Published Online: April 9, 1997

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The 'New Teacher Unions'

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The stuff that fairy tales are made of?

Once upon a time there was a feared giant who lived in the Forest of Education. The adults in the neighboring towns were terribly concerned about how their children would get through the forest, and they were constantly trying to build new paths that would allow the youngsters to see the forest's beauty, learn life lessons from its trees, and avoid its dangers.

The adults spent many years writing important-sounding papers about how to better design the paths, and spent many days arguing the merits of each new idea with one other. All the while, the adults ignored the giant even though they maintained it controlled the forest. Some adults thought the giant was lazy and stupid. Others thought it was greedy and built illegal tollgates in the forest. Some thought the giant was secretly a crusader, or at least it wrote acerbic and clever newspaper columns. But everyone ignored the giant when it came to building better paths through the forest.

Then one day, someone said, "Maybe we should ask the giant to help us. After all, it knows the forest better than anyone." And though working with the giant seemed a scary proposition at first, it turned out to be the key to helping the children make their way safely and knowledgeably through the woods.

As with all fairy tales, there is a moral to this story. The nation's teacher unions, the largest organized-labor group in the United States, have a significant role to play in improving the quality of education in the nation. Criticized as the "black hole" of school reform, teachers' unions can and must be a major force in making teaching a true profession. To do so, the unions must begin to move beyond their successes at negotiating salary, benefits, and other labor-related issues to organize the teaching part of teaching. The unions must be in the business of making tough decisions about how best (and what) to teach students. They must not be the blockade around school reform but its strongest crusaders.

National Education Association President Bob Chase underscored this new role for teachers' unions in a recent mea culpa speech that called on the NEA to move beyond old-style labor-management antagonism. ("Seeking 'Reinvention' of NEA, Chase Calls for Shift in Priorities," Feb. 12, 1997.) "These industrial-style adversarial tactics simply are not suited to the next stage of school reform," Mr. Chase said.

The reason the teaching profession and unions must change is the same reason that schooling is in the midst of its own transformation. We have entered an era in which the strategic use and manipulation of information is joining land, labor, and capital as a source of wealth and power. Like scientists, scholars, health-care professionals, analysts, and those who work in computer sciences and other high-tech fields, teachers are at the forefront of this knowledge frontier. Teaching is not static. Each day, teachers must rethink, react to, and adapt, even as they develop new knowledge and transfer skills and knowledge to the next generation.

In this knowledge society, where information changes rapidly, facts are still important. But what matters most is teaching for understanding (equipping students with the ability to associate patterns of facts with one another). Politically vexing as it is, establishing high national standards is not the hard part of education reform. The hard work is getting more than the top 15 percent of students to achieve those standards. This is the gritty day-to-day work of teachers and students in classrooms. No amount of political exhortation will make it happen, but engaging teachers in building better schools will.

Schools in this knowledge society need to be based on the quality of student achievement, not procedures. They need to be highly adaptive in how teaching actually gets done. Today's schools, with their regimented schedules, rigid rules, and bureaucratic procedures place straitjackets around teachers, who need time and opportunities to review and challenge each other's work, get to know students, take on new leadership roles, and grow as professionals.

Unions need to back up standards with adequate training, professional development, and strong peer-review systems.

We call for a new model for teaching that is in line with the emerging models of school organization most conducive to student success. We need to change policies about how teachers are hired, giving authority for staffing and evaluation to individual schools, not central offices. We need to make teacher benefits portable so that a real labor market exists for teachers. Like other knowledge workers, teachers should be allowed to sell their services on a competitive basis and should be responsible about the quality of teaching in their schools and educational practices in their district.

Sound like just another fairy tale? Only 35 years ago, the establishment of powerful unions to check abuses and advocate for fair salaries and benefits was equally far-fetched. Teachers' unions, through the collective bargaining process and through their political influence, have organized the first half of teaching. Now they can finish the job they started by:

  • Organizing around quality. The nation is now engaged in a furious debate about what student learning standards should be, how we should measure them, and what kinds of rewards and consequences should be attached to meeting or failing to meet them. But, by and large, teachers have been absent from this debate. Unions need to begin to advocate and enforce standards for learning and standards for teaching. And unions need to back up these standards with adequate training, professional development, and strong peer-review systems. In the few places that have adopted it, peer review is probably the most powerful demonstration of teacher knowledge of practice and commitment to high professional standards. Peer review requires teachers to define good teaching, to develop ways to measure and support it, and to engage in means to ensure that where quality standards are not met, those teachers are no longer in classrooms.
  • Organizing around individual schools by changing the nature and scope of labor agreements. Unions and districts should slim the district contract and create individual school compacts that would move most decisions (about resources, work rules, and decisionmaking procedures) to individual schools. Undergirding this compact would be the questions "What is in the best interests of the institution?" and "What policies, procedures, and strategies will best promote enhanced student achievement?" Basic components of this contract would include a statement of the school's educational philosophy and student-performance targets (keyed to districtwide goals), resource allocation mechanisms, staff-hiring procedures, means for achieving salary decisions, class- and course-organization procedures, and statements about quality assurance and community support.
  • Organizing the teacher labor market by modeling unions on craft forms more than industrial ones. Unions should create electronic "hiring halls" that allow teachers to switch jobs more easily, make pensions and benefits portable, create an incentive system so that teachers would have both psychological and financial ownership of their jobs, and shape a career ladder that allows people to enter education as classroom aides and advance, through education and experience, to teaching.

In this proposed new system, much like the powerful giant in the forest, the union becomes a partner with the district in educational improvement and assumes a large measure of responsibility for ensuring the quality of the teaching force. Teachers will have to take on responsibilities often left to school districts about removing peers who don't measure up and providing vigilant oversight of rigorous standards and educational practices. States will have to make a dramatic shift, reconsidering statutes that establish the school district as the entity that hires teachers and provides quality assurance. And since teachers would be given more autonomy and would be charged with the goal of raising the quality of the school, the rights to their intellectual property (the software, curriculum, books, or teaching methods they created) would also need to be protected.

We do not underestimate the challenge we have set before policymakers, union leaders, and educators. Since Albert Shanker's 1985 speech on professionalism and unionism, more than a score of American Federation of Teachers and NEA locals have attempted some of the reforms we advocate. They have found it bloody hard work.

We understand that the system of professional unionism we outline represents a radical departure from established norms. But we also do not underestimate the power of unions to organize their members in a new battle. Should unions embrace fundamental institutional reform, we believe they can succeed not only in preserving their own organizational integrity but, more important, they can be instrumental in bringing into being a revitalized system of public schooling in America.


Julia E. Koppich is the managing partner of Management Analysis & Planning Associates in San Francisco, and Charles Taylor Kerchner and Joseph G. Weeres are professors of education at the Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, Calif. They are the authors of United Mind Workers: Unions and Teaching in the Knowledge Society (Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997), on which this essay is based.

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