- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2007

Former Secretary of Education Rod Paige argues in his new book, “The War Against Hope,” that teachers unions block education reform and protect the status quo.

Mr. Paige led the federal Department of Education from 2001 to 2005, during the time that the No Child Left Behind Act was crafted and implemented. The following are excerpts from an e-mail interview with Mr. Paige:

Question: How did this book come about? When did you first decide to write it?

Answer: It would be difficult to pinpoint exactly when I made the decision to write this book, as the thoughts and ideas that form its foundation have their roots in years and years of involvement in education. … I eventually concluded that there were several big barriers that impeded effective and efficient school operations. I concluded that one of the biggest and most powerful barriers to education is the over-unionization of many schools and school districts. …

Despite their massive influence over school operations, and despite the massive underperformance and student failure in public schools, America still does not hold the teachers unions accountable for these failures. … Somewhere along the line, I realized that we’ve spent trillions of dollars on educating our children, but we’ve done nothing about one of the biggest problems: the near death grip that over-unionization has on schools and school district operations. …

Q: What is the central point or theme that you hope readers take away from this book?

A: There are several points that I hope readers take away from this book. … The first is that in many cases teachers unions have more influence over school operations than teachers, principals or superintendents — this while they are subject to zero accountability for student performance.

Another is that these unions have been able to get away with it because they have been effective in hiding behind America’s love for teachers. They have been successful in getting America to feel that any criticism of the union is a criticism of teachers. …

Teachers unions are organizations run by highly paid union bosses who work in fancy Washington, D.C., offices, with big lobbying firms and generous communication budgets. But they have zero accountability for student learning, whereas teachers are the hardworking, often underpaid, underappreciated professionals who work in our schools, teach our children, assume a lot of the responsibility that should be handled by parents, and they are held accountable for student learning. …

I want the reader to take away the fact that it is not that I am against teachers unions. As sad as it is to admit, sometimes, teachers need representation to protect them against administrative abuse. I am against union excessiveness, the over-unionization of schools and school districts. Over-unionization exists when the needs of employees take priority over the needs of students, parents and taxpayers. When this situation exists, as it does in too many cases, it must be confronted. …

As I make clear in the last chapter of the book, although there is a real war against hope, there is still hope. Holding the view that our schools are over-unionized does not mean that I believe all teachers unions are bad. Some do add value, as the [American Federation of Teachers] did in its leadership to teach reading. After all, the AFT was first to call this nation’s attention to the complexity of reading through the publication of its highly informative booklet, “Teaching Reading is Rocket Science.”

Q: You make several weighty accusations against teachers unions, including that they systematically fight meaningful change because “to the National Education Association and other change-resistant teachers unions, accountability and transparency are not worthy goals. They are nefarious plots to embarrass and shame bad teachers.” You also argue that “the teachers union’s solution would be to pour more money into that bad school,” and that “I would go so far as to say that the decline in our education system over the past several decades parallels the rise in influence of teachers unions.” Is the situation really this severe? Why?

A: Yes, the situation is that bad, and the necessity of such a question is in and of itself evidence that there is a need for such a book to call the nation’s attention to the crisis. Two-thirds of our children can’t read at their respective grade level. In math and reading, African-American 12th-graders, on average, perform at about the same level as the average white eighth-grader. And these are the African-American students that even make it to their senior year. For Hispanic and African-American males, the dropout rate is off the charts. …

Almost every report of academic performance of America’s students in the last two decades documents a decline in academic performance relative to students in other industrial nations. Meanwhile, during this same period, unlike union membership in America’s work force that has seen steep drops, teachers union membership demonstrates slight growth.

The fact that the dominant union strategy for school improvement is to pour more money into the system is so obvious that I believe it does not need further explanation. …

Q: You say unions discourage good teachers by, among other things, making it nearly impossible for schools/districts to fire ineffective ones. In your opinion, is there a crisis of teachers in America today, and if so, what needs to be done to correct it?

A: No, I do not believe that there exists a crisis of teachers in America today. Crisis is much too strong a word to describe the teaching situation. However, there are things that need to be improved. Teacher compensation is one such thing. Overall teacher salaries should be improved, and compensation and contribution should be linked.

Q: Do you think the No Child Left Behind Act will be reauthorized this year, and what role do you think the teachers unions will play this time?

A: I certainty hope that NCLB will be reauthorized this year. I am aware that there are a lot of issues competing for the Congress’ attention, and we will just have to hope that NCLB is among the items that get accomplished.

According to an article printed by USA Today, the NEA spent $8 million fighting the enactment and implementation of the NCLB. While that is an awful lot of money, I believe it to be an understatement in terms of the amount they spent in their effort to derail NCLB. I expect a similar effort for the reauthorization.

Q: As the players discuss reauthorization, do you think the current atmosphere is any more receptive to changes, such as merit pay and removal of ineffective teachers, than it was a few years ago?

A: I think that the nation’s awareness of the need to improve its education system has deepened, and that there is a wider dissatisfaction with the status quo, which will in turn fashion an atmosphere more conducive to the consideration of a cutting-edge change such as merit pay and more effective personnel policies.

Q: There have been many critics of No Child Left Behind. Some say it’s an unwanted federal intrusion into a state and local issue, while others argue that the government isn’t providing enough resources for schools to meet these new requirements. Why, in your opinion, is the act a “moderate, commonsensical” law, and where do you think the public opinion is right now as the president urges its renewal?

A: As early as 1983, this nation’s vulnerability due to the ineffectiveness of its education system was called to our attention through a publication called “A Nation at Risk.” Note that the title of the publication was not “Some States at Risk,” but “A Nation at Risk,” indicating that there must be a federal interest in the academic performance of our students. Besides, the No Child Left Behind Act is not a federal mandate at all. States elect to comply with the tenets of NCLB, but they have every right not to do so. Of course, electing not to comply would put them at risk of forfeiture of the federal dollars associated with the law that they would be eligible to receive.

The main goal of NCLB is to have every student performing on grade level by 2014. Would one not consider that to be a moderate, commonsensical goal? …

I think that due to the avalanche of bad information about NCLB, there is considerable confusion in the public mind about the law. But that should not deter people from the improvement of our public education system. It is imperative that every child in this country be able to have access to a high-quality, premier education system. And it should be a priority for those in Congress to see that this is accomplished.

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