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Teachers Make Handy Scapegoats, But Spiraling Inequality Is Really What Ails Our Education System

Stanford University scholar Linda Darling-Hammond explains the connection.

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JH: What about the other side of the coin: we hear a lot about teachers' unions hurting kids. We heard this from, of course, school reformers who would like to diminish their influence, but as far as the empirical evidence, is there research that suggests unions are a problem?

LDH: That has become a mantra in the United States. It's interesting when you look at these high-achieving nations that people like to compare us to -- like Finland and Singapore and some others. Ninety-eight percent of teachers and principals in Finland belong to the educators' union. They have one union, and it has not impeded their achievement. In the United States, the highest-achieving states are typically in the Northern states that have collective bargaining, and the lowest-achieving states are in the Southern region, where typically there hasn’t been collective bargaining.

If unions were the major or only problem we would seeing very different kinds of trends. I think it’s certainly true that we’ve grown up over the last century with some pretty cumbersome collective bargaining agreements, which are a product of the way that school boards and unions have dealt with the factory model of schooling that we inherited. There is room for reform in the way we do bargaining, but it is also true that things that teachers often bargain for things like smaller class sizes, higher salaries, which actually help kids because when you get better compensation, you bring more capable people into the profession and you keep them there. When you have smaller class sizes, the kids have more opportunities to learn.

So I think it would be way too simplistic to say that the problem in education is on the doorstep of teachers' unions alone.

JH: I think what people need to understand about our economy is that between World War II and 1980, when Ronald Reagan came to office, the top 1 percent of all households took in an average of 10 percent of our nation’s pre-tax income and it was very steady -- year in and year out, they never grabbed more than 13 percent. But by the time Reagan left office, the top 1 percent of household was taking in over 15 percent of the nation’s income, and by the time George Bush got elected they were grabbing over 21 percent of the take – twice as much as they had during the post-war era.

That means that the rest of us are splitting a smaller share of the pie, and we are seeing more inequality, more poverty as a result. And this effects our kids -- this effects our communities, our classrooms – and teachers unions, in my view, are being scapegoated for some of these social problems that are entirely beyond their control by people who don’t want to really tackle the root problem of inequality and poverty.

Professor, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

LDH: It was my pleasure. 

Joshua Holland is Senior Digital Producer at, and host of Politics and Reality Radio. He's the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy. Drop him an email or follow him on Twitter

Linda Darling-Hammond is the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at the Stanford University School of Education.

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