Teacher Union Monopolist’s Monkey Business

NEA president praises Finland, Singapore and Canada, conveniently omitting facts about school choice and competition.

The “global education reform movement has failed” … or at least that’s what National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen García told a group of businessmen in Detroit last month. Spouting the usual edubabble, the union president told the Detroit Economic Club that the system should serve the “whole child” and that education should be “humanized.”

García went on to explain,

The business community relies on evidence and reliable data. Bad data should be avoided at all costs because it can destroy a business. But communities across the country have been force-fed privatization plans and ‘test and punish’ regimes that have not produced the desired results and have decimated many schools. … ideologues are committed to doubling down on bad ideas, regardless of the evidence.

What García means by “bad data” in conjunction with “test and punish” is a reference to the fact that some reformers actually want to use student performance on standardized tests as a part of a teacher’s evaluation. But what really catches the eye in the quote is “force-fed privatization plans.”

Huh? Just where is this “force-feeding” going on and who are the force-feeders? García didn’t elaborate, of course, because it’s a lie. A lie of whopper magnitude. Surely Ms. García knows that just about every (non-push) poll taken recently shows that the public strongly favors vouchers and other types of school choice. (I wonder if she gave any thought to spilling her anti-privatization/competition bilge to a group of businessmen who are undoubtedly well-aware of public education’s failures.)

Parents, especially those in need, embrace vouchers because with them, their kids are given an opportunity to get out of a failing public school and attend a superior private school without having to foot the entire bill. In fact, according to a 17-year study in New York City, “Minority students who received a school voucher to attend private elementary schools in 1997 were, as of 2013, 10 percent more likely to enroll in college and 35 percent more likely than their peers in public school to obtain a bachelor’s degree.” (Emphasis added.) Sadly 20,000 applications for vouchers were received, but the program could only accommodate 1,300. I wonder how many of the 20,000 families felt as if they had been “force-fed.”

García also engaged in other dubious affirmations. She extolled the virtues of Finland, Canada and Singapore, informing us that the evidence and data tell us that their school systems are superior. But she picks and chooses her spots, and anywhere competition and choice of any sort are in play, she is MIA.

While cooing that Finland “threw practically every standardized test away to focus on time to teach, classroom assessments, and professional collaboration,” she failed to acknowledge that Finland has a highly competitive system for students who want to become educators. In fact, those who become teachers are selected from the top 10 percent of college graduates, unlike in the United States, where, sadly, education majors are at the bottom of the academic barrel after four years of college. (She also didn’t mention that kids in Finland don’t start school until age 7, starting teachers make 20 percent less than ours and the country spends 30 percent less on education than we do.)

She touts Singapore, telling the businessmen that teachers there “analyze data to develop personalized instruction, tutoring, class projects.” She stresses that Singaporeans never set “arbitrary targets for prizes and punishments.” But she didn’t tell the businessmen that parents must pay fees even if their child goes to a public school and that the island nation has vigorous private school options. (She also neglected to acknowledge that the average class size in Singapore is about 40, almost twice that of the U.S.)

The union leader points out that in Canada, officials see to it that teachers are given the necessary training and support to reach every student. But she omits the inconvenient truth that Canada has publicly funded school choice throughout much the country. The province of Alberta has the most interesting set-up, whereby property taxpayers have a choice which type of school system to earmark their education tax dollars – public or private (including religious schools).

García’s omissions are necessary, of course. Had she told the whole truth, she would have had to admit that competition, whether between teachers or schools – or businesses – makes us all better. As a monopolist, of course, that would be the last thing she would ever do.

A dialogue between businessmen and teacher union leaders is a good idea, but it should be the businessmen doing the talking. A union boss’ tired, biased and noxious agenda is not worth listening to.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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