Teachers Unions

The good, the bad, and the ugly

The Worm in the Apple: How the Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education

by Peter Brimelow
HarperCollins, 2003, $24.95; 320 pages.

As reviewed by George Mitchell

Peter Brimelow aims high. In The Worm in the Apple, he seeks to emulate The History of Standard Oil, the legendary effort by Ida Tarbell that helped to usher in the antitrust movement a century ago.

While Tarbell’s villain was Standard Oil, Brimelow’s culprits are the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). However, though many of his concerns are valid and well documented, Brimelow is unlikely to earn a spot on bookshelves next to Tarbell. Unlike the self-effacing Tarbell, Brimelow overreaches with his rhetoric, distracting from and often obscuring his message.

For example, Brimelow considers teacher union leaders “commissars of [an] American Red Army.” The NEA “has chosen to metastasize into the National Extortion Association.” It exhibits a “persistent streak of left-wing loonyism.” Brimelow cites the words of “Chairman Mao Tse-Tung” to demonstrate that K-12 schools reflect “the most prominent outbreak of socialism on the American scene.”

Framed this way, Brimelow will at best reinforce the sentiments of those readers who already accept his basic premise. At the same time, he will be largely discounted by those whose support is required for real change to occur.

Brimelow is at his best in describing the broader historical context in which the teacher unions operate. He demonstrates how collective bargaining for teachers has produced labor agreements that stifle innovation and risk taking. He makes it clear that the dramatic rise in influence enjoyed by the teacher unions has coincided with stagnant and unacceptable levels of student performance.

Brimelow laments that little of this is understood by mainstream America. He correctly singles out the news media, where reports of the teacher unions’ activity and influence are woefully inadequate. He is on the money in claiming that “the teacher/school board conclave,” lacking such independent scrutiny, “effectively excludes other interested parties, such as parents and taxpayers.”

But what to do? Brimelow’s principal remedies involve a menu of anti-union legislation: repeal collective-bargaining laws for teachers; eliminate teacher tenure; enact “right to work” laws; and so on.

Brimelow lets these suggestions crowd out his other proposals-proposals that might be both more feasible and more effective. For example, rather than questioning the right of teacher unions to exist, Brimelow could have shown how effective unions are not inherently at odds with the creation of high-quality products. The auto industry, a leading example, illustrates how a market driven by real consumer choice, but with a heavily unionized work force, can function well. Instead, Brimelow’s concluding chapter seems to instruct readers to support school choice not so much because doing so might improve the schools, but because it will annoy teacher unions.

In the context of my own study of Milwaukee’s teacher union (with Howard Fuller and Mike Hartmann), Brimelow’s dire description of the national scene rings true. All the more disappointing, then, that his book reads more like Ann Coulter than Ida Tarbell.

George Mitchell is a public policy consultant in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

As reviewed by Julia E. Koppich

Will The Worm in the Apple someday become the answer to a question on the Advanced Placement exam in U.S. history? The author, financial journalist Peter Brimelow, hopes so. Brimelow considers himself a muckraker, the term coined by Theodore Roosevelt to describe writers who highlighted corruption in government. In a 1906 speech, Roosevelt branded some of the muckrakers’ methods sensationalist and irresponsible-an apt description for Brimelow’s book.

Brimelow uses the plural to refer to teacher unions, calling them collectively the “Teacher Trust.” But he focuses on the National Education Association (NEA) and especially on that organization’s California affiliate-for which, conveniently for him, reform is often anathema. To be sure, Brimelow makes some valid criticisms of unions-the bargaining of sometimes too-rigid employment contracts; some unions’ “just say-no’” attitude toward reform; proposals for more authority without accompanying responsibility for results. But he also could have found counterexamples. He just didn’t look very hard.

Teachers embraced unionism for a simple reason: they wanted to be involved in shaping the conditions of their employment. In a recent survey by Public Agenda, more than 80 percent of teachers said that without unions, they would be vulnerable to the vagaries of school politics, and their salaries and working conditions would be much worse.

Brimelow suggests repealing collective-bargaining laws so that “school boards would no longer be forced to deal with the union just because a majority of the teachers voting in a certification election supported it.” He is half right. Collective-bargaining laws do need to be revamped, but not as an exercise in limiting democracy.

Brimelow accuses unions of “opposing every reform idea that comes down the pipeline.” What he means is that unions oppose those reform ideas that he favors. I was heartened when he referred to the reform efforts of the teacher unions in Montgomery County, Maryland and Denver, but dismayed by his flip dismissal of them.

Montgomery County’s school district and union are focusing on standards-based professional development and the evaluation of teachers by principals, with the goal of improving student achievement. The joint work of the Denver Public Schools and Denver Classroom Teachers Association has resulted in a proposed compensation system, to be voted on by teachers in March 2004, that includes differentiated pay. However, these facts don’t fit the story Brimelow wants to tell, so the facts are given short shrift.

Likewise, many of the ideas we regard today as education reform’s conventional wisdom-linked standards and assessments, consequences for poor performance, testing new teachers, paying some teachers more than others, and charter schools-were given prominent public voice by a teacher union leader, the late Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers. However, this doesn’t square with Brimelow’s worldview, so he ignores it.

While harsh on teacher unions, Brimelow makes excuses for journalists whose coverage of the unions is weak or limited: “On those rare occasions when reporters do cover the teacher unions, they find themselves overwhelmed by the arcane and incomprehensible.” Are teacher unions really more complicated than energy market manipulation, insider stock trading, or new medical advances, all of which journalists have covered with distinction?

Throughout the book, Brimelow uses a variety of linguistic devices to drive home his points. But his over-the-top language soon grates on the nerves. He refers, for example, to segments of the NEA as “covens of cranks” and to some union staffers as-this is original-goons. If he has a serious message to communicate, his tone diminishes it.

Sometimes Brimelow is just plain mean for the sake of being mean. In describing an NEA convention, he says, “You can’t avoid feeling that you’ve stumbled into a sort of indoor rally for human hot-air balloons.” At first the reader might think that Brimelow is making a semi-humorous reference to the tone of the floor debate. No-he’s referring to the delegates’ physiognomy: “An alarming proportion of attendees wobble and waddle with thighs like tree trunks.”

At best, Brimelow can be accused of false advertising. His argument is not that teacher unions are destroying American education, but that they labor long and hard to preserve the status quo. If true, this too is an unpardonable sin. But this book contains so little about education-virtually nothing about classrooms, schools, or districts-even that point gets lost.

In fact, Brimelow uses teacher unions as the device to reach his real agenda: “The problem with America’s government school system [Brimelow’s name for public schools] is socialism. The solution is the introduction of a free market.” Taking on teacher unions may get readers’ blood boiling-union-bashing has become sport in some circles-but Brimelow’s real objective is to write an anti-public school polemic.

Julia E. Koppich is president of J. Koppich & Associates, a San Francisco-based education consulting firm.

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