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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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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The unions are not the problem. They are the answer, at least one of the answers to the biggest problem that the schools have which is DISRESPECT OF TEACHERS BY THE ADMINISTRATION. If a teacher likes her job she wants to come to work every day and do well.

I was disposed of after school started this year in a system that had no contracts. I was disposed of for political reasons. A supervisor wanted a friend in my position, a teacher who could not pass the PRAXIS but who had taught the class for a few previous years. I was highly qualified and experienced in the position and had no experience and no desire to teach the kind of class that she had been switched to in order to save her employment. They told the superintendent that I was a "poor fit" for the school. Right. I knew what I was doing and did it well. By the way this is a low achieving system that is experiencing several schools being taken over by the state.

There were racial and disability issues. I suspect there was also an issue with the fact that I had an advanced degree and multiple years of experience. IN other words I was not a cheap teacher. I was one of the most expensive of teachers in a cheap state. I am undoubtedly one of the best in my field, but ahta does not matter in a lousy system.

Unions are necessary. So is local control. But the problem with unions is that sometimes they tend to be racist and have politicians at their head. This needs to be worked on. Maybe a well dressed public speaker needs to be the head person and have several workhorses underneath.

The greatest thing that the unions could do would be to implement a plan where the teachers evaluated the principals and other administrators anonymously and principals were graded not only on student achievement but on attrition rates of teachers.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Unions are not the problem, administrator "wanna-be"s are the problem, like "Educator", above. National Board Certified Teachers are wonderful additions to the faculty--they make their administrators look good by playing by the rules. I teach with a woman whose sole ambition is to get out of the classroom and into administration. She constantly engages in backstabbing to make herself look better, and her focus is on the Holy Grail of upward bound administrative types, the Standardized Test Score. It shows in the kids that come from her classroom into mine--they are incurious and seek only correct answers, largely due to the standardized test questions that she shoves into their minds in order to get great scores. When confronted with the Socratic method and the expectation that they will think for themselves, they show the classic "bunny in the headlights" expression and sink into their desks. She gets wonderful performance reviews from the principal and the superintendent! She constantly complains about where her union dues are going, questions the need for a union, and actively undermines the attempts of our union to build solidarity prior to negotiations. Such people are poison to true achievement by students, they are killing our schools.

I'd like to see Edutopia do a follow-up with John Taylor Gatto (interesting former teacher and hero to people who seek to truly teach and inspire kids) rather than continuing with the "evil teacher union" line of commentary! I continue to lose hope that we'll ever get beyond our obsession with scores and focus on helping kids to reach their potential.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What happened to your district is happening all over Texas. They pay lip service to collaboration but the administrators call the shots and you better believe they are so disconnected from the classroom they make many harmful decisions. I believe teachers in the classroom should be paid more than administrators. After all, we are the ones working with the children. And, our input should be valued and heeded. I had an excellent principal who brought all the teachers and we had to come to concensus when major decisions had to be made. It was great to work in that school. Now I work in a dictatorship. It is not good.

Jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I do not believe that unions are the answer. I am a student currently in college and have found numerous teachers that do not do their job, which if you don't know is teaching. They express more often their opinions than facts, discriminate against all those younger then themselves, which happens to be almost the entire student body. Some even say sexist, racist remarks in jest and are never reprimanded because the simply have a "sense of humor." They go off on tangents that do not relate to the material and do not challenge the student because "some might not even get this."

I am amazed that so many teachers are still allowed to teach, never changing their lesson plans in the over twenty years of teaching there, still showing films from the seventies and eighties, these are not history courses.

Unions are a good concept, as was communism, but it doesn't work. There is greed in humanity and thus these utopian concepts don't work. Those who get tenure don't normally continue to challenge themselves or there teachers. I noticed this in elementary school, high school, and even in my higher education in which I am paying for. There are some terrrifc teacher out there, don't get me wrong. In contrary there are terrible teacher who are only doing it for the benefits and the power trips. Take it from a student who pays for her education. It's not working, and it's not "all the administrators fault." it's a combination of multiple things, but surely unions are not helping them.

Andrea's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree with you. It's scary huh? And they wonder why we can't compete with other countries such as China. Our teachers don't have the incentive to do better and to try new things. They just keep teaching as they have for the past 20 years and your right they teach more opinions than acutal facts. I feel like some of my classes are a complete joke in college because im paying for opinions.

Two of my friends say they support the Unions just because they are going to be a teacher and a nurse. The sad part is they don't even educate themselves, they just say I'm going to be in the Union so I support them. This just shows that there is a major problem among young people because barely anyone educates themselves to the pros or cons and they don't even know what the Union really does besides give them good benefits. It scares me that young people are not educating themselves about this issue and let alone any issue that involves politics. WE NEED A CHANGE!!!

lisa Barone's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree with you. I work in the public schools with kids from 3 to 21 as a therapist. The things that I have seen in the past 13 years are appalling! teachers who spend their time on the computer instead of teaching, teachers who spoon feed their opinions and agendas instead of teaching, teachers who are down right abusive. But, since I am not in the union I can complain all I want and it is me who will loose my job. Over the years I have worked in many school districts (depending on the numbers is where I am placed by my contract company). It is the same thing in every district. I have seen teachers take kids out for a walk in the snow with only their socks on because the kid refused to put on his shoes! I have seen teachers pull hair and pinch students, I have seen teachers berate kids in front of their peers etc. etc. I get so angry when I see these things and have gone to my supervisor only to be told to keep my mouth shut. I see one teacher on the phone making personal calls all day instead of teaching, others on cell phones and eating. I makes me see red when I hear of how bad teachers have it, how under paid they are etc etc. Oprah gives them cars and gifts....pleezzze!!
The average teacher works 180 days (half a year), has better benefits than any other profession I know, Has a retirement plan second only to congress, has 13 paid sick days, 5 personal days and is guaranteeded their job no matter how they perform!! What a deal! Who else has it this good?!! Get rid of the teacher unions!

JPaul's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have worked for years with unions and I will tell you that they are more than willing to move bad teachers off the scene, they just expect you to do it right. You must bring the union into the conversation as soon as a concern surfaces, you need to keep them in the loop while making the remediation plan, monitoring the plan and, when necessary, issuing the nonrenewal. What torks union reps is hot-shot administrators with some other ax to grind than performance in the classroom, who don't play between and lines and follow due process. Is this fun, no! But it is critical to counsel poor performers into other professions.

Paul DeLong's picture

The problem is not whether teachers' unions should exist or not; as usual that looks at the problem upside down. The problem is: how do we, as a society, express the value of the inculcation of the transmissable currency of knowledge and culture to our young?

You need only look at the average training, pay and compensation of pre-school and child care workers to answer that question (and granted this is starting to change, but the tradition of low value of this vocation runs very deep).

Only by the "unhappy accident" of the 20th century labor movement, a ligitiginous society, and the democratic principle (?) of universal compulsory education has it turned out differently for those educated, and those who educate children, after the age of 5 years (and who decided on that magic birthday???).
Ironically, of course, much, if not most, that determines life long learning outcomes occurs: before the age of 5. God help us all.

Paul DeLong's picture

(Response to Lisa's Barone's Call for the Right Thing.)[quote]"The average teacher works 180 days (half a year), has better benefits than any other profession I know, Has a retirement plan second only to congress, has 13 paid sick days, 5 personal days and is guaranteeded their job no matter how they perform!! What a deal! Who else has it this good?!! Get rid of the teacher unions!"[/quote]

Hi Lisa. I sense your outrage. I hear a call for righteousness for children in your voice, and that's good. It makes me wonder what state/locale you are in. I have very good benefits, but don't have 18 "discretional days." Every teacher I know is working hard nights and at least part of weekends. We all live in fear of evaluations that might threaten our career if we aren't making it look like 100% of children will reach a high level of proficiency by 2015.

As I'm sure you know from your profession as a therapist, cognitive ability is often eclipsed by very formidable socio-economic and psychological issues for some learners. At the secondary level, teachers carry a student load of 160 plus students, to whom the system would like us to be mentors and social workers for, as well as teachers. We live in guilt that we can't do the impossible for every child, and yet, climb that Sisyphus Mountain, that is not a myth, every morning.

I spend part of my summers writing curriculum, and other bits and pieces attending workshops, sometimes a full day for a week. That retirement of congress you speak of? I entered teaching later in life, and will have my social security benefits penalize my truncated teachers retirement, or visa versa, by Federal Law, which congress has not seen fit to change.

You are correct, there have been some who have abused the system for decades. But teacher quality is improving, especially the younger in the ranks. Constantly improving professional development, and NCLB inspired administrative oversight is also stepping up things sharply for us older folk. It is a problem that it is hard to see how immensely difficult teaching actually is.

Given these difficulties, it is now sifting out those who are opportunists. Because the main opportunity is for challenge, imperfection, and in the knowledge that we will not always reach every child. This is a built in formal and important failure from the get go. Teaching is a career of idealism, I think, where we simply do not give up against this terrible certainty. As such, teachers deserve space for professional inquiry, growth, restoration-- and creating a new curriculum, and a new learning environment--each and every year. Because most of us know that we must continue to get better. Only in such a way can we nourish and sustain our idealism against such odds.

I'm sorry you feel so strongly about us, but I really hope you find someone in your world who is a teacher inspiring students, and that doesn't fit into the broad brush painting you have drawn.

Best wishes! Let me know what you think!

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