Peter Brimelow likes to shock. The Worm in the Apple: How the Teacher Unions are Destroying American Education is replete with hard-hitting punches at the National Education Association (NEA), which the veteran journalist repeatedly likens to the former Soviet Union’s Communist Party, scaled down a few notches, of course.
Brimelow is determined to expose teacher unions as corrupt, selfish institutions that relentlessly pick at the public’s bank account, only to distribute ever-increasing government funds (formerly tax dollars) inefficiently at best, self-servingly at worst.
He demonstrates through a plethora of facts and figures (often overwhelming, as there is steady stream of them throughout the book) that although annual spending per student in the 1999-2000 school year was twenty-five times the 1890 figure, and 45% more than the 1982 figure, our kids don’t seem to be getting any smarter. Brimelow refers to what educators term the “Great Decline” of the 60s and 70s, when SAT scores kept getting worse and worse, as well as the current frustrating plateau that has emerged since then, to prove his point. Curiously, the beginning of the “Great Decline” seems to coincide with the unionization of teachers. And, suspiciously enough, the NEA has decried standardized testing as a method of measuring progress. Brimelow, who has written on education for Forbes and Fortune, smells a rat.
The NEA suffers blow after blow by Brimelow’s sharp, convincing critique. Among his accusations:
1) The NEA is politically motivated, and invariably left-wing, having backed every Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter.
2) The NEA itself is only superficially a democracy. There are elected officials, but there is also a large permanent staff holding prominent and powerful positions. Additionally, union representatives claiming to represent member interests are in many cases left to their own devices, as teachers are too busy teaching to develop opinions regarding union issues.
3) Unions attend to even the most ridiculous of teacher grievances, in one case ardently battling for faculty rights to complimentary coffee and doughnuts.
4) The NEA thrives on the propagation of such questionable educational practices as reducing class size and increasing teacher pay, which it knows the public will swallow blindly. In reality, Brimelow argues, the astronomical cost of these measures far outweighs their benefits.
Reducing class size means a need for more teachers. More teachers means more members for the union, which means more dues, which means more money for the union. Even teachers who choose not to join a union owe a fee. Aside from the cost of class-size reduction, there’s the educational impact: a hunt for more teachers means lowering standards. Teacher quality decreases, and guess where the NEA pins the blame? Low pay! Brimelow, whose own two children attend public school, adeptly exposes a never-ending effort to drain Americans of all their hard-earned dollars, powered by that friendly (or so you thought), do-good organization called the National Education Association.
Thankfully, Worm doesn’t leave us hopelessly mired in conspiracy and corruption. The last chapter is dedicated to Brimelow’s 24-point outline for reform, centered around two main themes: transformation of the public school system from socialist to capitalist, and an end to teacher union immunity from antitrust litigation. Not wanting to be dismissed as overly optimistic or impractical, Brimelow observes: “the Soviet Union—completely unexpectedly—collapsed. The National Education Association doesn’t look any healthier.”
Michele Nagar, a rising freshman at the University of Maryland at College Park, is an intern at Accuracy in Academia.