Mention standardized testing for high-school pupils and teachers, or dare suggest that a core curriculum be enforced in the nation’s schools, and the educational establishment goes on the offensive.
There is nothing that riles these politicized special interests – led by the largest union in the country, the National Education Association – more than the threat of performance-based evaluation (testing) and compensation (merit pay). The latest muscle-flex by this mafia has come in response to the not exactly exacting requirements of Mr. Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative.
As best-selling author Peter Brimelow points out in his pathbreaking, “The Worm in the Apple: How the Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education,” union officials invariably respond to the deterioration in the schools by seeking to abolish the gauges of decay: tests, for one. Another signature rejoinder is the “M-O-R-E”-money motto. So you have to know that if the rapacious educrats would sooner forego federal funds than comply with an Act, they are feeling the heat.
The point here is not to debate the dubious merits of Mr. Bush’s plan to improve accountability in the nation’s failing schools. As Brimelow proves, the perverse incentives in this socialized system don’t allow for much latitude. The thing to observe, however, is how masterful the educrats are at mounting a noisy, well-masked offensive at the slightest threat to their Soviet-style status quo.
Be they standardized tests, charter schools or vouchers – any attempt at tweaking “government schools” affects the “hydra-headed” monster that is the NEA like kryptonite affects Superman. Or so says the author of the “The Worm in the Apple,” having taken on a mighty but sinister Superman – the NEA has 2.6 million members and collects $1.25 billion in annual revenues.
Together with the smaller American Federation of Teachers, the NEA holds hostage parents who are, invariably, desperate to educate their children. Its power lies in the monopolistic nature of public education. The essence of any labor union, explains Brimelow, is the attempt to “monopolize the supply of labor in their particular industries, in order to increase its price in the form of wages.” Compulsory-attendance laws prevent parents from opting out of the system. Which is why, in a bygone and more just era, the public sector was prohibited by law from engaging in collective bargaining. Back then, the unions were mere “tea and crumpets” professional societies. They turned into rogue organizations around the time politicians allowed the public sector to unionize.
This was also when the “Great Decline” in education commenced. (Yes, “correlation is not cause,” but, as our author reminds us, it is “suggestive.”) Brimelow cites Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby’s studies on the effects of unionization on the school system. She has found that, over the decades, it “raised inflation-adjusted per pupil spending, increased dropout rates, and ensured stagnant student performance” (p. 37).
Let us count the ways, then:
The unions set rules about hiring, firing, layoffs and promotion – rules about how teachers are to be evaluated and paid, and how the evaluations are to be used; rules about the assignment of teachers to classrooms, and their non-assignment to yard duty, lunch duty, hall duty and after-school activities; rules about how much time teachers can be required to work, how much time they must get to prepare for class; rules about class schedules; rules about how students are to be disciplined; rules about homework, class size, number and use of teacher aides; rules about handling grievances, time for professional meetings, who can join the union … ad nauseam (p. 38).
Before moving on to the book’s prodigious achievement, a word about Brimelow’s stylistic panache (and, hence, punch).
The description of the National Education Association’s annual 1999 meeting or “Representative Assembly” is delicious. The attendees “wobble and waddle through the teeming crowds of teachers … thighs like tree trunks, bellies billowing, jowls jiggling,” leaving us with a lasting mental image of our children’s over-sated role models.
The exhibitors and NEA political-interest group booths are “as colorful as the hucksters and jugglers at any medieval fair.” From the Gay and Lesbian Caucus, to the Women’s Caucus, and Black Caucus, to the free-Mumia-Abu-Jamal motions, the Assembly is a veritable “coven of cranks.”
In this microcosm of American school culture, there is, tellingly, a “paucity of textbook exhibitors,” although pizza is plentiful. A delivery arrives just as the delegates “were quietly beginning to starve.” (Characteristically, some dry-as-dust reviewers took issue with Brimelow’s brimming-with-personality pizzazz.)
The teacher unions, of course, are flabby not merely in chins and bellies. Brimelow sets about assessing the effects of this politburo on pedagogy with reference to the efficiency of the education system, as expressed in its output and input. His first journalistic pincer closes in on the system’s qualitative output.
Evidence of how stupid American students (and teachers) are has been slowly amassing. The creeping cretinism is confirmed by reports like “A Nation at Risk.” Especially indicative are the below-international-average scores of 17-year-olds. One out of four children is dropping out and not graduating. High schools have been so dumbed down that even average students sit bone idle. Fully 50 percent of students with IQs that border on mental retardation manage to pass. Unlike our European counterparts, American universities, colleges and even corporations spend a fortune on teaching students elementary things they should have learned in high school. College professors attest to a decline in the quality of students entering colleges.
Fair to a fault, however, Brimelow draws surprisingly cautious conclusions. True, there are schools in Miami Dade County that make the madrasas of Indonesia, Turkey, and Tunisia look promising. But, equally, there’s a school in Illinois that outperforms the excellent schools of Taiwan and Singapore. American schools are producing very mixed results.
But don’t be fooled by Brimelow’s charitable conclusions – this is only the halftime mark. With his second pincer – assessing the input or quantitative aspects of the system – Brimelow swoops down for the kill.
The education system is a hog of huge proportions. In 1890, “annual current spending per pupil was $275.” In 1999-2000, it was $7,086. “Adjusted for inflation and expressed in year 2000 dollars,” that’s “25-fold.” If GDP has since increased on average by only 1.9 percent per year, the spending on education has outpaced it, increasing 3 percent per year (p.26).
Simultaneously, the student-to-teacher ratio has been declining – there are ever more teachers compared to the number of students. One of the union’s goals is to pile on the personnel – this means more members and more union dues. Consequently, the teacher-to-student ratio is now down to an astonishing 1:16.5. (Include non-teaching staff, and there is now one adult for every eight or nine children in government schools.)
To this end, class-size reduction initiatives have been used to defraud taxpayers of billions, even though there is no consistent relationship between smaller class size and student achievement. There is, however, a solid connection between teacher quality and student accomplishment. But the teacher unions thwart any market process that would help separate good from bad teachers and reward them differently.
So what have we so far?
From an economist’s point of view, says Brimelow, an ever-increasing number of teachers relative to the number of pupils can only mean one thing: declining productivity. “To produce at the very best, the same results, the system is consuming more and more by the year.” Since costs only ever go up, and results are at best the same, the education system is without a doubt in decline.
Case closed: By page 38, Brimelow has proven what he set out to prove, and brilliantly so.
One of Brimelow’s 24-Point, thoughtful recommendations is to use antitrust law to bust the “Teacher Trust” (monopoly). There’s poetic justice to this. Since the “Teacher Trust” is a “creature of legal privilege” – and a form of legalized thuggery – laws against a conspiracy to monopolize trade or commerce should indeed be brought to bear on the union. Giving teeth to anti-strike laws and passing more right-to-work legislation are also good ways to smash this guild of goons.
Try as I did, I could only come up with minor quibbles: I probably disagree that John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company was a monopoly. Unlike the “Teacher Trust,” it brought a cheaper, better product to market. Nor can I bring myself to think about vouchers as anything other than another distribution scheme which will thoroughly co-opt private schools. But since Brimelow is not one to plead his case without careful attention to all sides, he has this covered.
Neither is Peter Brimelow about to let us forget that, “The problem with America’s government school system is socialism.” And the cure – as always – is capitalism and freedom.