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The Worm in the Apple: How the Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education, by Peter Brimelow

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Tags Big GovernmentEducationInterventionism

12/01/2003David Gordon

A Monopoly of Ignorance

Mises Review 9, No. 3 (Winter 2003)

Peter Brimelow
Harper Collins, 2003, xxi + 296 pgs.

If Peter Brimelow is to succeed in showing, as his subtitle states, that teacher unions — he has in mind principally the National Education Association — are destroying American education, he faces a preliminary task. He must come up with some way of evaluating American education. Otherwise, defenders of the present order will respond that the educational system is in good shape. Supporters of the NEA will accuse our author of conjuring a crisis out of nothing. Brimelow has anticipated the objection, and his response to it to my mind constitutes the main theoretical interest of his book.

Most people evaluate primary and secondary education by results of tests. Is it not true that American students do less well than their European contemporaries, or than Americans in times past? If so, the case seems made that education is in crisis, and Brimelow can proceed with his diagnosis and cure.

But the issue is not so simple. As Brimelow recognizes, the interpretation of the relevant test scores is a matter of some controversy. Scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the main test that colleges use to evaluate candidates for admission, plunged during the 1960s and ’70s, but they have somewhat recovered. American students do less well in science than most Europeans, particularly in the higher grades; but once more there is something to be said on the other side. Test results aggregate groups of very different kinds, and some of the American groups are a match for anyone. One international survey of mathematics and science education found that eighth graders from Naperville School District in Illinois did better than students from the countries with the highest average scores, Taiwan and Singapore.

Brimelow is himself inclined to doubt claims that American students are doing well; does not talking to high-school students reveal them to be massively ignorant? I can confirm the author’s skepticism from my own experience. One student, enrolled in a course in recent American history at UCLA, had never heard of President Eisenhower. Another asked me whether Kant was still living.

Any teacher, I suspect, could readily recount similar tales; but this evidence is anecdotal. NEA defenders will be quick to seize on this fact. Besides, they will say, American educators now confront a much more difficult task than their predecessors. A high-school education is no longer a badge of membership in the elite; every teenager now claims entitlement to it. "[Charles] Murray and [Richard] Herrnstein estimated that over 60 percent of white teenagers with IQs below 90 were completing high school. And so were nearly half of those with IQs below 75 — despite being at or below what is considered to be the threshold of retardation" (p. 23). Is it not unfair, then, to malign teachers for failure to maintain the highest standards?

In Brimelow’s own view, to attempt so far-reaching a goal as universal high school education is foolish: "Where I differ from the educational establishment ... is that I think the universal high-school ideal may simply be impossible — that it stretches too far the meaning of a common high-school educational experience. And I wonder whether it’s worth the effort and the anguish. Let alone the cost" (p. 23).

Nevertheless, the fact remains that modern teachers have a different goal from their predecessors; how then, without relying on controversial judgments of his own, can Brimelow show that American education is failing? Our author turns away from results to find a solution. He reasons like an economist and asks, what resources have been spent to achieve a given result? If it costs more to achieve the same educational results, then education is in decline.

Brimelow puts his basic contention in this way: "I think that the government school system’s qualitative problem [of educational success] is overshadowed by its quantitative problem — its hoggish consumption of ever-increasing resources to do, at best, the same job. Annual current spending per pupil in the government school system has risen inexorably and relentlessly for more than a hundred years. ... Annual current spending per pupil was $275 in 1890 and $7,086 in 1999–2000 — adjusted for inflation and expressed in year 2000 dollars. That’s more than 25-fold, or an average increase of about 3 percent a year. By comparison, the U.S. inflation-adjusted Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has increased only about 8.2 percent, or an average of about 1.9 percent a year" (p. 28).

Brimelow, in accord with his "input-output" analysis, rejects the conventional view that small classes are per se desirable. To have small classes requires the use of more teachers; the attendant increase in costs is a drawback, not an advantage. To the objection that the higher costs are justified by better performance, Brimelow offers a surprising response. "It is also true, though guaranteed to annoy teachers ... that educational researchers have been able to demonstrate little or no consistent relationship between smaller class sizes and student achievement" (p. 28).

Our author finds himself at one with the economist Richard Vedder, whom he rightly terms "irrepressible." Vedder notes that "with the possible exception of prostitution, teaching is the only profession that has probably had no increase in labor productivity in the 2,400 years since Socrates was teaching the youth of Athens" (p. 33).1

Some might object that Brimelow’s input-output analysis is crass and materialistic. Should educators teaching students be judged by the same standards as chickens hatching eggs? Will mediocre education, attained at a small cost, count as "better" on Brimelow’s standards than good education that requires more resources?

Brimelow can readily defend himself against objections of this sort. His analysis asks only about the amount of resources devoted to obtaining a given level of educational achievement. It does not require any "trade-off" between educational success and costs, though the mindset that finds input-output thinking attractive may well be tempted by this next step. And we may confront the objection more directly. The skills taught in elementary and high schools are ones eminently capable of being judged in economic terms. To evoke exalted ideals of the purity of education, free from the test of the market, is here not in place.

Brimelow has made his case: American education is in decline. What can be done about it? He holds that to solve the problem, we must first clear away an obstacle. We cannot proceed, as we normally do, to endeavor to arrive at paths to progress. To try to do so directly will lead nowhere. Entrenched groups of teachers, whom our author calls the Teacher Trust, oppose all changes that may threaten their privileges. Unless the Trust can be cleared away, educational reform is doomed.

In many states, a teachers union, often the NEA, can compel school district officials to deal with it. True enough, a teacher cannot be forced to join a union; but the union contract governs his employment, whether he likes it or not. Further, a feature of the bargaining situation enhances the Teacher Trust’s power: "But the Teacher Trust is in an exceptional position: the near-monopoly supplier to a government-enforced monopoly consumer. Parents are legally compelled to send their children to school. Most parents have no alternative but to send their children to the government school they have been taxed to support — partly because they have been taxed to support it. After paying taxes, they just don’t have the money for private school fees" (p. 76).2

No doubt these conditions enhance union power; but why are they bad for education? Brimelow contends that the decline in education can be met only by innovative methods. But most promising innovations strike at the power of the Teacher Trust and thus arouse its opposition. As an example, a well-established market principle tells us that wages tied to efficient labor increase productivity. "The Teacher Trust’s practical ... objection to merit pay is that differentiating between teachers, whatever the purpose or the standard used, is contrary to its raison d’être. The union requires that all teachers can and must be treated equally — so they can be mobilized equally, under the union’s leadership. ... This is entirely contrary to a market approach" (pp. 86–87).

Before we can have effective reform, then, the monopoly power of the Teacher Trust must be smashed. Our author notes that the right of exclusive bargaining, the source of so much of the problem, rests on legislative grants of privilege. Is not the solution obvious? What laws have created, laws can bring to an end: the statutes allowing these privileges must be repealed. In this connection, Brimelow cites an important argument by the attorney Edwin Vieira. He claims that Congress, under Section Five of the Fourteenth Amendment, "could say exclusive representation violates equal protection, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech ... [this] would reduce teacher union power dramatically" (p. 212).

Suppose Brimelow’s wish is granted: the power of the Teacher Trust is curtailed, or at least drastically reduced. What is then to be done? Brimelow commendably makes no claim to a definitive answer: what is all-important, in his view, is to allow market innovation to proceed unhindered.

Brimelow, although a fervent champion of the free market, is not a libertarian of the strictest observance. He is thus willing to countenance vouchers, a form of redistribution of income. But it is a mark of this outstanding author’s honesty that he does not suppress the case against this interventionist measure. He notes: "Some principled conservatives and libertarians, articulately represented by the Auburn, Alabama-based von Mises Institute under its president Llewellyn Rockwell, argue that private schools accepting vouchers will be captured by federal regulations" (p. 142).

Given this danger, is it not the better course of action simply to allow parents to deduct from their taxes fees for education? And if it is objected that this still allows the government to designate approved schools, why not an across-the-board tax cut sufficient to cover these expenses?

Our author notes a problem with this suggestion. "Of course, tax deductions and credits would only be helpful to parents who pay taxes, not the poor. But perhaps some sort of aftermarket could be instituted whereby tax credits could be sold to those who could benefit from them" (p. 224).

As it seems to me, Brimelow has here identified a central point in the whole controversy about public education. So long as it is assumed that every child, regardless of the income of his parents, has a "right" to education, the free market can at best operate in a fettered fashion.

Some may reply that to insist on fully private education is to engage in unrealistic doctrinal purism. Is it not unfair to children from poor families to deny them an education? This raises issues I cannot hope to resolve here, but one preliminary point merits attention. Why assume that education is a once-and-for-all event, so that a child who is not in school in the "normal" years is forever debarred from learning? Cannot a poor person acquire education in later life, when he has the money to afford it?

Whether or not one accepts this line of thought, one thing is clear; and Brimelow once again is directly on target. The attempt to compromise between public education and the free market through vouchers faces severe problems. One of these in particular raises an issue of the highest sensitivity. "The voucher movement’s fundamental and unspoken problem ... is race. Government schools in wealthy suburbs are ... de facto segregated, by class if not completely by race. Families who cannot afford to live in these neighborhoods cannot send their children to these government schools. To many suburbanites in these areas, vouchers just look like a new word for busing" (pp. 142–43). It is hardly unrealistic purism to wish to avoid these tangled issues. Rather than attempt to imitate the free market, we should insist on the genuine article.

1A pioneering work in Brimelow’s style of cost-benefit analysis applied to education is Roger A. Freeman, Financing the Public Schools (Washington, 1958). I owe this reference to George Resch, an outstanding critic of public education.

2 Homeschools do not invalidate Brimelow’s point. Most working parents lack the time to homeschool their children.


  • 1. A pioneering work in Brimelow’s style of cost-benefit analysis applied to education is Roger A. Freeman, Financing the Public Schools (Washington, 1958). I owe this reference to George Resch, an outstanding critic of public education.
  • 2. Homeschools do not invalidate Brimelow’s point. Most working parents lack the time to homeschool their children.

Cite This Article

Gordon, David. "A Monopoly of Ignorance." Review of The Worm In The Apple: How The Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education, by Peter Brimelow. The Mises Review 9, No. 3 (Winter 2003).


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