11/24/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's About the Students, Stupid!

The recent controversy over whether public school teachers can wear political buttons in the classroom highlights a significant obstacle to improving our schools: teachers' unions would rather dig in their heels in a fight over something trivial than actively work to improve learning in the classroom.

Should a school district seek to ban politicking within school hallways, you can bet the unions will be engaged and active. But when it comes to educating students and improving schools, the unions can be reliably found in opposition to innovative and common-sense reforms.

Think about it. When was the last time a teachers' union sued to demand higher academic standards? When has a teachers' union ever demanded more accountability in our classrooms?

And you can bet -- any time performance pay or tenure for those teachers who bring out the best in our students is brought up, the unions howl with anger and threaten to strike.

They forget; it's not about unions or anything else. It's about our students and making sure they get the best education possible. Our students are the ones who will suffer by staying in failing schools.

The statistics are staggering:

• Out of 30 developed countries, America's 15-year-olds rank 25th in math; 24th in problem-solving; and 21st in science.

• While the U.S. once had the best high school graduation rate in the world, it has now slipped to 20th.

• As recently as 1998, the U.S. ranked first in percentage of 25-34 year olds with at least a bachelor's degree, but by 2006 it had dropped to 10th.

• Even America's top math students rank 25th out of 30 countries when compared with top students elsewhere in the world.

We know we can do better. We have to do better. But to do that, we need to keep the focus on where it needs to be -- putting quality teachers in every classroom so our students can reach their full potential.

Whatever the election-year arguments some may make about wearing political paraphernalia in the classroom, we should all agree that our students would be better served if the teachers' unions devoted the same energy to reducing the drop out rate, raising math and science achievement and ensuring those who do graduate from high school are truly prepared for college

In education, it shouldn't be about the petty complaints of one group or another. It's about the students, stupid!