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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 12/17/2009

Brady on education unions: I'm no fan but they get a bad rap

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is Marion Brady, veteran teacher, administrator, curriculum designer and author.

By Marion Brady
"Good teachers are the key to good schools. A major obstacle to staffing America’s schools with good teachers is union protectionism."

So goes the conventional wisdom.

I’m no fan of education unions. I fault them for not taking the lead in education reform, for misplaced priorities, and for a willingness to support bad legislation just to keep a seat at the federal education reform table. I was hammering union leadership on those issues decades before I could do it with the click of a mouse.

That said, when it comes to education reform, teachers unions get an undeserved bad rap.

No way are they the major obstacle to school improvement. Mark that problem up to institutional inertia, innovation-stifling bureaucracy, and misguided state and federal policy. Trace union bad press back to its origins and it’s clear that much of it comes from ideologues and organizations less interested in improving education than in destroying union political clout and privatizing public schools.

No, the main opposition to the education reform effort set in motion about twenty years ago by corporate heads and Congress isn’t coming from go-along-to-get-along unions. The sustained and blistering attacks come from professional educators like Alfie Kohn, Susan Ohanian, Stephen Krashen, Ken and Yetta Goodman, and dozens of others I could name. And me.

Retired or otherwise independent, we can say what we think without fear of retribution or being accused of being self-serving. Most importantly, unlike the architects of "No Child Left Behind" and its gestating offspring, the "Race to the Top," we’ve spent thousands of hours in real classrooms working directly with real students.

What do we think about Washington-dictated education reforms? We think they’re sufficiently abusive, counterproductive, and downright stupid to warrant a massive class-action suit by parents and grandparents against those responsible.

What explains the radically different views of experienced teachers and the suits in corporate suites and Congress who’re now running the education show?

A sign that hung in Albert Einstein’s Princeton University office sums it up: "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."
Data-enamored, spreadsheet-studying, educationally clueless policymakers think
Einstein was wrong.

What is it, exactly, that can’t be counted?

Most people think babies are born with minds like blank paper. Parents, teachers, and others, "write" on that paper, filling it with advice, information, explanations, interpretations. Schools organize and compress the process with textbooks and teacher talk, and tests check how much kids can remember long enough to pencil in the "right" oval on a standardized test.

It’s that simple.

Except it isn’t. Not even close.

Kids’ minds are never, ever, like blank pages. To matters they consider important, they attach explanatory theories. When a teacher or other explainer dumps information on them that doesn’t match their theories, they reject it. They may play the school game—may store the explainer’s theory in short-term memory until the test is over and the pressure is off—but rarely do they adopt it.

Kids don’t change their theories because doing so would be too traumatic. Their beliefs—about themselves, about others, about how the world works—are their most valued possessions (just as they are for the rest of us). Their theories are "who they are."

Casually exchanging them for someone else’s ideas would undermine their identities, their individuality, their confidence in their ability to make sense of experience.

I learned the hard way—from thousands of adolescents—that I couldn’t teach them anything important. All I could do was try to get them to think about a particular matter, then ask them a question or give them something to do that their theories couldn’t handle and let them struggle to work it out. Changing their minds had to be their doing, not mine.

Bottom line: It’s impossible to count how much kids really know. Period. Standardized tests are an appalling, monumental waste of time, money, and brains. Especially brains.

To the "standards and accountability" cheerleaders—the Business Roundtable, the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Governors Association, the US Department of Education, newspaper editorial boards, syndicated columnists, and so on—the complex, counterintuitive, kid-controlled, impossible-to-measure learning process I’m describing is alien.

But that process lies at the very heart of teaching and learning. Trying to shield it from destruction is why older, experienced teachers are the most vocal, determined opponents of the present reform fiasco. They know the "blank paper," count-the-right-answers theory propelling the standards and accountability fad is an intellect-gutting, society-destroying myth.

And they know that adopting national standards and tests will lock that myth in place far, far into the future.

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For all the Post’s Education coverage, please see

By Valerie Strauss  | December 17, 2009; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Marion Brady, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Teachers  | Tags:  NCLB, teachers, teachers unions  
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What I find perplexing is the fact that President Obama seems to have a grasp on authentic learning, as illustrated in his books and speeches, and yet his administration is following the nonsense initiated by other presidents. I wonder if he's just too busy with health care and war to really know what's going on.

The scariest aspect for me is the fact that the educational entrepreneurs are being given the go-ahead without oversight over tax dollars. Well, we all know where that will lead us.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | December 17, 2009 11:50 AM | Report abuse


As a current teacher, I cannot go much further than that. I teach whole language and Reading Recovery with GREAT results. I cannot believe how much money, effort, and time is being WASTED on the Reading First and Diebels programs. WASTED! ! !

Want an eye opener? Go to Google and do a search on "venture philanthropy education". What an EYE OPENER.


Posted by: mrpozzi | December 17, 2009 5:17 PM | Report abuse

“Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.”


Posted by: aed3 | December 17, 2009 8:08 PM | Report abuse

For aed3. Thank you for the quote. I never really understood the facist philosophy before. Frightening to see ourselves going down a failed path like lemmings to the sea.


Posted by: mrpozzi | December 18, 2009 5:25 AM | Report abuse

Over the past several decades, we have discovered much about effective teaching practices and what a difference they can make when educators employ this knowledge in the classroom. Tragically, it is becoming more and more apparent that neither President Obama nor Arne Duncan are even remotely interested in HOW children learn or even IF they are learning. The Business Roundtable's profit-driven vision of education is now running the show and so long as OUR children look good on paper, and so long as THEIR children get a top-notch education, it doesn't matter if the bulk of our schools produce thinking adults. The only thing that matters is the scads of money that can be made on test materials, test-prep materials, ad nauseum. The push for national standards is just one more mechanism that Corporate America is using to control what is taught as well as how it gets taught. And using standardized tests that focus on what is easy to measure rather than what is important to learn will ensure that our schools are turned en masse into test prep factories with a mandated curriculum. In a fascist society, the teachers are the first "to go" because they know too much and are a danger to the status quo. Cleverly disguising privatization as educational reform will ensure that educators are silenced, while Corporate America continues to rape the land and the people...

Posted by: PGutierrez1 | December 18, 2009 8:43 AM | Report abuse

Great opinion piece. I started teaching in 1970 and have seen new programs, strategies, and curriculum forced on teachers that any rational classroom teacher knew would not work. Nothing has changed nearly 40 years later.

The current bottom-line approach to education is not working and there are far too many people who never taught groups of children or been inside a classroom in 30 years making too many of the decisions.

It's a difficult job turning around that student who tells you straight-up, "My father doesn't care what I make in your class."

I have also been a local NEA affiliate President and have witnessed the "union's" compulsion towards non-education issues which interfere with what most teachers would argue are irrelevant to the mandates and expectations of their local school districts.

Posted by: ilcn | December 18, 2009 10:04 AM | Report abuse

The goal of the Fascist Party was for all private enterprise to be under contract to the state so that those enterprises (corporations) could serve the state. With regard to education, the results included:

-centralized government control of the educational system
-loss of autonomy of local school districts
-absolute obedience of teachers to the national system
-mandate to hire as many teachers as possible who completed university after 1923 because they were more malleable
-older, more experienced teachers quit in droves rather than swear allegiance to the fascist party.

“Learning can be nothing more than a special, indispensible kind of Swedish gymnastics for developing the brain…” Mussolini, 1925

Posted by: aed3 | December 18, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse

Thank you, Marion. You hit the nail on the head.

I also agree with the post by PGutierrez1.

aed3 has cautions we need to heed.

The people making policy would be eaten alive if they had to teach for a month without any assistance.

And like Linda, I am perplexed.

Posted by: drysr80 | December 19, 2009 6:23 PM | Report abuse

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