Educating in America Is Not Like Educating Elsewhere

Yesterday, WPRI’s Ted Nesi tweeted an interesting Washington Post op-ed by Matt Miller who, after proclaiming his anti-teacher-union bona fides, argues that the world’s best education systems are unionized (emphasis in original):

That reality is this: The top performing school systems in the world have strong teachers unions at the heart of their education establishment. This fact is rarely discussed (or even noted) in reform circles. Yet anyone who’s intellectually honest and cares about improving our schools has to acknowledge it. The United States is an outlier in having such deeply adversarial, dysfunctional labor-management relations in schooling.

Why is this?

My hypothesis runs as follows: The chief educational strategy of top-performing nations such as Finland, Singapore and South Korea is to recruit talent from the top third of the academic cohort into the teaching profession and to train them in selective, prestigious institutions to succeed on the job. In the United States, by contrast, we recruit teachers mostly from the middle and (especially for poor schools) bottom third and train them mostly in open-enrollment institutions that by all accounts do shoddy work.

He goes on to suggest raising teacher salaries in conjunction with district consolidation and centralization, and it’s difficult for a school-choice advocate to avoid seeing the stark differences in philosophy.

Before we, as a society, can get into the nitty-gritty of education policy, we would have to acknowledge that there are deeper differences between the United States and Finland, Singapore, and South Korea.  The comparison doesn’t require a value judgement, necessarily, although I prefer the U.S. approach to society and culture.  But it skips a step to assume that our education system could emulate theirs without tectonic shifts in the way we operate on a deeper level.

Take as a given that part of any education reform should be some strategy for attracting higher-level teachers and paying them more.  That could theoretically be accomplished by a centralized, command decision to cull the upper-however-many college students and draw them into the profession.  I’d hypothesize, though, that it could be accomplished more efficiently and with greater overall benefit by allowing individuals in our uniquely diverse society to make their own decisions.  Then allow educational organizations, of whatever size makes sense to them, to attract talent and maintain quality with a maximum amount of freedom to try different approaches to all of their operation requirements — from hiring to oversight to firing.

A case could be made for either approach, but it’s ultimately a pretty binary decision.  That may sum up America’s contentious politics: There are two broadly drawn directions in which to head, and we have to decide.  Instead, our leaders seem intent on striving to split differences, drawing out the worst of both options.  Think financial crisis, with its free-market shuffling of risk for profit and socialized determination of who ultimately pays the bill.

The more-highly tuned critique of unionization is not that it doesn’t work in isolated theory, but that it doesn’t work in a democratic society in the American sense. We end up, as Miller acknowledges, with a system that seems most intent on protecting its least proficient members and shoring up the mediocre.   I’ve heard no explanation why centralizing control would not shift union-domination of school committees to union-domination of central controller, or why pouring more money into salaries wouldn’t continue to benefit those teachers most in need of collective bargaining and union protection.

In a less-diverse society with a cultural tendency toward uniform purpose, the dynamics and incentives of a union might produce different results.  That those results are better than what the United States achieves currently does not mean that they are better than what Americans could achieve with a solution more in keeping with their traditional character.

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