Public Schools and Teacher’s Unions in Contemporary America

There exists a concept in American society called the American Dream. Espoused in many ways, the theory employs the idea that if little Johnny will work hard, he will one day escape the clutches of poverty. First popularized by the fiction of Horatio Alger in the late 19th century, stories following this theme emerged during the same period America started its first push toward cultural reform. One of the enduring products of that reform period has been the public school system. For over a century, the public schools have given those from more humble beginnings a reason to hope, for, if they work hard, they would indeed enjoy the American dream as well. More than optimism however, the public schools have had a far greater effect on the American psyche. It has branded into every generation the concept of egalitarianism and equality.

Unfortunately, many would argue that notion today. America’s schools are spiraling into countless troubles, and there is no end in sight. Although the problems that contribute to such a degraded public school system are diverse and complex, many signs point to the self-serving interests of teachers’ unions and politicians as the parties to blame. To complicate the situation, there are many educational reform policies proposed to remedy the situation, none of which escape the clutches of opposing public interest groups. If nothing is done soon, however, America might return to a day when the only social mobility to exist will indeed be in fiction.

One of the best indicators of poor school performance is the amount of people who cannot read and write in America today. This problem begins early, and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) can prove that. Only 31% of fourth graders are proficient in reading, and the number rises to only 33% by eighth grade (Kafer). This was the same agency that found that during the 1990’s, “only one in five young adults between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-five could read a bus timetable or draft a simple letter asking for a job in a supermarket”(Fiske 13). The reason why this is so dangerous to America, however, lies in the fact that the job market is shifting away from the blue-collar professions, which require at most a high school diploma to more academically taxing administrative and technical jobs. According to Edward B. Fiske, a nationally renown education reporter, “The consequences of [this] are enormous, for it means that for the first time schools have been given the job of producing the capital on which this country depends” (Fiske 23).

This predicament would inevitably lead one to believe that the schools should just then return to the basics and stress a policy rigorous in reading, among other favorite pastimes such as arithmetic, writing, geography, and civics. Unfortunately, this is not so easy, and such proposals meet vehement opposition. According to Timothy A. Hacsi, the reason might lie in the fact that “schools today must balance the need for excellence in education and equity in education” (Hacsi 17). When this equity is not met, immensely powerful political action groups have their say, and the inevitable result is the lack of progress.

An example of what causes this stagnation is the matter of whether or not to teach phonics as a way to read. Phonics allows children to sound out unfamiliar words so that they can dissect it and expand vocabulary upon learning its definition. There are many, however, who charge that this practice is unfair because not all students can grasp it as easily as their peers.

Therefore, alternative methods that effectively dumb down the analytical part of reading are introduced. Again, this is a clear example of when equity and excellence are the driving (or in this case, retarding) factors towards shaping educational policy. Unfortunately, while the debate rages, there is still no uniform method to teach children how to read. Therefore, according to Marie Carbo, an expert on reading education, individual teachers adopt their own combination of phonics and other methods, much to the confusion of the student (Carbo 13).

The preceding dilemma is just one of the many diverse problems America’s educational system faces today. In addition to dismal reading scores, American public schools are plagued by high drop-out rates and, for those who are lucky enough to graduate, inadequate college preparation. According to Dr. Jay P. Greene, an educational reporter for the Manhattan Institute, only 70% of high school students graduate, not even taking into consideration how long they spend in high school.

Furthermore, in that same report, Greene developed a method to judge the readiness of those who actually do graduate. He applied two “screens” to the 70% sample that graduated high school. First, using information from the aforementioned NAEP, Greene took out all students that had not completed the bare minimum requirements of most colleges regarding their high school transcript (e.g. 4 years English, 3 years Math, etc.). The second screen consisted of those students, which, after their transcripts were judged adequate, met the lowest level of proficiency on the NAEP’s literacy test. The results speak for themselves: 32% of high school students are prepared for college (Greene). Bear this in mind while taking into consideration where the job market is shifting in this country. It is as if drought will lead to the first intellectual dust bowl of America’s history.
Logically, to correct this situation, one would have to go examine the origins of the problems. The study of what exactly blunts the social mobility in America is so dominated by partisan politics, however, that often any serious studies are merely arguments of why one group is right and the other is wrong.

The reason why education has become the battleground for these ideological arguments is because of the amount of money spent on it each year: close to $454 billion, or $7,524 per pupil (Kafer). The sheer magnitude of that number is a principal reason why there will be an eternal struggle for power in the industry. Furthermore, those in power now consequently have vested interest in preserving the status quo. The sad truth now emerges: many organizations claim they are servants of the children, but, are in reality merely servants of themselves.

Enter now the two culprits that have drawn the growing ire of a slowly expanding educational reform movement: The National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Both organizations collectively “represent more than 3 million school employees, including 80 percent of the nation’s 3 million public school teachers” according to Sol Stern, a reporter covering teachers’ unions for many years. Furthermore, they have 6000 full time staff members and take in $1.3 billion each year in dues (34). Already, one can see the immense influence these organizations have, and their capacity to promote their own self interest (of note is that these dues are actually paid by the public because they are deducted out of every teacher’s salary).

These two organizations begin massive public relations campaigns in order to rally the average Joe Parent to their cause. Stern writes, for example, that the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), a subsidiary to the AFT that employs most of the New York City teachers, began a campaign in 1997 for “turning around our schools.” Taking out full-page newspaper ads to sway public support, the union spent over 1 million dollars on this campaign. Stern, however, also notes that the UFT spent another $1 million in an ad campaign against David Dinkins in 1993 because he did not give in to contract demands (36). Seen here is a prime example of the normal practice these institutions have mastered: garnering public support while using children as pawns in a much larger political game.

In expanding this chess analogy, if the children are the pawns, and AFT and NEA is the queen, then politicians would be the bishops. Stern notes in his article, “the two national unions cast a giant shadow over not just American public education but also Democratic Party politics.” They had donated millions to the campaigns of Gore and Clinton, and “constituted 11 percent of all delegates” at the 1996 Democratic convention, which was “a bigger share than the delegation form California” (37). A ramification of this is the successful blocking of many proposed school reforms aimed at helping the schools system. Stern tells the story of Debra Mazzerarelli, a parent activist who was elected to the New York State Assembly. She proposed a bill that would end teacher tenure and increase accountability. Although the bill received support from the New York State School Boards Association, Steven Sanders, who leads the Assembly Education Committee, would not “even schedule a discussion in committee on the proposed legislation.” Sanders is also a leading recipient of teachers’ union money (38). This is an illustration of the resistance to change in the education community.

The preceding example is not an isolated incident either. These two superpowers have, over the years, blocked hundreds of measures that involve everything from tenure elimination and school choice to new pay scales and the right for rookie teachers not to join the union. An almost comical instance of this occurred when the NEA organized a Pepsi boycott after PepsiCo offered to give some scholarships for inner-city New Jersey children to attend private school (Stern 42). The NEA had effectively obstructed a chance for impoverished children to receive a sound education. Their motivation (although they would never admit so) would of course be that if children are denied choice, they would have to accept the “public’s” monopoly on the schools, and have to accept the status quo, and have to accept their fate of blunted hope in a world they may never have a fair shot in.

The policies these unions are successful in gaining hurt students directly as well. For example, the UFT has made it virtually impossible to fire an incompetent teacher. If a principal were to record a negative evaluation on the teacher’s file, the teacher can contest it through “three different grievance procedures” and mandatory arbitration to have the mark removed. Most principals find the process daunting and distracting from their other duties (Stern 38-39). The result, yet again, is the embracement of the status quo at the expense of the children.

Critics charge that the educational organizations have every right to protect themselves and their constituents. This is true and represents the power of democracy and unity in achieving better working conditions and wages. Unfortunately, these organizations cannot have the best of both worlds: being true to themselves and being true to their product. They will however, paint this picture to parents, often under banners such as “Children First” or some other euphemistic phrase. This is why they pose such a great threat to the public schools. Only when the masses realize this will the public schools system be given the freedom to make American education great again.

Nevertheless, the task will not be easy. The public schools are plagued with problems, which include low literacy rates, high dropout rates, and a failure to prepare an adequate amount of students for post-secondary education. This is at a time when such an academic road is necessary to successfully compete in modern America. Billions of dollars are spent each year to correct the problem- with little results. Although not the sole reason, the self-serving interests of teacher’s unions are a significant cause of this, as they are able to exercise imperious rule over politicians and local school boards. If any serious school reform were to take place, it must start with an institution that rewards excellence and instills professionalism in all its members, or America will suffer from inevitable intellectual famine.

Works Cited
Carbo, Marie. “Reading with Style.” Principal May 1997: 12-14.
Fiske, Edward B. Smart Schools, Smart Kids. New York: Simon, 1991.
Greene, Jay P. “Public High School Graduation and College Readiness Rates in the United
States.” Education Working Paper. Sept. 2003. Center For Civic Innovation at the Manhattan Institute. .
Hacsi, Timothy A. Children As Pawns: The Politics of Educational Reform. Cambridge: Harvard
UP, 2002
Kafer, Krista. “Frequently Asked Questions About Education in America.” Research Education
Web Memo. Apr. 2004. The Heritage Foundation. .
Stern, Sol. “How Teachers’ Unions Handcuff Schools.” City Journal Spring 1997: 34-47.

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