Politicians—especially Democratic politicians—generally do what the unions want. The unions, in turn, are very clear about what that is: They want happy members, so that those who run the unions get re-elected, and they want more members, so their power, money and influence grow. The effect of all this? As Albert Shanker, the late, iconic head of the UFT, once pointedly said, "When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that's when I'll start representing the interests of schoolchildren."
Union power is why it's virtually impossible to fire a teacher for non-performance…. The extent of the problem is difficult to overstate.
Of course money, a stable family and strong values typically make it easier to educate a child. But we now know that, keeping those things constant, certain schools can get dramatically different outcomes with the same kids.
Take Texas and California. The two states have very similar demographics, yet Texas outperforms California on all four national tests—across demographic groups—despite spending less money per pupil. The gap amounts to about a year's worth of learning. That's big.
At individual schools, differences can be breathtaking. One charter in New York City has students who are demographically almost identical to those in nearby schools, yet it gets entirely different results. Eighty-eight percent of Harlem Success students are proficient in reading and 95% are proficient in math. Six nearby schools have an average of 31% and 39% proficiency in those subjects, respectively.
Critics try to discredit these differences. Ravitch argued that schools like Harlem Success aren't the answer because, as a group, charter schools don't outperform traditional public schools. Yet even Ms. Ravitch had to acknowledge that some charter schools get "amazing results." If that's the case, shouldn't we be asking why they get much better results—and focusing on how to replicate them?