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The Mediocrity of Unions

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
On September 28, the movie Won’t Back Down, a Walden Media film, distributed by Twentieth Century Fox, will hit the theaters nationwide.  Inspired by true events, the producer’s description is, “Two determined mothers, one a teacher, look to transform their children's failing inner city school. Facing a powerful and entrenched bureaucracy, they risk everything to make a difference in the education and future of their children.”  

The uniqueness of this film is its mission.  Not only does it present an entertaining David versus Goliath story, it ends with a call to action, complete with an online toolkit (  Won’t Back Down joins two other non-fiction motion pictures, Waiting for Superman and Stand and Deliver that also contrast America’s world champion teachers against the greatest obstacle to success in American education.

Every teacher that I listened to in researching this article told a similar story of inspiration in their decision to enter the teaching profession.  Most were motivated by a teacher in their own days as a student in high school.  One told me of being motivated by observing both great and terrible teachers who provided examples of what to do and what to avoid.

The research group RAND Corporation published a comprehensive study on teacher recruitment and retention that contradicts my anecdotal research with the statement, “most of those individuals who ended up in teacher education programs had not expressed an aspiration to teach while in high school.”  Rather, the RAND studies indicated that “The desire to perform a social service was reported as the primary motive drawing them to teacher education, with enjoyment of children and love of the subject being of secondary importance.”

Like most other professions, the highest attrition levels occur within the first two years.  Learning how to effectively manage 30 independent souls who would rather be somewhere else in a more comfortable chair, doing something more entertaining and less taxing is an enormous challenge for a recent college grad.  I admire folks who naturally possess such skills.

According to the stats, once teachers reach the five-year mark, the vast majority of them remain in the system through retirement.  And consistently in my interviews, teachers cited the 6-to-7 year mark as the point when they began to realize the ominous political nature of the K-12 education industry.  One seasoned middle-school teacher named Karen told me that she “realized that the honeymoon was over” when the union that she joined for the benefits began to champion the cause of leftwing politics.  While not opposed to measuring results, she said that the specifics “really put a crimp on creativity.”

Another teacher, Debbie, similarly finds fulfillment in the creative aspects of teaching.  “I love the challenge of finding the formula that works for each student, especially fine-tuning the craft to help those kids who struggle.”  Debbie believes that teachers themselves must also remain in a state of continuous learning in order to remain effective for the sake of every student.  Her enthusiastic inquisitiveness clashed with the stodgy teaching establishment early in her career.  In order to remain effective for her students and accepted by the unionized march, Debbie has “learned how to live in the middle.”

Karen and Debbie are examples of those educators highlighted in the 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman.  Parents across the nation, especially in troubled school districts, take extraordinary steps to enroll their children in classrooms with the imaginative teachers who will provide the skills that the workforce is looking for.  We value great teachers.

But as pointed out in Waiting for Superman, a teacher’s effectiveness can be neutralized by an incestuously controlling administration.  The RAND study states that, “although academic qualifications were considered in the hiring process, in some districts, principals and district personnel valued interpersonal skills more highly. In some cases, administrators believed that the smarter a teacher candidate was, the worse he or she would perform as a teacher."

In the 1988 film Stand and Deliver, Edward James Olmos plays the real-life Bolivian immigrant teacher Jaime Escalante.  As the movie portrays, Escalante taught calculus in a Los Angeles high school with remarkable results.  With the unusual number of 18 students passing the Advanced Placement Calculus exam, the Education Testing Service demanded a re-test.  All 12 who re-took the exam passed a second time.  Within five years, Escalante had 73 students passing the national exam.

What is not covered in the inspirational Stand and Deliver film is the shameful denouement.  The union objected to Escalante’s outstanding success with the 400 students that he was teaching in classes with an average head count of 50.  Along with threats and hate mail, Escalante lost his chairmanship of the math department.  He left the school, and shortly thereafter returned to his native country in South America.

The parallel universe of a socialist union culture is parasitically attached to school districts throughout the United States.  And in many cases, the school administrations are permeated with the same affliction.  Politics naturally follows.  Together, the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers unions constitute the largest contributor to political campaigns, with 90% of that funding going to the Democratic Party.  These realities are not on the minds of young professionals striving to land their first job as an inspired teacher.

American schools can no longer afford to compare themselves to their neighboring schools.  Rather, they must compare themselves to the entire world.  I, for one, believe it right and proper in a just society to tax everyone in order to fund the education of those in the K-12 range for the sake of equality of opportunity.  But that does not translate into government providing that instruction.  A free society should take reasonable measures to migrate the employment of teachers from government to private or independent.  And further, politics should be extracted from the picture by forbidding the group-think imposed by unions.

If we can find the will to liberate the education profession, America’s teachers will ensure the nation’s economic future.

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