Teachers and Their Bitter Harvest

By 03/03/2011

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“Teachers wonder, why the heapings of scorn?” is the front page headline over a Trip Gabriel story in today’s New York Times. (The web version headline was shorter, better: “Teachers wonder, Why the scorn?”)  And, indeed, teachers have been taking it on the chin of late.  But as Checker notes, later in the story,

They are reaping a bitter harvest that they didn’t individually plant but their profession has planted over 50 years, going from a respected profession to a mass work force in which everyone is treated as if they are interchangeable, as in the steel mills of yesteryear.

There is a lot to the bitter harvest.  The interchangeability problem is a deep and profound one – it flies in the face of the autonomy that many teachers claim they deserve in their classrooms.  It undermines the argument – rather, calls attention to the contradiction – that making more teachers better or making better teachers will improve the system since the assembly line can operate no better or faster than its slowest worker.

In my district, it is painful to watch: hardworking, dedicated teachers paying dues to union reps to defend the rights of undedicated and ineffective teachers who defeat the value of their hard work and dedication. It is painful to read the comments to the NYT story.  Teachers feel demonized and victimized, without appreciating the fact that it is their unions which have done them ill – and it is their unions which reformers are attempting to turn around.

“This is in no way, shape or form an attack on teachers,” Tony Bennett, the superintendent of public instruction in Indiana, tells Gabriel. “It is a comprehensive effort to reform a system.”

For years the public has been led to believe – thanks, in large part, to union lobbying — that teachers were the most important part of the education process and the public has rewarded them with decent wages and benefits (wages and benefits which would be even greater if not for the assembly line problem).  But the chickens have come home to roost: if teachers are the most important part of the process, and we have been rewarding them nicely, signing on to 100-page employment contracts, dishing out wonderful lifetime benefits, why has our education system gotten so bad?

Why are teachers “expendable”? asks the Times. Teachers would do well to look at their contracts for the answer.

–Peter Meyer

Comment on this article
  • Dave Bernstein says:

    So a system designed as much to provide day care as education, that lost exclusive access to a pool of high-quality low-cost talent when women finally broke into corporations, and that is based on the demonstrably false theory that the mental development of most children proceeds in lockstep with their chronological age “has gotten so bad” because of union contracts?

  • Peter Meyer says:


    Though I think yours may be a rhetorical question, let me ask a non-rhetorical one: what has been the impact of teacher unions on the quality of education as measured by student knowledge?


    peter m.

  • Dave Bernstein says:

    My question was not rhetorical, Peter; I expect an answer.

  • Peter Meyer says:

    Not completely, Dave. I tend to subscribe to E.D. Hirsch’s notion that there are no bad people just bad ideas. So I see your list of system sins coming from, first, some misshapen ideas and faulty logic about how children learn, what they should learn, how they should be taught, etc. On my list of bad ideas are public employee unions, since they lobby, contribute to, and elect the people who pay their wages — it’s a little too cozy for me, and has resulted in some very odd systemic inefficiencies — LIFO, automatic raises, tenure, etc — that surely do not put child learning first.

    Your turn. Will you answer my question?


    peter m

  • Dave Bernstein says:

    Are unions a part of the problem? Certainly, but they are a relatively small part in comparison with the factors I’ve cited. Those trying to use the sad state of our educational system as a weapon with which to bludgeon unions only distract us from these primary factors, and so are equally problematic.

    There are strong teachers who either would never have entered the profession, or would have left it as a result of abuse by incompetent administrators without the protection provided by unions. The contributions of these teachers to increases in their students’ knowledge is thus attributable to unions.

    “There are no bad people just bad ideas”? That’s incredibly naive and lame. I’ll spare you the obvious counterexamples…

  • ron nmeyer says:

    Teaching Lewinskys and other sexual perversions, Marxism, and forcing Christianity out and inviting Islam in to be FORCED on our children. Educated children that can’t even read upon graduation with ever higher wages, well above the public sector and then refusing to pay any of medical costs, make the lower paid public pay for them.

  • Dave says:

    Ron, I challenge you to present a single fact-based reference to a student in a United States public school being forced by that school to convert to Islam any time during the past decade.

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