I have to admit that I'm pretty antagonistic to teachers' unions. The central truth about teachers' unions is that teachers' unions don't now, and never have, represented the best-interest of children. I don't know how they got this one over on people—this assumption that they are merely seeking to make education better and thus help children—but they have and it is high time they have that mantle of glamour removed. Teachers' unions do not represent, or seek in any way, the best interests of children. Teachers' unions seek the best interests of teachers. If there is any group in the country that has interests opposed to our children, it is teachers. Now, I'm not claiming that teachers are out to destroy children. Most people will hesitate to do active harm to children—and I believe that most people would try to avoid any indirect harm as well. And I personally know a number of fine teachers who try to do the best they can by the kids they teach. My favorite uncle, for one. But those fine teachers are often forced to work against their own union in order to actually accomplish the great things that they do (can't have people destroying the curve or raising the bar for the rest of us, you know). I guess what I am trying to point out is that if there is any group that needs to have their motives and initiatives questioned, it is the teachers' unions. You can see this dynamic in action with the priorities that teachers' unions have. Take classroom size. This is pretty much their number one call for reform. And it's true that some correlation to classroom size and quality of education exists. But there are a billion different things that are a) cheaper and b) more effective than reducing classroom size that would provide better benefits sooner. But that doesn't stop the teachers' unions because the unambiguous thing that reducing classroom sizes does is make it easier on the teachers. The other needed reforms make more work for teachers—work the good ones are already doing and work that the rest of them don't want to even attempt.
And really, when it comes right down to it, the single biggest problem with education today doesn't have anything at all to do with the public schools. The biggest benefit to children—and the single greatest factor in determining success in education—is parental involvement. There's been a big push for homeschooling lately. And I should mention that we homeschool our children, so I'm sympathetic to the 'cause'. Homeschoolers are cleaning clock on most measures of academic success. They're winning national championships, they average higher on standardized tests (even when controlled for ethnic and income factors), and they are entering colleges better prepared than their public schooled compatriots. But most interesting to me is that many of those benefits disappear when studies factor in parental involvement. Involved parents turn out to be the deciding factor in the success of children no matter where they are or where they go to school.
Don't pat yourself on the back too fast, though. Statistically, you probably don't qualify as an involved parent. Being involved means more than just going to the games and recitals. It means more than getting a report card twice a year and meting out punishment and reward. Involved parents help with homework, ask their kids what they're up to, and spend time with their children every day. Being an involved parent is a lot of very hard work, which is probably why it is so very rare. It isn't a whole lot of extra work to go from being an involved parent to being a homeschooling one. It is almost impossible to have a career and be an involved parent. Here's a simple 'involved parent' test—is a parent present when the kids get home from school to ask what they did and how their day went? Anything less than that tells children that they aren't that important and that their concerns take back seat to the important stuff the adults are doing. Being an involved parent is a tangible, scary, large sacrifice—one that I believe to be well worth it, but not in any way I could ever 'prove' and certainly not in any way economic.