Vietnam Student Has Advice for Indiana Teachers

July 17, 2012

For the use of the membership only
(448 words)

The author, an intern at the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a sophomore at DePauw University majoring in political science. Miss Hang La is a native of Hanoi, Vietnam, where she was winner of the A*STAR (Agency for Science, Technology and Research) scholarship. Most recently she was awarded DePauw’s President’s Award for Excellence to study here. She is pursuing a career in public policy with an emphasis on education in developing countries.

By Hang La

Despite a stated interest in professionalism and student achievement, American teachers unions have been unable or unwilling to wean themselves from dependence on government privilege, much of it exclusive. And as a result, their existence and welfare as an organization takes precedence over serving their clients, i.e., educating students.

This strikes some as the opposite of a professional attitude.

While negotiating a contract, even as part of a collaborative joint committee, unionized teachers rarely compromise their interests. Allowing teachers a role in school governance may lead to greater union power but can relegate children to a priority below that of protecting the teachers’ special interests.

In fact, both the old “industrial” model of teachers unions and the new “professional” model seek to minimize not only the competition faced by public schools but also competition from other systems of teacher representation. Both are seen as threats to the unions’ special interests — regardless of any benefit to education itself.

The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have consistently lobbied elected officials against implementation of such promising reforms as charter schools, vouchers and education tax credits. They have done so, it is argued, to secure a monopoly on government spending on education.

In sum, if professional unions can only maintain their power at the expense of classroom learning they are outside any definition of teacher professionalism.

In his work, “The Use of Knowledge,” Friedrich Hayek is convincing that wisdom is most likely dispersed among separate individuals rather than collected in totality in any single person or group. Even if reform-minded unionists have the best intentions of providing educational services in an effective manner, they are unlikely to have the requisite knowledge to make rational economic calculations.

Indeed, the absence of market signals to make those calculations is a consequence of public education’s protection from competition. What a teacher proposes and delivers may not be what students want or need. Worse, increasing teacher involvement in management decisions may lead to an even more-regulated and bureaucratized school system, thus an all-the-more inefficient one.

For in the end what determines the worth of professionalism is consumer satisfaction. Merely changing the regulations that govern collective bargaining does not change this systemic fact: It is teachers and bureaucrats making decisions for parents and students rather than parents and students deciding their own fates.

Again, this is due to a union insistence on minimizing competition — that and an industry-wide arrogance that assumes those in authority possess more and superior knowledge.

Just as teachers can only be truly professional by trusting their school’s patrons to choose the services that best fit their preferences and standards, union leaders would be wise to cease making themselves or even their member-teachers the top priority.

Hang La, a sophomore at Depauw University and an intern at the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a native of Hanoi, Vietnam. This is excerpted from a larger work, “An Alternative to Unionism: Teaching as a Profession,” in the fall issue of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review.


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