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Teacher Unions Not an Obstacle to Reform, Analysis Finds

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A study commissioned by the U.S. Education Department has rebutted charges by Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and other critics that teachers' unions have been a major obstacle to reform.

The study, conducted by the RAND Corporation, concludes that the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have been committed to their role as "change agents.''

Though union affiliates have had the power to block new policies, the report says, the local units have been more likely to accommodate reforms than combat them.

The study also offers evidence to confirm the union contention that a strong contract will result in greater professionalism. It found that steps toward reform were more likely to be taken in districts where teachers' demands for enhanced working conditions were met.

Titled "Teacher Unions and Educational Reform,'' the $75,000 report was sponsored by RAND's Center for Policy Research in Education and partially funded by the Education Department's office for educational research and improvement.

'Taking Risks'

Albert Shanker, president of AFT, said the report effectively demonstrates that the units within his organization "are taking risks and are able to locally initiate education reform.''

He added, however, that the report notes "that these district-level, union-initiated reforms can only be successful in places where the union is strong enough to risk change.''

"That means that traditional bread-and-butter items--like clean, safe classrooms and high-quality teaching materials--have to be secure,'' the union leader concluded.

Mary Hatwood Futrell, the NEA president, said the report "ought to be required reading for every school-board member and education policymaker in the United States.''

"The real obstacles to education,'' she added, "are public officials who insist that teachers and their unions need not be involved in efforts to restructure America's schools.''

Chester E. Finn Jr., assistant secretary of education and head of the department that paid $35,000 toward the study, called the results "an inaccurate analysis.'' The study ignored "a lot of states where union efforts to block reforms have been staunch, steadfast, and mischievous,'' he said.

Mr. Finn said that he interpreted the researchers' results to say that, "if faced with the likelihood of defeat, unions will not block reform. But are they saying that is the only way?''

Last month, in his report, "American Education: Making It Work,'' Secretary Bennett charged that unions "almost without fail'' had "used political muscle to block reform.''

Said Not an 'Obstacle'

Based on a study of 151 collective-bargaining contracts and interviews with more than 600 policymakers and educators in six states, the report's authors, Lorraine M. McDonnell and Anthony Pascal, offer evidence to the contrary.

Citing cases in Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania, the report evaluates three aspects of the relationship between organized teachers and reform efforts:

  • The extent to which unions have attained more professional teaching conditions for their members through collective bargaining;
  • The political role of unions in reform movements; and
  • Unions' influence on the next generation of reform.

The researchers concluded that "in no state were teacher organizations a major obstacle to the enactment of reform legislation.''

The unions "modal response has been accommodation,'' the authors continued, "even in those instances where a specific reform initiative has run counter to their organizational interests or has been at odds with the professional judgment of their members.''

The researchers evaluated for the most part the unions' response to reforms recommended in A Nation at Risk, including proposals for merit-pay plans, career ladders, mentor- and master-teacher programs, teacher testing, and uniform accountability systems, among others.

That response, the researchers said, varied widely among national, state, and local teacher organizations, and included some opposition activity.

'Accommodation, Compromise'

But in most instances, the study says, "teacher unions decided that more could be gained from accommodation and compromise than from opposition and defense of the status quo.''

The authors also point out that unions have often been torn between their dual roles as organizations that must serve their members by securing benefits and as groups with broader political interests.

"The challenge for them,'' write the researchers, "is to obtain sufficient benefits to maintain their membership, but still operate effectively in a world of political bargaining and compromise.''

Many local affiliates have not acted as leaders for reform, the study says, because they "are caught between policymakers who offer additional benefits to teachers only in exchange for their creating a more performance-based profession, and rank-and-file teachers who expect the union to stick to bargaining for traditional material benefits allocated on the accustomed basis.''

National leaders of the unions, according to the study, believe that the risk of appearing unresponsive to political pressures for reform is greater than the dangers of provoking dissension within their organizations.

Mr. Finn said he agreed with Ms. McDonnell and Mr. Pascal that "unions do need to figure out some way to not be perceived as obstacles.''

"But that's faint praise,'' he added.

'A Critical Juncture'

The study focuses on selected examples of innovative collective-bargaining agreements in Rochester, N.Y., Dade County, Fla., and Jefferson County, Ky., where the local unions have chosen a strategy of active reform leadership.

In those areas, efforts to broaden the responsibilities of teaching have included such steps as giving classroom teachers a larger say in school policy and curriculum development, and creating a new category of master or lead teachers.

Authors of the RAND study conclude that such strategies are the beginning of a national trend, and that the NEA and AFT are approaching "a critical juncture in their history.''

"Teacher unions will need to move beyond their current strategies if they are to obtain the status and working conditions their members desire,'' the report notes. "The move toward greater professionalism and performance-based compensation presents such an opportunity.''

Copies of the report may be obtained, for $7.50 each, from: RAND Publications Department, 1700 Main St., P.O. Box 2138, Santa Monica, Calif. 90406-2138.

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