The teaser on Time's home page for Joe Klein's new commentary on teachers' unions said something about them stopping reform. Of course unions have prevented reform over the years. But that, in and of itself, doesn't make them evil. You see, not all reform is good. Preventing a bad reform from occurring would actually make the union the good guys.
Now, of course, I don't actually see that line in the article -- so it may have been all the headline writer's idea instead of Joe Klein's. But there are plenty of other problems:
1.) Teachers' unions do a number of both good and bad things. I cannot take seriously any article or person that doesn't acknowledge that -- the idea that unions are either purely good or purely bad is pure nonsense.
2.) He writes that "it is near impossible to fire a teacher" in NYC and that "miscreants are stashed in 'rubber rooms'." I still don't buy that it's nearly as hard to fire a teacher as many claim. And even if it is, the argument is still overstated since there are far more teachers that walk away quasi-voluntarily than there are teachers who are sent to the rubber room (in other words, getting rid of bad teachers probably isn't as hard as you think). Is it too hard to fire teachers? In many cases, yes, it probably is. But it's not impossible. And all the hand-wringing is unnecessary. When I see a bad teacher remaining in a school, I blame the principal more than the union.
3.) Klein writes that "authorities are forbidden, by state law, to evaluate teachers by using student test results." This is true. Sort of. Technically they're forbidden -- for now. The law that was passed only mandated a two-year moratorium on this practice -- it didn't forbid it for eternity. Besides, there's plenty of evidence that using the scores would've created more problems than it solved.
4.) He summarizes the Hoxby et al study as showing that "students in New York City's charter schools . . . have closed 86% of the gap in test results between the poorest neighborhoods of the city and ritzy suburbs like Scarsdale." Notice the word have in the sentence. The study showed nothing of the sort. Based on snapshots of data, it projected that students enrolled in these charter schools (which, by the way, were only the charter schools popular enough to be oversubscribed and have an entrance lottery) would eventually close 86% of the gap. A subsequent study from other Stanford researchers again found that the charters were doing better than traditional public schools, but that the gains aren't nearly that big.
5.) All of these arguments have been made before. And they were just as weak then. When I was told Joe Klein had a new column out on education, I was expecting something insightful. I love some of his other work. Hopefully he was distracted because he's in the midst of writing the next great political novel.
It's hard to have a constructive dialogue about education when so many people overstate their case- and so doggedly at that. It's not just Joe Klein. Who is telling the truth about American education?
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