Are Teachers Unions To Blame For Failing Schools?

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige (center) with Terry Moe (left) and Larry Sand

hide captionRod Paige (center), former U.S. secretary of education, participates in an Intelligence Squared U.S. debate on the motion "Blame Teachers Unions For Our Failing Schools" on March 16 at New York University's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. His team also included Terry Moe (left) and Larry Sand.

Chris Vultaggio

Coming Up

On April 13, a panel of experts will debate the motion "Organic Food Is Marketing Hype."

In the quest to remake America's public schools, teachers unions have frequently been blasted as an obstacle to improvement.

Critics say the unions shield poor teachers and make it difficult for districts to implement changes to improve the quality of teaching in the classroom. Some even argue that the current union structure is the main factor undermining U.S. schools today.

But do unions really deserve more of the blame than shrinking budgets and the poverty and other problems students face at home?

A group of experts recently took on that question in an Oxford-style debate, part of the Intelligence Squared U.S. series. Three argued for the motion "Don't Blame Teachers Unions For Our Failing Schools," and three argued against.

In a vote before the debate, the audience at New York University's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts voted 24 percent in favor of the motion "Don't Blame Teachers Unions For Our Failing Schools," and 43 percent voted against. A third of the audience was undecided.

The team arguing against the proposition moved the most minds — 68 percent of the audience disagreed with the motion "Don't Blame Teachers Unions For Our Failing Schools" by the end of the debate. Twenty-five percent supported the motion and 7 percent remained undecided.

The March 16 debate was moderated by John Donvan, correspondent for ABC News' Nightline. Those debating were:

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, debates.

hide captionRandi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, argued for the motion "Don't Blame Teachers Unions For Our Failing Schools" during the debate. Her team included teacher Kate McLaughlin (right).

Chris Vultaggio


Kate McLaughlin has been an elementary teacher in the Lowell, Mass., public schools since 1999. She is currently a mathematics coach working with both teachers and students from kindergarten through fourth grade. In addition to her full-time teaching assignment, she serves as the executive vice president of the United Teachers of Lowell #495, a local of the American Federation of Teachers.

Gary Smuts is superintendent of the ABC Unified School District, known throughout California as a leader in educational planning and innovation. He began his teaching career in 1972 at Pius X High School in Downey, Calif., and for eight years, served as principal of Cerritos High School. In 1998, Smuts was appointed director of curriculum and instruction for the ABC Unified School District, where he served in several positions before becoming superintendent in 2005. He was recently named 2009 Superintendent of the Year by the Association of California School Administrators.

Randi Weingarten is president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO. She was elected in July 2008, following 11 years of service as an AFT vice president, and has launched major efforts to place education reform and innovation high on the nation's agenda. Weingarten served for 12 years as president of the United Federation of Teachers, AFT Local 2, representing approximately 200,000 nonsupervisory educators in the New York City public school system.


Terry Moe is the William Bennett Munro professor of political science at Stanford University, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of Hoover's Koret Task Force on K-12 Education. He is an expert on educational policy, U.S. political institutions, and organization theory and in 2005 received the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation Prize for Excellence in Education. Moe is co-author of Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education.

Rod Paige is the former U.S. secretary of education (2001-2005). As secretary, Paige advocated for student achievement, employing "best of breed" solutions to achieve results toward the department's goal of raising national standards of educational excellence. He has previously served as dean of the College of Education at Texas Southern University and as a trustee and then as superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, the nation's seventh-largest district.

Larry Sand began his teaching career in New York in 1971. Since 1984, he has taught elementary school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, including English, math, history and English as a second language at Webster Middle School, where he also served as a Title 1 coordinator. Recently retired, he is the president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network.

The Intelligence Squared U.S. series is produced in New York City by The Rosenkranz Foundation.



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