Economic Analysis and Banking & Finance and Education & Workforce Development

HICKS: An inconvenient truth about teachers' unions

October 2, 2010

A new movie, “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” is creating quite a buzz. It just might be the most important documentary in decades.

From what I have seen and read, it is destined to change radically our perception of schools, and those who stand in the way of fixing them. Most shocking is that the maker of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” clobbers teacher unions.

The proximity of this film to this election will discomfit many. That is good, not least because the months following the election will see many in Washington, D.C., reconnecting with the art of the possible. Broad education reform may be doable.

It is difficult to overstate how sad our American educational system has become. The fact that so many in Indiana balked last year at requiring all fourth-graders to actually read is stark evidence that we are setting ourselves up for a costly national failure. The data are sobering. Except for spending, we sit dead last on all measures of schooling among the developed countries.

We don’t compare favorably to countries in the lesser developed world, but are saved from that humiliating ranking because poor countries often don’t teach all their children. It is common knowledge that foreign students avoid American colleges in the first two years because so much time is spent remedying the weaknesses in American high schools. What a costly shame; but why is it so?

Parents are no doubt the biggest problem, but we don’t license parents; we license teachers—more’s the pity (just kidding). Unable as we are to “fix culture,” we’re left with public policy.

To begin, we need to simply confess that poor school performance is not caused by poverty. It is the other way around, and far too many in the educational establishment lean on that excuse while building an American underclass child by child. But that is precisely why the war on poverty failed; we attacked the wrong target. Second, it isn’t about money. Our spending per student dwarfs that of most developed countries and is highest in America’s worst schools.

The unhappy truth is that while many students get adequate schooling, too many fail. System-wide, there are structural impediments to excellence. Among these is tenure. In your local schools, a lifetime of employment is granted after a paltry three years. It isn’t about performance metrics. Everyone knows who the bad teachers are; schools just cannot fire them. This leaves fewer resources for good teachers.

It is puzzling. Teachers’ unions have somehow convinced the vast majority of teachers that they need job protection. Once good teachers (the vast majority) awaken and force their unions to put children first, the problem will be much easier.

So, that’s where policy begins, with the very people who’ve dedicated their lives to the magnificent, sublime, challenging and necessary task of teaching children. Teachers—take back your profession and schools, and make sure to see “Waiting for ‘Superman.’”•

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Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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