Friday, March 04, 2011

Ask a Korean! News: Is the Union the Real Problem in American Education?

As the New York Times noted today, it is fashionable nowadays for Americans to bash on teachers and teachers' union for the failing American education.
The jabs Erin Parker has heard about her job have stunned her. Oh you pathetic teachers, read the online comments and placards of counterdemonstrators. You are glorified baby sitters who leave work at 3 p.m. You deserve minimum wage.

“You feel punched in the stomach,” said Ms. Parker, a high school science teacher in Madison, Wis., where public employees’ two-week occupation of the State Capitol has stalled but not deterred the governor’s plan to try to strip them of bargaining rights.
Teachers Wonder, Why the Scorn? [New York Times]

But the funny thing is that Korea, whose student performance is among the world's best, has very, very strong teachers' unions. American critics decry that American teachers' job security is never linked to performance, but Korea's teachers are never evaluated on how well their students do on exams. American critics often point out that the best and the brightest are attracted to teaching in East Asia, but it is not as if teachers in Korea are wealthy, or even upper-middle class. The absolute, biggest draw of being a teacher in Korea is that you never lose your job until retirement and receive pension after retirement until you die -- because of the unions!

This is an incomplete thought, because obviously a situation from one country does not directly translate to another. But it is something worth chewing on. Is the union the real issue here?

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. I hardly think that "good teachers" are the reason for the highly educated masses of Korea. Most of the "real" learning happens in hak wons and through private tutors. One could say that teachers' unions are problems in BOTH countries.

  2. I feel like everyone is bashing the unions nowadays. I come from a very VERY pro union family and we wouldn't be where we are (lower middle class) without it. And, there are those who argue that we (meaning those in the unions) don't even deserve that much. I know there are some problems with the unions, what on this Earth is perfect? But, really, why is job security and some benefits hated by all? Before unions people worked practically like slaves for their factories. Workers got together and collectively bargained for rights. When I tell people that I'm pro-union I get called "anti-managerial" and "the problem of this country".

    If you want to fix some of the unions' problems, I'm all for it, it's not a perfect system. But don't take away worker's rights and don't insult hard working people for participating in unions. If you don't want to work for company with a union, than go work for walmart.

  3. I think blaming teacher unions are simply an easy solution for a much more complex and nuanced problem. They share blame because in some districts, unions are overly eager to protect low performing teachers and can be resistant to unique incentive structures or any sort of national standardization and objective performance metric. Yet at the same time, education, particularly in the United States, is very difficult, and I know of non-unionized teachers that work in unbelievable conditions.

    What is needed is compromise: teachers unions need to be more willing to make changes, but we shouldn't be so quick to blame them for all the ills. If anything, a greater problem than the teachers unions are incredibly incompetent and inefficient administrators and the highly decentralized educational model used in the United States.

  4. Yes, unions might require some reform but I think they're a necessary staple in any country that values the quality/freedom of human life. And teacher are so undervalued, it's sad. It took me years to understand that my teachers put forth so much effort to enable us as responsible adults and citizens. To many, it wasn't just a job.

  5. There is a lot more to education than teachers' unions. This is like arguing that the US budget will balance itself if senators take a pay cut.

  6. Here is my blue-skying reply:

    The teacher's unions are probably adding inefficiency. I mean, you'd have to take it state-by-state, as education is something that the states basically handles individually and spend the largest portion of their budgets on.

    I think we need to consider how much these states spend on education. About half are spending over $10,000/year. At that rate, you might as well just give the kids' families vouchers to send them to private school (or even charter school), where the education is good, they are independently accredited without some of these dumb exam evaluations for students. The schools just get rid of the bad teachers because they're bad. Simple. I went to private school and teachers admitted they'd get paid more at public school, but felt they were better than average and wanted to teach the way they wanted to teach and to not have to worry about exams. My teachers in school were amazing and I had small classes of usually no more than 15. This was a Jewish school, which probably wouldn't be what everyone would opt for, but tuition was pretty high, though it looks on par with these average expenditure numbers.

    The real issues with the unions is simply that they are essentially bargaining with someone with very little incentive to say "no." Except that it's our money. Thankfully the states can't print money, but they can still issue bonds beyond what property taxes cover of the cost.

    But I really don't think the unions are really more than just a fraction of the problem. It seems that administrators get paid a lot. Their incentive is to create the biggest bureaucracy under them as opposed to being efficient. Wisconsin's statistics for salaries seem a little high for admins, who are trying to get many underlings, compounding the problem.

    But you know, I'm not even sure that's it. As TK mentioned, Korea has strong unions, and where there are strong unions, there is usually undeserved pay and lots of bureaucrats.

    Maybe a big difference in the countries is what can be done with troublesome students and with the softening of the curriculum. I found this interesting article in the Denver Post that compares American students to those of (sorry TK) Japan. But it still gets us back to a sort of Tiger Mom/Rote method, so I'm sure the article will fly here. Haha!

    I really think a lot of the lack of performance is due to societal perceptions of education, but I think it's a combination of things. I do think there is too much spending on education, and I do think there are too many bureaucrats. Again, at this level of expenditures, you might as well just take our public school kids and put them in private schools. And I think unless the US is prepared to do a lot more than just fight teachers' unions, which might only be a small part of the problem, that voucher idea might be the best shot.

  7. Like any organization, unions can be greedy, corrupt, and bloated.

    That can be fixed without taking away the important rights of collective bargaining.

    BTW, unlike mary, I will give the teachers quite a lot of credit for how well they do. The hagwons help out the students with Korea's entrance exams, which isn't quite the same as the general knowledge they must acquire in order to compare well with students in other countries.

    As for the unions, my qualm about the unions is that many of their leaders (and followers) are witting or unwitting propagandists for Pyongyang.

  8. The unions aren't the problem.
    Get a system to distribute the wealth to everyone more fairly and you wont need any unions.

  9. How I'd love to be a piss-poor teacher in N.Y., I'd want the current public school system to never change, especially in regards to the power of the union.

    Now, if I happened to be a student or parent stuck in that situation, I'd be pissed beyond belief as even a "Walmart" education has got to be better than what the "public" has to deal with there.

  10. The Korean seems to be suggesting that the strong teachers' unions may be a cause of the high performance.

    Seems unlikely to me. Singapore gets great grades too, and I don't think I've ever heard of them having a strong teacher union. (Although the scattered google hits suggests that Singapore's technocracy may have permitted a union to exist.) Culture seems far more important than details like unionization.

    (Not that those details, like pensions, don't matter hugely to some things like budgets. Pensions can push organizations over the brink - just ask General Motors.)

  11. Agreed with John from Daejeon.

    And Milan. Well. Wow. I think I know what he/she is saying. But I think the current is pretty redistributive. I mean, you have people who aren't even using the system paying for it via their property tax. And the more valuable their property, the more they pay.

    But if you mean a literal income redistribution as has become fashionable to talk about these days, I suppose you're right there too. We wouldn't need teachers unions. Because, hey, with that sort of policy, who needs upward mobility? Who needs schools? Just sit back and let some rich guy pay for it. I think you might be onto something there.

  12. I grew up in California, where schools are decent (and where even in Compton I got the impression that the teachers were competent and cared), but in Seoul I met so many people from back east (e.g., NYC, Boston, etc.) that gave me the impression that things there were just really corrupt and government services were grossly inefficient.

    So without having experienced it directly, I'll grant the possibility that things are bad there and unions are making it worse or at least getting in the way of making it better.

    That said, what bothers me is when rhetoric about New York is used to bash teachers in Wisconsin. Not necessarily here, but I've seen that in quite a few places.

  13. Be careful about making comparisons with private schools, which are not required to provide a full range of special ed services and are free to set admissions policies as long as they are in compliance with anti-discrimination laws. Our school of 430 students has three full-time special ed teachers, two full-time ESL teachers and two full-time aides, and three full-time behavioral specialists whose sole job is to handle several emotionally disturbed students prone to violent outbursts. We are required by law to provide these children with a free public education, and if the salaries of the three specialists were apportioned among the six children, it would work out to about $17,000 per child on top of the basic cost of the child's education. Our administrators spend much of their day dealing with student behavioral concerns, leaving them with less time to observe teachers and students engaged in learning. We have the local police department on speed dial, and recently three officers were called to remove a violent first grader from the building. Three were needed to follow restraint protocols that reduce the risk of injury to a young child. My state is a right to work state with no unions, BTW, and layoffs are determined primarily by job performance, not seniority. The problems that plague US public education are much bigger than union protection of incompetent teachers.

  14. America is at best only somewhat redistributive. We have a current Gini coefficient that's off the charts compared to the 1960s. The disparities themselves create their own problems.

    I guess I'd feel sorry for the millionaire who has to pay so much tax if (a) he works at Starbucks for 100,000 hours per year, and (b) he was really going to put the money back into valuable job creation and not some financial game designed to increase profit through smoke and mirrors (that put the rest of us at risk).


    Anonymous wrote:
    The problems that plague US public education are much bigger than union protection of incompetent teachers.

    But get used to hearing that. The right and the right-right Tea Party have latched on to teachers unions as the sole or overriding cause of educational woes, just as they harp on malpractice lawsuits as the real cause of out-of-control health care costs and a lack of medical coverage for all.

    Focusing on these two somewhat minor points (on which they may be partly right) allows them to ignore the entire rest of the problem by proposing a pretend solution that will never pass or won't pass for a long time.

    WORD VERIFICATION: apanti, what a Japanese salaryman buys at a Shinjuku vending machine.

  15. Korean education is not that great. Koreans constantly memorize facts to take tests - so yeah, they do perform well on tests, but most forget what they've learned and /or only study because their parents and society forces them too and then go college and party for 5 or 6 years instead of focusing on their education that actually counts and is specific to their career.

    By the way, just because something works well in Korea doesn't mean it would work well in America. Cultures make up a difference and there are thousands of crappy teachers that don't care more than getting a paycheck. They don't deserve to keep a job simply because they picked a career that has a union.

  16. Wow, that was a bouquet of stupid.

  17. WOW! Bouquet of stupid!
    Anyway - Korean I have an opinion as always. I know Korean fathers are not always involved, BUT I think they are more involved than American fathers - I don't know the numbers I just know my experience. Teaching in Korea I saw 3 kids out of I guess 350 (small numbers I know) that did not have a father at home. I know they work a crap ton but they are in the home! I don't know the numbers here I can only guess by what I have seen - I taught in 3 American High Schools - and a good 25 - 30 percent did not have fathers at home! I think the home is a vital part of education! If the parents are involved (single or married) the child will be more apt to succeed. That is one thing you see in Korea! Children are learning things so early - yes they memorize things but once it is memorized they can access it - come on periwinkletoes - how did you study for a test? How did you learn the states and capitals or the multiplication tables?
    Yes they go to Hagwons but some of these places have become glorified baby sitters - I think the mothers (Tiger Mothers, if I am not mistaken) should be given the lion's share of the credit

  18. I think a lot of the financial strain in the states is getting moved over to this area. Education is a prime area since it is a major concern of the state budgets. I'm sure that unions are part of the problem, but I think it is more of the financial strain. Its probably much like if a family is going into financial strain each may complain about the other while protecting their "sacred cow." Really the problem is shared all around.

    I think when budgets are being strained, states and municipalities are facing concerns of bankruptcy, and people are facing unemployment or wage freezes you get to the point people start getting real frustrated with unions. States and cities getting tied into health insurance and pension contracts that are looking like the cost are going to balloon cause real frustration.

    We just had our mayor go under a recall election, and much of the moment behind it came from people frustrated about police and firefighter union contracts and his desire to raise taxes. He wants to raise taxes citing concerns about covering services and bond payments. At the same time he really just kicked the can down the road when it came to these union contracts and really seemed to come off as not acting with much financial concern.

    If people are complaining about unions and the quality of American Education, I think its just frustration at the current state of finance causing them to come up with every and any argument against unions.

  19. J Man, the shared financial strain makes sense... except where massive tax cuts are being implemented.

    I know it's not that simple, but at the Federal level that's pretty much what we've come to: continuing the tax cut for money earned beyond $250K but we're going to cut heating oil to the poor to pay for that.

    Okay, this is getting off the union topic, but it's related to the attacks on unions. Why is $250K "practically poverty" when it comes to tax cuts we can't afford, but the getting-by retirement package of public workers is suddenly bringing down Western civilization?

  20. The Federal system is a whole different set of circumstances. As a matter the US Federal system with its tie-ins to the US dollar is probably has a whole different set of circumstances than most of countries and monetary systems. State budgets are more like a household budget.

    As far a tax cuts, while not exactly a zero sum game, the more money the public sector takes up, the less it takes up for the private sector. Also for people with money the higher the tax, it is easier to take that money out of the US and invest it elsewhere. Just as we have many who will cross state lines to buy cheaper gasoline and passing the tax to the other state, so will people who have more money. A tax cut can help stimulate investment in the US and more tax revenue. People have the biases so I seriously doubt we could ever really truly get to a place where we target the best optimum.

  21. Bashing the teachers' union is just part of the general program of anti-union propaganda in Wisconsin right now. Unions are one of the most effective guarantors of public rights against predatory governments and/or big companies.

    Targeting teachers is a low blow. In the UK recently, the newspapers ran articles criticising lazy, useless, overentitled students. Why? Because the government had decided to treble university tuition fees. It's the same thing here: they want to get rid of the teachers' union if they can, so run articles in the media criticising teachers.

  22. In my last middle school, one of my weekly classes was a 'teacher's class' where I sat down with the other English teachers and we chatted for an hour in English.

    The topic of teaching conditions came up, and I thought I remembered one of the teachers saying that it was illegal for teachers in Korea to be involved in teachers' unions. Perhaps I misunderstood or misremembered? As for the job security, I thought that was more to do with teaching being a government job and government jobs being generally well-protected here. Again, I'm just basing this off my own personal observations and various anecdotes that I've heard.

    Anyways, it really, REALLY bugs me when people dismiss teaching as an 'easy' job. It's an attitude of staggering ignorance. I don't know how many times I've seen my mother stay up late to finish correcting her students work, or write individual reports for every one of her students, or plan out the finer details of a school camp or excursion. It's not a job you can just come home and disconnect yourself from; the stress can reduce grown men to tears or to uncharacteristic outbursts of rage.

    I don't know enough about what's happening in Wisconsin to comment, but anyone who thinks that teaching isn't a serious job is, quite frankly, a bonehead.

  23. Though The Korean called it a "bouquet of stupid," I would like to address at least one of the persistent but apparently outdated memes periwinkletoes mentions, that of Korean college students "party[ing] for 5 or 6 years instead of focusing on their education that actually counts and is specific to their career."

    I'll paraphrase some of what I wrote here.

    Many South Korean colleges are no longer the four-year picnic that came as a reward for getting into college in the first place, particularly because of increasingly intense competition for post-baccalaureate jobs and newly implemented grading quotas designed to eliminate grade inflation.

    In my brief stint as a lecturer in Korean academia, I could give no more than 30% of my students an A, and no more than 40% of my students a B. Regardless of how well they performed, at least 30% would get a C, D, or F. We were forced to give weekly updates on attendance, for which there was an automatic F if one received beyond, I believe, three in that semester.

    Sure, if someone shows up and takes the exams, they are guaranteed at least a C, a passing grade. In the past they could expect a B or even an A. But with the 30-40-30 system, the C they now receive allows them to move on to graduate, but in today's competitive job market, that might as well be an F.

    The four-year picnic is a thing of the past in many schools.

  24. I'm a union member in the private sector. Our wages and benefits are paid to us by our company and it's our company that our union collectively bargains with to determine the our wages, benefits, and rules. Now public sector unions (representing government workers such as public school teachers) bargain with politicians, for whom these unions provide millions in campaign contributions. There is little bargaining and lots of agreeing, all with taxpayer dollars. So as many cities and states teeter toward bankruptcy and want some concessions by the public sector unions - the answer is no! They say tax the rich to get the money you need to balance the budget. The problem is is that the "rich" includes corporations and small businesses who provide many of our jobs in the private sector. They already pay the largest portions of our tax dollars - by far. This idea never helps our poor unemployment situation, but only hurts it. The bottom line is public sector unions cannot and have never worked because as I mentioned collective bargaining doesn't happen, only collective agreeing. This keeps democrats in power and democrats only know how to spend and destroy.

  25. Brett, you make some fair points, but I'd say the problem then is not in collective bargaining itself, but in the way we allow our campaigns to be run through such means, by getting major contributions from corporations and unions that inevitably are paid back in some form of quid pro quo.

    Anyway, there still is a check and balance available: the voters can send home someone of either party who fails to balance the budget. It doesn't require stripping away collective bargaining rights in order to that.

  26. Let's stay with education, folks.

  27. Respectfully, The Korean, I thought we were staying within the topic, which includes unions.

    Isn't the question you're posing whether or not unions, including public-sector unions in which many teachers find themselves, are bad for American education? It would seem that the concomitant practices and problems of unions would be part of that equation.

  28. I think people are getting very confused with this complex issue.

    I don't believe that the union is responsible for bad education, poor teachers, etc. The issue should be looked at as a budgetary one.

    The US, federal and state governments, not only have to make difficult cuts now but ensure that long term expenses are reduced, so that the US remains a strong and sustainable economy in the world. Part of this will be reforming entitlements in general, but it will also include reforming collective bargaining for public workers. (As an aside, I firmly believe that collective bargaining for public workers is unnecessary, because the government has every incentive to pay them fairly, WITHOUT bankrupting themselves. In different industries, companies have an incentive to underpay).

    I think why people have this amount of disdain for teachers unions is, apart from their shrieking stubbornness at the moment, because they continue to get paid more, in form of salary and benefits, while test scores continuously go down. That's usually not how it works.

    The difference between Korean education and American education? In my mind, it's just the culture. Koreans believe that continued economic success is crucial to their stability in the region.

    Until Americans adopt the view that their status as sole superpower is not eternal, I don't think they'll be embracing any changes in education.

  29. I think the problem with US education system primarily lies at home. Even if there were incompetent teachers, responsible parents and responsible students should be able to fix this problem. And what the hell is wrong with rote memorization?!

  30. As I posted in comments on another thread, educational philosophy is important and all, but let's not ignore the bottom line. Bigger budgets could do the educational systems in both the U.S. and Korea some good.

  31. agree w/ Jinyi.
    The majority of the public education problem stems from the modern day American household and undisciplined parenting, and parents themselves that act like greedy little hedonistic children. We have let loose generations of American citizens and their offspring that rely on the government, their employer, their school, etc etc etc.... to provide everything, even provide a place to lay blame.

    Until people start to become accountable for their own lives, circumstances, children, etc.... will we then see improvement in the education system. The teachers can only do so much given the resources they have, and likely, poor parenting leads to a bigger problem for the schools to deal with.
    The unions probably just get caught up in the mess and eventually being corrupt sometimes can be the only way to survive and get something.

  32. Mary,
    You are completely correct.
    If students in the U.S. spent the amount of time in hagwons that a majority of S.K. students do, then I am pretty confident the average for U.S. test scores would be higher. South Korea glorifies education and that is a good thing here, but often times I feel that so many of my students don't know the reason why some answer is what it is, but they just know the answer b/c they have to in order to get the grade on a test. I think there is some disconnect between the high test scores translating into success within the real world. It takes the test score as a minimum base to get into and graduate college but there are other intangibles to thinking independently to solve real world problems. I am not sure students learn those skills through the type of "stay between the lines thinking" that occurs when one is learning to take a multiple choice test.
    I work in the public schools and there are some lazy teachers there believe me. I think it is ok to have some lack of productivity in the public schools are it is a service to society and not a business, but some type of incentive program should be in place to give those teachers a reason to push their students to higher levels.

  33. I think Unions for teachers are great. The problem is you have private sector jobs and ones that are for lack of better words "for the poor" The problem with unions is that it only protects its own (Very um American in a lot of eyes). I can care less about cry baby union members who don't want to pay a little more into there benefits but a Teachers Union is a big difference then say the water districts and other union jobs were people sit on there ass's all day and pretend to work. Teachers have to show up and like cops they are needed and they needed to be honorable.

  34. Until the U.S. public gets their heads out of the sand and demands that the monopoly that is the government's public school system privatize, it will continue to be disfunctional. Shouldn't the best teachers in the country be paid at least the same as the best baseball/basketball/football players and those who continue to ride the bench should be cut like the pros do it even with their strong unions, especially as the best and brightest teachers can spread their top-notch knowledge to students in schools (and homes) all across the country/world thanks to both the Internet and satellite/cable television. They are no longer tied to the brick and mortar "old" school system.

    But it's all about the MONEY and not about at all about the students.

  35. There is a difference between what top athletes do and what people with the best cutting edge knowledge do. Athletes tend to do things that people can understand and appreciate. People with the best knowledge usually are discovering things that normal people really don't care about. Maybe you could get a few great lecturers who can present something to the masses. The Discovery Channel can be good at that.

    The problem with knowledge is that there are huge amounts of it out there, and most of it is of no use to a particular person. I don't think a topic like morphologies of sodium ion channels is something that is going to matter to other than a select few. At the highest level, teachers don't know many things. They teach how to go about trying to figure things out.

  36. Working as an English teacher in a Korean public school does not qualify you as an expert on Korean education. I don't care what you saw at your school. Unless you speak the language fluently enough to pick up what is being said by the faculty and students, go to faculty meetings, and deal with the office of education, well, one can't say that you are an expert. Not even Korean teachers who do these things can because they only see what happens at THEIR school. As a foreigner who does not speak fluent Korean, is not expected to live up to the demands of a Korean teacher, you would NOT BE PRIVY to that information. So stop trying to act like you know about the system when you DON'T. People who live in their own English bubble, saying that they know all about Korea... rolls eyes.

  37. Three things get sited over and over with regards to the state of American education k-12.

    1- Bad parenting.

    2- Unmotivated or disinterested students.

    3- Bad teachers and the unions that protect them.

    Is the union the real problem? More likely it's a combination of all three. However, the union is the only one of the above that the government has any actual power over. The government can't fine you if your kids don't do well in school nor can it throw kids in jail for not performing well on tests. So that just leaves the last one. Besides, throwing daggers at rich bankers is sooo 2008.

  38. baekgom84,

    I thought I remembered one of the teachers saying that it was illegal for teachers in Korea to be involved in teachers' unions. Perhaps I misunderstood or misremembered?

    It's half-right. One particular teachers' union is very leftist and it used to be illegal to be join that one. (And conservatives believe it is still illegal.)

    As for the job security, I thought that was more to do with teaching being a government job and government jobs being generally well-protected here.

    It's also a contributing factor, but it is actually more like America -- teachers also have a public sector union.


    the union is the only one of the above that the government has any actual power over. The government can't fine you if your kids don't do well in school nor can it throw kids in jail for not performing well on tests.

    Very true, but all the criticisms about American education are not coming from the government -- they come from the citizens. And right now unions, not parents and students, appear to have taken the Public Enemy No. 1 status.

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  42. I would agree with the assertion that the biggest problem in U.S. education is family breakdown.

    I have many friends who are teachers and they increasingly find themselves having to cope with behavioural problems stemming from child hunger, poverty, drug abuse, divorce, absent parents (often because the parents are working multiple jobs) and other problems, which children bring into the classroom. They are frustrated that they are accountable for test scores while receiving less and less support to deal with these dysfunctions. I suspect that families are still relatively intact in Korea, the extended family tends to be present, and between these two factors there is better support and nurturing for children as they grow up.

    In this country teachers must receive a Bachelor's degree, student teach for an additional year and then many go on to receive Master's Degrees. Even with unions they make far far less than other college graduates and work in substandard conditions.

    It's a hard job. I couldn't do it. I couldn't imagine anyone doing it if benefits and salaries were reduced further.

  43. How should we define a "good education"? by standardized test scores? The debate over teacher unions is about policy-makers who don't want to be held responsible for a failing education system. And because politicians are pawns for huge corporations, they want to turn education into a profitable industry. If you look at the latest "philanthropy"/investment projects of Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, the agenda should be quite clearly stated. America has never been able to fully recover or come to peace w/ slavery & racism. And the inequalities, both social & economic, that resulted from a history of oppression, explain the calamities and deficiencies of our education system today, far better than bad teachers or unions. Those in power do not want to discuss the historical reasons why our schools suck today. They would rather continue to distribute resources to their upper class constituents & find ways to ignore the root causes of failing schools. It's very American to suppress symptoms w/ drugs instead of actually treating the disease.


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