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Are Teacher Unions the Problem?: A Clear Look at a Cloudy Issue

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Scapegoating teacher unions for the failures of public education system is a favorite pastime of critics who view the organizations as major obstacles to creating the conditions necessary to promulgate change and innovation in America's schools.

In 1998, Charlene K. Haar, then president of the Educational Policy Institute, wrote a steaming critique that dubbed teacher unions as the enemies of school reform. A thoughtful 2002 article by Susan Black, a contributing editor to the American School Board Journal, began to surface the emerging work of a "new unionism" and raised questions about the student benefits of new directions of some unions.

The reality is that the debate continues and our own experiences tend to color the perspective we hold toward the role of the union in school system improvement. Robert M. Carini, an Indiana University professor, noted that in 2002 there were only seventeen studies on the topic of relationships between teacher unions and student performance. (Download PDF)

The good news is that organizations such as the Teachers Union Reform Network (TURN) Exchange of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have provided sound leadership to support and document current work to advance the role of teacher unions as supporters of the cause for high-quality public education. As a baby boomer educator, I didn't have this knowledge to draw on at the beginning of my career as a school district administrator. As a result, I learned some things in the school of hard knocks.

Clearly, unions have a tremendous impact on the educational climate and culture and on efforts to support change and innovation. In my first superintendency, many years ago, I was among those who found it easy to typecast unions as a chief obstacle to improvement efforts. The unions were viewed as protectors of poor-quality teachers, low productivity, and resistance to instructional improvement. I joined with the school board, other elected and appointed officials, and community members who associated the unions with our school district's failure to educate students to meet or exceed academic standards.

During this era of unenlightenment, we worked from an administrator-knows-best view of school and district improvement. The unions were good victims to blame for the more fundamental problems that impeded the ability of the district to make a difference for the community's students.

I vividly recall progressing from unenlightenment to enlightenment during a meeting with local union officials at which we typically exchanged our grievances in a heated manner. It was my turn to complain about the union's protection of teachers who were clearly not effective in meeting their responsibilities in the classroom. After listening for a spell, the union president firmly challenged me and said, "Don't expect me to do what you and your administrators have failed to do. You and your administrators don't supervise, evaluate, or document performance and then expect the union to simply roll over and abandon our responsibility because you say so. That won't be happening -- not today, not ever!"

The president spoke the truth, and I had to swallow a very hard pill. It is often said that medicine that is good may be found to be hard to take. Well, this was the medicine I needed to wake up to the shortsightedness of my prevailing beliefs about unions and their potential to be important allies for school reform.

Fortunately, I grew from this experience and started to learn more about different approaches to labor and management collaboration and the potential benefits that can be derived from working together toward common interests. This was the beginning of a journey that changed the way I work, and I am thankful to that union president and others who followed who were willing to take risks as partners to improve teaching and learning for the students for whom we share the responsibility for their success. The journey, of course, has not been linear, but I have learned some things and would like to suggest them to others for consideration:

Don't vilify the unions. They exist to protect and advocate for their members. Any union leader who fails to do so will not be effective and will have little capacity as a partner for the hard work of collaborating for school improvement.

Strong, competent union leaders who take care of the membership and advocate for high-quality education for all are valuable partners for efforts to improve school districts. Highly professional, well-organized union leaders committed to high-quality public education should be embraced as significant resources for district efforts to close gaps and accelerate achievement for all students. Examine the experience of those districts connected to the TURN Exchange to learn more about ways to orchestrate efforts in your district.

Invest in building the capacity of labor and management to work as a team. Sadly, the relationship between labor and management in too many districts is precariously adversarial and influenced by decades of poor relationships, communications, and little trust or respect. Investments to develop the capacity of leaders throughout the district community who become competent in the use of skills, tools, and strategies to promote communications and the development of productive working relationships are necessary. Simply waving a magic wand or singing "Kumbaya" won't improve our ability to work together more effectively.

Leadership development, change management, and conflict-resolution and facilitation skills can help address obstacles that often adversely impact productive working relationships. External support is often needed to help both labor and management get to a better place.

Focus on interests, not positions. Interest-based problem solving provides us with an alternative way to have our battles—to be hard on the issues and soft on the people. The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service Web site is a good place to explore for information on getting started in interest-based problem solving.

Integrity and reliability are cornerstones of any effort to redefine the relationship between district and teacher unions. The fragile nature of labor/management relationships makes it imperative for leaders on both sides to practice these qualities as they walk through the challenges of building new relationships.

Old habits are hard to break, and the road toward improved relationships is strewn with obstacles and barriers that draw us back to working the way we did in the past. Inevitably, one party or the other is likely to make a mistake that can be used as an opportunity to abandon efforts to strengthen collaborative work. The reality is that in many school districts, we are challenged to overcome long histories of adversarial relationships, blame, and cynicism.

Parent groups, community leaders, teachers, principals, and support staff need to be engaged in and informed of the goals of the district and the unions to work differently. Jointly planned communications and development activities presented in a variety of ways for different audiences are important. Don't assume that the occasional newsletter, Web site announcement, or global email is adequate to build awareness and knowledge to communicate the value placed on shared responsibility for new ways of working together to improve the district's ability to influence positive outcomes for learners.

The Swahili proverb, "When elephants fight, what gets hurt is the grass," describes what happens when leaders engage in disputes and conflicts that end up hurting innocent and powerless students. When the adult leaders responsible for the education of children engage in practices that harm their ability to educate students to the highest levels of performance, they are hurting the grass. The important work of closing gaps and accelerating performance for all students benefits when all members of the educational community share a commitment to a shared sense of purpose and work to develop and sustain productive relationships. This is work that is worthwhile and important.

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Educator's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my tenth year as an educator. I have a master's degree, and am Nationally Board Certified. I just finished my internship for administration. I belong to my local/state/national teachers' union - not because I want to - but because my dues are automatically taken from my pay. In my state, teachers cannot strike. In most cases, I do not agree with my union - it does not speak for me. Yet, they have my money to lobby on their behalf - not mine.

Where then, do I go, to whom do I speak, to share my point of view as an educator? Should I make an appointment with the superintendent? If I were to do so, he would surely call my administrators, and my point of view - regardless of how valid - would be categorized as "fodder from an unhappy employee". If I attend a union meeting, should I agree to leaving my system-supplied laptop at school unless I am paid during the evening to use itaEU|before they will listen to my educationally-based concerns? We're not even on the same plane! Perhaps I should share my views at a staff meeting? Then, I could enjoy being singled out and monitored more closely with performance appraisals that discuss the cleanliness of my room - not my teaching. Perhaps I should try a different school......but in order to move I'll need the "recommendation" of my current administrator. Hmmmmm.

Who speaks for or defends the educator that does not stand with the union and has serious concerns about the status quo of education? I obtained my administrative certification because I couldn't believe the quality of administrators I have met during my career. It became clearly apparent that those who get ahead are the friends of the principal - not necessarily the best, the brightest, or the educators who care the most. Where are the safeguards? Where are the checks and balances? The union? Absolutely not. The union cares about dues and raising our salaries - in order to collect more union dues. The rest is a facade. Public education has become a circus of smoke and mirrors - with those in seats of authority more interested in protecting their salaries - rather than rocking the boat for sorely needed changes.

My dedication to students cannot be bought with job security, favoritism, or positions of authority if it means I have to turn my brain off in the process. I have attempted to speak up in support of improved student learning. I have been ostracized for doing so and my administrators reward my dedication to students by offering professional development to those who agree with them at every turn. Education is not a democracy aEU" and certainly not a place for an educator with non-sanctioned opinions.

Mr. Needleman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Of course teachers unions are concerned with student education or members wouldn't have gotten into the edcuation field to begin with. I don't think teachers or unions need to be made to feel guilty for asking for a fair and decent living wage. I say this as someone who may never be able to afford a home in the city in which I teach.

J. Cansdale's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dr. Leverett cuts to the core of many issues in the world of public education when he zeroes in on the importance of collaboration among all parties. As a teacher, I can attest to the shift in school culture when a district is led by a superintendent with a collaborative management style versus one whose approach is strictly top-down. The "blame game" has a long and painful history in many school districts, and it is a tough challenge to overcome; but investing in a school's greatest resource - its people - to create dynamic leadership from within is a sure way to keep "the grass" lush and healthy. Students benefit from the example of teachers who are effective agents of change within their schools. Districts that practice management by mandate set a poor example for our students, who must learn to problem-solve and adapt in a rapidly changing world.

Terry's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

To Educator:

Your internal source of motivation is laudable, but it isn't the source of your health plan, your pension program, or the sick and personal days.

You deserve them, but you would not have them without the union you evidently despise.

Jean Miclette's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It makes me wonder if those that detest their unions have EVERY actually attended a meeting, know where their dues are spent, know who their reps are, or have any idea of how their rights came to be. Unions are made up of members (people just like them). Unionst are not businesses like McDonalds where you can place an order, and get served. It is members working for members.
If you perfer, speak with the states that have no unions and learn what the real world is without the safeguard of a contract, and someone to ensure that you are treated fairly.

Another Educator's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Educator: It sounds like you are a committed and serious professional working in a very poor environment. I sympathize with your situation. I would recommend getting more closely involved with your union, not simply going to a meeting and voicing your concerns, but rather speaking regularly with your reps, attending meetings, speaking to union leadership, and even becoming a rep yourself. Rather than lamenting the poor state of the school, it is your and your union's responsibility to improve the situation.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I don't know which union you belong to but in UTLA (one of the country's largest teachers' unions) there are almost always positions open in the house of representatives (the decision making body of our union). I know it's fashionable among some teachers to complain about the direction of the union but very few want to step up and be part of making the decisions. The union is not a nameless, faceless entity. The few who show up are the ones who make the decisions.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I want to thank the educators! The teachers union in my county works hard to serve the children.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am the Vice President of the Teacher's Union in my district. I cannot tell you the number of times I have been retaliated upon by a superintendent bent on defaming and blaming teachers for all the problems. I think many parents of our students are clueless to the abuse we take. Our superintendent tries to make it that we cannot discuss what is going on in the schools. Luckily we have court cases that back us up like Pickering and Settlegood. It is extremely scary when administrators try to gag teachers regarding matters of public policy and public concern. The community should praise teachers who have the nerve to speak up as to what administrators are trying to do. It is my experience that the children are the least concern of administrators. They prefer power and greed.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

"Swahili proverb, 'When elephants fight.....etc.'"
What is destroying the educational system in this country is the utter mendacity of its Administrative leadership that is so far out of touch with real children in real classrooms that they believe their own smoke. People with Phd.s in Education should be taken out into the fields and beaten, just as they did in China. Maybe these over paid, crap artists, will wake up and stop playing politics with the lives of children. I had the regretful experience of having to labor under the blind ignorance of the author of this blog, who put his staff and their students in harms way day after day. He left the District in far worse shape than it has ever been in and parlayed the job into nothing more than a bigger bank account.

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