Jonathan Alter Goes Back to Bashing Teachers’ Unions

I got to Jonathan Alter’s recent column in Newsweek about education funding a few days after it was published, but I probably could have skipped reading it to guess its contents: teacher unions are bad:

The whole country is like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegon, except all the teachers are above average, too.Why? The short answer is teachers’ unions. Duncan complained recently that the California school system has a harmful "firewall" between student evaluation and teacher evaluation.

Alter has a thing for strong, authoritarian administrators running the schools, and those damn unions with their demands for insane demands like fair compensation, due process, and equitable treatment get in the way of school czars fixing the system.

Alter cites the very interesting “Widget Effect,” which criticizes the lack of meaningful evaluation and retraining of public school teachers. The report makes a compelling case for improvement. Unfortunately for Alter, the Widget Report mentions the word “union” exactly six times, and never to blame unions for the failures of public schools.

Instead, the level-headed report offers a slightly more nuanced approach, arguing that administrators share responsibility as well:

Not surprisingly, school administrators spend very little time on what is a largely meaningless and inconsequential evaluation process. Most teacher evaluations are based on two or fewer classroom observations totaling 76 minutes or less. Across all districts, 64 percent of tenured teachers were observed two or fewer times for their most recent evaluation, for an average total of 75 minutes.

Bashing teachers’ unions for educational failures is such a tired canard, one that both the anti-union Right and paternalistic Left have used to justify transferring control of classrooms from teachers to bureaucrats.

Are there ineffective teachers? No doubt, and we should try to remove them. Are schools better off with arbitrary firings and increasingly centralized control? There’s neither the evidence nor a reason to believe it’s true.