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December 22, 2008

The Best and Worst in Education - 2008

Richard Kahlenberg

In many ways, 2008 was a great year for education, with the election of a new president who is willing to both invest in and reform American schools.  Also encouraging was the emergence of a new kind of school integration based primarily on economic status to replace race-based plans struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.  At the same time, however, 2008 was deeply disheartening year for education, as long-running tensions between some civil rights groups and liberal pundits on the one hand, and teacher unions and academics on the other, threatened to deteriorate into an all-out education war on the left.

We begin with the bad news:

The Worst: The Demononization of Teacher Unions.

For generations, teacher unions have been demonized by the right wing (which resents the political and financial support unions provide the Democratic Party) but 2008 saw the assault on teacher unions from the left as well.  In June, civil rights activist Al Sharpton and New York City’s Schools Chancellor Joel Klein announced the “Educational Equality Project.”   The group’s objectives were laudatory – closing the achievement gap between economic and racial groups – but its rhetoric placed teacher unions at the heart of the problem.  Sharpton declared, “If we’re going to move forward, we’re going to have to be able to have new alliances here – that might mean some old relationships with teacher unions, principal unions, are all going to be a little troubled.”   One teacher union staffer told me, “we’ve become Sister Souljah,” this year’s group that liberal politicians love to distance themselves from in order to show their centrist bona fides.

The approach is a mistake.  Teacher unions have been on the forefront of the fight for adequate financing of public schools and against wrong-headed privatization initiatives. True, teacher unions are far from perfect – they sometimes defend incompetent members,  oppose efforts to reward extraordinary teachers and drag their feet on accountability.  But as Klein himself knows, good teacher union leaders, like Albert Shanker, have believed simultaneously in teacher voice and education reform.  Shanker was a strong proponent of standards and accountability, of peer review plans to get rid of bad teachers, and of merit pay plans that are structured to reward excellence but also encourage collaboration among teachers.  The new president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, follows in the Shanker mold in supporting peer review to weed out incompetent teachers and declared in a National Press Club address in November that except for vouchers, all education reforms should be on the table. In fact, Klein worked with Weingarten, who is also president of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers, to forge with an innovative merit pay plan which rewards teachers in schools as a whole for raising student achievement.  This type of plan recognizes teachers for raising test scores but also encourages the type of cooperation and sharing of lesson plans that has long been the hallmark of highly successful Japanese educators.

Unlike Klein, some superintendents would rather rip up collective bargaining agreements altogether than work with unions.  In November, the Washington Post revealed that Washington D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee was contemplating seeking a Congressional declaration that D.C. schools are in a “state of emergency,” which would eliminate the need to participate in collective bargaining with the teachers union. Frustrated that the union did not approve her plan to reduce tenure protections in exchange for higher pay, Rhee seemed ready to suspend collective bargaining for teachers altogether.  Rhee also frustrated supporters of public schools when she declared that she had “no formal position” on the issue of public funding for private school vouchers.  Some saw this as reminiscent of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas’s declaration during hearings that he didn’t have a view on Roe v. Wade.

It is understandable that Rhee’s anti-union stance and openness to vouchers would make her a darling of conservatives like David Brooks.  But Rhee’s conservative stand on teacher unions also landed her on the cover of Time Magazine and won her plaudits from liberals like the normally sensible Jonathan Alter of Newsweek. The "teacher union" vs. "reformer" divide is catchy for journalists, because it fits into a familiar narrative of “might” vs. “right,” but teacher unions were created for a reason – because teachers were paid less than people who washed cars for a living and were bossed around by autocratic principals.  Seeking to obliterate collective bargaining agreements is something out of Wal-Mart’s handbook and ought not win you a puff piece from Time.  The larger divide between some civil rights groups and teacher unions is particularly tragic because no two forces are more essential in the fight for greater educational opportunity. 

The Best: New Efforts to Address Poverty and Segregation

The good news is that next year, we will have a new president (Barack Obama) and a new education secretary (Arne Duncan) who recognize that poverty lies at the heart of the achievement gap, not teacher unions.

Obama’s $10 billion pre-K initiative and his plan for health care reform may do as much to raise academic achievement and close the achievement gap between groups as school-based approaches like No Child Left Behind, given the consistent research going back to the 1966 Coleman Report on the primacy of family socioeconomic status in predicting academic achievement.   In the area of higher education, Obama has also appropriately highlighted the issue of poverty, noting that his own economically privileged daughters do not deserve a preference in college admissions, but that low income students of all races do.

While Obama and Duncan have thus far said little about the issue of economic school segregation – which Coleman found to be the number two predictor of academic achievement, after the economic status of the family – a number of local school districts are taking up the mantle.  One of the truly good pieces of news from 2008 was that following the U.S. Supreme Court’s wrong-headed June 2007 decision striking down racial integration programs in Louisville, KY and Seattle, WA, a number of school districts didn’t give up on integration, but rather reinvented it, using socioeconomic status as the primary basis for school integration

In February, for example, Des Moines, IO schools replaced a longstanding racial integration program with one that emphasizes socioeconomic status. In the Spring, Democracy Journal highlighted socioeconomic school integration as one of 20 big new public policy ideas on the left. In May, Louisville school officials voted to replace its old race-based program with one that combines a consideration of parental income, and education, along with race. And in July, the New York Times Magazine called socioeconomic plans “The Next Kind of Integration,” citing new programs in Burlington, VT, and Beaumont, TX, among others. [Link 17] Today more than 60 American school districts are using socioeconomic school integration as a new way of achieving the promise of Brown v. Board of Education.

Time will tell whether the Obama-Duncan team takes on economic school segregation.  If they do, American schoolchildren will have more to celebrate in 2009.


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Teacher Union's sometimes protect incompetent teacher?....THEY ALWAYS PROTECT INCOMPETENT TEACHERS.!!! If you truly think "Unions have helped the education of America's children"...., grow up, face the facts. Take it from one who has been intimately involved in education for the past Forty years: one of the best educational systems in the World has be dumbed down, slowed down, run down and broken both financially and acadademically by teachers unions. There is no defense for any other conclusion regardless of your anemic article and factless arguments. Reform must start with, not end with the Unions...they are a great example of a good idea gone bad...and who taken two whole generations of students with them. ssj.

Paul Higginbottom

You say "Teacher unions have been on the forefront of the fight for adequate financing of public schools...".

You don't believe current financing is 'adequate', well what level would be? U.S. public education seems to have more money spent on administration per student than anywhere else in the world. I'm not saying teachers don't deserve decent pay. The job is difficult and with more parents almost completely uninvolved, or so involved they meddle, the schools have an almost impossible job.

You finished that sentence with "and [unions are] against wrong-headed privatization initiatives."

Well they would be. They don't want competition. Competition might force them to actually have to perform. With no incentives to excel, or keep up with alternatives, all endeavors stagnate.

If public schools are so great, why are they so massively behind the RESULTS of both private schools and home schooling? You imply it's because funding is not adequate. I disagree. They have no incentive to operate efficiently.


Richard is at the center of the USA public school failure.

Our schools have had increased funding, smaller class sizes, greater segregation, more union power and less parental choice since the 1950's but student performance has declined decade after decade.

The greatest success, "No child left behind", measures performance to allow parents and school boards to focus improvements, but has been targeted for elimination or dumbing down by the union leaders.

Richard proposed the same tired themes that have produced this failure.

It is time for new ideas like vouchers, increased discipline and back to basic math, science, English focused teaching. Group student by ability to allow the gifted to be challenged and those behind to be given extra instruction in what they have not mastered.


It is time for the unions to go. They have ill served the students for far too long.

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