September 6, 2006

Seeking a Paradigm Shift in Public Education

Donald B. Hawthorne

There has been a thoughtful exchange between Bobby Oliveira and me in the comments section of an earlier posting on the teachers' unions and their connection to the political process. The debate is worthy of further public vetting; that is the purpose of this posting. Therefore, after re-reading the initial posting, you can see the beginning of our exchange in the extended entry section below.

With that as background information, here are my latest comments:

Union Resistance to All Educational Innovation

You mention that you don’t care for the focus some Anchor Rising postings place on how unions are a primary problem in public education. But who blocks innovative idea like new charter schools, school choice for kids stuck in failed schools, merit pay proposals, and more discretionary operating control for principals? In fact, who blocks ANY reform that seeks to change the failed status quo? It is the teachers’ unions. And you cannot casually dismiss the school choice performance research data just because you don’t like what it says.

Pointing out their resistance to any and all meaningful changes does not equate to union-hating. We all understand they are acting in their rational self-interest. That said, our core argument is that there is no alignment between their self-interest and what is right for our children.

Bringing Transparency to Union Actions

Furthermore, the practices of public-sector unions should not be off limits for public debate – because what they do affects every child and every taxpayer. The unions certainly have no lack of willingness to be bullies in their contract demands. When was the last time any of us had 8-12% annual salary increases, identical salary increases to the best and worst teachers, little-to-no health insurance co-payments, rich retirement plans, and lifetime job security just for showing up and regardless of performance? When was the last time any of us had the right (let alone were willing) to punish children under work-to-rule just so co-payments can be kept low? Having union demands be made publicly transparent for really the first time now is a necessary first step toward eventual change.

Political Parties, Political Agendas & the Implications of Advocating a Paradigm Shift

More broadly speaking, we clearly understand the importance of and the connections between party, political power, and political agenda. (Personally, I have been a corporate executive for nearly 20 years and you don’t become a CEO without having both an appreciation for and the ability to work relationship and power issues.)

The approach you suggest works for many conventional issues – unless you are trying to change a fundamental paradigm. Changing a fundamental paradigm completely re-aligns the balance of power, often in ways that cannot be predicted in advance.

Think back to Winston Churchill when he was politically isolated in the 1930’s and talking about the looming Nazi threat. He was ridiculed and did not gain political power by forming conventional political coalitions. Rather, he gained power when the rest of his country awoke from its Neville Chamberlain-era slumber and realized Churchill had been prophetically raising the right issue for years.

The existing system of public education is an abject failure. It is expensive in how it blocks many children from getting a quality education which will be their gateway to the American Dream. It is expensive in the total dollars it spends every year. There is no way to tweak the status quo on the edges and save the system because the structural incentives of the status quo are fatally flawed.

The unions’ never-ending efforts to block any meaningful change that would benefit our children while demanding more and more money for themselves proves that they can never be part of any viable solution that does right by our children.

Therefore, many of us have the personal goal – as evident by the many Anchor Rising postings on the subject – to change the paradigm in public education: We advocate school choice where parents, instead of the government, control the educational funds associated with their children. If the latter is the goal, then the conventional view of political power - which you advocate - becomes less important. Rather, while being aware of existing sources of power, we focus instead on presenting ideas which seek to persuade enough people of why a paradigm shift is appropriate.

None of us is naive or idealistic enough to believe a change to the public education status quo will happen easily or naturally (or soon). There are too many entities with vested interests in protecting the status quo.

But, if we don’t deal with reality, eventually it will deal with us on its own terms. And that is why, at some point, the failed public education status quo will implode. It is only a question of when, how many kids will be hurt along the way, and how many taxpayer dollars will be wasted along the way.

And when it does implode, the ideas behind school choice as the viable alternative will have been public vetted by many people, including some of us here on Anchor Rising.

Finally, when the implosion happens, think about how the balance of political power will change: Conservatives and inner city poor people are among the primary advocates for school choice. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is funded in no small way by the teachers’ unions while rich white Democrats, like many U.S. Senators, block school choice for poor inner city children of color while sending their own children to elite private schools.

Four strategic questions about public education remain on the table:

1. Do we believe a quality education is the gateway to the American Dream for all children?

2. Whom do we trust to make better educational decisions for children: their parents or the government?

3. Within each neighborhood school, who is in the position to make the best decisions regarding individual students, individual teachers, and the curriculum: federal bureaucrats, state bureaucrats, unions or the school's principal and teachers?

4. What incentives will ensure accountability to taxpayers and parents as well as reward behaviors which lead to improved educational performance outcomes?

More background information here.

I would like to thank Bobby for engaging in the debate. We both know it will continue!


Dear Donald,

Holy Non-Sequitur Batman.

The teachers unions side with the dissidents because the dissidents, at the request of Harwood, are trying to mess with the budget process.
You in turn try to spin this into a "crack in the monolith." Wow, if you had candidates, that might have meant something.

Let me explain something about being in the majority:

Not everybody can be happy all the time. However, if the choice is between Honest Democrats, when it matters, and dishonest dissidents, who's only real plan is to stab Governor Carcieri in the back some day, we'll all be one big happy family again.

(Speaking of stabbing in the back, what's up with some GOP House candidates singing the Voter Initiative Song, like Maguire, while telling people privately "they're not really on the team"??)

One of the resons the teachers felt comfortable in taking this step was the lack of GOP candidates and competition. It's a message with no real impact. None of the people on the "no endorsement list" are really all that vulnerable. Then again, no Democrat, dissident or otherwise, is really vulnerable outside of a primary this year. Thanks Don, for promising some folks no opposition, and Pat, just for being you.

In a warped way, by being clueless regarding how to win elections, the GOP perserved the status quo. Only folks out of power would find this even interesting. (Planned Parenthood has stepped from the Senate Leadership on numerous occaisions and nobody ever says anything.)

Lastly, the union hating and demagougery on this isssue is proving once again that the RIGOP isn't ready for prime time. (Thanks again to Don Carcieri, unless Steve Laffey really is a miracle worker, it may not even exist soon.) Even President George W. Bush appeared with a union today.

Again, let me say it for the 111,178th time, instead of wasting time union hating, as Don Carcieri has taught you how to do, go find some candidates who can win races. Then perhaps you will get the opportunity to move ideas forward (I know some of you are true believers and really want to) instead playing the role of spectator to our little soap opera.

P.S. In case you're wondering, I find this particular step by the teachers dissapointing, but I understand.


Bobby, my friend:

Several core elements of your argument don't hold up to even rudimentary scrutiny.

You write as if Anchor Rising is somehow affiliated with the RIGOP or GOP. Not even close. Those of us who blog here made a conscious decision a while back that we would make no formal affiliations with any political party, candidate or issue. We have been asked to do so - and said no every time.

That approach has given us the freedom to speak out in ways that others cannot or will not. I believe it is part of the reason why we are increasingly getting kudos from the political and policy worlds in RI for being a thoughtful blog that creates opportunities for dialogues.

(I did chuckle when you implied we were somehow tight with the GOP. Not when you write this and this.)

We are also not politicians. There is no posturing in what we write so we can use those words in a run for office at a later time.

We are conservatives and quite willingly accept that label, although you will find different flavors of conservatism among each of us and there are no speech constraints imposed on what any of us write.

It probably would also be fair to label us policy wonks (or, at least, aspiring wonks!). One of the implications of being policy-centric is that we really don't care who is on what side of which issue. We are interested in debating the merits and underlying assumptions of the policy under consideration. Since that happens so infrequently these days in the world of politics, it is an area where we try to make some small bit of difference.

I also reject your label of union-hating. We all understand they are acting in their rational self-interest. That said, my core argument is that there is no alignment between their self-interest and what is right for our children. If pointing that out makes me a union basher, then I willingly accept the label. But I also strenuously reject your suggestion that the practices of public-sector unions should be off limits for public debate. They certainly have no lack of willingness to be bullies in their contract demands and having their demands be made publicly transparent for really the first time now is a necessary first step toward eventual change.

The heart of the matter is that public education is a disaster and the unions’ never-ending efforts to block any meaningful change that would benefit our children while demanding more and more money for themselves proves that they will never be part of any viable solution that does right by our children. If we care about the quality of education received by our children, we have to tear down the existing system whose incentives (such as seniority over merit) ensure only ongoing failure.

I would suggest the public debate should be centered around these strategic issues, with these supporting materials.


Dear Donald,

Let me approach a couple of things if I may:

1. You can't be an aspiring wonk and not understand the connection between party, or in this case faction, and agenda. In order to get what you want, you have to link your train to somebody. The captain of the debate team never wins in politics; the prom king almost always does.

2. There is a difference in what I see in Mike's post, which seems to articulate positions, and what I usually read about unions here. All practices are on the table by everybody. When every reform I read, the same problem with the fraudulent Education Partnership, starts and ends with a union, the message is clear.

3. I disagree that many of the things that are "blocked" would benefit children at all. Many of them are untried, bizarre merit systems, or proven not to work, vouchers.

Comments, although monitored, are not necessarily representative of the views Anchor Rising's contributors or approved by them. We reserve the right to delete or modify comments for any reason.

Having observed them for well over a decade, I’ve concluded that there are two dynamics underlying the teachers unions’ intransigence (and, thus, what I refer to as their “institutionalizing of mediocrity” within public schools).

First, their role is to protect, if not advance, their current membership. It is well documented that Colleges of Education are so bad they are fraudulent, little better than diploma mills. Between that and the inevitable acceptance of poor performance – and lack of external compulsion to alter it - that accompanies a monopoly, the union must protect the current mediocre teaching body by ensuring that education degrees remain required, thereby ensuring that new entrants are just a mediocre and so won’t make the more senior teaching force “look bad” and bring pressure to replace them.

Second, it is also well documented that the national teachers unions are far-left organizations, which in turn reflects the worldview of the people in charge of the unions. After all, one attracted by the idea of unions in the first place is one who leans toward “collectivism” – communism and labor unions are kindred spirits (which explains why the public schools today seemingly do everything in their power to tear down American history and what our country stands for – after all, if the Communist Party was officially put in charge of our schools, wouldn’t they do the same?). This worldview promotes a focus on class, victim-hood and equality of outcome (not of opportunity). As such it looks askance at effort, competition, achievement or success – for by definition these result in differentials in outcome. This explains why schools are more concerned with “self esteem” than achievement … and a preference for pulling everyone down to the lowest common denominator (and thus “equal”) than promoting and celebrating achievement.

This institutionalized mediocrity means that the children of today will be unable to economically compete with their peers from elsewhere in the world, and that as a result standards of living in the United States will decline.

Conclusion - the teachers unions are the single greatest non-terrorist threat to the well-being and future prospects of the children of the United States, and thus the future of the United States itself.

Posted by: Tom W at September 6, 2006 9:37 PM


Neither Forest Gump Oliveira nor Bob Walsh have responded to Don's intelligent and thoughtful post. What a surprise.

Posted by: john at September 7, 2006 5:24 AM

They're "working to rule" - and their contracts don't require that they respond. ;-)

Posted by: Tom W at September 7, 2006 9:04 AM

Dear John,

I thought Don's post was an accurate recap. Since then, I have only seen the fringe right ramblings of Tom W. which are not worthy of response at this point.

Posted by: Bobby Oliveira at September 7, 2006 10:34 AM

>>Since then, I have only seen the fringe right ramblings of Tom W. which are not worthy of response at this point.

Mr. O -

Your "fringe right" is the real world to most Americans (outside of a few enclaves like Berkely, Hollywood, the East Side of Providence, etc. ... or NEA convention resolutions).

Can't wait to see the response(s) from the "looney Left" seeking to defend the teachers unions, for it's extremely entertaining to watch ideologues attempting to defend the indefensible.

Please tell us how, on a net basis, has the presence of teachers unions contributed to quality public education????

Posted by: Tom W at September 7, 2006 10:45 AM

The problem w/education

Isn't one of ideologies, it is one of who controls the funding.

Because people are people, parents generally want a good education for their children. They would vote w/their vouchers for schools that teach their kids best. And, schools (read principals) will move toward providing the best education. The principals will do this because they are people too. They will change their school to generate the most approval from those who control their funding.

Contrast this w/the current "body count" system of funding. The state gives money to the school district on the basis of bodies in the chairs. That is the whole system. There is no reward for quality of education, only for bodies in the seats.

This leads to the importance of a small group of students I call the FFA. This is not the Future Farmers of America, but rather the Future Felons of America. It is the members of this group, and not the teachers unions who prevent quality learning from occurring.

Under vouchers, the schools will get more money by keeping the FFA out of the classrooms. Under the current system, the schools get more money by keeping the FFA in the classrooms.

You do the math.

Posted by: Bert Hopper at September 7, 2006 12:19 PM


Your comments raise two vital points that the public sector rarely even acknowledges and usually does not address - the behavioral impact of the underlying incentives created by policies. The private sector lives or dies based on how these incentives play out while the practices in the public sector are unaffected by them - to everyone's detriment. Your second point follows closely behind: the people with the most at stake and the best knowledge - parents and principals - are at the local level devoid of bureaucracy driven constraints. School choice successfully addresses your two important points.

Posted by: Donald B. Hawthorne at September 7, 2006 1:47 PM

Dear Tom W,

When of the immediate benefits of teachers unions has been the performance of women in schools.


Are you now ready to work on what it would take to get a true choice system here in RI, or are you still at the theoretical stage??

Posted by: Bobby Oliveira at September 7, 2006 8:39 PM


Are you asserting that the presence of teachers unions has somehow been associated with superior performance of women in school? What data are you basing that on? And have you ever run that one by someone who is a member of, say, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, or the Sisters of Mercy?

Posted by: John at September 7, 2006 9:35 PM

>>When of the immediate benefits of teachers unions has been the performance of women in schools.


Teaching - particularly at the elementary level - was predominantly female long before unions became predominant in the mid-1960's and thereafter.

Second, is it your position that for some reason those women weren't performing before the unions came along?

The only thing the teachers unions have established in this regard is lack of discrimination in mediocrity - they've managed to make it uniform across the entire universe of public education. That's why U.S. public schools are ranked something like 25th in the world, according to the OECD.

Posted by: Tom W at September 7, 2006 10:42 PM

As is the case with a lot of issues with the teachers the idea of the job fair is not terrible it's the rules I would change.The bumping system prevents the best and brightest from working in their optimum position during there "prime". The idea that just because you have been around longer than someone else you deserve a position is totally unexceptable.What's wrong with the best person for the job actually getting it? Why not go out and recruit good employees?

Posted by: Steve at September 8, 2006 8:42 AM

Dear John,

We're not talking about teachers, we're talking about students.

Tom W,

As usual, you have a problem with your data. In less you have stats to show where we were ranked in the world before, and you don't, you don't know if anything has changed. Even if you did, there is no cause and effect relationship that can be shown.


You have a fine idea, however, we go back to the original problem: what is and how do we measure performance so that is what we are actually measuring? NCLB has certainly botched it up and now, especially due to the lack of proper federal funding, everyone is teaching to the test which is exactly what nobody wanted.

Posted by: Bobby Oliveira at September 8, 2006 7:19 PM

>>As usual, you have a problem with your data. In less you have stats to show where we were ranked in the world before, and you don't, you don't know if anything has changed. Even if you did, there is no cause and effect relationship that can be shown.

Valid point - though weak under the current circumstances. We’ve had widespread teacher unionization for about forty years now; so what occurred before (as a baseline) is becoming increasingly irrelevant. What we do know is that SAT and other measurements of educational achievement have essentially been flat for thirty-plus years. We know that “A Nation At Risk” was published over twenty years ago, and measurements have remained flat. We know that since the 1960’s per pupil spending has at least doubled (in real terms), and measurements have remained flat. We know that today the OECD ranks the U.S. educational achievement something like 25th in the world.

So the forty-year presence of teacher unions has not had any impact on improving education, merely in raising its cost. Are the teachers unions the only cause for the poor performance of U.S. schools? No. But (at best) they have shown themselves not to be part of a solution, but absolutely determined to be an impassable roadblock to improvement, and so - for the good of the children and the good of the economic future of the United States - should be dissolved.

Posted by: Tom W at September 9, 2006 8:36 AM

Dear Tom W,

Let me offer a different suggestion:

The problems are not with the unions. In fact, they occur way before the child even gets to school.

Posted by: Bobby Oliveira at September 9, 2006 10:07 AM

There are "problems" that occur before the child even gets to school.

Particularly among the Democrat-promoted illegitimate population born of welfare queens neither capable of supporting them, or fit to raise them.

That makes this population more challenging to educate.

But the unionized schools aren't doing a good job in "challenged" schools or "advantaged" suburban schools.

In the challenged districts the unions blame of the poor results on poverty. In the advantaged districts the unions take credit for the "good schools" (that look good only on a relative basis).

In other words, the teachers unions are again typically self-serving and cherry-pick the facts: if demographics is destiny and excuses the poor performance in "disadvantaged" areas, then too the demographics in "advantaged" areas accounts for the (relatively) "better" performance.

The unionized teaching force is not adding value, but merely coasting atop whatever demographic wave happens to be before them.

Posted by: Tom W at September 9, 2006 12:30 PM

Actually, Tom, it is worse than that. Many RI public schools, in both poor and affluent areas, produce lower test scores than you would expect on the basis of the demographic inputs. Give our teachers unions credit for one thing: they fail all children equally, and have absolutely no shame about it. And for that we all suffer.

Posted by: susan at September 9, 2006 6:40 PM

Dear Susan,

Should we do as other states have done - especially Texas - and mess with the parameters to get the results we want? Or, should we leave things alone and get results we don't like but at least are real?

Posted by: Bobby Oliveira at September 9, 2006 10:09 PM

U.S. Spends More on Education, Gets Worse Results, OECD Finds

By Paul Basken

Sept. 12, 2006 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. spends more on primary and secondary education than most developed countries, yet has larger classes, lower test scores and higher dropout rates, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported.

The U.S. spent about $12,000 per student, second only to Switzerland among the 30 OECD countries based on 2003 figures, the OECD said today in its annual report on education. The U.S. outperformed only five of the 30 countries on an OECD test given to 15-year-olds, ranked 12th in high school completion rates and averaged 23 students per class, higher than the average of 21.

Thirty years ago, the U.S. ranked first among OECD nations in high school completion, said Barbara Ischinger, director for education of the Paris-based group. ``This needs urgent attention as the labor market prospects of those who do not leave school with strong baseline qualifications are deteriorating,'' she said.

The OECD analysis is the latest report to raise questions about the performance of U.S. public schools, five years after President George W. Bush enacted the ``No Child Left Behind'' law, which was designed to improve schools by requiring states to give annual tests in subjects such as math and reading and established penalties for schools that don't meet the standards.

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has credited the law with producing ``more progress in the last five years than in the previous 28 years combined.'' Yet international tests such as the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which compares 15-year-olds on reading, mathematics and scientific literacy, show U.S. students performing below average.

Education Department spokesmen did not respond to phone calls and e-mail messages seeking comment on the OECD report.

Not About Money

Ischinger said of the U.S. rankings, ``It is not a money question,'' noting that only Luxembourg spends more on its primary school students and only Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland spend more at the secondary level.

In the previous OECD test of 15-year-olds, in 2000, the U.S. performed near the OECD average in reading and below the average in math and scientific literacy.

Craig Barrett, chairman of Intel Corp., the world's largest semiconductor maker, said U.S. schools don't set high standards for students and don't insist that they meet standards.

The U.S. could improve its schools by copying the teaching approaches in successful foreign countries, then ``set the passing expectation levels consistent with where you want to be,'' Barrett said in an interview.
The OECD report also finds the U.S. facing growing competition at the college level, though it still remains the world's leader, Ischinger said.

High Dropout Rate

The U.S. attracts about 22 percent of all college students enrolled worldwide in a foreign country, the highest percentage. That's down from 25 percent several years earlier, as countries such as China, Japan and South Korea have been building up their own universities, she said.

The U.S. also has a 46 percent dropout rate from college, defined as not completing a degree within six years, giving it the second-highest rate in the OECD behind only Mexico.

At the same time, it has the third-highest rate for continuing education, with 37 percent of working-age adults enrolled in school, behind only Sweden and Denmark in the OECD. ``The strength of the U.S. system is that many people get a second chance,'' Ischinger said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Paul Basken in Washington at
Last Updated: September 12, 2006 05:00 EDT

Posted by: Tom W at September 12, 2006 12:42 PM

So worldwide, the US is second in spending but twenty-fifth in results.

Please can we be either second in both or twenty fifth in both?

Posted by: SusanD at September 12, 2006 4:22 PM

>>So worldwide, the US is second in spending but twenty-fifth in results. Please can we be either second in both or twenty fifth in both?

SusanD -

Sounds like you're advocating "equality."

Don't the liberals tell the world that conservatives oppose equality? ;-)

Posted by: Tom W at September 13, 2006 12:48 AM