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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.

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

Paul M Bowers's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Couple of comments:

1. As a business owner and a parent, I do not consider a cautious eye towards unions as "unenlightened"- it's just common sense. Unenlightened would be blind acceptance of either position.

2. I have seen management bend over backward in it's "unenlightened" pursuit of a mutually beneficial relationship with a union-protected substandard teacher. Despite the efforts of management, the "unenlightened" union continues to protect the teacher, not the "grass".

3. I consider my child and his classmates to be worthy of greater consideration than being considered as the "grass" over which the management and unions fight. Charming as the allegory is, I think it shows the truth many unions and administrators hold- the children are the lowest part of the equation.

Please, spare us any more articles like this...


Royce Ann Wiggins's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

So, who is to blame for the failures of the public school system? I view the blame game as unproductive and a hinderance to progress. Rather, we should be working together to achieve a common goal: high achievement for all students. When adults are fighting, the students lose the fight.

Charles Merriam's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Needless rancor is the basis of many an impasse, I agree.

Of the common complaints I hear from teachers, some are against their own unions. These complaints center around inequitable protection for new teachers, inadequate pay during the first few years of a teacher's career, failing to fight for the quality certification training, and a lack of support for teacher's incidental (school supply) costs.

I expect I hear the last one because our charity, TrueGift Donations, gives away free school supplies to these teachers. Still, from the outside, teacher's unions do a good job at representing entrenched teachers and poor job at representing new teachers.

This is only anecdotal evidence.

Bill Davis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thoughtful article and more accurate than I would have expected. being one of those union leaders who has urged more interest based discussion and more cooperation, I can assure you that the children are the ones who benefit most when unions and administrators start working together towards common goals. Unfortunately, Paul Bowers is fairly typical of the kind of critics I often come up against. He doesn't like what he reads so he doesn't want to see any more of it. Come on Bowers, opening your mind is a good way to show that you actually have one.

Anne Hendrickson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I grew up in a family, in which my father, mother and sister are life-long members of the UAW. I have been active in the Communication Workers of America and I am, currently, an NEA member. I find anti-union statements to be very offensive. Many people are totally unaware of labor history. Many schools do not teach students about this important part of our national heritage. Unions brought many folks the 8 hour day, weekends, holidays, liveable wages, medical insurance, etc. However, let's get real! Teachers work more than 8 hours a day and, usually, on weekends in order to plan and to correct student work. Has anyone ever read a union newsletter? The NEA newsletter is filled with ideas and examples, so that teachers can be effective. The newsletter from the NEA and Edutopia are my two favorite places to find out about how to better serve my students.

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