End of Union Control Is Key to Reform

Published October 1, 2009

Liberating Learning
By Terry Moe and John Chubb
San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2009
219 pages, hardcover, ISBN: 978-0-470-44214-2, $24.95

In Liberating Learning, authors Terry Moe and John Chubb provide an easy-to-read primer on teacher unions’ political strategy for stopping education reform. They call it “the politics of blocking,” and if you are involved in trying to move critical education reform ideas forward, this gives you the other team’s playbook.

Their portrait of the anti-choice strategy is dead-on:

* Teacher unions are very powerful at the state and local level, much more than at the national level.

* It is much easier to block legislation than to pass it.

* If legislation looks like it might pass, unions push for a delay by requesting a lengthy study, usually requiring a few years.

* If they can’t delay the bill, they load it up with a ton of junk amendments to make implementation impossible.

* If the bill passes anyway, they immediately start attacking the law through the courts or new legislation the next year.

* Return to Step 2 and repeat.

‘POB’-Free Schools

Having worked on legislation in several states to change teacher certification laws, I can assure you this analysis is accurate, and “the politics of blocking” (POB) should be placed in the lexicon of all reformers. So how can education leaders get anything done to truly liberate learning from the oppressive POB?

According to the authors, technology, not political battling, will ultimately provide the catalyst for systemic and lasting change. The combination of innovative digital curricula and easily accessible data on school, teacher, and student performance will be the “one-two punch” that will overwhelm the status quo and force schools to change.

Parents are becoming more educated consumers and demanding Mandarin Chinese, every AP course imaginable, smartboards, and the latest technology. School superintendents and state leaders hate to be accused of being the last to adopt new technology.

At the same time, technology is putting more and more information on school and student performance at the fingertips of the press, reformers, state leaders, and parents. And that information is creating more educated consumers of education products.

Anti-Innovation Forces

Unions are resisting the technology wave because they fear job losses. Chubb and Moe say the unions will lose this fight. Though the change will be slow, eventually parents will demand greater technology in the classroom.

The authors tangentially agree with Disrupting Class by Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn, and Curtis W. Johnson (McGraw-Hill, 2008), which says technology is the only way to save education in this country.

The two books disagree slightly, however, on the method that will make this happen. Christensen’s team believes technology outside of the mainstream K-12 classroom will grow so fast it will overwhelm the current system. The takeaway from their book is that reformers should focus even more on creating a digital revolution for schools. Chubb and Moe believe it will happen in the current system.

Appeasing the Establishment

My only disappointment with Liberating Learning concerns its final section, where the authors proffer their view of “schools of the future,” which gets a little too fluffy for me.

It starts off strong with hybrid schools, customized learning, and more effective instruction, which is the promise of technology. But then it seems to wander into an appeasement of the very education establishment the authors mock, with platitudes about serving the needy, social equity, socializing students, and the like. While these are all admirable goals for the future, this section seemed a little out of place.

Overall, however, if you are fighting for change in education, Liberating Learning is definitely worth reading.

Dave Saba ([email protected]) is president of the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence in Washington, DC.