The Continuing Fall of the Teachers Unions

Several months ago, Bruno Behrend reviewedSpecial Interest: Teachers Unions and American Public Schools,” by Terry Moe. I haven’t read Moe’s book, but I found four three main areas of agreement with Bruno’s review, and one where I would take exception. The areas of agreement are over the unions’ web of influence, the role of Democratic Party politics, and the role of technology. The area of disagreement I have is over timing.

According to the review, “Moe also shows school boards, far from checking unions, are easily captured and controlled by them.” Bruno also writes that the National Educational Association was not originally a union, but was coopted into serving the best interests of teachers. I agree completely. Indeed, the NEA and School Boards, along with the AFT and the NPTA, are part of a United Front run by teachers for their own benefits.

Bruno’s review mentions that Moe “highlights two powerful forces undermining union power. The first is an internal battle of shifting political alliances, primarily in the Democratic Party.” As I haven’t read the book I don’t want to impute an argument that Moe did not make, but let me make a guess: Teacher Power has collapsed in the Democratic Party with respect to the following stakeholders:

Additionally, Bruno emphasizes the “radical disruption by technological advances in delivering education.” Technology itself does not make for better teaching, of course, but I like the use of the word “disruption.” While technology as such simply substitutes capital for labor, the rapid introduction of technology can accelerate transitions already under way.

My only area of disagreement is a minor one, and concerns timing. Ironically, timing also appears to be the only substantive area of disagreement between Moe and Berhend! Bruno writes:

This brings me to my only complaint about this valuable and informative book. After detailing the havoc unions have visited upon American children and taxpayers, Moe says the coming changes “will happen gradually,” “much of it coming over two (or three) decades.” Decades! Why not two or three years?

The reason of why not two or three years is that laws and regulations are simply parts of the superstructure are easily done away with, and easy to get wrong. An educational system relies on the political support of numerous factions. Teachers used to have the support necessary to rig the educational system to their favor, because they understood how a 19th century educational system works and were responsive to the needs of political stakeholders.

As teachers lost their touch and their empathy, they lost the ability to set the debate. Instead the federal-academic complex has stepped up to serve the needs of employers, parents, and others.

A new structure is evolving, but with the buy-off of a great many people, over the continental federal Republic we live in.

The future’s coming. It’s coming soon. And it will be (be)coming for a while.

Monopoly and Labor

Early last year, Bruno Behrend wrote an article on private sector unions. Bruno’s article itself was in reaction to Marc Oestreich‘s “libertarian defense of unions.” Both Bruno and Marc work at The Heartland Institute, which is definitely a testament to Heartland scholars’ freedom of inquiry!

The full discussion is worth reading. Instead of addressing either Bruno’s or Marc’s views in full, I want to take a moment to call out their views on monopolies:


So that you all don’t think I’m a total dunce, I want to share one argument against unions that makes me waver. Keeping with theme, I’ll offer an analogy:

If HP, Canon, Lexmark, and Epson CEOs sat around a table tomorrow and decided to set their prices artificially at $500 for a color inkjet printer, would it be legal? The answer is no. This would be collusion. So why isn’t it collusion when sellers of labor get together and set a price? Well, it is and it isn’t. It isn’t because not all laborers join unions. And it is because they do influence prices.

The way I’ve settled this argument internally is by simply deciding that all collusion should be legal.


Now, I don’t know how much that story might be embellished, but I think all of us in public policy — left or right — know that this anecdote is utterly believable. As an youngster, I was flabbergasted. ”People should be paid by the brick, ” I said.

Frankly, had I been raised in a pro-union household, where a more collectivist-minded person raised me to think that we owed “the union” our very livelihood because of paid vacations, 8-hour work days, and the underpinning the whole of western civilization, then I might have a different perspective. But I wasn’t, thankfully.

The fact is that unions exist to (a) withhold labor from the market, for the purposes of (b) extracting the least amount of labor for the most amount of money/benefits. They are essentially monopolists who must first use government to restrict the supply of labor in their favor, so that they can command a higher than market price from the employer.

A monopoly is a firm that enjoys massive economies of scale, is able to earn an economic profit, and is responsible to be both understand its economic position and be empathetic to other stakeholders in the political-economic system. Monopolies can be formed through collusion, or through other means. There is nothing inherently bad about monopolies, and some industries naturally tend towards monopoly.

In the education sector, teachers formed a monopoly that is currently collapsing due to their failure to educate children and their callousness towards employers, state governments, and others.

The leadership role that teachers once had is being split between stakeholders who have suffered under the teachers’ inability to offer a high-quality education. The intellectual leadership position the NEA, AFT, PTA, and others once had is being replaced by the federal-academic complex of scholars, bureaucrats, and scholar-bureaucrats.

Bruno is right that teachers formed a monopoly, and Marc is right that monopolies are not inherently bad.

What is bad is when the monopoly fails to understand its business and fails to understand other stakeholders.

The articles by Bruno and Marc were narrowly targeted to the debate over private-sector unions, but apply very well to the much more important discussion on teachers unions. I enjoyed reading both of their pieces.

Review of “God is Red” by Liao Yiwu

The “mythic past” of China in the 20th century probably looks something like this:

  • Weakness & Chaos (fall of the Qing, Revolution and Civil Wars, Whampoa, Yenan, Song Dynasty, Invasion by Japan)
  • The New China of 1949
  • Peaceful and Orderly mid-1950s
  • Disaster of Great Leap Forward
  • Peaceful and Orderly early and mid 1960s
  • Disaster of Cultural Revolution
  • Economic reform & prosperity

References to foreigners in this mythic past are pretty scarce. Unlike the anti-Western years of the Cultural Revolution, it’s probably fair to say that foreigners play as much a part of the Mythic Past of 20th Century China as they do in the Mythic Past of 20th Century America: Russians are sometimes friends and sometimes enemies, Europe’s weak, troublesome, and far away, sporadoc wars with Pacific neighbors. Foreigners are not an essential part of the mythic story of China, and more than they are an essential part of the mythic story of 20th century America.

Liao Yiwu decided to change that.

God is Red is a history of Christianity in 20th century China, told through interviews. The book proceeds chronologically, so while the first interviews are about old people who are persecuted by the Communists in 1949, the latest are about youngsters in our own day. The book appears to be written with the intended audience of young, literate, middle-class Chinese, and from a Chinese perspective is as much an introduction to the horrors of Communist oppression as to Christianity in China.

Liao is not himself a Christian, though he is clearly sympathetic to Christians and hostile to the Communist Party. The most moving part of the book for me was the interview of a blind musician, who lost his site as a small child, had it recovered through eye-drops given to him by a Missionary doctor, and then lost it again when the Communists expelled the Missionaries. (The man’s parents, poor farmers, never thought to ask what was in the eye-drops until it was too late.) The epilogue of the chapter reveals the sight-giving eye-drops, which the man lost access to because of the Communists, almost certainly contained fish oil. Multiple this loss by expulsion of all foreign charities and western investment in China in the years following 1949, and the backwardness that Communist rule doomed China to is staggering.

Because the book is told in the words of Chinese Christians, young and old, God is Red is an excellent example of martyrology. Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party is one reason why more Christians have been martyred in the last century than in the first three centuries combined. Yet, God is Red also blows up the “mythic” history of China, emphasizing the amazing contact with the west that was rapidly liberalizing and modernizing China, until aborted by Mao Zedong and others. The Mythic Past of China doesn’t have to be just an amalgamation of KMT and Communist party history. The works of Christians, including foreigners, can be a part of it, too.

Liao Yiwu was already a well-known Chinese liberal before writing God is Red. In the book, Liao talks about his friend Nobel-Prize Winner Liu Xiaobo and the banned Charter ’08. This past September, Liao walked out of China, as Liu serves an 11-year prison sentence. An article based on the book appears in the Huffington Post.

I received God is Red as a gift from Catholicgauze. I read it on my Kindle.

The Cloud and Student Achievement

Bruno Behrend of The Heartland Institute recently had an article titled, “Parents, Technology Can Trigger Education Transformation.” In the article, Mr. Behrend discusses his work with Republican Governor Jeb Bush and Democratic Governor Bob Wise to help students become successful through “the cloud” of information technology.

“The Cloud” is originally an information technology term that relates to a view of information technology as a troublesome cost center that is outside the core competencies of individuals, small businesses, and most large organizations. In this view, endorsed by Lou Gerstner and others, companies should give up on being better than their customers in information technology, and accept ‘industry-standard’ levels of performance.

While Bruno uses the term ‘the Cloud’ exclusively in its technological sense, this view of looking to industry-standards probably is the only way that the “Ten Elements of High Quality Digital Learning” he outlines can be met. Those ten elements are (emphasis mine):

• Student Eligibility: All students are digital learners
• Student Access: All students have access to high quality digital content and online courses
• Personalized Learning: All students can customize their education using digital content through an approved provider
• Providers: All students have access to multiple high quality providers.
• Content: Digital Content, instructional materials, and online and blended courses are high quality.
• Instruction: Digital Instruction and teachers are high quality.
• Assessment and Accountability: Student learning is the metric for evaluating the content as instruction.
• Advancement: Students progress based on demonstrated competency.
• Funding: Funding creates incentives for performance, options, and innovation.
• Delivery: Infrastructure supports digital learning.

High quality providers, courses, and teachers are possible if we recognize that teachers unions have failed our country, and that scientific management of education is possible.

Teacher unions and the front organizations they ran — school districts, Parent Teachers Associations, and the like — may belong to the past, especially for the most able learners. For students with behavioral disabilities and maturity deficits, however, some form of daycare will be necessary while more and more of the actual instruction shifts to “the Cloud.”

The Parent Trigger, Imaginative Educators, and Self-Interest

Recently I had had a blog exchange with prominent education activist Bruno Behrend both here and at Chicago Boyz. While I have Bruno’s attention, I thought it would be interesting to go through some of his recent work, and see how it fits into my perspective.

Because Bruno’s talked a lot about the “parent trigger” (allow charter schools to form in a district when a majority of parents in a district support it), I decided to add my own voice to an dialog that Bruno had with Jay Mathews.

Jay criticized the idea, writing:

The job must start not with us parents, but with imaginative educators like Meier who are willing to stick with their ideas and their school for the long haul. Even if by some miracle we trigger a change in our local school, when our kids grow too old for that place we are gone. The parent trigger people will then have to explain their admirable but unworkable idea to a whole new group of us, just as confused and even less certain we have time for this.

Bruno took exception to this:

Here Mathews not only reveals his distrust of one of the deepest of societal relationships—parent to child—but also that he has adapted selfishness as his criteria for personal involvement, just as have self-interested teachers unions and establishment buzzards.

Jay’s talk about “imaginative educators” sounds like it was written on another planet, or at least another time.

The teaching profession in the United States has been lobotomized. We pay for a a sub-standard teaching cadre, and that’s exactly what we get:


In fairness, while I agree with Bruno that “self-interested teachers unions” are a problem, everyone is self-interested. Teachers, publishers, parents, employers, States, and Districts all want something.

The problem with teachers unions is not that they are self-interested.

The problem is that teachers unions are incompetent.

Teachers unions do not understand education and are not empathetic to other stakeholders.

That is why they are not longer the platform on which the future of American education depends.

A Comment on Education Reform

My friend Lexington Green encouraged me to read the post, “The Insanity of Federalized Teacher Evaluations” by Bruno Behrend. Bruno’s work is fascinating because he accurately captures many of the forces at play in the education reform debate, while also reflecting the view of someone very empathetic to teachers who is obviously very frustrated by the insanities of the system.

It appears we are both addressing this issue systematically — Bruno’s use of the term ‘Government-Education Complex’ is clearly similar to the one I use, ‘Federal-Academic Complex.’

I encourage you to read the whole thing. In this post I describe what Bruno’s written, but for the most context you should read the entry on the blog, Chicago Boyz.

Bruno is correct that the States are part of a coalition against Teachers and Districts. Another part of this, though, is that Teachers have been using Districts to support their own welfare at the expense of other stakeholders, while simultaneously not being empathetic to the needs of those other stakeholders. State and District quality can both differ in quality, but there are reasons why Districts are now weak and States are strong.

With regard to gym teachers, Bruno’s correct that physical health is probably not best measured by standardized test scores. The context makes it appear, though, that it’s math and writing skills, not physical fitness, which are being measured through standardized tests. This isn’t odd at all — Google famously ties all employees compensation into the success of Google+ — that is just a clear way of signaling what the top (reading and writing) and lesser included (physical fitness) priorities are. These priorities may be right or wrong, and they may be being evaluated well or poorly, but prioritized evaluation is not insane.

Bruno is right to say the education reform movement has been hijacked by the states, if by this he means the states are one of many stakeholders in education reform. Others are parents and employers. Being empathetic to the desires of someone else is a basic way of getting what you want. The states want to divert power away from teacher-led Districts, parents want their children not to fail at life, and employers want the American population to be employable. This is a great part of the coalition that is pushing education reform.

Bruno is right in citing the teachers union, who points out that we evaluate mechanics by outcomes but teachers (increasingly) thru process. The reason is two fold: currently we don’t evaluate teachers at all except in cases of gross neglect, and we don’t pay teachers enough to attract professionals into the field. A process-focus evaluation system makes sense if you have abandoned the hope of attracting high-killed individuals into the field. If you believe you can attract — and pay — high skilled individuals, then you should pay them like professionals.

I completely agree that money should follow success in the education system. Right now it doesn’t, and one reason is that it is hard to measure success. The construction of a testing infrastructure is necessary for such a future to be created.

I do not agree, however, with Bruno’s proposal for radical decentralization. Such an outcome would be politically unsustainable and, from a national security perspective, dangerous. Low-performing populations easily fall into a ‘steady state’ whereby poor and mediocre districts provide jobs for teachers, daycare for parents, etc., and so please all local stakeholders: but still produce unemployable mouth-breathers who birth more kids and just repeat the cycle. A similar steady-state emerges for medium-performing populations. The reason is that parents are generally risk-adverse, and are happy as long as the child’s outcomes is not noticeable worse than what ‘should’ be.

From a national security perspective we need to stop this weird system where our critical infrastructure is designed, built, and run by foreigners because we can’t produce employable citizens. Radical decentralization just cements our current outcomes in place.

Dismantling the entire system just won’t happen — it is like attempting to roll-back the national income tax or direct election of Senators. There is much about society I would change if given the divine power to do so, but that does not mean those goals are actually achievable.

I wanted to add some thoughts about group learning. My thoughts as a student were identical to Bruno’s here — my thoughts now are quite different. Group learning is described in a fuzzy, nonsensical manner by teachers, because it is sold to them in a fuzzy, nonsensical manner. American schools, while academically awful compared to Chinese ones, are brilliant at training for leadership positions. Group learning teaches future leaders how to manipulate the less-productive into getting out of the way, and trains how-performing workers into how to recognize each other. It’s a form of battle school, and the fact that it takes place in schools (as opposed to the real world) means that it occurs before social sorting has taken place.

Review of “The Difference Engine,” by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

The Difference Engine is a hard book to review. On one hand it is technothriller that asks, “What if Charles Babbage had succeeded in building his programmable computer in the 19th century?” On another it is literary science fiction, with a depth comparable to Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. On the third it’s a rumination on word processing.

Charles Babbage and Charles Darwin were contemporaries in early 19th century Britain. Both men made great discoveries, and both were perfectionists. Famously, Darwin only published his theories when he heard that Wallace had independently discovered natural selection and was going to release his own version of the theory. Less famously, Babbage designed the Difference Engine (which has successfully been constructed from his plans in our down day), a mechanical computer, but abandoned work finishing it to attempt the Analytical Engine, a computer that was as advanced as the electronic ENIAC that was finally built more than a century later.

No men, if their careers could have been more successful, might have changed our world more than Archimedes and Charles Babbage.

But what would such a world have looked like? Could an information revolution occur at the same time as an industrial revolution? Who would benefit from such a world? Who would oppose it?

The Difference Engine is composed of several “Iterations” and a final “Modus.” Many characters appear again and again, though often the reader’s view of them differ – a character might simply be standing near an event in one iteration, an antagonist in a second, a helper in a third, and the protagonist in the fourth.

The meaning of the ending of The Difference Engine is disputed, and (in the finest literary tradition) there is no need to take the authors’ remarks as the last word. I’m still unsure what finally happens.

I read The Difference Engine on my Kindle.

Review of “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance,” by Louis Gerstner

Louis Gerstner was the recent Chief Executive Officer of International Business Machines at the time he wrote this story of his ten years at the company.

Technology platforms tend toward monopoly, and the monopoly that build IBM was the System/360. IBM sold a high-margin, integrated computing solution for companies that limited the uncertainty large computer buys experienced, at the cost of a higher price tag. Because IT is cost center for most companies, overpaying for computer equipment (relative to market rates) but with the need for a less skilled IT workforce (relative to companies that bought less expensive equipment) made IBM an attractive force.

Like all monopolies, IBM faced challenges relating to understanding the market and empathy for other stakeholders. Unlike Microsoft, IBM was able to avoid a consent decree, but the defensive market practices that IBM engaged in during the lawsuit (1969-1982) may have harmed IBM’s long-range competitiveness. The trust threat to IBM’s System/360 monopoly came not from the Department of Justice, but from Unix, a family of operating systems that was born in 1969 at the AT&T Bell Telephone Laboratories. (The 1969 date is probably not a coincidence. If IBM had been able to protect its business Unix would have been irrelevant. )

Unix, an operating system family for ‘computer computers’ (which is now featured on many smartphones), was soon joined by the down-market competitor of PCs running Microsoft operating systems and Intel computer chips. The cost advantages of Unix and Microsoft against IBM soon became substantial enough for corporations to save money buy building their own IT departments to handle Unix and PC systems, and IBM’s System/360 fell behind..

Many in IBM supported breaking up the company into smaller, nimbler, competitors. The madness of that period can summed up in this chart, part of an article insisting that IBM be broken up:

Gerstner understood the market IBM was in was technology services. In the 1960s, as today, most companies do not want to be in the Information Technology business. Wheter you talk about “software as a service,” or “cloud computer,” or whatever, the basic concept is the same: moderately-priced reliable service is better than internally-sourced attention-demanding IT. Sadly, by the early 1990s, the System/360 family not was just one of many computer architectures, along with Unix and Windows, and so IBM was no longer a one-stop shop.

This is the situation that Gerstner inherited.

There were two naturally roads for IBM in the 1990s to return to being a sole-provider. One was to double-down on the System/360 family, and fight off Unix and Microsoft. Another was to abandon any hope of reestablishing a monopoly in computer equipment, and flee up the value chain by being a consulting & integration computer. Gerstner, who several times in the book decries the focus on technology platforms as irrational, chose the second.

I’ve been thinking about monopolies a lot recently (which has inspired excellent posts on other blogs, as well), and have written about IBM in the past, as well. Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance is the fascinating story of a former monopoly reborn as a competitive market player.  While like other books (including On China by Henry Kissinger, and Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China by Ezra Vogel) you need to read between the lines on occasion, the book was well worth it.

I listened to Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance, unabridged, on my Kindle.