Trade, profession, or entrepreneurs? The market faithful raise important questions about the future of teacher unions.

Added to on March 11, 2006

American Journal of Education,
Nov 2005 

By Heinz-Dieter Meyer

Above all, don`t make teaching a career.

(Jean-Jacques Rousseau)

Teacher unions—the only American
trade unions that are still growing—are a key part of
the American educational compact, and their future is at
an interesting crossroads. While their current influence
and power derive very much from their role as a trade
union, many leading unionists agree that their future is
not in bread, butter, and classroom size bargaining but
in their ability to improve the quality of education and
the status of teaching as a profession. While die-hard
adversarialists continue to have a strong voice in the
local districts where they often look back to a long
history of acrimonious conflict, large parts of the
leadership have signed on to the "new unionism,"
as it has been expounded by scholars like Charles
Kerchner (coauthor of United Mind Workers: Unions and
Teaching in the Knowledge Society
[San Francisco:
Jossey-Bass, 1997) and unionists like Adam Urbanski
(president of the Rochester Teacher Association). The
new unionists have two things going for them. One is
realism: the new unionism seems to present a viable
course of action even for those who are unhappy with
teachers unions that oppose even the most basic forms of
competition and choice, like performance-based pay and
charter schools. Instead of calling for a general
overhaul of teachers unions, new unionists bet on
incremental changes along the lines of what has already
taken place in districts like Rochester, Cincinnati, and
Toledo. Second, their strategy, if successful, would
lead to an upgrading of the professional qualifications
and abilities of teachers and thus quite likely make an
important contribution to an overall reform of American
public education.

The logic underlying the
professionalization strategy is appealing. Teaching in
the United States has suffered from being treated as
merely another form of industrial labor. By emancipating
it from its industrial shackles, teachers may become the
professionals they should have been all along (and are
in many other countries). Judging from the recent
pronouncements of leading union representatives like Bob
Chase (who has spoken in favor of peer review—a key
piece of professional self-government), the prospects
for the new unionism would appear to be good.

Critique of Reform Unionism

Enter folks like Peter Brimelow,
Myron Lieberman, Gregory Moo, and other radical critics
of what they disparagingly refer to as the "NEA/AFT

While not opposed to more
professionalism among teachers, these critics do not
believe that the National Educational Association (NEA)
or the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) are the
vehicles to achieve that. In their view, the teacher
unions are beyond reform, at least as long as their
monopoly status—by which the 3 million American teachers
are represented de facto by one organization that
speaks, fights, and bargains on their behalf—remains
untouched. (For comparison, the powerful

United Auto Workers union
has only 700,000 members.)
Brimelow points out that the unions are able to maintain
this bargaining monopoly in part because all public
employment is exempt from the National Labor Relations
Act (NLRA). As a result they were able to gain legal
recognition for closed-shop practice in 19 of the most
populous states of the union.

The "teacher trust`s" three
commandments read: thou shalt have no other union
besides me; thou shalt be paying dues even if you would
rather not be a member; thou shalt not support any
reform that would break the employment monopoly of
government. The first commandment is maintained by
virtue of unique legal privileges that guarantee the
unions the right of exclusive representation. The second
principle is maintained by virtue of closed-shop
guarantees. And the third principle is the object of
much of the unions` political activism and mobilization.

memorable example
is the NEA`s campaign against the
provoucher Proposition 174 in California during which
the association assessed its 230,000 members $57 (on top
of their regular annual dues of $475) for a war chest
that made the NEA the most powerful voucher opponent in

Peter Brimelow`s The Worm in the
is based on the simple premise that the
extraordinary powers that result from these three
principal pillars of American teacher unionism will
inevitably lead to extraordinary abuses. Brimelow is a
journalist who writes for Forbes magazine, frequently on
matters of education. The book he has produced is a
cross between journalism and pamphlet, a piece of
muckraking journalism, as he himself calls it. Brimelow
reports and to some extent repeats the indictments of
the teacher unions that we have heard before: poorly
qualified teachers cannot be dismissed due to union
protection, principals cannot effectively counteract
declining test scores, and so on. But beyond documenting
myriads of cases of abuse, Brimelow unpacks the legal
institutes that enable the teacher trust. The latter
maintains its hold over the public school system through
unprecedented concessions from lawmakers in whose
backyard the teachers as government employees operate.
Essentially, it is government employees arguing with
government employees. What is more, given their
resources and time, the teachers have a great deal of
say about who gets elected to government office. They
have the time, money, and clout to block any reform pay
for performance, tuition tax credits, charter schools,
homeschooling—that would undermine the union`s
bargaining monopoly. By contrast, the NEA/AFT will
support all reforms that will swell the ranks of its
membership pool: smaller class size, bilingual
education, any form of support staff. Indeed, Brimelow
maintains that the rapid growth of all and sundry
nonteaching staff positions in American schools cannot
be explained without the unions` strategy of membership
expansion. Thus, the key to the NEA/AFT`s success is the
associations` strategy of high membership and revenue
basis, coupled with reciprocal arrangements with many
levels of government.

At the school level the unions
maintain their position by presenting themselves as
trigger-happy grievance writers. Two minutes extra work
unpaid? File a grievance! Teacher training without
coffee and doughnuts? File a grievance!

Occasionally Brimelow`s zeal leads
him to dismiss ideas and concepts on most superficial
inspection. For example, the notion that elementary math
students should use, among other things, a "guess-and-check
multiplication strategy
is, for Brimelow,
"education speak"
for anything goes.

The list of minor and major
outrages that the NEA commits in the name of teachers
seems almost inexhaustible, and Brimelow does his best
to keep the presentation interesting. Still, by piling
outrage upon outrage and rarely wavering from his "I
have a union official for breakfast every morning"

tone, Brimelow makes the reading tedious and

and does not aid the reader`s ability to
reflect on the matter. What might make interesting
reading in a feature article in Forbes becomes a
chore when repeated 13 times in 13 chapters of a book.
Having put the book`s ideas in the early and late
chapters, you, the reader, are supposed to sustain
yourself during the bulk of the book mostly on righteous
indignation. Needless to say, the book does not touch on
the extensive research literature on union effects on
educational productivity.

Alternative Visions for Teacher Preparation

So where does Brimelow want to take
us? Seeing unions as a labor monopoly (69), he believes
that any attempt to expand the compass of the teacher
unions, to give them more influence—even under the label
of "professionalism" or "new unionism"—is
misguided. This would merely enable the unions to expand
their influence over public education without any
guarantees that they would really change from trade
union to professional association. More likely, the new
unions would take their act to new, heretofore untouched
aspects of schoolwork, as in this quote from a
California NEA official: "If we are going to be held
accountable, we should bargain curriculum, rather than
have it forced down our throats by some curriculum
deputy superintendent that doesn`t have a clue. If we
are to be held accountable, we should bargain textbook
selection. We should bargain lesson plans, portfolios,
etc. We should bargain grading students. We should
bargain everything that relates to the classroom and
(38). Possibilities like this are
sufficient reason for Brimelow to call not for union
reform but for radical change. The teacher unions`
stranglehold on public education must be broken, and the
master strategy for accomplishing that is to introduce
competition among unions and among schools. Competition
among unions can be achieved by imposing the
requirements that apply to private sector unions under
the NLRA to the teacher unions under state bargaining
statutes. It would give teachers the choice to join or
not to join, or to join a different union. Competition
among schools would create a market for teacher talent
and allow differentiation among teachers according to
performance and results. Brimelow`s reforms would also
strengthen the individual bargaining power of teachers
by making their pension and benefits portable.

For Brimelow, exposing the unions
to the more rigorous conditions of the NLRA and giving
teachers some of the agency that all other employees
enjoy are the first steps toward a grander reform
agenda. The next, more drastic, change aims at
redefining teaching itself. For Brimelow, increasing the
professional qualification standards of teachers the
goal of the new unionists—is wrongheaded because it
would make teachers, their unions, and schools of
education (who would have to certify teachers`
qualifications) even more powerful. More importantly,
however, it treats teaching as something it is not: as a
profession on the model of law and medicine. For
Brimelow, teaching is more like journalism than like
medicine or law. "Journalism," says Brimelow (the
journalist), "is not a `profession.` It`s a trade.
Anyone can start writing, there is no code of conduct or
particularly vital common body of skills that
anyone—apart from journalism schools can see. But
generally, reward depends on individual effort, and some
individuals do very well"

Brimelow may have a point here. The
majority of journalists are
not graduates of journalism school.
Rather, they are
individuals with a general education and a passion to
write. The skills and standards that successful writers
need are mostly acquired on the job. Other
characteristics of journalism are talent-based selection
and reward, continuous innovation, and plurality of
excellence. The prestige of journalism as a profession
is shaky, ranging from paparazzi to Pulitzer Prize
winners. The actual status of a journalist derives more
from the prestige of the newspaper with which they are
affiliated than from an educational certificate or

Teachers as Entrepreneurs

Analogizing teaching on journalism
has several implications. The quality of teaching would
not be improved by higher graduation standards of
schools of education but rather by giving teachers
better opportunities to learn on the job—in the form of
mentoring or teaching apprenticeships (the latter being
the model followed in many other countries). It would
also be improved by providing teachers with incentives
to stretch themselves, to shoot for recruitment by the
most prestigious schools. Excellent teachers will become
associated with excellent schools, their status and
professional prestige a function of the status and
prestige of the school where they work. Competition
among schools would lead to competition between
pedagogies and eventually make all boats rise.

From this perspective one might
argue that teaching in America is, if anything,
overrationalized. Pretending to know what makes a good
teacher, we make them work through a two-year curriculum
of education courses when they could be honing their
skills on the job under the guidance of a master

There is one flaw to this argument.
It overlooks the fact that there is a degree of quality
control in journalism that does not exist in medicine,
law, or—for that matter—teaching. By its very nature, a
journalist`s work is subject to expert scrutiny on a
daily basis. The journalist`s "clients"—the
reading public—will be able to tell before long if a
writer is

concocting stories

otherwise misleading her readers.
To quality-control
physicians, lawyers, or—for that matter—teachers is, by
contrast, far more difficult. The clients of physicians,
lawyers, and teachers for the most part do not have the
competence to monitor the performance of these
professionals—hence the quality-controlling role of the
American Bar Association and the American Medical
Association. To curb the potential for abuse that lies
in this asymmetry, we have invented the institution of
certification and licensing—a combination of
professional peer control and government control. If
teaching were to emulate the medical and legal
profession on this count, the profession would have to
guarantee a minimum quality of service. Schools of
education, for which Brimelow has no particular use,
would play a role equivalent to the medical and law
school, certifying that its graduates satisfy certain
basic quality requirements.

Brimelow says he wrote the book
because many activities of the teacher unions are, in
his view, little known and understood by the general
public. I am not sure that it will do much lifting of
that cloud of ignorance. Most readers of the book will
have heard anecdotes about extortion and union support
for mediocrity and worse. Adding more stories of outrage
and abuse to the ledger does not necessarily lead the
reader to greater heights of clarity on the issue.
Amassing data is not a substitute for a sound conceptual
argument. And here, I`m afraid, Brimelow falls way
short. The essence of his position that unions are
rent-seeking monopolies, restraints on trade is stated
only perfunctorily in the first chapter. And the
important ideas about teaching as a profession are
stated equally casually and hastily in the last chapter.
That does not leave the reader with much to hang a hat
on. In this respect Brimelow shares the shortcomings of
his intellectual role model,

Milton Friedman
—namely, blind faith in the power of
one key theoretical principle and impatience with even
the most basic concessions to the institutional
idiosyncrasies of a particular field. For example, while
the parents and communities are not unaware of the
selfish exploits of the teacher unions, they also see
teachers working at the front lines of society`s social
ills, under conditions that are sufficiently demanding
and even dangerous to excuse the occasional extortion of

For the market faithful, everything
rides on the idea that some day education will be
produced and monitored by the market. In that new world,
schools will compete for quality teachers, teachers for
quality schools, and parents for the best educational
value. As long as the market has not garnered these
powers, the government-union monopoly will continue to
control education, and Brimelow and colleagues will not
run out of reasons to continue their muckraking.

Peter Brimelow, The Worm in the
: How Teacher Unions Are Destroying American
Education (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), xiii+275
pp.; index, notes; $24.95 (cloth).

Heinz-Dieter Meyer, State
University of New Fork at Albany

professor of education administration and policy at SUNY
Albany. He is editor (with W. L. Boyd) of Education
between Markets, Government, and Civil Society and (with
Brian Rowan) of The New Institutionalism in Education