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Blame teachers unions for low grades

Teachers unions bear much of the blame for America’s educational mediocrity.
Teachers unions bear much of the blame for America’s educational mediocrity.

Since the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released its triennial study of international performance in education, pundits and politicians have bemoaned America’s downward shuffle in the rankings. But it’s past time to stop simply wringing our hands — it’s time to start holding people accountable.

Teachers unions bear much of the blame for America’s educational mediocrity. These dismal results underscore the fact that we cannot allow them to maintain their death grip on America’s education system.

In the unlikely event you’re not already convinced that our schools are in big trouble, here’s a quick recap of the OECD’s results: In science, the U.S. average score was below the global average of 64 countries — we fared even worse in math.

These scores have us trailing such bastions of education as Latvia, Slovakia, Estonia and Russia. There aren’t enough Olympic gold medals in the world to redeem America from such an abysmal showing.

And lest you wonder whether there’s a “silver bullet” explanation for this, countries that spend less on education or that have higher levels of immigration and poverty still fare better than the U.S., which spends more money per student than all but four countries.

The most troubling news is that the scores of U.S. students aren’t moving in the right direction. While young adults in other countries improved relative to past tests, U.S. students flat-lined or worse, which brings us to the long running debate about the complicity of the teachers unions.

Education unions, such as the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which have had a stranglehold over public schools for decades, are deeply invested in the status quo. Union officials like the AFT's Randi Weingarten spend millions of dollars every year lobbying against laws that would allow schools to fire poor performing teachers or oppose attempts to pay excellent teachers more without endless delays.

Rather than streamline the system, unions have installed a cumbersome bureaucracy of work rules and regulations that ensure older teachers can keep their jobs over more talented, younger teachers. Teacher union contracts regularly run longer than 100 pages, largely composed of work rules and other stifling regulations. For a system in desperate need of wholesale change, the unions’ intransigence is the number one impediment.

How do they continue to get away with this while the intellectual capital of our country is being hollowed out? It’s simple: Money.

In disclosure forms filed at the end of 2011, it was revealed that the National Education Association (NEA) spent almost $88 million — more than 20 percent of its entire budget — on "contributions, gifts and grants" that largely funded left-wing and non-education-related causes. Fully 95 percent of its political contributions went to Democratic candidates.

Eighty-eight million dollars will buy a lot of friends in Washington and state capitals across the country. Friends who are willing to look the other way — even when the OECD releases studies that lay bare the obvious deleterious effects these unions are having on education and the country as a whole.

According to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, these results are at "odds with our aspiration to have the best-educated, most competitive work force in the world." Instead of being part of the solution, however, teachers unions, along with Weingarten and her political allies, work every day to ensure that we continue to graduate (or in many cases, not graduate) students who don’t have the skills to compete in the modern economy.

And there’s the rub. Weingarten’s paycheck doesn’t come from students. The AFT’s and the NEA’s success isn’t determined by how much students are learning. It’s a perverse incentive structure that works against student growth and achievement in favor of union political clout. Clout which is then wielded to protect incompetent teachers, oppose paying great teachers more and generally paralyze the process of reforming our education system.

As a result, the U.S. is getting left behind other countries that now routinely outperform our students by a wide margin. We should all remember that problem the next time we hear protests about America shipping jobs overseas. If our students can’t perform the work, business will have to go where the talent is available.

Richard Berman is the executive director of the Center for Union Facts, which operates