“Don’t blame teachers unions for our failing schools”

For the motion: Kate McLaughlin, Gary Smuts, Randi Weingarten Against the motion: Terry Moe, Rod Paige, Larry Sand Moderator: John Donvan:

Before the debate:
After the debate:
Robert Rozenkranz: Thank you all very much for coming. It’s my pleasure to welcome you. My job in these evenings is to frame the debate. And we thought this one would be interesting because it seems like unions would be acting in their own self interest and in the interest of their members. In the context of public education, this might mean fighting to have the highest number of dues paying members at the highest possible levels of pay and benefits. With the greatest possible jobs security. It implies resistance to technological innovation, to charter schools, to measuring and rewarding merit and to dismissals for almost any reason at all. Qualifications, defined as degrees from teacher’s colleges, trump subject matter expertise. Seniority trumps classroom performance. Individual teachers, perhaps the overwhelming majority of them do care about their students but the union’s job is to advocate for teachers, not for education. But is that a reason to blame teachers unions for failing schools? The right way to think about this is to hold all other variables constant. Failing schools are often in failing neighborhoods where crime and drugs are common and two parent families are rare. Children may not be taught at home to restrain their impulses or to work now for rewards in the future, or the value and importance of education. Even the most able students might find it hard to progress in classrooms dominated by students of lesser ability who may be disinterested at best and disruptive at worse. In these difficult conditions, maybe teachers know better than remote administrators what their students need and the unions give them an effective voice. Maybe unions do have their own agenda. But is that really the problem? Is there strong statistical evidence that incentive pay improves classroom performance? Or is that charter schools produce better results? Or that strong unions spell weak educational outcomes, holding everything else constant? That it seems to us is the correct way to frame tonight’s debate, why we expect it will give you ample reason to think twice.