Missing the Forest for the Trees (Expanded below)
The Chicago teachers’ strike has sparked even more debate over the role of unions and the importance of teacher quality in public education. Yet, arguments and policy associated with teachers’ unions and teacher quality share one serious problem—missing the forest for the trees.
Carefully examining the debates themselves, in other words, pulling back from the trees to consider the forest, offers an opportunity for the public, educators, and policy stakeholders to reframe those debates and thus improve the likelihood education reform can achieve what it has failed to accomplish over the past thirty years.
Debates about teachers’ unions and teacher quality share a pop culture problem, captured in the documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman’” and the feature film “Don’t Back Down.” In both, unions are portrayed as powerful as well as detrimental to needed educational outcomes while the influence of “bad” teachers is linked to those same protective unions.
If we pull back, however, from these repeated and enduring narratives (the public eagerly accepts them both in pop culture and the mainstream media), the evidence fails to support the claims.
For example, the union narrative—that unions are primarily to blame for school failures—falls apart once a few facts are examined. Unionized states tend to have higher test scores than non-union states (such as my home state of South Carolina, a right-to-work state that regularly is ranked at the bottom of traditional test data). But this fact is not pulling far enough back itself.
Unionization, poverty, and measurable student outcomes are so deeply interconnected that focusing solely on union influences on student outcomes misses the central obstacle facing public schools, teachers’ unions, and political leadership—poverty.
Next, the teacher quality debate exposes a nearly identical pattern if we focus on how to hold teachers accountable (arguments such as value-added methods of teacher evaluation) instead of asking whether or not teacher quality is a genuine problem in student outcomes, and if so, to what magnitude does that problem exist.
Like union influence, teacher quality is nearly inextricable from poverty and student test data.
The current education reform debate, then, captured by the Chicago teachers’ strike, represents a self-defeating problem of focusing on the trees (solutions and policy) without consider the forest (problems, goals).
The solution to education reform is not trying to win the trees arguments, but stepping back and addressing the forest; for example, consider the following:
• What is the broad purpose of universal public education? If we reach back to the founding of the U.S. and consider seriously Thomas Jefferson’s commitment to public education, we can identify enduring goals for public schools, goals linked to a thriving democracy and the need to focus strongly on people and children trapped in poverty:
The less wealthy people, . .by the bill for a general education, would be qualified to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in self-government; and all this would be effected without the violation of a single natural right of any one individual citizen. (p. 50)
The object [of my education bill was] to bring into action that mass of talents which lies buried in poverty in every country for want of the means of development, and thus give activity to a mass of mind which in proportion to our population shall be the double or treble of what it is in most countries.” (, pp. 275-276)
• What are the influences of unions across the U.S., and what are the essential roles unionization should serve in public education as a force for democracy and equity? The education reform debate must separate arguments about the failures of union bureaucracy and the importance of workers’ rights, collective bargaining, and teacher professionalism.
• What is the proper relationship between teacher autonomy and teacher accountability? Possibly the greatest failure of the teacher quality debate has been the absence of a public recognition that accountability policy has removed teacher autonomy while imposing accountability for outcomes beyond the power of teachers to address. No educator is calling for no accountability, but educators are seeking the professional autonomy they deserve while rejecting test-based accountability as not valid. The first step in teacher accountability and education reform is teacher autonomy.
• Who is designing and mandating education policy? What are their experience and expertise in education? Too little attention is being paid to the historical fact that educators have had little to no direct influence in education policy, most powerfully linked to the political process. In the past three decades, political leadership has intensified that reality.
The education reform debate is no longer a partisan political battle because Republicans and Democrats are nearly indistinguishable in terms of education policy. Yet, the reform debate remains a regrettable failure of ideology over evidence.
The Chicago teachers’ strike exposes that political leaders are starting with solutions without defining the problems, and then promoting those solutions without grounding them in the wealth of evidence available to them. Claims about “bad” teachers, protective unions, teacher evaluations tied to test scores, “miracle” charter schools, and the “missionary zeal” of Teach for America recruits resonate until the right questions are asked and the evidence is considered. Then, these so-called reforms fall apart.
We all need to pull back, start with clearly established problems, and then pursue solutions that match those problems in the context of building universal public education that fulfills its role in supporting and achieving democracy and equity.