Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Big Evil in U. S. Education: Teachers' Unions?

WHAT KIND OF DAMN FOOLS make movies about education? And what kind of damn fools review them?

Those were my thoughts when I picked up the New York Times last Sunday and saw Frank Bruni’s column, Teachers on the Defensive.

Bruni has no children and normally writes about food. Now he had decided to go all “two thumbs up” and review the forthcoming movie, Won’t Back Down. He calls it a David and Goliath story about a mother fighting to save her daughter from being required to attend a failing public elementary school. Randi Weingarten, “powerful president of the American Federation of Teachers,” gets a brief mention in his column.

No practicing teacher (Weingarten last spent a day in a classroom in 1997) appears in the story. 

Bruni admits the people backing the film are sworn enemies of teachers’ unions. He brushes that aside. Teachers unions, he says, have lost their way and represent the great impediment to needed change. He’s surprised to discover teachers and their unions are less than pleased with U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (who, if Bruni interviewed me, I might label an “insufferable ass”). He mentions “Race to the Top,” Duncan's bold initiative to save America’s schools. He mentions unanimous agreement, cutting across party lines, at a recent conference of mayors, endorsing “parent trigger legislation.”

These trigger laws, Bruni explains:

...recently passed in only a few states but being considered in more, abet parent take-overs of underperforming schools, which may then be replaced with charter schools run by private entities. Parent trigger hasn’t yet led to a new school, so no one can really know the sense or efficacy of the scenario. But it informs Won’t Back Down, which envisions [actor Maggie] Gyllenhaal’s trigger-pulling parent as an Erin Brockovich in education.

“It gives parents an opportunity to weigh in,” said Antonio Villaraigosa, the Los Angeles mayor, who supports the idea, in an interview here on Thursday. He believes that new approaches are vital and that teachers’ unions are “the most powerful defenders of a broken system.”

SO, WHERE DO WE STAND IN U. S. EDUCATION TODAY? Apparently, we all accept the premise that public education is failing, even when evidence is as thin as a Vogue model. Then, like assorted Chicken Littles, critics go running about, warning readers that the sky is falling, when actually it’s not.

And why is the sky falling (when it’s not)?

Unions. Teacher seniority. Unions. Tenure. Unions. Greed for pension benefits. Unions. Even Weingarten is quoted as saying unions have focused too much on fairness for members and ignored matters of quality. (To be frank, every time I hear her talk on TV or read what she says in interviews, I find myself thinking, “This poor woman couldn’t defend teachers if you gave her a baseball bat.”)

Bruni hammers home what he believes is the critical point—and if you’re a dedicated educator his column may make you a little sick: “Better teachers, better teachers, better teachers. That’s the mantra of the moment, and implicit in it is the notion that the ones we’ve got aren’t nearly good enough.”

Won't Back Down, he says, raises important questions. It’s ultimately about the impact of superior teaching, the need to foster more of it and the importance of school accountability. Who could quibble with any of that?”

I could, for one.

I’ve noticed something odd while doing research for what I hope will be my first book about education. And I wonder why Weingarten and Bruni and all the experts never bring this up. If unions are the problem, how come unions in some places are so much more of a problem than in others?

How did Vermont graduate 83% of its students in four years, and Wisconsin 81%, and North Dakota 80%? Why did Mississippi come in at 61% in 2008? If Louisiana was at 60% and South Carolina and Georgia were at 59%, maybe it wasn’t unions. Maybe it was some strange phenomenon related to flying the Confederate flag.

IF THAT THEORY SOUNDS RIDICULOUS, what about lack of trees? There’s a huge gap in graduation rates between suburban and urban districts within states. A study done in 2005 noted that 38% of Cleveland, Ohio high school students graduated in four years. In surrounding suburbs the rate was 80%. It was the same all over the country. The gap for the Baltimore region was 40 percentage points, for Milwaukee 35, in New York City environs 29.

For Chicago, where Duncan was then wrapping up his fourth year at the helm of city schools, the difference was 28 points.

Here, in the Cincinnati area, you can easily uncover evidence of the same. Loveland City Schools, the suburban district where I once taught, has held onto an “excellent” rating from the State of Ohio for eleven years straight. In 2012 Loveland graduated 96.7% of seniors and 84% of the class planned to go on to college.

I could climb behind the wheel of my car this minute and drive three miles south and be in the district of the Wyoming City Schools, ranked 86th best in the nation in 2011, according to Newsweek. Teachers in Wyoming, like those in Loveland, are unionized. In 2011 Wyoming graduated 100% of its senior class.

How was that possible?

What variables besides union membership might apply? In Loveland, to cite just one explanation, student attendance in 2012 was 95.4%. Wyoming City did even better the year before, with 96.4%.

Unfortunately, there’s no time for nuance in discussing the failure of America’s public schools. The only variable is teacher quality. If we’re going to win the “Race to the Top,” Mr. Duncan knows all that matters is better teachers.

No questions asked.

Yet, I find myself asking questions, as I once did in the classroom. Why is it we think teachers are failing in Chicago, the district Duncan gained credit for fixing, if 258 school-age kids were shot in gang-related violence in one year and 245 the next?

WHY WOULD ANYONE THINK we have a school crisis if a study shows that the 10,000 kids most at risk of being victims or acting as perpetrators missed an average of 71 school days per year?  I wish Mr. Bruni had considered that issue, because I'm not a food critic. I'm a retired teacher and know what almost all teachers know.

When I worked in Loveland, I certainly found most parents were supportive and committed. But when you looked at kids who struggled, it wasn’t because I had tenure, or because, eventually I had so much seniority I couldn’t have been laid off unless the district suffered a direct hit in a nuclear attack.

Back in the 90s, for example, a previous generation of Chicken Littles screamed bloody murder and said we needed to hand out vouchers to parents and let them send their kids off to “superior” private schools. We had to “measure” how students were faring on state standardized tests (those didn’t work, by the way). One day I caught an editorial in the Cincinnati Enquirer, blasting teachers because test scores were low. The writer was for vouchers, for “school choice,” for parental triggers before triggers were invented. He grumbled that there was “ample time” in the school year to teach what ought to be taught. He implied (oh, that word again) that lazy teachers were the real issue. But I didn’t feel lazy. I saw what Elliot was like the year I had him in class, the same year that stupid editorial came out.

I saw what it was like to try to work with a seventh grader who was absent or tardy 107 times in one year

One Friday, the young scholar arrived twenty minutes late for first bell history. I explained what everyone was doing and got him started. A few minutes later he was slumped over, sound asleep. I woke him gently. He remained briefly alert. When I turned to help others he conked again. I woke him a second time. He went under a third. I woke him again and called him back to my desk. Was he sick? No. Mom let him play video games till 4:00 a.m.

     I had him take a seat on the floor, hoping cold hard linoleum would jumpstart his cognitive functions. I answered several questions from classmates and then glanced in his direction. His head was twisted to one side, resting against the light green concrete block wall. His eyes were shut, mouth agape. His history papers had slipped from his grasp and he let out a snort. 

Elliot came late again Tuesday when we had a test. He didn’t have any supplies. So I wasted my “ample time” to fetch him a pencil. Five minutes later, having colored in answers, A, B, C and D, at random, Elliot was done.

He laid down his pencil—my pencil—laid down his head—and was soon fast asleep.

UNLIKE BRUNI, UNLIKE GLIB MOVIE PRODUCERS who make shallow films, I know what it was like to work with parents like Elliot’s mom. (It almost goes without saying dad was no longer in the picture.) I discovered what it was like when she got arrested for fighting with our school resource officer after Elliot’s older brother got suspended for fighting on the bus.

I saw what happened when Elliot, by then an eighth grader, got arrested for selling drugs on school grounds the next year. So: I’m telling you now you could get rid of all the teachers’ unions in the country tomorrow, and still wouldn’t begin to touch the most serious issues in our schools.

I’m sorry to have to say this, but Mr. Bruni should stick to telling us what’s wrong with how most of us eat.


  1. Fantastic again John!

    I would love to hear your thoughts on localized control.

    Mr. Vinson :-)

    1. I believe if the Department of Education ceased to exist, good teachers wouldn't care a bit.

    2. I would also like to hear your thoughts, if you have any, on reasons why repealing the 17th Amendment would be a bad idea.


    3. Terrible idea on the 17th. In the days of the Robber Barons, they used to pretty much buy up lawmakers at the state level and when state legislatures chose senators they chose the guys the Robber Barons wanted. The RB's thought nothing of crushing out business competitors by the way; and the political establishment would always keep control.

      The way it is now: the people get a chance to vote for state lawmakers. Don't like 'em, dump 'em. Then we also get a chance at the federal level. Two layers of safety are better than one.

    4. I guess we'll have to disagree on that then. The states have no representation in DC due to this amendment, which also puts more money and power into the hands of even fewer "robber barons".

  2. Strong UNION supporter and activist, and previously in sales...I am tired of not being able to prove my teaching strengths, not due to ineffectiveness or a lack of increase in scores. I teach the 6th grade, and I do not control the previous 6 years (K included) of education that include poor administration, parenting, student demographics, poverty, etc. I challenge these issues by offering clubs after school that foster students irrelevant to their class grades. I also run a pantry on my own time to get them clothes and food which is not offered by school counselors to do unless it is a district ran program which gives minimal amounts and often targets minimal students. I target kids! I target the ones that I see silently in need for what ever they are not given as a young human being, and try and give it to them. And for all this, and years of college with $45,000 in student loans, have to fight to prove that I am productive with students that come in with scores in the 40s% and leave in the 50s%...I am a single mother that uses my own resources for these students and their progress. It is not to pass muster to others, it is because I care. I know what it is like to have a life others don't understand as a child, I was born with a birthmark on my face and was emotionally devastated daily by internalizing my differences from other kids. I was called "Pizza Face" and sat alone in every environment including lunch, the bus, groups, recess, etc. When I was old enough to wear make up, I could cover it all up. I became successful, students wanted to be around me. To suddenly fit in, not stand out, and no longer face daily emotional destruction, I was empowered. I try to give this same power to my students that feel this horrible feeling that challenges success; I understand. I am the first graduate of college in my family. It makes me angry that I have to now balance my time between finding those students and relating to them and FIGHTING to be allowed to do so with a decent ability to survive. I still have that birthmark, I still cover it, and I still try to be the most successful in everything I do.

    1. Keep up the good fight, Lisa. I think what amazes me, after trying to write a book about education is that the experts and the people who write about school reform have rarely done any teaching. Or, for those few who did, they lasted two or three years and then left the profession, feeling they had learned everything they possibly could.

    2. Lisa, you truly are a great American! Keep the faith.

      Jay Vinson

    3. Thank you both, you are inspiring to me!

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  4. Fact of the matter is, John, that logical, evidence-based reforms to state and national education policy have been blocked by the unions. While those folks attacking unions tend to simplify things, you have done the same. Unions have to play an active role is solving the problem, not in simply shooting down solutions that don't fit their politics.

    1. The numbers seem crystal clear to me. Unions exist in good districts and bad. The graduation rate varies widely, with the key variable still being poverty. The person who can tell me, "Well, if we get rid of unions then in Chicago, for example, the gang violence will cease. The 10,000 kids who miss 71 days per year each, will get a great education," well, I want to meet that person today.

      I don't "simplify." I point out what I can within the parameters of a blog post.

  5. This piece proves nothing, and even though I am a democrat through and through, but when the NEA speaks about "education" they think it only comes by protecting their benefits. There is a reason the Southern States post such horrid numbers, and they are because of the two two subjects Americans can't speak honestly about: race and class. In fact, just look at SAT scores and see how they correlate with income. Nothing else would seem to figure in. I saw 35 teachers in my district lose their jobs on Long Island because the union would not surrender their mandated 2% salary increase- this, in a deflationary economy where everyone has had their livelihoods impacted. "Damn fools" indeed. This article is one infantile screed.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Calm yourself, madam or sir. Calm yourself. This anger of yours cannot be good for your blood pressure.

      You seem to miss points 1-94, in the original post. First, idiots blame teachers' unions for everything wrong in U. S. education. My first point is that if all unions ceased to exist tomorrow, the most crippling issues in our schools would still be there the day after and the day after that. The deadly violence in Chicago, for example, would not lessen or abate. You do grasp that, don't you?

      Ah, how can I doubt your subtle genius on such points?

      As for your district, and your district's layoffs, nothing in my original post is in any way related to that. But let me apply your brilliant reasoning to one of my examples above. Suppose in my old district, I and my peers had agreed to take a 2% cut. Elliot, a young man in my class, who skipped or came late 107 times in a single year would still be getting a terrible education as a result (and the fact he sold drugs wouldn't exactly help). My point, infantile as it may seem to one of your mighty intellect, is that, well, dare I repeat: you can't blame teachers' unions for most of the problems in our schools.

      Indeed, you are clearly a paladin of education reform. So, I hardly need tell you that Mayor Bloomberg, of NYC, says his biggest problem in fixing his city's schools is teachers' unions. And I'm sure you already know about the Johns Hopkins study that shows 200,000 students in Bloomberg's district miss at least 10% of the school year. I have posted earlier on that topic, by the way.

      I suspect you might agree, given your vast intellectual powers, that teachers would not be to blame in those cases if students failed to excel.

      Meanwhile, I thank you for pointing out that race and class have much to do with SAT scores and educational success. Why, you are like the bold, second captain, after Columbus, to see America and shout, "I have discovered America."

      Why do you think I cited the difference between adjacent urban and suburban schools? I can hardly believe such an obvious point went zinging past your head. I humbly apologize for only subtly hinting at what you point out so bluntly. But bless you, bless you for backing up my infantile point. What would I do without people like you?

      I stand in awe. Awe, madam or sir. I hope you will continue to devote yourself to solving all the problems of the world you can possibly discover.

      I hope you are already a teacher. If not, you should go into the profession and see how you do.

  6. If Long Island operates anything like my district, the teachers themselves voted about a pay freeze. It was not mandated by anyone higher up in the association. Members need to weight the options of taking a pay freeze versus saving individual jobs. The work of the association is not to protect every individual job. It is to help protect the rights of its members. And in this economic downturn, most professions did not see their pay decrease, and many such as engineers and medical professionals, saw a pay increase.

    Also, by saying the problem is with class, you are agreeing with John. The problem is poverty, not unions.

    1. Your response and mine overlapped. You are exactly right.

  7. You're both missing the point, and Mr. Vialli is one sawed off, condescending asshole.

    Thanks to a rule in NY State called the "Triborough Amendment" which guarantees salary step increases, even in the midst of the most contractionary economy of our lifetimes, both staff and resources are being slashed to keep property tax levies down, which are already
    ludicrously high. The mandated step increase can only be vacated by a vote of the teachers. So to preserve their 2% increase mandated by the law, they played a game of "hate your neighbor" and simply allowed 35 teachers to lose their jobs, increasing class sizes and cutting back on activities.

    As far as race and class are concerned, you have to understand that RESOURCES FOR EDUCATION ARE FINITE, and if we're dedicating them to funding your health insurance coverage, which has tripled in cost for us mere mortals, while you get it for free, something has to give.

    As far as Mr. Bloomberg is concerned, he's no dummy, and closing down 110 Livingston Street, a place where many people were basically paid handsomely for just showing up, was one of the best things to happen during his tenure.

    Here's some data for you- it tends to enlighten more than infantile invective.

  8. Why, madam or sir, I am shocked. I compliment you for your brilliance, your genius, your perspicacity and you answer with foul invective.

    I'm sorry I can in no way comment on your local district, your taxes, your finite resources, etc. Nothing in my original post has anything to do with that.

    Continue on your path to happiness, madam or sir. I remain in absolute awe of your ability to mix fruit with vegetables and call it salad.

  9. With answers like yours, I can just imagine what kind of a teacher you were. Hopefully, your students don't bear any scars from the experience.

    However, your narcissism is a oft seen pathology of your profession.

    It's just a job, putz. Go in there and do it well, or don't bother showing up.

  10. I'm so sorry. I took your first reply calling my blog entry an "infantile screed" as such a compliment, I only wanted to respond to your awesomeness in kind.

    Now I see you are a clairvoyant, able to see what kind of teacher I was from afar, not even needing to step into my classroom.

    I always make the same offer to comments like yours. You pay the postage and I'll send you copies of a few hundred letters and emails from former students telling them how much my teaching meant in their lives.

    And, you might be interested to know that I was chosen educator of the year in my building (and we had a heck of a staff) in 1990, 1997 and 2002. The award was begun in 1990, by the way. I might also note that in 2004-2007, I read 50,000 pages of extra material so I could teach a new class on Ancient World History. I'm also friends with about 700 former students of Facebook.

    But you already knew all this; because you're awesome and clairvoyant, too. Next, I discover you have x-ray vision! Or you can juggle.

  11. I love this article, love this blog, and after reading your replies to your commenters, I'm half in love with you. Keep up the good work.

    1. I thank you. (I should note in the name of accuracy and for my "fan," who replied above, and for anyone from my old school that might read this, that I was chosen "Educator of the Year" in 1990, but did not accept.)

      I have one goal when I write about education: to explain what it is to be a good teacher and the issues we all face. (I don't defend bad teachers.)

      If you're a teacher, do me a favor and send your colleagues a link to my blog.

  12. "Now I see you are a clairvoyant, able to see what kind of teacher I was from afar, not even needing to step into my classroom."

    No, I see from the tenor of your responses that you're an utter failure as a human being. Each post reveals your character, and I find you to be quite loathsome. Good day.

  13. Ah...we went from talking about unions to my loathsomeness. I remain, as ever, in awe of your powers of observation. Now we add your skills as a therapist to your clairvoyance. When do you want me to mail you all those letters from students?

  14. I agree with anonymous. John continues with the same answers....SADDEST part of all this is I am one of many paying for his retirement. How can you not appreciate those that pay your way in such a direct manner? Government employees with the same attitude as John should be ashamed and embarassed.

    1. Like the poor individual you say you agree with you seem to miss the point. This blog post is not about money; it's about how unions are NOT the biggest evil in U. S. education today.

      Not even close.

      Maybe to you the "saddest part" is that you have to pay taxes. When I was busting my buns to educate kids, I thought the saddest part was someone like Elliot missing entirely or showing up tardy 107 times in a single year.

      I tried to earn every dime I ever made as a teacher. But you might get this: I couldn't really educate Elliot if he didn't show up for class.

      My original points are simple, not fiscal. You can't really seriously argue, for example, that we can fix all the problems in the Chicago schools, even if we got rid of unions, if you have gunfire killing and wounding dozens of American kids, or when 10,000 students miss an average of 71 days.

      See: that's sadder than taxes, too.

      In fact, I'm not ashamed or embarassed at all about what I did in a classroom.

      Perhaps you have some kind of insider information about what I was like as a teacher?

  15. I absolutely love how people are willing to call you names, denigrate your abilities and otherwise simply call you a lousy teacher all from the anonymous safety of not having to say who they are or where they live. It's abhorrent to me that not knowing this guy, who is simply stating the truth, that you can hate him, say he doesn't deserve his retirement, whine about your tax dollars being used to pay him, and otherwise complain about 'the system'. I applaud you, Mr. Viall. Thank you for your outstanding service.

    1. Thanks, Amy. Yeah, I'm surprised; I've had this happen six times, now.