On Angry Mobs, Converts, and the Man of Steel

By Starnes, BobAnn | Phi Delta Kappan, February 2011 | Go to article overview

On Angry Mobs, Converts, and the Man of Steel


Starnes, BobAnn, Phi Delta Kappan


Teacher unions are to blame for poor-quality education. Really?

So, I was watching "Morning Joe" last week, and I've been stewing ever since. "Morning Joe," the MSNBC morning news program hosted by Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, is a screw ball mix of news, bickering, and irreverence that used to be one of my favorite guilty pleasures. But things have changed recently and, as a result, watching has become more difficult. You see, Joe has discovered education. And he could not be more excited about it. I've heard it said that no one is as much a zealot as a convert. And Joe is a convert. Oh, he was always willing to rant about education. What politician isn't? But in the old days--the days before his great awakening --he would spout a bit of rhetoric and move on to other flash-point topics. But then he saw "Waiting for Superman," and, like a laying on of the hands, he saw the light! As a result, these days, Joe is the head pitchfork and torch carrier in the angry mob's witch hunt.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

And a witch hunt it is. If you listen to Joe, there are all kinds of witch minions--mostly evil teachers who don't care about the children or fully realize that they are the future. He has even discovered that poor kids don't get the same quality education that kids like his own get. Welcome to that party, Joe--however late, poorly informed, or knee-jerk your understandings! But the most hated witch--the head witch, I suppose--is teacher unions. And Joe is always sharpening his pitchfork on unions. He hates them.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that unlike those who populate the angry mob, I've taught in public schools, and I learned firsthand why unions exist. Still, I'm not by any means a supporter of every union. Some unions actually limit teachers' autonomy. But this is true in a very limited number of states. No matter how critics might choose to paint them all with the same brush, unions are as different as night and day.

Although teachers belong to state unions with national affiliations, state laws create vast differences in their power to advocate for, protect, or oppress teachers. As a result, it's unfair and disingenuous to generalize about them. Instead, critics should be specific about which unions in which states and districts are difficult. But that would require union bashers to acknowledge the complexity of the issues. And that is not bloody likely to happen. Bashing is too "pretty" a means to their ends.

So, it is true that some teacher unions in some states are able to block change--even change that many teachers actually support. That is bad. But, in most schools in most states, unions are, at best, professional clubs with very little clout. For example, when I asked a Montana teacher friend about how effective her union is, she laughed out loud. "Are you kidding? My union is so ineffectual I might as well not have one!"

So, anyway, on this particular day last week, I turned on my TV just in time to hear Joe saying good-bye to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. A man with clear national ambitions, Jindal interrupted Joe's closing remarks to insert, "OK, Joe, we just have to fight those teacher unions." Laughing, Joe agreed. I was stunned by the gratuitous nature of his remark. It didn't move any conversation forward or offer creative insight. Instead, it was a closing shot made with all but a wink and a nod ... an insider's joke. Code for pitchfork sharpening. The kind of thing that we say when we're attacking people or ideas in a safe place, a place where ad hominem remarks can be made without fear of being held accountable.

"Teacher unions," I said out loud. "Really, Bobby? In Louisiana, the problem with schools is teacher unions ... …

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