Failing Grades

Monday, April 30, 2001

School Choice basket of apples.

Although I have been writing a column for the last 21 years, I don’t recall ever having written about education. I say "don’t recall" because you forget what you have written. (Now you know why columnists repeat themselves.) I was always aware that education is one of those great and hopeless causes in which progressives had invested so much hope. Education would change us all, society would be transformed, and so on. It was a doomed cause, obviously, so I ignored it for years. But it has turned out that I was wrong. Educators have indeed changed the world. What no one predicted was that they would change it for the worse.

My mistake was to assume that a constant, fairly decent level of education would be sustained indefinitely. It wouldn’t get any better, to be sure. But at least it wouldn’t get any worse. Wrong! When I was growing up, education was something stable and unobtrusive in the background. It was simply there for all who wanted it. Most didn’t, of course, and most still don’t. Beyond a certain level, in fact, most people don’t need much in the way of academics.

How are we to explain the great decline that has taken place? In England in the 1950s it was often said—and it was probably true—that the grammar schools (state schools) were as good as the private schools. I hadn’t come to America yet (I arrived in 1962), but I gather that in the 1950s the public schools here were pretty good. No harm was done if working- or middle-class parents couldn’t afford the fees for private school. Their children would get a pretty good education anyway. But that is no longer true. The relative advantage of parents who can afford school fees is much greater now than it was 30 or 40 years ago. The same change has taken place in England.

The failure of government education is a crisis of liberalism, for the guiding philosophy of liberalism is this: if there’s a problem, the government should spend money on it; if the problem persists, it is because not enough money was spent. Yet public education has proven that premise false again and again.

My first job in the United States was as a schoolteacher—at a prep school in Virginia. The students were good, on the whole, and the headmaster was a memorable figure. Above all, he made sure that everyone worked hard, which included the teachers. I taught geometry and algebra, although I had no math degree and certainly had taken no education courses. Something called the New Math was coming down the education highway. But we were allowed to ignore it, so the students did okay. The astronomer and writer Clifford Stoll, growing up in Buffalo, had teachers who were afraid to seem old-fashioned, so he was subjected to New Math. He has fun with it in his entertaining book High-Tech Heretic. Algebra "had to be learned outside of math class," he says. Now there is something called New New Math, apparently, or Connected Math, or Fuzzy Math. "It all adds up to Mickey Mouse Math," he adds.

Educators have indeed changed the world. What no one predicted was that they would change it for the worse.

Progressive education had been much touted earlier in the century, but in the 1940s and 1950s (when I was growing up) it was in remission. "It sprang back to life in the early 1960s," Diane Ravitch writes in her new book, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms. "Once the hierarchy of educational values was shattered, once the schools lost their compass, hawkers of new wares could market their stock to the schools. Every purveyor of social reform could find a willing customer in the schools, because all needs were presumed equal in importance, and there was no longer any general consensus on the central purpose of schooling."

The latest fad, and one of the silliest and most expensive—promoted by Al Gore during the presidential campaign—is that if we can only hook kids up to the Internet the problem of educating them will be solved. That only shows he has given the subject no thought. The idea is that education imparts information; information is available through the web; therefore kids exposed to the web will acquire all the information they need. Kids will be motivated, too, because computers are fun! Any teacher who believes that is simply looking for a quiet life. Education experts who believe it should get into another field. They won’t, though, because theirs has been a playpen for mediocrities and daffy ideas for decades. That isn’t about to change.

Government schooling was an important issue in the presidential campaign, but my sense is that George W. Bush hardly understood it any better than Al Gore. But the parents are catching on. More and more, they know it has not been working for their kids. People are even beginning to realize that, wait a minute, maybe more money isn’t the solution after all. In that sense, the failure of government education is a crisis of liberalism, for the guiding philosophy of liberals is this: if there’s a problem, the government should spend money on it; if the problem persists, it is because not enough money was spent.

The teachers’ unions are the key to understanding the modern failure of public education.

It has been a great source of frustration to conservatives that so many Americans persist in believing this. It has seemed impossible to disabuse them of the idea that problems will be solved to the extent that government spends more money. Lousy schools and an incompetent education establishment have come close to doing the job, however. That’s a plus. But during the campaign Gore and Bush continued to see the problem through the eyes of the educators, not the pupils. When Gore touted the National Education Association line—hire more teachers, give us more dollars—Bush in effect responded: "More dollars? I’ll go for more dollars. But not quite so many as my opponent." He conceded the premise and lowered the ante.

Over and over again, the experience of public education has falsified that premise. More money has meant lower test scores. There is a correlation, but it is inverse. The big test came in Kansas City in the 1980s, when a power-drunk federal judge ordered taxes raised and the money spent on local schools. Two billion dollars were spent, more teachers were hired, salaries were increased. Test scores didn’t budge. The judge was naively convinced that, until he imposed his will on the district, the problem had been a shortage of good intentions.

The unions have succeeded in getting control of almost all aspects of schooling.

Now that George W. Bush is president, we find him making education his number one initiative. The education bill that he sent to Congress would call for more money to be spent at the federal level but not as much money as Al Gore had wanted to spend. It’s a safe prediction that the problem is not going to be solved in Washington.

Diane Ravitch says next to nothing about the teachers’ unions. But one who has studied them is Hoover fellow Terry Moe. I had a chance to talk to him recently at an education conference at the Hoover Institution. He has convinced me that the teachers’ unions are the key to understanding the modern failure of public education. We are talking about two unions here—the National Education Association (2.5 million members, 2 million of them practicing teachers) and the American Federation of Teachers (about one million members, half of them teachers).

The problem to be explained is why public education failed, having been reasonably successful for about a hundred years. The great decline took place at just the time when union power was rising. Their membership was inconspicuous in the 1950s, but in the following two decades both unions grew rapidly. In effect, they learned that they could "game" the system. They could exploit the nation’s willingness to spend ever-larger sums on public education and make it work to their own advantage, not just in wages and fringe benefits but in controlling almost every aspect of their own employment. It is not easy to get the relevant information from the unions themselves. Even the simplest questions "must often be answered through sketchy information" assembled from other sources, Moe stresses. Journalists, meanwhile, have exempted teachers’ unions from the usual media scrutiny.

Two things work greatly to the unions’ advantage. The first is that parents often don’t know what is going on in the schools. Many are too busy, too harried, too misinformed. This is especially true of single and inner-city parents, where a close watch is most needed. Parents who do pay attention, or who learn the bad news from others, often remove their children from government schools entirely. That is why there is now a large home-schooling movement in this country. The second point, stressed by Moe, is that the local school boards, nominally in control of schools, are in fact strongly shaped by the teachers’ unions.

In a chapter of a forthcoming book, Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public, Moe writes:

Unions bargain with school boards, which play the role of management. But school boards cannot be expected to behave like the managers of private firms in resisting union demands. School boards face little or no competition, and needn’t worry that they will lose ‘business’ by agreeing to union demands that raise costs, promote inefficiencies, or lower school performance. The kids and the tax money will still be there. In the second place, school boards are composed of elected officials, whose incentives are explicitly political. . . . Moreover, the unions, by participating in local elections, are in a position to determine who the ‘management’ will be."

For private sector unions, this achievement would be "a dream come true."

How do they "participate" in elections? School board contests attract a low turnout (10 to 20 percent), and they are typically nonpartisan, meaning that voters lack the information that party identification normally conveys. This allows the unions to shape that message. Unions also have lots of money. They control an army of workers—teachers themselves—who have a direct stake in the outcome. They can be organized to vote, make phone calls, ring door bells, distribute literature, serve as campaign staff. No other community group "can come close to matching them." They overshadow business and civic groups, parents especially. All this explains "the astounding fact" that teachers’ unions can control "who they will be bargaining with," as Moe says.

The agenda of the teachers’ unions does not necessarily consider what is best for the children, for the schools, or for the public interest more generally.

There are regional differences—the unions are still weak in most southern states—but overall they have succeeded in getting control of almost all aspects of schooling. It’s not just pay and fringe benefits. In urban districts, where unions are strongest, contracts may run to 200 or 300 pages. There are rules about hiring and (almost impossible!) firing; about how teachers are to be evaluated, how much time they can be required to work, class schedules and sizes; about teachers’ roles in school policy decisions, grievances, time off for professional meetings; and about who has to join the union (there are big "agency fees" for those who don’t).

In this analysis, institutional self-interest overrides everything else. Unions need to attract members and money, which entails not just winning higher wages and benefits but increasing the demand for teachers (that’s what "smaller class size" means), supporting higher taxes, seeing that more money flows into union coffers, minimizing competition, and seeking political power. Notice what is not included here: considering what is best for the children, for the schools, or for the public interest more generally.

Some conservatives who understand these things have developed a political philosophy that might be called Leninist: "the worse the better." Lenin supposedly said that, in the period before the Bolshevik revolution. Any amelioration of social conditions would only reduce the pressure for revolution. So, some on the right say, "No vouchers!" They would only extend federal control to private schools anyway. The unions are inadvertently encouraging people to take their children out of public schools and home-school them. The worse the better! I’m not sure I go that far, but it’s something to think about. Home-schooling deserves a closer look.