Published Online: March 7, 2011

Teacher Unions Are Dead! Long Live Teacher Unions!

The American media has unloaded on teacher unions this year like never before. Two powerful documentary films — Waiting for Superman and The Lottery — have portrayed unions as shameless defenders of a status quo that sacrifices the needs of poor children to the protection of incompetent adults. The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and Time have published cover stories that make compelling cases for an end to teacher policies — seniority in staffing, tenure, token evaluations —long defended by the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and their affiliates.

Former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee was a hero to the advocates of urban education reform (and an antihero to many public educators) largely on the basis of a tough contract she negotiated that calls for tough teacher evaluations and an end to tenure.

But last summer, as school reformers were celebrating the D.C. contract, the AFT and the local Washington Teachers Union, its former leaders imprisoned on corruption charges, quietly spent, by some accounts, $1 million to defeat Rhee’s political patron, Mayor Adrian Fenty, in the September primary. The winner was Vincent Gray, a more mainstream, prolabor Democrat.

Are the nation’s teacher unions on the defensive and in decline? Or are they so strong, so deeply engrained in the fabric of American public education that their tremendous influence is likely to endure? The answer to both questions, it seems, is yes.

Frustrated with Unions

The nation is clearly frustrated in the face of mounting evidence that the unions’ determined defense of seniority and other industrial- era labor practices is slowing efforts to teach more students to higher standards. Pressure will build to evaluate teachers more rigorously and to take other steps to reform teaching. But the unions aren’t going to go away. With more than 3 million members and vast political networks, they’ve become the most powerful force in American education. That’s not going to change.

The need to buttress public school teaching is nothing new. In his classic 1932 study of teacher status, The Sociology of Teaching, Willard Waller noted that “the teacher in our culture has always been among the persons of little importance.” Teaching, he said, was “a refuge for unsalable men and unmarriageable women.” A presidential commission urged President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955 to press for a reform that Rhee won in her new teacher contract: “Every effort must be made to devise ways to reward teachers according to their ability.”

But such calls for reform were no match for the rising influence of teacher unions. The first collective bargaining contract was signed in New York City in the early 1960s, and by the late 1970s, the unions had become such a powerful force in national politics that newly elected President Jimmy Carter rewarded them by creating the U.S. Department of Education, something they’d long sought. And the unions have been even more influential at the state and local levels.

Ripe for Change

But two things are different today. There are fewer people entering the teaching profession with blue-collar backgrounds who would be inclined to old-style unionism. And Democrats, traditional teacher union allies, are increasingly the unions’ most vocal detractors.

Teaching has long attracted many first-in-family college graduates, many graduating from programs at less rigorous state universities. This lack of status contrasts with the high status of teachers in such countries as Finland, South Korea, and Singapore, countries with strong education systems that attract the best and brightest college graduates.

But a new breed of teacher is entering U.S. classrooms, at least in a number of urban centers. Teach for America, launched two decades ago with 500 graduates of selective colleges and universities, is now a $190 million-a-year enterprise with 8,200 teachers in three dozen sites. There are 20,000 TFA alumni, and many of them, such as Rhee, are moving into influential positions in public education and public policy. The New Teacher Project, the nonprofit that Rhee founded, is recruiting thousands of talented nontraditional teachers to urban school systems. And public charter schools are attracting many more graduates of top colleges, who in the past had eschewed teaching. Teaching increasingly has cachet among a segment of society that doesn’t have a history of unionism.

The political dynamic of teacher unionism is also changing. The grip unions have had on Democratic politicians is weakening.

Bill Clinton championed charter schools during his presidency. Al Gore and John Kerry called for reforms in teacher policy during their unsuccessful presidential campaigns. But the Obama Administration has taken teacher reform— and the unions — head-on. The high profile Race to the Top grant competition has made stronger teacher evaluation and linking teacher compensation to student achievement a prerequisite. Firing school staffs is an option for states under the Department of Education’s school-improvement grant program, and it very publicly supported firing teachers in a failing Rhode Island school last year. And it recently awarded TFA a $50 million grant under the Education Department’s I3 innovation fund, one of the largest awards in the competition.

The Administration even sought to save Rhee’s job in D.C. The day after the D.C. primary (because the vast majority of D.C. voters are Democrats, the mayor is effectively selected in the primary), Rhee called Gray’s victory “devastating” for the city’s students, more or less guaranteeing that Gray would fire her. But Secretary of Education Arne Duncan publicly praised Rhee and reached out to Gray in the hope of protecting her position. (Rhee resigned from the D.C. schools on Oct. 31.)

A generation of younger, reformist Democratic big-city mayors, such as Cory Booker of Newark and Kevin Johnson of Sacramento (who recently married Rhee), have pressed hard for teacher reforms, as have such urban school superintendents as New York’s Joel Klein. They’ve even created a lobby called Democrats for School Reform.

Reform-minded Democrats are also getting lots of financial backing from major foundations. Last year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation committed $335 million to the school systems in Tampa, Pittsburgh, and Memphis and to charter school networks in Los Angeles in order to help them rethink teacher tenure and introduce tougher teacher evaluation systems.

Not All Reforms Will Win

The reformers aren’t going to win every battle. A carefully constructed Vanderbilt University study examined the effect of financial incentives for teachers in Nashville, Tenn., and learned that the opportunity to earn up to $15,000 in salary bonuses by raising students’ test scores failed to raise student achievement.

And the new generation of college graduates entering teaching in the nation’s major cities still appreciates some union presence. They like having unions respond to the petty injustices that school districts continue to impose on teachers. But they object to unions demanding that teachers’ jobs be protected on the basis of seniority, and they want evaluations that remove lousy teachers. On these larger issues of evaluation, staffing, and tenure, teacher unions are fighting rear-guard actions. They have lost the public’s support.

Unions would be smart to embrace those reforms. Doing so could only raise their status and make teaching more attractive. The late Al Shanker, who was for years AFT president, made the same argument two and a half decades ago, after the publication of A Nation at Risk.

“Unless we go beyond collective bargaining to teacher professionalism, we will fail,” Shanker told his members. “Who says a union has to be adversarial,” he argued not long afterward. “Why can’t it be an organization that has the wherewithal to help in the professional development of its members, to provide them training and collegiality, while at the same time giving them a sense of security and the collective strength in the legislature to get funding.”

Shanker’s calls for a new, more professional model of teacher unionism fell on mostly deaf ears in the AFT, and the organization continued to practice the industrial-style unionism that valued collectivism over competence. As Shanker predicted, that course has caused teacher unions to be increasingly alienated in public education and beyond.

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