In looking for other reasons America’s schools seem to be falling behind their European counterparts besides those darn teachers unions, I think besides the higher poverty rate in the United States one must also look to the related issue of the behavior of our teenagers, especially in two critical cases – drug use and teen pregnancy.
The United States has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the industrialized world. It is a well known fact that teen mothers are more likely to drop out and score more poorly on standardized tests than their peers. This isn’t to say that teen mothers are doomed to drop out, but rather that they will not being able to achieve their full academic potential because they have far more pressures in their lives than their childless peers. And because there are far more pregnant teens in the US than in Europe, this is likely to affect our comparatively lower test scores.
Surprisingly (to me), illicit drug use is also much higher in the United States than in Europe, nearly double. Add to this our more punitive system towards drug use, and you have a lot of teens missing a lot of education either because they are using drugs or because they are suffering the legal and disciplinary consequences thereof.
Drug policy affects schools in another way – it diverts resources from teaching into drug prevention and drug punishment. Educators are asked to also become detectives, administrators have to spend a great deal of their rather expensive time dealing with drug, alcohol and tobacco violations, and the general atmosphere of the school is tainted with suspicion on the part of the faculty and resentment on the part of students. This antagonism has roots besides drug policy, but given that nearly half of American students use illicit drugs, it definitely leads to an us-vs.-them attitude, where faculty is seen as persecuting, not helping, the students.
Again, teachers unions are hardly the root of this problem. It has many sources, but the majority of them are related to larger society, and policy changes enacted through the school system are of only limited use in addressing them.
And for the purpose of fair disclosure : I work for the school district, but I am not part of any union (I don’t think?) and I definitely don’t have tenure.