Economist Folly

As recent T of M posts reveal, a favorite publication of several contributors is the English periodical the Economist. Though liberal on many social issues — the magazine promotes gay marriage, increased aid to developing nations, and even endorsed Barack Obama in 2008 — for some the magazine exudes a business-friendly, pro-development ethos that strikes them as Pollyannaish. Generally, the magazine views unions as part of the problem rather than the solution.In its October 2, 2010 leader “Is it a bird? Is it a plane?”, the Economist summarized the recent documentary Waiting for Superman – a movie that essentially chronicles the work of former D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee.  The magazine questioned the role of unions in education reform, promoted charter schools, and advocated for new measures to determine student progress and teacher effectiveness.  Despite Waiting for Superman’s depressing ending and the “bleakness of its title,” the Economist says, the movie also suggests that good schools and good teachers do exist.  The key is to adopt their methods and pedagogy:

That truth, recognized by anyone who has spent even a few hours in say, a KIPP charter school, is an inconvenient one to the teachers’ unions, which the film rightly identifies as a big chunk of kryptonite standing in the way of a dramatic rescue for the children of America.

The teachers’ unions have resolutely opposed efforts to pay good teachers more than mediocre ones, to fire the worst performers, and to shut down schools that consistently fail to deliver a decent education. This, coupled with underfunding in poor areas, has resulted in a shortage of good schools; so the few that are worth getting into are hugely oversubscribed with places allocated by the public lotteries which provide the grim climax to the movie… the fact is teachers’ unions are the primary obstacle to reform…

T of M contributor Shane Updike took issue with some of the Economist’s arguments. Mr. Updike’s protestations were published in this week’s issue in its letters to the editor section. His letter is reprinted below. T of M didn’t check with anyone from the magazine but we’re pretty sure the Economist couldn’t care less about us.

Schooling in America

SIR – It is true that teachers’ unions protect bad teachers from being fired and that reform is needed (“Is it a bird? Is it a plane?”, October 2nd). However, unions also protect effective teachers from arbitrary punishment by school administrators who may be opposed to innovative ideas that come from the teaching staff. Furthermore charter schools are not the panacea that you and some school reformers claim. Charter schools such as KIPP and the Harlem Children’s Zone do a wonderful job of educating poor children in rough areas, but the vast majority are no more effective than a typical public school. And one of the best charter-school companies, Green Dot, which runs schools in Los Angeles and New York City, has a teaching staff that is fully unionised. American schools are in desperate need of improvement, but the assertion that unions are uniformly bad and non-unionized charter schools are always good is too simplistic.

Shane Updike

Currently working for the Highline School District near Seattle doing data analysis and administering the district’s Title 1 program, Mr. Updike completed eight years of distinguished teaching in the New York City High Schools and holds MA degrees in Social Studies Education (NYU) and Public Administration (University of Washington).