Monday, March 29, 2010

Recent debate: Don’t blame teachers unions for our failing schools

The lawsuit seeking to block the closure of 19 failing schools was filed by (surprise!) the union, which once again put the interests of its members ahead of what's best for kids.  No wonder the crowd turned on Randi and her two colleagues after Terry Moe, Larry Sand and Rod Paige revealed the truth about the union's behavior at the recent debate.  I read the entire transcript ( and there's some great stuff.  Here's Terry Moe's opening statement:


Thank you very much. It's great to be here. I want to thank Intelligence Squared for

arranging this event and for putting the spotlight on what, in my view, is the most

important issue in American education today, the power of the teachers unions. I should

be clear that our team is not saying that the teachers unions are responsible for every

problem of the public schools. What we are saying is that the unions are and have long

been major obstacles to real reform in the system. And we're hardly alone in saying this.

If you read "Newsweek," "Time Magazine," the "Washington Post," lots of other well-respected

publications, they're all saying the same thing: that the teachers unions are

standing in the way of progress.


So look. Let me start with an obvious example. The

teachers unions have fought for all sorts of protections in labor contracts and in state laws

that make it virtually impossible to get bad teachers out of the classroom. On average, it

takes two years, $200,000, and 15% of the principal's total time to get one bad teacher out

of the classroom. As a result, principals don't even try. They give 99% of teachers -- no

joke -- satisfactory evaluations. The bad teachers just stay in the classroom. Well, if we

figure that maybe 5% of the teachers, that's a conservative estimate, are bad teachers

nationwide, that means that 2.5 million kids are stuck in classrooms with teachers who

aren't teaching them anything. This is devastating. And the unions are largely

responsible for that.


They're also responsible for seniority provisions in these labor

contracts that among other things often allow senior teachers to stake a claim to desirable

jobs, even if they're not good teachers and even if they're a bad fit for that school. The

seniority rules often require districts to lay off junior people before senior people. It's

happening all around the country now. And some of these junior people are some of the

best teachers in the district. And some of the senior people that are being saved are the

worst. Okay. So just ask yourself, would anyone in his right mind organize schools in

this way, if all they cared about was what's best for kids? And the answer is no. But this

is the way our schools are actually organized. And it's due largely to the power of the

unions. Now, these organizational issues are really important, but they're just part of a

larger set of problems. Our nation has been trying to reform the schools since the early

1980s. And the whole time the teachers' unions have used their extraordinary power in

the political process to try to block reform and make sure that real reform just never



Consider charter schools. There are many kids around this country who are

stuck in schools that just aren't teaching them. They need new options. Well, charter

schools can provide them with those options. But charter schools are a threat to teachers'

unions. If you give kids choice and they can leave regular public schools, then they take

money and they take jobs with them. And that's what the teachers' unions want to stop.

So what they've done is they've used their power in the political process to put a ceiling

on the numbers of charter schools. As a result in this country today, we have 4,600

charter schools. There are like well over 90,000 public schools. So this is a drop in the

bucket. And mean time charter schools have huge waiting lists of people who are

desperate to get in. In Harlem, for example, the charter schools there got 11,000

applications for 2,000 slots recently.


So just to give you an idea of about how the politics

of this works out, in Detroit a few years ago, a benefactor came forth and said he was

willing to donate $200 million to set up additional charter schools for the kids in Detroit

who obviously need it. What did the union do? The union went ballistic. They shut

down the schools, went to Lansing, demonstrated in the state capitol and got the

politicians to turn down the $200 million for those kids. This is good for kids? I don't

think so. This is about protecting jobs.


The same kind of logic applies with

accountability. Accountability is just common sense. We obviously need to hold schools

and teachers accountability for teaching kids what they're supposed to know. But the

teachers' unions find this threatening. They say they support accountability but they don't

want teachers held accountable. Any sensible effort to hold teachers accountable, they

brand as scapegoating teachers. They don't even want teachers performance to be

measured. Right here in New York City, Joel Klein indicated a while ago that he was

going to use student test scores as one factor in evaluating teachers for tenure. What did

the union do? Now, this is something that Obama supports, that Arne Duncan supports.

It's unbelievable. What the union did is they went to Albany and they got their friends in

the legislature to pass a law making it illegal to use student test scores in evaluating

teachers for tenure anywhere in the state of New York. It's just outrageous. And makes

no sense from the standpoint of what's best for kids. The "New York Times" called it

absurd. This is how the unions approach accountability.


Okay, well, I don't have a

whole lot of time left here. So let me just quickly say our opponents are going to say

tonight, and Randi has already said, there is really no conflict between standing up for the

jobs of teachers and doing what's best for kids. But the thing is there is a conflict. And

that's why we can't get bad teachers out of the classroom, because they protect them.

That's why the schools have totally perverse organizations imposed on them, and that's

why totally sensible reforms are seriously resisted in the political process. Now, what

you're going to hear, I'm sure, throughout the evening is that union leaders and unions

around the country, they're actually reformers too. They want to get bad teachers out of

the classroom. They say they're for charter schools; they're all in favor of accountability.

Well, not really. Talk is cheap. What counts is what they actually do. And what they do

is to oppose reform. This is the reality. Thank you.


And here's Larry Sand's closing statement:


Okay, thank you, John. And thank you, Mr. Rosenkranz, I think this is a wonderful

forum, and I'm very appreciative to be a part of it. Yesterday, March 15th was a day of

reckoning for many teachers across the country. In a bad economy, that's when the letters

of possible layoffs also known as RIFs, reduction in force notices, go out to all teachers --

go out to teachers who might be losing their job. In my school's retirement lunch last

June -- there were more than retirees saying goodbye. We lost several of the hardest

working, most effective and popular young teachers on campus. Several teachers -- we

all know who they are. The kids know, the parents know, the teachers know -- should

have been the ones saying goodbye. But because of the union mandated seniority rules,

they weren't. As a parent, a grandparent or just a fair-minded person, don't you want your

child, any child, to be taught by the best teacher, not the longest employed teacher? Of

course you do. But that is not what happened in my school and other schools around the



Yes, the teachers unions are not the only problems with public education today,

but the extent of the damage they have caused cannot be exaggerated. In closing, to show

you how the twisted the situation really is, what could be more preposterous than this:

They go to great lengths to keep the misdirected and other sexual predators in the

classroom. The union hounded Jaime Escalante, one of the greatest teachers of our time,

out of the classroom and more recently destroyed the hopes and dreams of thousands of

poor children in Washington, D.C. Please join us in sending the teachers unions a

resounding message and vote no on your ballot. Thank you.


Finally, here's Terry Moe's closing statement:


Well, I think it's important here at the end to just focus on the big picture. And the big

picture is very simple, and it's very devastating. Here is what it comes down to. The

teachers unions are by far the most powerful groups in American education. And they

use their power mainly to protect jobs. And what they say is that there is really no

conflict between protecting jobs and doing what's best for kids. But there are conflicts,

lots of them, and as a result we can't get bad teachers out of the classroom, the schools

are burdened with truly perverse organizations, and fundamental reforms, good reforms

that make sense for kids, are resisted and undermined and weakened. So these are just

basic facts. Our opponents say that they want reforms too, that they want to get bad

teachers out of the classroom. We've heard that several times that they want choice, that

they want accountability, and my response is, "Hey, it's 2010. Where've you been? If

you wanted to get bad teachers out of the classroom, why didn't you do it 30 years ago?

Why do we have all these protections and state laws? Why weren't they aggressive about

it 30 years ago? Why are we even talking about it now?" Same thing with choice and

accountability, they could have been aggressive in supporting these things, pushing for

more choice, pushing for accountability. The reason we don't have them is that they've

been opposing them. So again, what counts is not what you say, it's what you do. So

here's the bottom line. You have an opportunity to show tonight where you stand, and so

you can send a message about this issue to the unions and you can send a message to the

nation as a whole. So please do that. Please vote, "No," on this proposal. It's important.

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