Blaming Teachers for Our Low Test Scores Is Like Blaming Doctors for Our National Obesity Epidemic

Two damaging misconceptions about labor unions: (1) Union members tend to be substandard workers (lazy, unreliable, surly, privileged), and (2) union members can't be fired because their "masters" will always go to bat to protect them.

Where they got that first one from, the notion that union members are bad workers, is a mystery. After all, a quick look at the economics should tell us that union jobs -- those, typically, with the highest wages, superior benefits and best and safest working conditions -- are going to attract the best workers in a community. Why wouldn't they? Why wouldn't the best jobs in a community attract the best people?

And as widespread as this anti-union propaganda is, it's especially virulent when it comes to public service unions. Apparently, everyone and their brother (including President Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, et al.) just naturally assume that it's the teachers' union that prevents conscientious, well-meaning school administrators from firing bad teachers.

People like to believe that if incompetent teachers did not belong to a powerful labor union, if they did not have cadres of union lawyers standing by ready to defend them, the administrators would be free to do the right thing -- to drain the swamp and rid our schools of those union-created monsters who are holding our students hostage and depriving them of a decent education. That may be a compelling narrative, but it's total fiction.

The following statistics were taken from the anti-union website "Teachers' Union Exposed." The site's most recent figures show that California school teachers are 87.5 percent unionized. Accordingly, the percentage of "experienced" California teachers that were fired was 2.03 percent, and the percentage of "probationary" teachers that were fired was 0.98 percent.

By comparison, North Carolina, which is 97.7 percent non-union, fired 0.6 percent of its experienced teachers, and 0.3 percent of its probationary teachers. In other words, California and its big, bad teachers' union was "tougher" on its union teachers than North Carolina was on its non-union teachers. It's puzzling. School administrators in non-unionized North Carolina are in the position to fire any teacher they choose, but they don't do that. They don't fire their teachers. And it's not just North Carolina. It's true all across the country.

And why don't they? Why don't these non-union schools fire more teachers? The answer is obvious. It's because teachers -- everywhere and anywhere, union and non-union -- don't deserve to be fired. And why would they? Why on earth would we expect our school teachers to be fired for general incompetence? Are our colleges, universities, and credentialing programs turning out such lousy, substandard candidates, we have no recourse but to get rid of them? That doesn't even make sense.

Also, when you ask adults if they had gotten as much out of their school years as they could have, many will say they did not. And when you ask them why they didn't, the overwhelming majority blame themselves. They will tell you it was because they didn't apply themselves, that they didn't buckle down and do the work. I have never heard one person blame their teachers. Not one person ever said, "My teachers were incompetent. They couldn't teach me enough."

We need to understand something. This move we're witnessing against public schools and teachers' unions is being orchestrated not by educational reformers interested in improving our schools, but by greedy entrepreneurs looking to privatize the whole shebang. Having millions of kids leave the public schools and enroll in privates or for-profit charters represents a potential bonanza.

So the next time someone tries to tell you that it's the unions who are responsible for the problems our public schools are facing, take a moment to set them straight. Make it clear that this whole "union teacher vs. non-union teacher" dichotomy is a hoax. It's a con game. Put it to them in the simplest possible terms. We're being played for suckers.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor"), was a former union rep. He can be reached at