by Terry Cowgill
Let’s face it. From the 2004 New York Yankees to that statue of Saddam Hussein, most of us get a kick out of seeing the mighty fall. And that’s essentially what’s happening to teachers’ unions all over this nation. For all the good they did when they were first formed 50 to 75 years ago, teachers’ unions have devolved into opponents of meaningful educational reform.
Teaching is steady work and in most states the pay is now about the same as a mid-level manager in business, but the profession requires substantially fewer days of work per year. And sure, there have been recent layoffs, but even in bad economic times, those who remain in the classroom manage to secure substantial raises and maintain their Cadillac health care plans while most of the rest of us in the private sector must beg our employers for a paltry increase and hope we don’t get sick. Still, good teachers themselves remain largely popular in their respective communities — and justifiably so.
So why are teachers’ unions losing clout? One big reason is that after decades of reflexive support, the news media are finally starting to turn against them. That’s right. Journalists and editors, many of whom belong to labor unions themselves, are finally waking up to the plain fact that taking courses and simply showing up to work every day — the standard measures that the unions demand in determining wages — are poor incentives to improve performance.
A story in yesterday’s Washington Post on the recent ratification of a new D.C. teachers contract, which calls for using student improvement as a measure of teacher evaluations, was as balanced a piece as you will ever see. In addition, the Post’s progressive editorial board has been remarkably supportive of D.C. school Superintendent Michelle Rhee’s plans to make it easier to remove chronically underperforming teachers from the classroom. Commendably, the Post’s editorial page has also been a proponent of nationwide school reform in general.
Other examples of changing media attitudes abound. A move earlier this year by the superintendent of the Central Falls, R.I., school district to fire all of the district’s teachers who wouldn’t accept new labor terms was the subject of fair but tough media coverage — both locally and nationally.
Even the New York Times editorial board last year blasted the National Education Association for being “aggressively hidebound.” And in a piece that shook the big-city educational establishment to its core, Steven Brill of the liberal New Yorker magazine published a piece that exposed the New York City practice of paying hundreds of teachers charged with misconduct to report every day to a “rubber room” where they play cards, surf the web and nap.
Only a few years ago, newspapers and television news were chock-full of highly critical stories about charter schools and education vouchers. Ten years ago, fellow reporters on my education beat in Dutchess County, N.Y., were horrified at the fact that some charter school teachers were uncertified and did not belong to organized labor. Oh, the horror!
Nowadays, for every news story or thundering editorial about crooked charter schools, you’re just as likely to see stories about non-traditional schools in which students from modest backgrounds succeed as innovative teachers and administrators are relieved from the crushing burden of repressive bureaucracies.
What accounts for this attitude adjustment? Why are journalists, most of whom are Democrats or independents sympathetic to Democrats, now viewing one of the largest and most liberal special interest groups in the nation with a wary eye?
It’s really quite simple. The current system is failing us and journalists know it. And just as corporation-loving Republicans are turning against BP because of public fury at the monstrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, so too have many Democrats turned against the teachers’ unions in the face of constituents who view the education lobby as an unacceptable barrier to reform.
Oh, and another thing. With the possible exception of Eleanor Clift, most major-market journalists wouldn’t be caught dead sending their kids to public schools. You see, Sidwell Friends doesn’t offer tenure. And guess what? It’s a pretty good school in spite of it.