Magazine article Insight on the News

Q: Do Teachers Unions Have a Positive Influence on the Educational System?

Magazine article Insight on the News

Q: Do Teachers Unions Have a Positive Influence on the Educational System?

Article excerpt

Yes: Teachers unions are leading the fight for innovation and investment in public education.

Teachers are hardly strangers to spitballs. But the nasty wad hurled at us by Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole in his speech at the GOP convention marks a new level of escalation. "If education were a war, you [teachers] would be losing it," he said. "If it were a business, you would be driving it into bankruptcy."

Will the spitball stick?

As a junior-high-school teacher for 25 years, I would be obliged to give Dole a failing grade for not doing his homework. (I'd also give him detention for picking fights, but that is a separate issue.) What are the facts about teachers unions and their influence on American education?

If you listen to the relentless drumbeat from critics, you get a pretty frightening picture indeed: America's schools are controlled by the National Education Association, or NEA, whose teacher-members are protected by the Teflon of tenure. These teachers care about paychecks, not children. According to Phyllis Schlafly, director of the pro-life group Eagle Forum, they are following the NEA's wishes "to teach children not to be patriotic" and "to advocate explicit training in incest." What's more, if you believe the latest fund-raising letter signed by Beverly LaHaye of Concerned Women for America, the NEA seeks "to inject rank immorality and godlessness into our nation's classrooms."

Whew! Is there a more telling measure of the shortcomings of American education than that some people actually believe this nonsense?

Are teachers and their unions really the new evil empire? Or are they, as I believe, dedicated men and women who strive mightily to make public education work in an era of stark social and economic challenges?

Ironically, the answer lies partly in the work of William Bennett, one of the campaign advisers who urged Dole to attack the NEA. Several years ago, Bennett published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled "Quantifying America's Decline." The article cited an array of truly shocking statistics to document the decay of American society between 1960 and 1992, including: a 419 percent increase in out-of-wedlock births; a quadrupling of the divorce rate; a tripling of the percentage of children living in single-parent homes; an increased average in daily TV viewing from five to seven hours.

Is it possible that these trends, with their profoundly negative consequences for children, also have affected the ability of American kids to learn in school? Indeed, is it possible that the positive gains in student achievement during the last decade--despite the surrounding social decay--are cause for praising teachers rather than demonizing them?

Notwithstanding the media's fixation on underperforming inner-city schools, the last decade has been a time of significant improvements in U.S. public education. In 1983, a mere 13 percent of high-school students completed a core block of rigorous academic course work recommended by the Department of Education; by 1992, 47 percent did--and the percentage is rising steadily. In addition, between 1982 and 1992, the math and science scores of 17-year-olds on the benchmark National Assessment of Education Progress increased by 9 and 11 points, respectively. This roughly is the equivalent of an additional year of learning in high school.

For true believers, the evil influence of teachers unions is an article of faith. But for those who prefer empirical data to hunches, let's look at the record. As it happens, there are 16 states in the United States that do not have collective-bargaining statutes governing public-school employees. In seven of those states, there virtually is no collective bargaining by public schools employees. In short, no teachers

unions. It hardly is a coincidence that these seven states -- all but one, West Virginia, located in the South -- have been notorious for their underfunded education systems and for their low standing in national rankings of student achievement. …

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