Waiting for Union Reform
I had the privilege of seeing Davis Guggenheim’s superlative new documentary, Waiting for “Superman” last night with Iveta. The film gives powerful evidence of the unique, critical importance of great teachers in achieving globally competitive student performance, and it confronts a major sociopolitical issue, teacher’s unions, and the ways these unions now block any kind of useful reform in U.S. education. I recommend you visit the website, donate, and of course tell all your friends to see the movie.
We should think hard about real solutions to the U.S. high school education crisis, and recommend them to our congresspersons. The film makes pretty clear that American HS teacher’s unions need to be reformed, as soon as possible. Bob Bowdon’s documentary The Cartel, 2009, makes similar points, in a more heavy-handed fashion. Both are really worth seeing.
One idea might be to make it easy for additional, merit-rewarding unions to emerge in competition with the two existing large and corrupt ones, the NEA and the AFT, to give teachers a choice between multiple unions at each school. For more on the broad scope of the sad story of union monopolies, which are in their own ways just as bad as corporate monopolies, you might read The Teacher’s Unions, Lieberman, 1997, Power Grab, Moo, 1999, Conflicting Missions?, Loveless, 2000, The Worm in the Apple, Brimelow (most popular), 2004, and The War Against Hope, Paige (former U.S. Education Secretary), 2009. No Child Left Behind in 2001 was an important step forward as it mandated comprehensive tests, which told us how poor our children’s writing and reading and arithmetic performances are, but the teacher’s unions responded by teaching superficially to the tests, which are themselves not testing the right things, and resisting all other changes in behavior, incentive, discipline, etc. The only clear successes we’ve seen have emerged from the best of the charter schools, like the 80+ KIPP Schools around the country. We have the data we need. Now it’s time to act.
One bold but very unlikely solution would be a Federal one, to temporarily outlaw collective bargaining for teachers in failing schools, until American performance on STEM, civics, global awareness, and critical thinking can be brought back out of the gutter into which it has fallen. Teaching is unique among professions in that it lays the foundation for the abilities of the next generation. Bad teaching weakens the democracy. Just having the conversation about radical reform would benefit our nation. Obama, are you listening?
Teaching must become a desirable, high paid job, like we see in Korea and other countries that value education, and for most teachers, it should probably also become a short term job, where typical teachers are expected to stay for 10 years, and great teachers for a maximum of ten more, where they mentor other teachers. This is what we see in technology industries, so why not teaching, which is increasingly about preparing people to innovate and deal with the consequences of continuous technological change?
However we handle it legally, it seems pretty clear to me and I’ll bet the data would support the idea that the majority of high school teachers today should be young. Teaching young kids takes a lot of energy, and keeping up with our modern, accelerating world requires the rapid learning of youthful teachers. Japanese culture has a phrase, Gakkyu hokai, which translates to “classroom breakdown”, where bored, tech-savvy youth, as young as elementary school, simply stop paying any attention to their teachers once they realize that they know virtually nothing about the new digital world the kids inhabit. Gakkyu hokai is a problem with all first world classes today, and it will only get worse. Young, tech-savvy teachers can solve that, and be the analytical, numerate, and literate mentors and coaches the kids need. We also need teachers who have some business startup experience, because more than ever, knowledge and service work involves an entrepreneurial and creative mindset, and the ability to take calculated risks.
A good percentage of high school teachers should be able to start in their mid 20’s, shortly out of college. Any B.S. or higher degree, and a year of training, should be sufficient to get into the trainee pool, and teacher trainees should be aggressively weeded out in the first five years. While hiring a minority of older, second-career teachers would bring wisdom and life experience to the teaching pool, typical track teachers might finish their maximum 20 year stint by their mid-40’s, so they can easily start a second career. They would have had high salary during their time as teachers. If they make it to 10 years, they might get a quarter pension, and if they make it to 20, a half-pension. But they would all be encouraged get back in the private workforce at that point. This more part-time model can be compared to the standard, failing model to see which produces a better outcome.
The smarter the web gets, and the more our society moves to teacherless education, just in time education, and continuous education models, the more our political system should recognize that full-time teaching, for most teachers, isn’t typically a lifetime job, just as full-time learning isn’t a lifetime activity. This happens by default in America’s top universities, where long term professorships are rare. I think it should happen a lot more at the public high school and junior college level as well.
We need to reorient our public education systems to emphasize a continuous and diverse supply of high-quality short-term teachers who are literate, numerate, lifelong learners, accomplished-in-themselves, and willing to teach for the love and challenge, not the security. If they have tech, entrepreneurship, trade, or other useful skills going in, they should get serious bonuses. We want caring, exceptional teachers who the students want to emulate, across the board.
How much longer can we wait around, and watch our next generation of children get demotivated and unserved by our existing public educational system, which has turned into a job security program for a very large and well funded group of untouchable, unfirable, unaccountable adults? Our nation’s future is at stake.
Update: I’ve since discovered that Governor Jim Gibbons (R-Nevada) last year proposed eliminating collective bargaining for teachers. Geoffrey Lawrence of the (conservative) Nevada Policy Research Institute has a good writeup in favor of this policy. It focuses on the big issues: tenure, which must be eliminated, the blocks against youth and experienced non-teachers joining the teaching pool and competing with traditionally-educated teachers, and problems with current teacher certification, which is irrelevant to teaching quality as presently structured. While I don’t agree with permanently taking away collective bargaining rights for workers in any full-time profession, I do think many professions, including teaching, can benefit by having more part-timers competing against full-timers on merit to do the same job, and letting the data decide who’s better, and that politicians need broad powers to intervene in failing systems, to temporarily suspend both collective bargaining and corporate rights in any critical industry that has experienced massive failure, to create alternative forms of unions and teacher certification, pay systems based on merit, better and faster feedback, and a greater ability to fire lemon teachers. Let’s hope something useful happens soon.