Teachers’ Unions Are Destroying American Education
American public schools are witnessing a mass exodus of teachers.
The term “stampede” may be more appropriate. According to one poll conducted in 2022, some 55% of educators were ready to leave the profession, and this unease is often translated into action. In one Chicago school nearly every teacher bailed out. Many teachers are not even waiting for the end of the school year and are leaving in mid-term.
These departures overwhelming result from school violence, disorderly classrooms, insufficient administrative support, and trying to teach kids who just don’t care. According to one study during the 2020-21 school year, one-third of teachers reported at least one incident of harassment or threats of violence while 14% were actually physically attacked. The American Psychological Association (APA) Task Force on Violence against Educators and School Personnel reports that threats can even come from parents convinced that junior is “a good kid” despite carrying a knife to the classroom.
Cold statistics understate the fear of violence, especially in schools where poor, single-parent minority students predominate. Reports of physical confrontations quickly spread to others as does the unwillingness of school administrators to punish culprits. Further add daily in-your-face hostility to learning such as talking during lectures, constant iPhone use, and obvious boredom that can kill a teacher’s commitment.
Under such circumstances, the usual workplace incentives are of little value to unhappy teachers. A 3% salary raise, or better medical plan, cannot compensate for daily living in fear for one’s safety. This is not the Great Depression where a secure teaching job was prized no matter what. Nor are today’s female teachers limited in their vocational options.
The problems of unsafe and dangerous working conditions are the classic tribulations that precipitated America’s labor movement. After all, what could be more central to a union? So, how are the two teacher unions responding? Answer: By making it worse.
Considering the sheer size and resources of the two teachers’ unions, protecting their members should be a no-brainer. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), has 1.7 million members and besides K-12 teachers. it represents many in non-educational fields such as nursing. The National Education Association (NEA) is the world’s largest professional organization with 2.5 million members. Both unions are recognized for their skilled lobbying and lavish contributions to political campaigns. As the recent COVID crisis illustrated, these unions can shut down public schools for long periods, often against the desires of parents and public officials.
Why then are teachers’ unions ignoring the plight of teachers jumping ship over working conditions? The short answer: both unions prioritize a sweeping radical political agenda versus what daily concerns teachers. Yes, these unions acknowledge their traditional bread and butter missions, but such prosaic concerns fail to drive their passion for racial justice.
A recent AFT statement—Reimagining School Safety—illustrates this racial justice obsessions. Its solution to reducing school violence explicitly rejects punitive measures such as expelling troublemakers in favor of preventive therapeutic interventions. It states, “Reenvisioning education and schools …must account for the large bodies of research showing that schools with strong, caring, culturally supportive, and positive climates can not only address issues of ongoing victimization but also prevent students from being victimized. Little evidence suggests that law enforcement strategies have prevented school shootings or made schools feel safer for students.” In fact, it continues, “significant research has highlighted the negative impact that security, law enforcement, and punitive approaches can have on school climate, including lowering students’ sense of belonging and safety and academic performance.” Down with the police, up with hiring more therapists (who, no doubt, will then join the AFT).
The NEA is even more supportive of racial justice as the cure for the problems driving teachers to quit. They are not shy: “We are working tirelessly to dismantle systems of oppression that prevent children from accessing a great public education because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, culture, or nationality.” The rejection of punitive measures cannot be any stronger: “... zero tolerance and other exclusionary school discipline policies are pushing kids out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system at unprecedented rates. Funding choices by certain politicians prioritize putting police into schools, harming students who are Black, brown, LGBT or disabled for making mistakes that - for wealthy white kids - are deemed part of growing up and learning. By joining together - parents and teachers, Black, white, and brown - we can make every neighborhood public school a place where all children can learn, grow, and thrive.”
While these repetitive messages claim to be “research based” and offer countless footnotes, they fail to offer any examples of hellhole urban schools that have been transformed by these expensive therapies. Everything is wishful thinking that sidesteps the awkward reality that the disciplinary problems are disproportionately caused by blacks and Hispanics victimizing white teachers and students.
This is just virtue-signaling--will any teacher, white or black, be convinced that safety will improve if only he or she were more attentive to the destructive impact of white racism? Will replacing cops with social workers be the magic bullet? None of this is what threatened educators currently need.
If not reversed, the unions’ indifference to the plight of teachers will yet further undermine American education. The more talented teachers have options in private, non-union schools and will likely be the first to flee. Experienced teachers in horrific schools might also transfer to safer, largely white and Asian schools, within their school districts. Now, faced with staff shortages, schools will hire younger recruits clueless about dealing with rowdy students in unsafe schools. They, too, will soon jump ship and desperate schools will scrape the bottom of the barrel just to keep schools open. Academic standards for educators will necessarily decline, emergency hires may not even have a degree or any useful training, but schools need the bodies. With the influx of inexperienced rookies, rowdy students will become even more emboldened, and the teacher exodus will become a jailbreak.
With fewer qualified teachers, classes, even entire schools, may have to be merged, returning to an era of classrooms of 50+ students. Specialists in support services such as reading and math will be conscripted into the classroom to fill vacancies. Those needing extra help in these subjects will be neglected.
Meanwhile, education-minded parents will likewise take flight rather than send junior to a school dominated by inept, intellectually challenged teachers unable to control the classroom. Public education itself will shrink to those parents and students with no other choice, and those students, too, will flee. That flight can already be seen in dramatically declining student enrollment numbers in urban areas.
Ironically, poor black and Hispanic students most dependent on public schools for a decent education will suffer the most. With all the neighborhood and family problems they face, it is difficult enough for them receive a quality education but filling the school with inexperienced teachers may make this goal impossible. The upshot will be an ever-widening gap between the rich who can afford private options and the poor stuck in violent schools with beginner teachers unable to impose the classroom order vital to learning.
If the AFT and NEA were determined to destroy an educational system that for decades offered millions of kids from economically struggling families a way out, it is hard to think of a better plan than the mindless pursuit of racial justice. Is this purposeful or just a matter of not-so-brilliant union officials being intoxicated with an alluring but flawed ideology? If the answer is the former, America is in deep, deep trouble—we have teachers’ unions who hate learning.
Robert Weissberg is a retired educator.
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