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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Are Teacher Unions the Problem?: A Clear Look at a Cloudy Issue

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.

Comments (35)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Pernell Collett's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that unions act as a "check" against abuses from uninformed individuals who have the best of intentions, but the worst of ideas. Ultimately, unions are there to protect the work environment of teachers so they can best serve the final consumer: the students. Some business leaders, rabble-rousers and others who are anti-employee (regardless of occupation) are the very reasons that unions exist in education and in other fields. We need to remember that if we do not make things better for children in schools, we ultimately fail society.

Terry Forsyth's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am an educator no longer working in the classroom. My goal as a classroom professional was to teach in such a manner as to make a real difference in the lives of my students and in my community. I continue working in the field of education with the same goal. I work to make a difference for all children, my own included. When I am no longer able to do that I will resign from the field. My union provides me the opportunity to continue the work with everything from mentoring new teachers to quality professional development opportunities. I believe that it is vitally important to work with people to improve their skills whether they be students or teachers. I am opposed to throwing people away because they are experiencing a rough spot in their lives whether they be students or teachers. Investing in improvement through quality educational experiences works for the betterment of students, teachers and communities.

Paul K. Betts's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A couple of comments:

1. I fully agree with Larry Leverett's bullet points as strategies to address school improvement issues, especially in cooperation with professional organizations/unions such as the NEA and the AFT and their affiliates. To disregard the impact and influence of these organization and the impact and influence of parent and community groups merely polarizes all "sides" causing everyone to assume entrenched positions and, therefore, minimal (if any) progress.

2. Mr. Leverett's main bullet point, however, should have been his thoughts and necessary actions based upon his moment of enlightenment, i.e., the too often ignored responsibility of school administrators to supervise, evaluate, and document the performance of school personnel. This, after all, is one of the main avenues that needs to repaired in the road to school improvement. The responsibility of the union is to ensure that the rights of a worker are not violated.

3. Mr. Bowers, on the other hand, confuses the defense of workers' rights with a "bending-over-backwards" posture of management. School managers must manage their schools to the highest standards. That means that one of their responsibilities is to thoroughly assess the performance of each employee. This is doing their jobs, not bending over backwards. Unions don't protect substandard teachers. Unions protect against substandard school managers/administrators.

Please, bring us more articles like this...

Jamie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The biggest problem I see in today's educational environment is the unwillingness of local and state boards of education to ALLOW NEEDED DISCIPLINE!!! There is no consequence for action!
This goes contrary to phrases within those BOE's own LAWS and REGULATIONS, to wit: "discipline shall be maintained to offer a safe and secure environment conducive to learning." However, when administrators try to enforce these provisions the BOE's threaten to remove them instead of the offending student. And of course it is the master plan of the democratic party to lead education to failure in order to make people MORE RELIANT on government, and the people's taxes instead of putting money INTO education. CONGRESSMEN and SENATORS, whether state or federal, are grossly overpaid; while we who would dare attempt to educate our future leaders are scraping by!

Edward Davis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

With due respect to Larry Leverett, teachers unions are a major obstruction to redesigning our education system. And make no mistake about it, the system is not broken, but obsolete.

Teachers unions exist for only one core purpose, and that is to grow and strengthen their constituency. Any reform which challenges that core purpose is going to be opposed, whether it is good for education or not. Getting rid of tenure and paying good teachers alot more than mediocre ones are two good examples of reforms that threaten unions.

Organizations that exist solely to perpetuate and grow themselves are inherently anti-progressive. In a rational 21st century design for education, unions will have to rethink their raison d'etre. At present, they help reinforce a woefully obsolete approach to public education.

Edward Davis, Author of 'Lessons For Tomorow, Bringing America's Schools Back From The Brink'

Paul K. Betts's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

On Democrats and Republicans and Education

Historically, the Democratic party has been the party that supports a strong, liberal (meaning "open-minded" and "tolerant" - look it up), and free public education for all. The Republican party, especially in recent years, has been the party that supports (through various policies inherent in NCLB) the erosion of a free public education in favor of private (including parochial) education.

Not that private schools are bad, but a future of Disney-like or McDonald's-like private school chains run by some sort of "efficient business model" would be disastrous to the neighborhood school concept that has been the very backbone of our free society. Think about how much local control will be allowed when Big Education takes over. THIS is the Republican plan. There's money to be made in privatizing education. Big Ed will sidle up with Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Insurance....

Jamie, please look at who is promoting vouchers and siphoning off taxpayer dollars to "faith-based initiatives." It's not teachers and not unions! It's also not Democrats.

David J. Fiore's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Mr. Leverett, I couldn't agree more with your ideas. It would seem that we in the educational community have enough enemies without taking on each other. Unfortunately, some people see collaboration or interest based problem solving as "giving in." Obviously, additional education and especially modeling of appropriate behaviors are required, which will and does take time. I am on the union side, if you will, but describe my primary job responsibilities as "teaching adults how to behave better." I am a trained mediator and beleive those skills should be encouraged and nurtured for all in the educational community to pursue as worthy of our limited time resources, and efforts. Keep up the good work.

Jean Miclette's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As interesting as this article is, what gets lost in all the comments is that administators and teacher unions should work together to ensure that people are treated fairly ,and within the bounds of a districts contract. When all parties understand the rules, it is an easy situation. I know of no union or administrator, that purposely takes the responsibility of providing children a quality education lightly. This is America folks! Teaching students that they need to stand up and be counted so that they can ensure a future for themselves, and be a citizen that is productive and informed, is where it's at. It seems that each party forgets what unions provide to workers. Substandard teachers need to be weaned out in those first few years by administators that need to do their job. Unions can stand and make sure that that worker is treated fairly. Get over it people, and kiss a teacher for helping you be a free thinker that can actually read and respond to articles such as this.

Patrick Groff's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Larry Leverett's essay, "Are Teacher Unions the Problem," needs a different title. It should be called, "Are School Boards and Teacher Unions Both the Problem."

In this regard, I reflect on the manner in which the boards and the unions collude to make sure that students who need the services of the most productive teachers the most do not receive them. One of the longest standing, and most imperturbable agreements between these two bodies is schools that enroll students who are the most difficult to teach will be supplied with the least capable teachers.

During my lengthy service as a teacher educator, I discovered that almost all teachers who were assigned to the above kind schools had posted their petitions to be transferred out of them. Teachers are assured by their unions and school boards that such requests will not be denied.

Patrick Groff
Professor of Education Emeritus
San Diego State University

Patrick Groff's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Teacher unions share guilt for the fact that school districts' most productive teachers are not assigned to public schools that enroll a high percent of students from low-income families. During school board-teacher union meetings to settle the details of working conditions for teachers the two groups agree that high quality teachers' requests for transfer out of the above kind of schools must be honored.

Patrick Groff
Professor of Education Emeritus
San Diego State University

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