The Welcome Earthquake

(This piece originally appeared in the Fordham Institute’s Education Gadfly.)

If a recent spate of Wall Street Journal articles is any clue, a week before the election we could be sitting on a tectonic fault with the potential to turn into an education earthquake—and that might actually be a blessing. It has to do with teachers, their unions, and U.S. politics—all of which would benefit from some profound movement.

Writing in the Journal on October 19, Eric Hanushek declared that “there is no ‘war on teachers.’” Three days later, a pair of Journal reporters displayed the National Education Association as the fifth biggest contributor to 2010 election races. And on the same day, in a piece headed “Gov. Christie’s Ultimate Test,” reporter Monica Langley described the Garden State’s feisty chief executive as “well aware that the fate of his fight with the teachers union could determine his own.”

All three are true. Hanushek’s key insight is that “we are seeing not a war on teachers, but a war on the blunt and detrimental policies of teachers unions,” especially when it come to purging classroom ranks of a smallish number of chronically weak instructors.

The reporters are right, too. The campaign-finance data show that both national teacher unions and their affiliates rank among the largest contributors—nearly always to Democratic campaigns at both national and state levels. This has been true for at least two decades and is true again this year. Nor do such dollar tallies count the many phone banks, door bell ringings, backpack enclosures, and other “in kind” offerings they supply to chosen candidates and preferred parties.

As for Governor Christie, he seems to understand that his titanic battle with the New Jersey Education Association—centering on public-education spending, but bearing many policy ramifications—may well be a fight to the death. Yet he appears undeterred. As Andy Rotherham noted in the article, Christie is “on to something big—that the huge cost for public schools is no longer sustainable.” And as both sides surely recognize, this state-level tussle is but one front in a nationwide war between taxpayers and teacher unions. (In the same article, Rick Hess termed New Jersey “the canary in the coal mine.”)

These three examples illumine the convergence of four big developments that could shake the bedrock of education policy and possibly of American politics. From the teacher union standpoint, this is seismic activity to be feared. From a reform perspective, however, it’s a much-needed disruption of the status quo.

* The country has come to understand the wide range of teacher quality and its crucial link to school effectiveness and student achievement, thanks in part to research ranging from Hanushek back to Bill Sanders’ early work in Tennessee. Big-name players like Barack Obama and Arne Duncan—as well as a handful of courageous superintendents (e.g. Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Terry Grier)—have picked up on this, and federal and foundation investments have eased their way. Combine this with the huge recent increase in longitudinal student-achievement data, and suddenly it’s no longer taboo—or impossible—to evaluate instructors based on the education value they add to their pupils or to do something about those who perform dismally. Tenure and seniority are no longer sacred, either, and the unions no longer get much traction with their declaration that it’s inherently unfair to gauge teacher performance on the basis of student learning. (It’s not unfair. It’s just difficult to do well!) If you don’t believe that other influential Democrats favor this form of evaluation, check out the Title I bill recently introduced by Reps. Jared Polis and Susan Davis.

*Economic hard times are posing major challenges to state and local treasuries, of which huge fractions consist of public education, within which 75 to 80 percent of the money typically goes into salaries and benefits, mostly for teachers. Barring more big federal bailouts—which this year’s election would seem to make ever less likely—school budgets are going to be strapped for years to come and cost-cutting, together with eking greater value out of the remaining dollars, is going to occupy the education-policy center ring. For most districts, this will force a rethinking of everything from salaries to instructional delivery. Online learning and “hybrid” schools are beginning to come into their own, for both quality and economic reasons, and America may finally face up to the fact that over the past half century we have reduced the student/teacher ratio from twenty-seven-to-one to fourteen-to-one with no matching gains in achievement.

* Recession, unemployment, and the Tea Party have fueled an intensifying resentment of the privileged status of public employees, their job security, their (relatively) generous pay, and their lavish but sorely underfunded benefits, which threaten to place an unsustainable burden on future generations of taxpayers. This one goes far beyond teachers—and all the public-employee unions know it (and so are pouring money into next week’s election). If Republicans do make major gains in Congress and the statehouses on Tuesday, the public sector may well lose some of its privileges. If Andrew Cuomo is serious, this might happen at the hands of Democrats, too.

* We’re witnessing a gradual but nontrivial change in public perceptions of teacher unions and their power over the system. Whether it’s Waiting for ‘Superman’ and other recent films, Oprah, NBC’s Education Nation, the L.A. Times’s publication of individual teacher data (and signs that something similar will soon happen in New York), or the emergence of a cadre of bona fide Democratic education reformers, tremors can be felt. The unions (and other established education interests) are scrambling to re-establish their once-solid footing by contradictorily pushing back against reform while trying to position themselves as champions of it (think Randi Weingarten).

As Election Day 2010 arrives, the education stakes are big, even if few voters are placing this issue atop their priorities. The unions may never be the same again. Nor the Democratic Party. Nor maybe, even, the GOP. Seismic events are generally feared for the damage that they do. But sometimes they cleanse corruption (consider Noah’s flood) or make way for new developments.  (The post-meteor dinosaur die-off enabled mammals to flourish.) The schools our children and grandchildren attend could benefit from something of the sort.

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