BOOK REVIEW

The Worm in the Apple
by
Peter Brimelow

Page Contents

Teacher unions

K-12 Education

National Education Association

Education reform

FUTURECASTS online magazine
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Vol. 7, No. 9, 9/1/05.

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The teacher unions:

"There is no market process that rewards success and punishes failure: or that even holds down costs."

  The problem  of public education is "systemic," Peter Brimelow explains in the Preface to "The Worm in the Apple: How the Teacher Unions are Destroying American Education." It is the same as for any service provided by government - whether in a socialist state or in a capitalist state - authoritarian or democratic. "There is no market process that rewards success and punishes failure: or that even holds down costs."
 &

The teacher unions are monopoly unions in a monopoly industry with captive customers forced by law to send their children to "government" schools.

  This book is about the teacher unions - how they wield political power - hold children hostage to their union interests - block meaningful reforms - and squeeze ever more money out of the public purse. (Along with other public employee unions, they are increasingly threatening the solvency of state and local governments.) The teacher unions are monopoly unions in a monopoly industry with captive customers forced by law to send their children to "government" schools. Facilitating meaningful competition through school vouchers, tax credits and tax deductions is Brimelow's remedy of choice.
 &
  The book is frankly written in the muckraking style of a century ago that was used to attack the great industrial trusts of the day. The author attacks the teacher unions in the same way that he claims they attack their adversaries. He attaches pejorative labels to them and relies heavily on anecdotal evidence to prove his points.
 &
  The National Education Association (NEA) is the "National Extortion Association" - the teacher unions and their union service contractors are the "Teacher Trust" - their collective bargaining process is thus "monopoly bargaining." Public schools are more precisely labeled "government" schools. The book is full of negative facts - of which there are all too many - and anecdotal details purporting to reveal the true nature of the unions and the many failures of K-12 education in the U.S.

  Obviously missing is any explanation of the many successes of K-12 education, and why the vast bulk of the middle class is happy with their schools. The answer is neither obscure nor difficult to state in brief - it is the intense involvement of determined parents in the education of their children both within and outside the schools. The low income communities - totally dependent on government for the education of their children - get the usual deplorable results from such dependency.

  Among the many facts that Brimelow reveals about the NEA: This union - with 75% female members - is led by union officers that are more than 50% male, with male presidents since 1989. Men dominate the upper ranks - the principals and superintendents - of the education profession.
 &
  Like any massive, heavily bureaucratized, rigid organization, the NEA - the dominant teacher union - is having difficulty coping with the pace of change. The author asserts that it is torn by factionalism and increasingly beset by member apathy and resentment over its obstructionist policies. Indeed, there is a widening gap between the union activist leadership and the rank and file members.
 &
  However, most of the members are unconcerned about internal NEA politics or even about its political policies. They are satisfied with the rising salaries and benefits that the union has negotiated for them.
 &

Output:

  The qualitative "output" of American schools is fairly assessed by Brimelow.
 &

"There has never been a Golden Age of American education." There have always been a substantial number of students who can't or don't want to stay in school and graduate. Universal high school graduation may be an unrealizable goal that is currently absorbing vast sums that could more profitably be spent elsewhere.

  The U.S. is a large, diverse nation. Its worst schools are very bad, but its best schools are very good. Its worst students perform very badly, but its best students perform at the highest levels.

  What is frequently left out of these statistical evaluations is the impact on them of the large immigrant population in some urban schools. Immigrant children frequently suffer from sketchy English skills and come from families without any academic background or appreciation for the importance of educating their children. Then, there are the children of single parent families, afflicted by a host of social disabilities. Nevertheless, there is ample evidence that better schools and better teaching would materially improve results.

  The policy response where results have been poor has been to pour additional money into education for the handicapped and the disadvantaged. Nevertheless, only about 70% of high school students graduate. Extra funds for "gifted" students amount to only 2 out of every $100.

  "[Despite] successive waves of reform, the government school system has been failing in this way, with about a quarter of its students consistently dropping out, for nearly forty years."

  However, this is about as good as it has ever been, the author concedes. "There has never been a Golden Age of American education." There has always been a substantial number of students who can't or don't want to stay in school and graduate. Universal high school graduation may be an unrealizable goal that is currently absorbing vast sums that could more profitably be spent elsewhere. Citing "The Bell Curve" by Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein, Brimelow speculates that the system is either broken - or wrongly designed - (or both).
 &
 A significant proportion of these teenaged students are simply not academically inclined, and are better off freed from their intolerable academic prisons to move earlier into the job market.

  The statistics about the earnings of those who fail to get a high school diploma are a farce. They include many who for a variety of reasons cannot or will not engage fully in economic activity. They include many who suffer significant physical or mental or emotional disabilities or moral weaknesses.
 &
  Skilled craftsmen and even truck drivers today readily earn middle income wages. Aside from basic literacy, numeracy, civics, and the computer keyboard, there is little of economic value that public education can provide the young people who are not academically inclined. Vocational training capabilities are vastly neglected, and that which is offered is usually of pitiful quality. As the punch line of a classic joke goes, for most high school students, "there is no such thing as algebra in the real world."

Businesses feel that they must expend significant sums for training employees in skills that the employees should have gotten in high school.

  One result is that parents flee the system. They vote with their feet - if they are able. The number of students in secular private schools or home schooling is soaring. Another result is that almost all government and most private colleges feel compelled to dedicate significant resources for "remedial education." A third result is that businesses feel that they must expend significant sums for training employees in skills that the employees should have gotten in high school.

  Indeed, it is even worse than that. Businesses are having to expend resources for such training even for employees with degrees from many of our colleges.

Input:

 

 

&

  However, for this - at best, "mixed" - output, the system's quantitative cost "input" grows inexorably. After-inflation cost growth per pupil is about 3% per year - more than 50% faster than the long term growth of GDP. Moreover, this does not include under funded teacher pension obligations and interest on school debt - or education-related spending by non-education government agencies - or exaggerations in school attendance.
 &

The teacher/student ratio has fallen steadily from 30.5 students per teacher in 1930 to just 16.5 in 1998. Nevertheless, class size remains at 1930 levels, because unionized schools deploy teachers very inefficiently.

 

Teacher quality - not class size - is the key variable for educational output.

  Only Austria and Belgium spend more per pupil than the U.S. Most advanced nations spend at least 25% less - and still get better results. Nor is a shortage of teachers at fault. The teacher/student ratio has fallen steadily from 30.5 students per teacher in 1930 to just 16.5 in 1998. Nevertheless, class size remains at 1930 levels, because unionized schools deploy teachers very inefficiently.

  "It is also true, although guaranteed to annoy teachers even more, that educational researchers have been able to demonstrate little or no consistent relationship between smaller class sizes and student achievement. This finding is again shockingly contrary to what everybody thinks they know about education -- largely because no one realizes how dramatically teacher-pupil ratios have been falling for the last hundred years."

  Teacher quality - not class size - is the key variable for educational output. In 1996, California poured a billion dollars into an effort to cut K-3 class size by a third. There was no observable relationship between reduced class size and student achievement.
 &

There are today almost as many people who are not teachers on education payrolls as there are teachers.

 

No matter how high the inputs - in money and staffing - output fails to increase and has even declined somewhat - in terms of both graduation rates and academic performance of graduates. In the last three decades of the 20th century, that productivity decline in terms of inflation adjusted dollars has been calculated at an astounding 40%.

 

In the absence of competition, there has been no incentive to increase - or even just maintain - productivity in the school system.

 Meanwhile, education payrolls are increasingly bloated with employees who are not teachers. There are today almost as many people who are not teachers on education payrolls as there are teachers. Thus, there are now only about 8.6 students per adult.
 &
  This varies among the states. Seven states now have more non-teachers than teachers on their education payrolls - Michigan, Oklahoma, Indiana, Mississippi, Florida, New Mexico, Vermont. However, since not all teachers teach, this is only a rough measure of the "class room" teachers as a percentage of staff. Class room teachers readily express their resentment of these bloated administrative staffs.
 &
  The District of Columbia spends the most per pupil - and gets the second worst results. Michigan had the worst results - perhaps because 40.2% of staff were not even in the schools, but were in bloated county and state offices. Michigan is a union stronghold and the birthplace of the transformation of the NEA from a professional association into a labor union.
 &
  Thus, by every measure, productivity in U.S. education has been in steep decline since the advent of the NEA as a labor union. No matter how high the inputs - in money and staffing - output fails to increase and has even declined somewhat - in terms of both graduation rates and academic performance of graduates. In the last three decades of the 20th century, that productivity decline in terms of inflation adjusted dollars has been calculated at an astounding 40%.

  "But the government school system's costs never fall. They only go up. There are apparently never any productivity gains in the education business, despite radio, television, photocopy machines, computers, videos -- which your children spend more time watching at school than you might think, or fear -- and all the technological advances of the last hundred years. There are only productivity declines."

  In the rest of the non-farm economy, labor productivity rises at an average rate of 1.5% per year - 1% per year in the service sector. In the absence of competition, there has been no incentive to increase - or even just maintain - productivity in the school system.
 &

  Because of federal legal requirements, substantial resources have had to be poured into increased "special education" efforts to teach students with "disabilities." This alone accounts for about a quarter of the increased costs of education.
 &

Enlarged school districts, open classrooms, new math, whole language reading, cooperative learning - are among the liberal tried and failed education fads of recent years. Conservative fads include increased school days, more testing, and charter schools.

  All the classic malfunctions of any socialist system can be found in the government school system, Brimelow points out.

  • Politics dominate the allocation of resources.

  • There is increasingly bloated bureaucratic overhead.

  • There is chronic mismatch of supply and demand, as schools remain overcrowded and suffer from a dearth of math and science teachers.

  • There is top-down policy making, which generally just throws more money - ineffectively - at problems. Enlarged school districts - open classrooms - new math - whole language reading - cooperative learning - are among the liberal tried and failed education fads of recent years. Conservative fads include increased school days - more testing - and charter schools.

  "From an economist's point of view, of course, technical solutions to education problems should be discovered through a market process that involves producers -- schools -- and consumers -- parents --. You don't find fashionable journalists and politicians conducting passionate debates about new methods of producing baked beans. But we do have cheap baked beans. The market produces them. A socialist economic system, however, must rely on these top-down solutions because it doesn't generate bottom-up solutions. In can't. It has no market process."

  Criticism of the increased reliance on testing includes much that is valid. "Teaching to the test" is indeed an inherently inferior teaching method.
 &
  However, there is no alternative. High school curricula have in many instances been so dumbed down, and grade inflation has become so extreme, that reliance on testing is all that is left. The education establishment has destroyed all other standards for measuring educational results.

  Brimelow explains that the teacher unions force up per pupil spending by 12.3% per year above the rate of inflation, with results that include an increase in dropout rates of 2.3%. He quotes Terry R. Moe of the Hoover Institute:

  "There are rules, of course, about pay and fringe benefits. But there are also rules about hiring, firing, layoffs, and promotions. Rules about how teachers are to be evaluated, and how the evaluations can be used. Rules about the assignment of teachers to classrooms, and their [non] assignment to yard duty, lunch duty, hall duty, and after-school activities. Rules about how much time teachers can be required to work, and how much time they must get to prepare for class. Rules about class schedules. Rules about how students are to be disciplined. Rules about homework. Rules about class size. Rules about the numbers and uses of teacher aides. Rules about the school calendar. Rules about the role of teachers in school policy decisions. Rules about how grievances are to be handled. Rules about staff development and time off for professional meetings. Rules about who has to join the union. Rules about whether their dues will be automatically deducted from their paychecks. Rules about union use of school facilities. And more - - -."

  More important than all these rules, Moe points out, is the ability of unions to block anything they don't want - "and thus to stifle all education reforms that are somehow threatening to their interests."
 &

The NEA:

  Anecdotal horror stories illustrating NEA attitudes are provided by Brimelow.
 &

  It is they who control K-12 education. That's their fief, and they will tolerate no interference with the exercise of their will within their realm.

  • Their rationalizations in support of their obstruction of reforms are indeed ludicrous.
  • Their response to their performance failures is always to complain of insufficient funds.
  • They need more science and math teachers, but adamantly oppose increased pay to get them.
  • They will not tolerate any form of competition, and make it impossible to efficiently run the government school system.
  • Teachers boast increased qualifications in terms of continuing education and post graduate degrees, but the academic content of most teachers college and university education department courses is ludicrously low, and many teachers remain incompetent - and protected from dismissal by union rules. Students taking education courses to obtain teaching credentials score on average well below average on the standardized tests taken by all students.

  There are some useful courses in the education curricula. Courses on teaching specific subjects like math or science can be quite good. Some teaching methodology instruction is of course essential. However, the bulk of the education curricula is a dreary intellectual wasteland.
 &
  Education courses are so bad that they drive many of the more competent students away from teaching as a profession. Who would want to waste their education time and money sitting though such blather?

In many states, all political or school board reform efforts are stymied by provisions in the massive collective bargaining agreement and associated arbitration rulings and policy understandings.

 

The teacher unions often wind up bargaining with themselves against the public interest by capturing local school boards and hiring suitably responsive school administrators.

The massive political power of the NEA - and the political tactics it uses to get its way - generally at the expense of the taxpayers and the students - is explained by the author. The internal structure of the NEA assures centralized control. It maintains a pervasive permanent staff that dominates the elected NEA officials whenever staff interests conflict with that of the union. Its ties to the AARP and its domination of the National PTA give it considerable extra clout.
 &
  Teacher union power in politics and collective bargaining permits union domination of all aspects of education policy. In many states, all political or school board reform efforts are stymied by provisions in the massive collective bargaining agreement and associated arbitration rulings and policy understandings. In several instances, the NEA has co-opted reform initiatives for its own benefit, distorting the reforms sufficiently to drain them of intended educational effects. They often wind up bargaining with themselves against the public interest by capturing local school boards and hiring suitably responsive school administrators.
 &
  Teacher union members dominate the Democratic Party and support many of their own members for state and federal elective office. Teacher union members "are prominent in many state legislatures, state policymaking positions, and local school boards." Their PACs contribute tens of millions of dollars each election cycle. Soft money and manpower contributions amount to even more.
 &
  The teacher unions easily bullied the California Governor, Democrat Gray Davis, into adding an additional $!.8 billion over the already generous education budget provision. Increases add upon increases - but it is never enough. Schools remain with "broken windows, leaky roofs, inoperable toilets, and obsolete textbooks," because the teacher unions always get even greater salary and staffing increases that leave the schools perennially short of money.

  "Through politics, the Teacher Trust is in effect capturing America's government school system, beginning with its pervasive presence at the local level. It has reached the point where union officials appear genuinely surprised if they are not allowed to take over management functions."
 &
  "America's government school system is a political bureaucracy. This makes the co-option and/or capture of local school boards by the Teacher Trust just a matter of time. The union is the $1.25 billion gorilla. The school boards are in its cage."

  NEA finances and munificent salaries are estimated by Brimelow. Unlike private sector unions, public employee unions are under no legal financial reporting requirements to reveal such details as salaries, benefits and perks. They need only supply the general data required by the Department of Labor and the IRS.
 &

Competition:

 

School choice  is the reform most dreaded by the teacher unions.

  It's a no holds barred battle to avoid competition in education for the teacher unions. School choice, "the creation of a free market in education, rather than the current socialist government school system," is the reform most dreaded by the teacher unions. Vouchers, tax credits and tax deductions have been proposed to finance school choice schemes, but Brimelow prefers vouchers because that would empower all parents - not just the well off.
 &

Competition is good - indeed, ideal - and essential for the assurance of efficient delivery of quality services.

 

Although many politicians and union leaders send their own children to private schools, the unions and the Democratic Party fight school choice plans with grim determination.

  Vouchers are the brainchild of economist Milton Freedman. The proposal is based on a simple observation. Competition is good - indeed, ideal - and essential for the assurance of efficient delivery of quality services.

  "After all, the government fights hunger by distributing food stamps, not by owning supermarkets."

  Although many politicians and union leaders send their own children to private schools, the unions and the Democratic Party fight school choice plans with grim determination. Where implemented, they attack it with litigation, try to tie it up with regulations, and conduct all-out propaganda wars against it. They claim it is a Marxist scheme on one occasion and a Fascist scheme on another and a scheme of religious fundamentalists on another. They shrilly assert that it would destroy America and the American way of life.
 &
  However, what it would really do would be to force the government schools to begin to efficiently deliver quality education - or destroy them and replace them - and the teacher unions. The author explains some of the arguments used regularly in the teacher union propaganda campaigns.

  • They deplore use of public funds that might be directed into private and even religious schools - but extol the GI Bill of Rights that did just that after WW-II. The U.S. Supreme Court has approved the legality of choice programs using vouchers, Federal Pell grants and countless state and local tuition assistance programs that do the same thing. However, this objection to the use of public funds is a red herring. The teacher unions oppose privately funded voucher programs, too.
  • They assert that private schools would "cherry pick" only the best students, leaving the government schools with all the problem students. However, government schools now send their worst problem students to private schools, and often segregate them within the public school system.
  • They assert that private schooling will reinstate segregation. However, government schools are more segregated today than before 1960. Many inner city schools today are 85%-to-95% ethnic minority. It is their poor quality that chases away white families - and middle class minority families as well - and reinstates segregation. Experience shows that voucher programs reflect district ethnic mix.
  • They assert that voucher programs constitute an abandonment of government schools. "You can't just pluck some kids out of a school and give them more hope and more opportunity and leave the rest behind," said one union leader. "This means she thinks parents have some sort of obligation to inflict a miserable education on their children. It's a species of moral blackmail," the author responds.
  However, the winning arguments for the teacher unions are those that frighten parents in middle class districts that have good schools. Vouchers will allow inner city kids to come to their schools, bringing with them inner city problems.
 &
  Suburban families content with their schools, and taxpayers without children in school who fear any new spending program or threat to their property values, join the teacher unions in the continued suppression of inner city school children. Parents with children in private schools fear increased regulation and unionization if vouchers greatly expand enrollments - and they are right. Private and religious schools are increasingly being unionized.
 &

Extremists:

  All conservative taxpayer organizations and religious organizations are labeled "extremists" by the teacher unions. This is their most common propaganda ploy.
 &

  Indeed, anyone who has actively sought to reduce or curtail public funding in educational or cultural budgets is an "extremist." Anyone who challenges the new curricula preferred by the teacher unions is an "extremist."

  "According to the NEA, the 'Radical Right' includes 'free-market conservatives, antigovernment and anti-union ideologues, and religious fundamentalists with a political agenda. But that's hardly a comprehensive list. For example, if white parents want the famous lesbian-nontraditional family apologia Heather has Two Mommies" removed from the elementary school library, they are extremists. However, if African American parents want Huckleberry Finn removed from the elementary school reading list for offensive language, they are not extremists. But if those African American parents hold a rally in support of school choice -- well then, they are extremists after all!"

  The vast political budgets of the teacher unions and their wide ranging political efforts are justified by the unions as needed to combat all these "extremists." At all levels, the unions busily turn out studies, policy papers and propaganda against its extremist adversaries. Fortunately, all the adversaries are extremists - and they are all in one giant "right wing conspiracy" against teacher union interests.
 &

The propaganda machine:

  The NEA controls the media in a variety of ways. It generates coverage as an educators' "association" rather than as a "union" that has typical narrow union interests. It can generate legions of angry letter writers in response to any negative press, and threaten even major news magazines with loss of circulation and advertisers.
 &

The NEA frequently co-opts reform efforts by presenting itself as a reforming agency so that it can twist reform into channels it finds favorable.

  It frequently co-opts reform efforts by presenting itself as a reforming agency so that it can twist reform into channels it finds favorable. It seeks to present itself as more of a "craft" union interested in maintaining professional standards than as a narrow "industrial" union interested primarily in wages and benefits and union perquisites. Generally, all their "reforms" involve an increase in power for the teacher unions over curricula, teacher evaluation and discipline, and even school district budgets.
 &
  The result is that very few incompetent teachers are fired, and the procedures for dealing with them get increasingly complex, time consuming and expensive. School district curricula stray into left wing channels the local population frequently does not support, and school district budgets stray ever closer to insolvency. Charter schools are sabotaged whenever possible by encumbering them with regulations and subjecting them to the provisions in the teacher union collective bargaining agreement.

  A recent and ominous weapon being used against charter schools is to starve them for funds. With the powerful political support of teacher unions, funding for those charter schools that have been permitted to open has been permitted to lag thousands of dollars per pupil behind that of the regular public schools.
 &
  If the charter schools can nevertheless maintain their educational output, that will be a very powerful argument in their favor. However, ultimately, the lack of funding must prove disastrous for the charter school experiments.

Reform:

 

&

  NOTHING WILL WORK - nothing can work - as long as there is no meaningful market competition, Brimelow correctly emphasizes. Socialist institutions MUST fail - monopolies ALWAYS remain unresponsive and inflexible. They ALWAYS deliver goods and services of low quality in relation to the funds expended.
 &

The introduction of meaningful competition is not an option - it is essential.

  When the teacher union had a chance to demonstrate what it could do in an ideal union managed school in Florida, Brimelow asserts that it failed miserably despite copious financing. The introduction of meaningful competition is not an option - it is essential. Competition may even force meaningful reforms on the government school systems sufficient for them to compete, survive, and even thrive.
 &

The data unequivocally show that those who enter teaching through alternative certification procedures produce superior results in the classrooms.

  Other reform suggestions offered by Brimelow include:

  • To place the public interest ahead of the union interest, radical reform is needed of the state and federal laws that empower public employee unions. Unions are currently often empowered by law to the point where they can and do smother real reform and drive state and local budgets into insolvency. The author provides a number of suggestions - bound to drive union leaders apoplectic. Right to work laws are a good starting point - already in existence in 30 states.
  • Paycheck protection - to protect the rights of union members and nonmembers who are required to pay agency fees to the unions - would prevent unions from forcing employees to finance political causes the employees disagree with.
  • Antistrike laws - with suitable enforcement provisions.
  • Prohibit union members and affiliates from sitting on the school boards with which they bargain.
  • Eliminate "unfunded mandates" from state governments that tie the hands of local school boards.
  • End government subsidies to teacher unions by eliminating taxpayer funding of benefits for union staff - and payments for "release time" for those engaging in union activities - and government agency payroll collection of union PAC contributions.
  • End or sharply limit teacher tenure rights. There has to be a practical procedure for firing incompetent teachers - but the author acknowledges that without competitive incentives for keeping good teachers, this power would undoubtedly be abused.
  • Allow merit pay - something that also would be abused in the absence of competitive incentives.
  • Establish parental choice through a variety of means - vouchers, tax credits and tax deductions.
  • Large school districts should be broken up - to restore local control over K-12 education. Large school districts disproportionately afflict urban ethnic and racial minorities. "Through the principal of bureaucratic bloat known as Parkinson's Law, the larger a school district gets, the more resources tend to get diverted to secondary or even nonessential activities."
  • Privatize school services to increase efficiency and quality - for transportation, food, even tutoring and special needs education, temporary teachers, etc.
  • Rights available to private sector union members should be extended to public employee union members. Members should have a "right to know" the details of union finances.
  • Remove teacher education and certification from the control of teacher unions. State education boards should be kept in lay hands. By reducing the number of people who can teach, unions make it much easier to drive up teacher salaries.
  • Similarly, establish alternative methods for teacher certification - to eliminate barriers to entry for those with needed skills in math, science, vocational pursuits. To varying extent, alternative certification methods already exists in more than 40 states - and in private schools, to which many politicians and union officers send their own children. Such programs "also draw a disproportionate number of males and minorities into an overwhelmingly white female teaching force." They also provide needed competition for dumbed-down academic education programs. The data unequivocally show that those who enter teaching through alternative certification procedures produce superior results in the classrooms.
  • Improve the GED equivalent to increase the ability of teenagers to resume their education later on if they leave school before graduation.

  The military has accomplished marvels with GED equivalents. Not all students mature intellectually at the same pace. There are many late bloomers that can get lost among the spring flowers. Education is a lifelong experience that could be greatly facilitated by an improved GED equivalent.

  • Abolish the U.S. Department of Education. Federal political influence can only undermine local efforts at education reform.

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  Copyright 2005 Dan Blatt