Commentary | Education

Lessons—Conservatives, Teachers Unions and Poisoned Debate

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Conservatives, teachers unions and poisoned debate

By  Richard Rothstein

Conservatives have attacked the National Education Association, the teachers union, for its Web site that gives advice on how to teach about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. George Will, the Washington Post columnist, wrote that the site made the union “a national menace.”

The Washington Times, a newspaper that usually supports conservative causes, editorialized that “for the N.E.A., history is farce.” And Chester E. Finn Jr., an education official in the Reagan administration and now a prominent critic of public schools, called the site the main source of bad advice for schools, a “mishmash of pop-psychotherapeutics, feel-goodism, relativism and overblown multiculturalism, even more noteworthy for what’s not there: history, civics, patriotism.”

What seemed to agitate these critics most was the site’s recommendation that teachers not “suggest any group is responsible” for the terrorist attacks. But the passage clearly does not mean that Al Qaeda should be exempt from blame; rather, it argues that teachers should not blame Muslims as a group. This advice was no different from that of responsible national leaders, including President Bush.

It is also untrue that the Web site ( ignores civic and patriotic material.

The site does give advice on how to comfort children who remain frightened and urges adults, perhaps inappropriately, to guide children’s emotions away from hatred and anger toward the perpetrators. But much more prominently, the site includes links to the home pages of the Central Intelligence Agency and Department of Homeland Security, fact sheets from the Department of State on the war against terrorism, and the union’s own resolution, passed before the attacks, urging teachers to educate students about Taliban crimes in Afghanistan.

So use of this material to attack the union’s patriotism is curious, showing how poisoned public discussion about education has become.

Conservatives’ animus toward teachers unions goes back at least to the 1970’s, when Jimmy Carter was elected president with union support and then created the Department of Education. Union leaders thought a cabinet-level agency would give more federal attention, and thus money, to public schools. Ronald Reagan campaigned for president with a pledge to dismantle the department, his supporters contending that it was only a sop to the unions.

Since then, conservatives have often pointed to teachers unions as a chief cause of school inadequacy. In 1991, for example, Mr. Finn wrote that the unions were “smug, self-interested and allergic to change.”

There is some truth to this. Some union contracts prevent involuntary assignments of teachers to schools where they are most needed; unions often assert the procedural rights of teachers as a way to block efforts to remove poor performers.

But blaming “union rules” for school problems overlooks that every labor contract requires the assent of both union and management. When districts offer adequate pay in contract negotiations, unions typically agree to reasonable changes in assignment practices.

Union policies vary from city to city. Some local unions resist any proposal to improve education if it infringes on teachers’ narrow self-interest. Others take the lead in helping districts improve the quality of teaching. There are places in between.

In considering how to teach about Sept. 11 and how to comfort young children who remain frightened by it, there is room for civil disagreement about how much schools should emphasize patriotism, history and an analysis of the terrorist threat, how much they should warn that defense against Al Qaeda should not lead to intolerance against Muslims, and how much they should assure children that adults will protect them from danger.

Perhaps the union’s Web site does not get the balance precisely right. But the intemperate attacks against it go beyond reasonable criticism.

Last week, Mr. Finn published a book on the Internet, “September 11: What Our Children Need to Know”  (, purportedly a response to the “nonsense” circulated by the union and other groups.

Yet a chapter in Mr. Finn’s book wisely cautions not to repeat the error of World War II when Japanese-Americans were unjustly interned. Another denounces the simplistic “American Pageant” approach to history, conventional 50 years ago, that celebrated only the country’s triumphs and ignored its problems. Another expresses outrage about the Taliban’s treatment of women and gays. Two chapters reject reliance on free markets alone to bring international peace.

If these very points had been made on a union Web site, some of Mr. Finn’s own contributors might have denounced it as a menace to the country. We will never improve schools with this approach.

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