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Published in Print: November 1, 1998, as Perspective: Turning Point

Perspective: Turning Point

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A number of reform-minded urban superintendents would not hesitate to answer this question--though probably not publicly. They are angry and frustrated that almost everything they try to do runs smack into the union contract. Give individual schools more control over hiring and firing, reallocate resources, change the way time is used in schools, overhaul professional development, toughen teacher evaluation, streamline the process for removing incompetent teachers--all of these, they say, and almost every other move they try to make, are proscribed by the union contract.

Have the teachers' unions been part of the solution or part of the problem in the seemingly endless struggle to improve the nation's public schools? The answer, of course, depends on whom you ask. The question was a topic of discussion at an unusual meeting of researchers at Harvard University recently. Though the scholars offered their opinions, they generally hesitated to tackle the question head-on, noting the scant research on the impact of teachers' unions.

These contracts are often book-length, with file cabinets of supporting documents that cover virtually everything in a school district. Although district officials negotiate these deals, the fact that the contracts are known as "union contracts" reflects the reality that school boards and superintendents exert relatively little influence on the agreements. Traditionally, they are outmaneuvered by skillful union bargainers--which is what unions are supposed to do for their members.

The problem is that public education shouldn't be primarily about the interests of administrators and unions; it should be about educating children. In the battle over turf and perks and benefits, the welfare of the kids often gets lost. And as unions have been portrayed as selfish, uncaring, demanding, and uncompromising, the public's view of them has grown more negative--something national union leaders have become sensitive to.

That may be partly the reason that, about the time of the Harvard meeting, leaders from the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers met with educators, policymakers, and community leaders in Washington, D.C., to discuss how teachers' unions can improve the quality of teaching. It's an issue "fraught with danger," AFT President Sandra Feldman said in an address. She noted that dues-paying members don't always see the connection between the union and the quality of their colleagues. "What we have to do is help them see that connection," she said.

Bob Chase, president of the NEA, cited a poll of his members that showed some progress on that front. Almost 70 percent of the NEA's teachers want the national group and its affiliates to include issues of quality education in their bargaining. The remaining 30 percent want the union to stick to bread-and-butter issues.

Chase and Feldman understand that public schools cannot be better than the teachers in the classrooms. They know that improving teacher performance is clearly the best way to improve student performance. And as good leaders should, they are trying to move their organizations in the right direction, for their own good and for the good of public education.

That won't be easy. Indeed, it may not be possible without significant turnover in local union leadership. Even though 70 percent of the classroom teachers may agree with Chase and Feldman, union leaders at the state and particularly at the district level are grumbling. They've been the ones in the trenches--negotiating salaries and benefits, prowling legislative halls lobbying for labor's interests, rallying members to union causes. They hold positions of influence and have a personal interest in maintaining the status quo. In some cases, they have played their roles so well for so long that they may be incapable of changing.

Julia Koppich, author of a recent book on teachers' unions, hailed the Washington meeting as a "turning point." As an old Irish friend of mine would say, "From her lips to God's ears." Imagine how much we could accomplish if the two unions could channel the support of their 3.4 million members into real school improvement.

--Ronald A. Wolk

Vol. 10, Issue 3, Page 6

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