A few days ago, a little-known group called the Center for Union Facts published a full-page ad in the New York Times blaming Randi Weingarten, the AFT, and teachers’ unions en bloc for the mediocre performance of the United States on PISA. The “center” says that the unions oppose merit pay, and that’s why the scores of 15-year-olds are not at the top of the world.
This ad is patently absurd.
Leave aside for the moment the fact that our scores on PISA are not declining; leave aside the fact that scores on international tests do not predict the future of the economy (we were last on the first international test in the mid1960s); leave aside that the AFT did approve some form of merit pay in contracts in Baltimore and New Haven; leave aside the fact that merit pay has been tried again and again for nearly a century and has never made a difference. Albert Shanker once said to a proponent of merit pay: “Let me get this right: Students will work harder if you offer their teachers a bonus? That makes no sense.” Leave aside the voluminous research showing that financial incentives and test-based accountability don’t make a difference, whether the bonuses are offered to students or teachers.
What matters here is that this alleged “center” has no knowledge or expertise about education, and is a “center” of union busting propaganda.
I know this for a fact. Several years ago, as I was transitioning from my role in conservative think tanks to my current role as a critic of high-stakes testing and privatization, I was invited to participate in a conference of the Philanthropy Roundtable at the elegant Rainbow Room high atop Rockefeller Center in New York City. The Philanthropy Roundtable was created by conservative and rightwing foundations as a counter to what they perceived as leftwing bias at the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation (where are they now?)
I was asked to be a judge on a panel to select the best reform idea for the next decade. I was going to be the Simon Cowell, the tough critic who scowled at bad or half-baked proposals. The room was full of foundation leaders–maybe 150 of the big donors.
One of the proposals was offered by Richard Berman of the Center for Union Facts. He said that his exciting new idea was to attack and demonize the teachers’ unions. He showed pictures of the billboards he had erected across major highways in New Jersey, blaming the unions for high costs and bad test scores. Needless to say, he was very proud of the work he had done.
The audience seemed to love his presentation.
When it came my turn to question him, I asked him these questions: can you explain why the states that are unionized have the highest scores on the federal tests? Did you know that New Jersey is one of the nation’s highest performing states? Can you name a high-performing state that is not unionized?
Berman seemed stunned, momentarily speechless. Then he said, “I am not an education researcher. I am in public relations.”
But as you can see, his “big idea” has gotten the funding to go national.