BOOK REVIEW

How to Break the Stranglehold

How many ways are there to beat the teachers unions? Not teachers, but the ideological union leaders who drive the agenda for self-profit and power. That is the central question in Conform by Glenn Beck and Kyle Olson.

As public sector unions and teachers unions began expanding rapidly in the 1960s (today the largest union in the country is the National Education Association), they abandoned their concerns for students, parents, and their local communities. Since then, our education schools have become training centers for social activists who call themselves teachers but are versed better in race, class, gender, and social justice than they are in the subjects they should be teaching. We have a top-heavy public school system that is more expensive than ever. Teachers who are incompetent or abusive are almost impossible to fire. Pay and job security are based not on performance but seniority. Education schools fail to attract the best candidates. Beck and Olson cite studies by McKinsey and the Department of Education that show that teacher candidates come from the bottom two-thirds of academic classes and have mean SAT scores significantly lower than for all college freshmen. Those who are at the low end of this spectrum then teach in high-poverty schools.

As a result, our schools are producing drop-outs or graduates with poor math and writing skills, and lacking knowledge in literature, history, and science.

Beck and Olson provide a quick guide through the history of the rise of the modern bureaucratic, progressive education behemoth that brought us to this nearly hopeless place.

In Part One of the book, Beck and Olson systematically and concisely debunk 27 myths about public education, such as “Teachers’ Unions Put Kids First,” “Common Core Is ‘State-Led,’” and “Home-schoolers Are Academically Inferior to Public School Students.” They put the misnamed “Common Core State Standards” in the context of a progressive transformation of education, going back to John Dewey, who then influenced such radical educators as Weatherman/domestic terrorist, Bill Ayers. Presidents Johnson and Carter empowered the subversive educators. Under Obama’s presidency Common Core has become a means by which the federal government imposes these progressive pedagogies on states, collects personal student data, and replaces local governance with federal diktats. We have “de facto nationalization,” with the U.S. Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, an “advocate of the school taking over as de facto parents” as he promotes year-round, all day schools.

This domination is enabled by the alliance of the teachers unions with the Democratic Party. As students have fallen farther behind, unions have negotiated for themselves in some districts such things as plastic surgery as part of their health plans. The unions are among the biggest contributors to Democratic politicians who in turn work to keep them in power. “Teachers’ union officials are the ultimate political animals,” Beck and Olson write: “The NEA and AFT doled out a combined $19.4 million to the Democratic Party, its candidates, and allies, in 2012. In addition, they regularly deliver thousands of volunteers and votes to their anointed candidates at every level of government, and they can always be counted on to lob verbal bombs at Republicans.”

How to break the stranglehold? Provide alternatives. Beck and Olson offer them in the form of charter schools and home schools. They show why and how teachers unions resist such efforts, but also show how to debunk their talking points. For example, in Chapter 25, “School Choice Takes Money Away from Government Schools,” they use the analogy of a cable company that offers better service, more channels, and better reception. It would seem that educators would rise to the challenge such competition offers. Instead, they claim that charter schools, private school vouchers, and home schools draw away the students with motivated parents, leaving them with poorly performing, disadvantaged children.

Yet, Beck and Olson provide evidence that poor, inner-city children benefit from charter schools. Perhaps the most famous case is the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, so popular it was not able to meet demand. It was closed down by the Obama administration despite loud public outcry. The authors refute claims by Department of Education evaluations and present parts of the Department’s same, and other studies, that show that voucher school students were graduating and going to college at a higher rate than their counterparts. Parental satisfaction was extremely high. Another study quoted in a Huffington Post story showed that minority students especially benefited from charter schools.

The demand for better schools and more choices crosses party lines. But it’s the “controllists” who, against evidence, put the dampers on having options available.

Yet, Beck and Olson are careful to distinguish the “system” from those who are forced to work within it: the teachers who truly care and who resent being forced to pay union dues for such politicians and causes. “The problem is not the teachers; it’s the system they’ve been put into,” they write. (The title of Chapter 2 is the myth, “Critics of the System Are Just ‘Teacher Bashers.’”)

The huge education bureaucracy may make the challenge of taking back our schools seem impossible. The bureaucracy is so huge that we need to be creative.

Part Two of the book offers suggestions, such as education savings accounts (with examples from some states), restoring power to school boards (as they did in Douglas County, Colorado), using the political process (the reforms of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker), using technology (virtual charter schools), and home schools. They also suggest requiring that future teachers major in something other than education. (Education majors usually have a less rigorous course of study in the subjects they teach than do regular majors.) They encourage parents to become involved and aware of political strategies such as relabeling Common Core, run for school board, support candidates, and volunteer for their district’s curriculum committee.

The most important message is that citizens need to retake control. (This heightened awareness has been one of the few positive benefits of Common Core.) Part of that awareness, I would add, should also be about potential dangers, such as bad charter schools (some are run by radicals or foreign entities, like Gulen). Large corporations and any other entity running schools require scrutiny as well.

Conform provides a great overview and starting place for anyone who wonders how our public school system came to this point and where to begin to retake control.


Mary Grabar, Ph.D., has taught college English for over twenty years. She is the founder of the Dissident Prof Education Project, Inc., an education reform initiative that offers information and resources for students, parents, and citizens. The motto, “Resisting the Re-Education of America,” arose in part from her perspective as a very young immigrant from the former Communist Yugoslavia (Slovenia specifically). She writes extensively and is the editor of EXILED. Ms. Grabar is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.