Friday, April 20, 2007

Protecting Bad

I wrote last month about the thuggish tactics of the Newark teachers union (see: running billboard like this one:
In response (as I wrote here:, the Center for Union Facts is running its own billboards like this one:
The Center for Union Facts has also set up a web site at that documents the failure of Newark's schools (see and how the union protects even the very worst teachers.  In particular, check out this page
Out of Newark’s nearly 4,000 unionized, tenured teachers, only 15 were brought up on tenure charges between 2001 and 2005. Are there really that few teachers who shouldn’t be teaching kids? Or is the union making it too difficult to get rid of bad teachers? Read the tenure charges (acquired from the district) and decide for yourself.
In one case, a teacher was "Allowed to remain in her job for more than six months after charges were filed":
Slapped student in the face, raising welts and sending teacher's nail into the student's eye (Division of Youth and Family Services investigation said it substantiated abuse); hit student on the mouth with open hand; Maced a second-grader; put a stapler on a second-grader's lips and threatened to staple them shut
And this case is still unresolved:
30 parents signed a letter saying that their kids were being harmed by her failure to ever show up to class; continues to draw a $91,275 salary
My point in sharing this is not that I'm in general anti-union (as I suspect the backers of the Center for Union Facts are).  I'm a Democrat and I believe in the importance of unions in protecting workers, helping level the playing field with management and ensuring that workers receive fair pay and benefits and have job protections against unreasonable dismissals, retaliation, etc.
But where the teacher unions have developed a great deal of power -- especially large cities -- they have gone far beyond this role and frequently start behaving like the longshoreman's union, trying to intimidate or blacklist perceived enemies (just ask Eva Moskowitz), etc.  Worst of all, when it comes to what's best for children, they -- like many unions -- seem to think it's part of their duty to protect the very worst teachers. 
In this area, the behavior of the Newark teacher's union isn't extreme -- it's the normFor example, in one study of 95,500 tenured teachers in Illinois, an average of only two (0.002%) are fired each year for poor performance and in the past 18 years, 94% of school districts have never attempted to fire a tenured teacherIn another study of five cities’ school systems, of 74,600 teachers, fewer than four (0.005%) per year were fired for poor performance!

I have spoken with many, many teachers who currently teach or have taught in inner-city schools nationwide and, in response to this question -- What percentage of the teachers in your school are highly ineffective, can't be turned around and need to find another career? -- the consistent answer is 20-30%.  This anecdotal information is reinforced by this Bain study (posted here:, which shows that 1/3 of Boston public school math and reading teachers failed to impart any knowledge whatsoever.  And let's be clear: Boston is no Newark, Washington DC, LA, etc.

I am not aware of a single successful school of any type -- public, charter, parochial, independent -- in which the principal doesn't have a high degree of control over the staff in the school, meaning, most importantly, reasonable flexibility to hire and fire teachers.
So let me make a prediction: public schools will not meaningfully improve in a city (or nationwide) unless the union's power to protect the worst teachers is diminished.  This does not mean union-busting in general -- there are many other important roles that the unions can continue to play -- and, to be clear, the unions' power to protect mediocre teachers will never be broken completely (nor, perhaps, should it), but we have a long way to go.

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