Joe Nocera Embraces ‘Reform Unionism’

Joe Nocera, who, following Steven Brill, believes that teachers unions can serve as a vehicle for reform, needs to read Terry Moe’s Special Interest, which has an excellent chapter on reform unionism. In a recent review of Moe’s book, Marcus Winters summarizes the basic case against reform unionism:

One can’t walk away from Moe’s arguments doubting union power. But must unions wield this power against change? Unions are stakeholders in the system and thus deserve a voice. We could finally remake the system if we could convince the union leadership to get behind reform. After all, teachers are primarily interested in their students’ success—right?

Unfortunately, no. Moe convincingly challenges the pillars of so-called “reform unionism.” The unions don’t support bad policies—like those that make it impossible to fire bad teachers, for example—because they think they’re good for kids. Nor are they mustache-twirling villains looking for ways to harm America’s children. Unions support such policies simply because they’re in the interests of their members. Likewise, their members support the unions because they want those interests represented. These basic facts are essential to understanding how the unions operate and why they can never be true partners in transforming the system.

It is easy to see why Brill and Nocera have reached their conclusions. It really does seem hard to scale up America’s existing charter schools, in part because they’re organized along non-profit lines and they have little incentive to expand rapidly. But unfortunately Nocera gets many important things wrong.

For example, he draws attention to the fact that teaching at a school like the Harlem Success Academy, which requires intense involvement in the lives of students, can be taxing. But millions of middle-class children from intact families receive inadequate instruction in antiquated schools. Improving instruction in these contexts would require a relatively small increase in stres — rather, it would require investments in “organizational capital,” i.e., superior coordination of human capital resources and superior combinations of human capital and technology, than teachers unions will permit. The same goes for poor students as well. Intense dedication is valuable, of course, but it is not the only way to improve educational outcomes.

Dave Levin, the founder of KIPP, observes that while there ate 80,000 teachers in charter schools, there are over 3 million teachers in public schools. And so:

Charter schools offer proof of the concept that great teaching is a huge difference-maker, but charters can only absorb a tiny fraction of the nation’s 50 million public schoolchildren. Real reform has to go beyond charters — and it has to include the unions. That’s what Brill figured out.

This is a non sequitur. There was a time when Japanese automobile manufacturers accounted for a vanishingly small part of the U.S. automobile market. Their share expanded over time. Existing charters can’t suddenly educate 50 million students. But by giving school managers more flexibility, new models can spread quite quickly, as suggested by the Sweden’s educational experience. The spread of “free schools,” many of them for-profit, has spurred organizational changes in Sweden’s state schools. Moreover, giving parents and students more control over how educational resources are spent while students attend public schools can also encourage the growth of specialized instructional providers, e.g., students could choose to take online language courses rather than the language courses offered by their school.

And it’s sad to see Nocera accept the premise that accepting a narrow, circumscribed version of “performance-based pay” — who determines what constitutes good performance? Somehow I suspect the union will play a significant role — and pilot programs means much of anything. The right goal is to allow different schools to pursue different strategies, and the unions are a force for institutional isomorphism and homogeneity.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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