Certain portions of the political blogosphere have erupted over the subject of teacher’s unions. It started with this column, from July 3, by Richard Cohen of The Washington Post. Those of you who follow these things will recognize Cohen as one of the most odious skunks in the punditocracy. Any time his name comes up we really must recall the following incident, here described memorably by The Daily Howler:

In October 2000, things got better. Cohen savaged VP hopeful Joe Lieberman for something he said before B’nai B’rith. “I wonder what in the world he’s talking about,” Cohen wrote. Lieberman’s statement was “downright smug,” “preposterously false,” and “downright repugnant,” Cohen said. But there was one small problem with Cohen’s rant; it was actually George W. Bush, not Joseph Lieberman, who had visited B’nai B’rith and made the statement in question. And yes, you read that last sentence correctly. Cohen spent an entire column trashing Lieberman for something Bush, his opponent, had said. A small note at the end of a subsequent column acknowledged the comical blunder. (Emphasis in Original)

This column, mind you, appeared one month before a Presidential election. Only in the punditocracy could one keep his job after so serious an error.

So, when Cohen’s name appears above the column the best you can hope for is that it will simply be vacuous and easily ignored. In this case he was bashing the Democratic Presidential candidates for their stance on education:

The eight Democratic presidential candidates assembled in Washington last week for another of their debates and talked, among other things, about public education. They all essentially agreed that it was underfunded — one system “for the wealthy, one for everybody else,” as John Edwards put it. Then they all got into cars and drove through a city where teachers are relatively well paid, per-pupil spending is through the roof and — pay attention here — the schools are among the very worst in the nation. When it comes to education, Democrats are ineducable.

Cohen can’t seriously deny Edwards’ contention that there are effectively different educational systems for the wealthy and the non-wealthy. Nor can he deny that in many parts of the country, public education is woefully underfunded. Instead he merely points to one specific school district — Washington D.C. — and uses that as evidence that Democrats are “ineducable” on this subject.

Per-pupil spending is certainly very high in Washington D.C., but that probably has something to do with the high number of at-risk students with whom they have to deal. As for teacher salaries, the key word in Cohen’s description is “relatively.” I haven’t been able to find ready statistics on teacher salaries in Washington D.C. specifically, but according to this 2005 survey from the American Federation of Teachers, nationwide the average salary for teachers is just over $47,000. Since starting salaries are typically in the low $30,000 range, while the average is skewed by a handful of very senior teachers in wealthy districts who make substantially more than the average, I suspect the median is even lower. Little has changed in this regard in the past two years. The fact is there is absolutely nowhere in the United States, least of all Washington D.C., where teachers are paid anything close to what they deserve.

Moving on:

The litany of more and more when it comes to money often has little to do with what, in the military, are called facts on the ground: kids and parents. It does have a lot to do with teachers unions, which are strong supporters of the Democratic Party. Not a single candidate offered anything close to a call for real reform. Instead, a member of the audience could reasonably conclude that if only more money were allocated to these woe-is-me school systems, things would right themselves overnight.

Gosh! It’s hard to believe that in a debate conducted in thirty-second sound-bites the candidates chose to focus on an obvious problem over which the government has direct control — lack of adequate funding — and did not unveil major new proposals for fundamentally altering the social dynamics of high poverty school districts. And how dare a worthless, pampered, empty-headed, know-nothing pundit like Cohen, who probably hasn’t set foot in a classroom since he was a student, pass judgment on whether urban school districts are justified in feeling starved for resources.

But that is not the main subject of this post. Instead it’s that gratuitous slap at the unions that struck me. Cohen, like a trained seal, has learned that mindlessly bashing teacher’s unions will never get you into trouble. That is why he feels no need to provide any specifics about what, exactly, the unions are doing wrong. Instead, when it comes time to reveal those subtleties of the education problem about which Democrats need to be instructed, Cohen only produces this:

Only one candidate, Barack Obama, suggested that maybe money was not all that was lacking when it comes to educating America’s poor and minority children. Parents had a role to play, too. “It is absolutely critical for us to recognize that there are going to be responsibilities on the part of African American and other groups to take personal responsibility to rise up out of the problems we face,” he said. What? It’s not just a question of funding?

Parents! Of course! How could those money grubbing teacher’s unions and their slavish Democratic puppets have overlooked such a thing? All this focus on making sure schools have the funds to heat their buildings in the winter and patch the roof when it leaks, this crazy idea that a school using twenty year old textbooks needs money if they are to procure new ones or that science labs are not exactly inexpensive, and they simply overlooked that parents have a role to play in their children’s education. One can only hope the Democrat’s pay attention to someone as perceptive as Cohen.

(I mean, for heaven’s sake, you really have to read the rest of Cohen’s essay. A whole column on the revelation that parental involvement is important in education! For this he’s given a regular place on one of the most prestigious op-ed pages in America. Unbelievable!)

It’s time for a quick reality check. Teachers are the absolute bottom rung of the American educational system. They are given virtually nothing in the way of resources or institutional support, and yet they are usually the only ones held accountable when students underperform. Their salaries and benefits are laughable compared with those of any other profession, and, even worse, they live in a society that has only contempt for the work that they do. Precisely because they are so powerless, they are a conveninet scapegoat in explaining the inadequacies of American education.

And against this relentless onslaught of criticism from politicians, school administrators, and arrogant and irresponsible parents, there is exactly one force that has the interests of teachers at heart. The unions. The only reason teachers get the few crumbs that they do is because the unions fight tooth and nail to get them. As badly as teachers get screwed now, the situation would be orders of magnitude worse without the unions.

In opposition to the unions we hear only that they are against “reform,” which usually refers to some combination of vouchers, eliminating tenure, some condescending and Orwellian notion of “merit pay” or making it easier to fire teachers with very little in the way of due process. Bascially, “reform” is a euphemism. Depending on the context, it means either (a) Screwing teachers by reducing their salaries and benefits while expecting them to take on more responsibility outside of the classroom or (b) Screwing teachers by making it easier to punish them when their arrogant, undisciplined students underperform on standardized tests or (c) Screwing teachers by eliminating their job security and leaving them subject to the whims of irate parents and craven principals, or (d) Screwing public education generally by diverting money away from them and into the hands of private and parochial schools. God bless the unions for opposing such things.

There is no secret to running good public schools. Wealthy districts all over the country manage to do it year after year. And we have the examples of all those other countries we keep hearing about that score higher than us on various exams. Those countries don’t starve their schools for resources, treat their teachers contemptuously, or force public schools to compete with private concerns for funding. Such ideas are the exclusive province of anti-government, anti-intellectual right-wingers, and cowardly, quisling liberals who inexplicably desire the praise of the right-wingers.

For more on this, check out Kevin Carey’s mostly excellent smackdown of Cohen. Ezra Klein also offers some worthy sentiments. From the other side Mickey Kaus, who for some incomprehensible reason is provided with a platform over at Slate, also weighs in.


  1. #1 RBH
    August 7, 2007

    They are given virtually nothing in the way of resources or institutional support, and yet they are usually the only ones held accountable when students underperform.

    It’s actually worse than that: my wife is a long-time high school special-ed teacher. We annually spend over $500 for materials for her classroom that the district can’t afford to buy. Most teachers I know do the same.

  2. #2 Rugosa
    August 7, 2007

    Hear, hear!

  3. #3 Jimmy
    August 7, 2007

    I agree with most of your points about funding, and I realize you probably included the word for emphasis, but I take issue with saying that teachers’ unions are an “unambiguous” force for good. “Bad” teachers do exist who misbehave, try to push personal views on students or simply don’t put in any effort. However, tenure and union pressure can make it virtually impossible to even investigate these teachers.

    This occurs especially in small rural school districts where, incidentally, teachers’ religious views are more likely to make it into the classroom. It shouldn’t be easy to override tenure, but I’d like it to be possible to do so without running up against un-opposable union battles.

    Teachers’ unions are generally good. But nothing is “unambiguously” good.

  4. #4 Kevin
    August 7, 2007

    Aye Aye Captain! Fire when ready! Sir! Full speed ahead!

    “b) Screwing teachers by making it easier to punish them when their arrogant, undisciplined students underperform on standardized tests”

    anyone from your class you have in mind?

  5. #5 Lee
    August 7, 2007

    “However, tenure and union pressure can make it virtually impossible to even investigate these teachers.”

    This is simply false. My mother taught for over 20 years – during that time, her school got rid of two tenured union teachers. It takes about a full year, with good process, documentation and persistence on part of the principal – but the process is straightforward, at least here in California.

    The more common reason one cant get rid of bad teachers, at least in urban or poor districts, is that they can’t hire anyone better to replace them who is also willing to work in those districts.

  6. #6 blf
    August 8, 2007

    There is what seems to be a fairly wacky group in England (at least), called the Professional Association of Teachers (who may not be a union, I’m not sure). These seeming nutjobs have called for websites such as YouTube to be shut down because of a small numbner of videos they deem offensive (some of which probably are), and for WiFi use in schools should be suspended because of (mostly imagined) fears of a risk of cancer. That last one–or at least the manner in which the non-evidence was presented–irritated Ben Goldacre, Cherry Picking and the Professional Association of Teachers.

  7. #7 ail
    August 8, 2007

    I normally pay little attention to WaPo pundits, but last year I read a column so arrogant, self-centered and willfully ignorant that I etched the name of its author into memory so as to never repeat the experience. The column was about math education and its author was Richard Cohen. This was it:


    It doesn’t surprise me a bit that Cohen is throwing another tantrum about teachers. One entertains the notion he got bad grades and is still fuming over it.

  8. #8 SLC
    August 8, 2007

    Richard Cohen is only one of the schmucks who write opinion columns for the Washington Post and the New York Times, supposedly the premier newspapers in the US. He is joined by such luminaries as Robert Novak, Tom Friedman, Maureen Dowd, David Broder, and of late former Bush speech writer Michael Gerson at the Post. Mr. Gerson is an interesting individual due to his membership in the formerly Episcopal Falls Church. This institution, which once boasted George Washington as a parishioner, has been hijacked by a passel of gay bashing born agains who have joined forces with a Nigerian former Episcopal bishop who advocates jailing homosexuals. Mr. Gerson has so far failed to comment on this hijacking and has provided no explanation as to why he has joined forces with the hijackers. He has further neglected to inform his readers as to his opinion of the Nigerian former bishop, and as to whether he agrees with the latter relative to the jailing of homosexuals.

  9. #9 travc
    August 8, 2007

    Correlation != causality

    Not to side with Cohen, I just have to point out that the data (apologies for being to lazy to dig up some citations, but they are widely reported) indicates that only severe underfunding or extremely high levels of funding have much of an effect on student success (the former more-so than the latter).

    Wealthy districts almost universally have high land values and wealthy, relatively educated and involved parents, and more stable economic conditions. These factors appear to have a more causal effect on student success than how well funded the schools are.

    That said, severely underfunded schools are a severe problem… also the cyclic punting of capital improvements and repairs has really stacked up causing real problems in some places.

    As for teachers. They should be better paid no doubt, but equally if not more important, they should be much much more highly respected. Teaching should be a high-prestige vocation, a bit like old fashioned doctors, clergy, or military… a calling which bestows respect, deference, prestige, social and economic benefits upon those who do it. Certainly teachers unions do a huge amount of good (at least resisting the slide in the wrong direction)… but they do also cause some harm with the overly legalistic/rules-based job protectionism they promote and defend tooth and nail. If the “other side” were honest, then I would have to say that this is wrong… but since the other side isn’t (wanting to basically destroy public education)…

  10. #10 Darren
    August 10, 2007

    I realize that blogs as a medium are given to rhetorical excess, but this one seems to have gone a bit farther than should be accepted. A professor should know better than to make blanket statements with little or no evidence. The first of many of these statements was the title, “Teacher’s Unions Are An Unambiguous Force For Good.” While not anywhere did he adequately argue this point, Dr. Rosenhouse did manage to ridicule the opposition in the age old tactic of negating an idea through disparaging the holder of that idea.

    I have to agree with Travc that there simply is not a strong causal relationship between school funding and academic performance. Most experts sight the cause of wealthier districts performance advantage as being related to, as Travc noted, more parental involvement and encouragement ? pretty much what Cohen was referring to in his blog. Furthermore, the use, in this blog, of a vague reference to wealthy school districts is no better than Cohen?s reference to the District?s schools system. Both represent or rather misrepresent poor anecdotal evidence to try to prove their point.

    Finally, Rosenhouse resorts to an illogical and irresponsible attack of not the opposition?s ideas, but rather the people who would be the ?exclusive? holders of those ideas. Rather than say why competition in a school system is a bad idea (which it very well may be) he says that the only people who could possibly pursue that idea are ?anti-government, anti-intellectual right wingers? or alternatively, ?cowardly, quisling liberals…? There you have it folks, Dr. Jason Rosenhouse must be right; to think otherwise would make you one of these terrible people he has ridiculed. Actually, that?s about right for someone who thinks that teacher?s unions are in anyway unambiguously good? Don?t think of any alternatives, just wave the union colors and follow the Leader on to egalitarian victory.

    Coming from someone in academia, this kind of garbage-rhetoric is really disappointing.

  11. #11 JamesH
    August 15, 2007

    If I may…Rosenhouse is undoubtedly a far better mathematician than I (nothing beyond algebra), so I wouldn’t dare to poach on his specialty. But believe it or not, there are those who are specialists in studying such things as unions, and among them are political scientists like me.

    Unions take a strong public stance on the value of increasing funding to education (ceterus paribus a dandy idea), and always are careful to phrase it in terms of caring about their students. That latter part is in fact just a carefully constructed public relations move.

    In fact, teachers unions, like any other union, such as the UAW, have as their predominant concern the well-being of their members. Only when their members’ interests are incidentally congruent with their students’ interests are they (the unions, that is) promoting student welfare. But teachers’ interests and students’ interests are not necessarily congruent.

    As to the issue of underpay…there is no evidence that increasing teacher pay improves student education. While we all would like to be paid more, it’s a fair question to ask whether taxpayers should shift more of their income than necessary to hire quality teachers. In the absence of evidence that higher pay will result in a dramatic increase in qualified teachers, there are probably better uses, both public expenditures and private ones, for that money.

    I do wish you’d apply a little more analysis. As a mathematician you’re undoubtedly accustomed to doing so. But in this post–although the rant against Cohen is fully justified–you slipped into concepts that are just as pop and poorly thought out as Cohen’s.

  12. #12 Robert O'Brien
    August 20, 2007

    Quite to the contrary, teacher unions are a force for mediocrity and self-interest. In California, the teacher union opposed English immersion, to the detriment of our students, and they appropriate funds earmarked for other projects, such as highways, without delivering better education. Also, the fact that Korea blows us away when it comes to mathematics proficiency, despite spending half as much per pupil as we do, belies your arguments concerning inadequate funding.

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