The Campaign and School Reform

Last year McKinsey and Company, the nation's best-known business consulting firm, ran an international survey to try to determine why certain countries—like Canada, Finland, Japan, Singapore and South Korea—seem to have the best schools. The answer came back, somewhat unsurprisingly, that these countries have the best teachers: educators who are respected, rewarded, and held accountable for their performance in the classroom.

This may seem obvious, but you would never have guessed watching the Democratic debate in Las Vegas the week before Thanksgiving. All the candidates give lip service to the importance of education to the nation's future. And it goes without saying that accountability is the key to performance in any job. Yet when John Roberts of CNN asked the candidates if school boards should be able to reward teachers or fire them based on performance, all the Democrats headed for the hills, hemming and hawing and obfuscating their answers.

What's going on here? In short, the power of the teachers' unions. The National Education Association is a big hitter in the Democratic Party (sort of the way the National Rifle Association holds sway with Republicans). The NEA is all about job security, so you won't find Democrats leading crusades to weed out bad teachers. The Republicans don't do much better. They say they are reluctant to meddle in local school governance and instead push for vouchers so kids can go to private or parochial schools.

There is only one politician of note who has really tried to take on the teachers' unions, and he is not running for president—yet. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg hired Joel Klein, a former Justice Department antitrust chief in the Clinton administration, to run the city's chaotic schools. Klein managed to get a third of the school principals to sign an agreement that would allow them to be terminated for cause. And he got the teachers' union to agree to give up this absurd privilege: in New York, for many years, teachers with seniority could show up at any school they wanted and teach there, shoving aside teachers with less seniority. Klein won the right to stop low-performing senior teachers from exercising this droit du seigneur. Some of them just went home rather than teaching wherever they wanted to—and were still paid in full. That doesn't sound like an enormous step toward teacher accountability, but it was a struggle for New York to extract even these comparatively modest concessions from the teachers' union, and it shows how far there is to go. Teacher accountability is at the heart of true education reform. If only the presidential candidates would even dare to discuss the problem.

Editor's note: The National Education Association responded to this column with a letter to the editor.