The Blackboard Jungle Revisited

, Jason Livingood, Leave a comment

Sol Stern’s new book, Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice, is a broadside against teachers unions, bureaucracy, and the status quo answer to education problems. For Stern, many of the problems with the current system are not due to miniscule budgets, but instead to powerful teachers unions and stifling bureaucracy.

Stern reached his conclusions through his journalistic investigations of the public school systems in New York, Milwaukee, and Cleveland, and his own experiences as a parent of two children in the New York City system. He has written on education for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and City Journal. He compiled one series of articles repeatedly cited by New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in his promotion of the school choice movement.

Stern’s interest in the subject began soon after his children entered the public school system. When he took a close look into matters at P.S. 87, he learned that “the schools they attended, though supposedly among the best in the system, were burdened with too many unproductive or dysfunctional teachers, harmed by irrational personnel and recruitment practices, and affected by a deadening, systemwide bureaucratic culture.”

Stern provides many startling examples of teachers unfit to teach in any classroom who remain in place only because of union rules, much to the detriment of their students. There is the case of “Mr. B,” a teacher who transferred to P.S. 87 by seniority, who wore such tattered clothes and wandered around the schoolyard in such a stupor that Stern initially mistook him for a wandering derelict. Or, “Mr. S” of Wagner Junior High School, a French teacher who fell asleep so frequently in class that students began to have contests to see how long, by remaining quiet, they could get each nap to last. Both Mr. B and Mr. S were teachers the school administration could do nothing about despite the obstacles each represented to their students’ continued learning.

At the heart of these matters, Stern argues, are the teachers’ unions, especially the largest, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), whose membership that exceeds 100,000. The UFT’s 200-page work contract with the Board of Education, which all UFT members sign, is the source of many of the system’s problems.

While the contract lists many things a principal cannot ask a teacher to do, such as attend more than one after-hours staff meeting per month, or substitute for another teacher in an emergency, the contract nowhere specifies the minimum number of hours a teacher is to work each week. The school day is to last six hours and forty minutes, and Stern describes some teachers who take that to the letter, even refusing to meet with concerned parents after that time is up.

But the most damaging portion of the labor contract, Stern believes, are the clauses on seniority and the transfer of teachers from one school to another. Under these provisions, principals are required to fill half of the job openings at their school with the teachers having the greatest seniority among those teachers requesting transfer to the school. Principals are not allowed to select or even interview those filling the positions.

Furthermore, thanks to other provisions in the contract requiring massive documentation over a lengthy period of time for the dismissal of an incompetent, but certified, teacher, principals will often make sure that such teachers receive “satisfactory” evaluations so as to enable them to transfer to another school. Thus, seniority does not guarantee that a teacher will be talented or even basically competent.

A school, in Stern’s opinion, must be “guided by the fundamental principle that the interests of its students comes ahead of staff claims to lifetime job security and the perks of seniority.” The work contracts and general tendencies of the current system are guided, Stern argues, towards the opposite. It does not benefit students that inept teachers cannot be fired except after a long drawn out process, or that clearly talented teachers lacking permanent licenses can be bumped out of the classroom to make room for others who have certification and seniority but can barely keep up with the students.

Stern wholeheartedly approves of school voucher programs. Catholic schools “no longer see their educational mission primarily as preserving the canons of the faith. Instead, they have been transforming the lives of millions of poor black and Hispanic children, whatever their religious affiliations,” Stern says. “Catholic schools, once suspected of ‘dual loyalties,’ are now among the last bastions in American education upholding the ideal of a common civic culture.”

Furthermore, Catholic schools do a better job of teaching their students—one study shows them one full grade ahead of their public school counterparts—at a lower cost per student. Stern believes vouchers will help all students, even those whose financial background would make them ineligible for receiving vouchers, such as Stern’s own children. He writes:

I am convinced that if I could have waved a magic wand and created a voucher program in New York City similar to the one in Milwaukee, my sons would have benefited greatly. They would have had fewer seniority transfers who couldn’t teach. Their schools—all of them, from P.S. 87 to Stuyvesant—would have had fewer bureaucratic regulations imposed on them from central headquarters and thus could have been more creative in structuring classes and designing curricula. Each of their principals would have had more freedom to move items around in their budgets in order to meet the real academic needs of the students. In other words, school choice would have kept the system honest and forced it to compete.

Stern sees the current education reform movement as finishing up on the “unfulfilled agenda of the 1960s civil rights revolution,” a movement in which he participated as a writer for Ramparts in the 1960s.