they are, as he notes, "the nation's top contributors to federal elections." He describes the unions' influence in every political arena and their constant efforts to shore up their power. For example, the teachers unions make sure that school-board elections are scheduled when there will be low voter turnout, making it easy to control the outcome with the votes and resources the union can supply. School-board members elected with union support, in turn, are just the kind of "management" that unions like on the other side of the bargaining table when contract negotiations begin. In Mr. Moe's view, this kind of rigged process helps to embed anti-student policies, such as teacher tenure, seniority preferences and lock-step pay."

In other words, teachers unions negotiate across the bargaining table with the "management" that has been elected by the resources of that very same teachers union. The taxpayers, parents and students aren't well represented at the negotiating table at all.

Since the Democratic party is heavily influenced, if not controlled, by unions, there is little reason to expect progress in solving the problems with far too many of our public schools. More and more, teachers and other public employees aren't in agreement with the political actions of their unions, but that doesn't in any way influence the way union officials behave. For a timely and full discussion of how public employee union officials frequently don't properly represent the views of up to 50% of their members, please see Why the Labor Movement Moved Left. It's sad.

America needs a strong, affordable and vibrant educational system. If we don't have one, we won't have a well informed electorate and a world class competitive workforce. It's that important that our problems be addressed and fixed, too.

We must hurry to find a way to get better results from our system of public education. Both financially and academically as well, we can no longer afford to waste money that we don't have to achieve the lousy results we can't continue.

We can effectively remedy our widespread public schools problem by experimenting and implementing different than traditional solutions, especially when these remedies have been proven to work effectively.

But the solution isn't to be found by spending more money. We simply need to spend the available money wisely.

The traditional call by teachers unions for more money as the solution is dismissed by Mr. Klein. Here's what he says about that, "Since 1970 America has more than doubled the real dollars spent on K-12 education. We have increased the number of teachers by more than a third, created legions of nonteaching staff, and raised salaries and benefits across the board. Yet fewer than 40% of the students who graduate from high school are ready for college. At the same time, students in other countries are moving ahead of us, scoring higher--often much higher--on international tests of reading, math and science skills."

One popular definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. This seems to fit our traditional approach to improving our public schools throughout America. If we continue to graduate classes where only 40% are ready to do college work, we won't represent an informed citizenry and a world class competitor much longer. That's a future that has to be totally unacceptable to all Americans.

The principal-agent problem is present in spades in K-12 education. The real agents, aka our current traditional school "Principals," need to start playing their proper "agent" roles. By that I mean that the current school principals and staff are in reality the servants or agents for the genuine principals--the genuine principals being the students, parents and taxpayers.

Even though hardly mainstream, isn't adopting this principal-agent designation worthwhile? If such a title change became accepted (and indeed it should), the attitude about the system of K-12 education might change overnight, and for the better.

In sum, my view is that "agent accountability" and "principal choice" are required changes if we are to end the monopolistic mindset and attitude of both administrators and teachers unions. We must act now to re-energize our entire public educational system.

Like all business minded enterprises, adopting a best practices approach is essential. If school administrators and teachers are held accountable for results, students and their parents will be positioned to make appropriate choices with respect to the schools attended.

It's as simple as that, and it's as hard as that, too. It's so hard because teachers unions are an extremely strong political force and a staunch ally of the Democratic party. Despite that, they would be no match for involved and committed students, parents and taxpayers acting as principals.

Klein's concluding paragraph sums it up for us.

"For things to really change, though, parents must become more engaged and enraged. When they are no longer willing to accept bad schools and teachers--and when the poor start insisting on choice just like the middle class and affluent do--the political dynamics will shift accordingly. The unions can't beat the parents. Meanwhile, the reformers need to enlist the support of a new generation of educators, as Mr. Brill argues, by persuading them that teaching is less a trade-union job than a true profession, deserving better compensation and greater status but also delivering a higher level of classroom competence. Last, the public must be persuaded to favor an aggressive reform agenda and support politicians who will make it happen. That's the hard work of democracy, never needed more than now."

Thanks. Bob.

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