Education Opinion

Are Teacher Unions Bad for Students?

By Anthony Cody — January 28, 2010 5 min read
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My blog post last week (What will it take for Teachers to be Heard”) suggested that we ought to work with our unions to advance the cause of educational reform. This comment from edudaddy took issue with my view:

Anthony, you write, "I would hope the leadership would go back to basics -- to the members they represent. And I hope the membership does the same thing -- go back to the organizations we created to defend us and advance our cause and that of our students." But can you really cite a single case where any of our unions came to the rescue of just one of our students? If you can, then I will cite hundreds of cases where our unions, instead, came to the defense of a teacher who was the perpetrator of a crime against a student. My job will be easy, a quick Google search of current educational news.
What if students did have a union to protect them, however? Can you imagine the impact on teachers and schools if these students now had legal resources to demand respect for their rights to learn? Their only nemesis would be the teachers' unions. After all, the interests of students and teachers (in this current system) are at 0dds with each other. Imagine a student going to his/her union and demanding the removal of a poor-performing teacher...or with an abusive teacher, or a drug using teacher, or a flat-out stupid and unqualified teacher? Would any of our unions support that student--even if ultimately to do so would be in the best interest of our entire profession? It's not about the kids. SPJ is right.

My response is too long for the comments section, so I am posting it here:

First of all, I think a union for students is a fantastic idea, and one that I would wholeheartedly support. I agree with you that student interests are not identical with the interests of teachers, and that students deserve to have their interests represented more powerfully than they currently are in our system.

I think, however, the interests of teachers and students are more closely aligned than you suggest. I believe the vast majority of teachers entered the profession because we care deeply about our students, and I think our unions often act in the interests of both teachers and students. For example, teacher unions have been in the forefront of efforts to reduce class size and create better conditions for learning, because that is what teachers want more than anything -- to be able to teach.

But the issue of the legal defense that teacher unions provide for teachers accused of wrongdoing -- this is really an unfair charge. The unions, as the collective bargaining agent for the teachers, are required to negotiate a contract that includes due process for teachers accused of misconduct. Then the unions are legally REQUIRED to represent any teacher so accused, and ensure that the process is followed. Those processes do NOT prevent teachers from being terminated.

I worked as a Peer Assistance and Review coach full time for two years in Oakland, so I was on the front lines of the evaluation process. My district, like many in California, has several ways to deal with teachers who the administration believes are not serving children well. First of all, someone who commits blatant misconduct - and this is all spelled out in detail in the Education Code -- can be immediately suspended pending an investigation and hearing. But if someone is just plain incompetent, there is an evaluation process that allows the administrator to identify the areas in which the teacher needs to improve, and a PAR coach to work with them to meet these goals.

The union’s job in this case is to make sure that the teacher in question gets a fair process. The union checks to be sure the teacher was actually observed by administrators the way they were supposed to be, and that the evaluation was done properly. As a PAR coach I was in the referred teacher’s classroom at once or twice a week to observe and take notes on what I saw, and to offer support, resources and guidance to the teacher.

There was a range of responses I got, from complete indifference to an openness to my suggestions and a willingness to embrace change. In the Spring, I prepared a detailed report that described evidence I saw about where the teachers’ practice was in relationship to the areas their administrator had identified as needing improvement. This report was submitted to a review board composed of four teachers and three administrators. That board would then make a recommendation as to whether the teacher had improved so as to successfully exit the program, or whether they should be exited unsuccessfully, in which case they could be terminated according to the contract.

In many cases my report was not flattering. In many cases the teachers were, in fact terminated, or forced to retire. As a union member I felt it was my responsibility to make sure that the teacher was evaluated fairly and given a chance to improve. But my top priority as a PAR coach was to make sure those students got the education they deserved.

In one case a teacher I had observed for the better part of a year was terminated and appealed his termination through the union. I was summoned to a deposition to testify. The union lawyer asked me questions, and I answered, describing the rather poor instruction I had observed in the six months I had been in this teacher’s classroom. I heard later that following this, the union had counseled this teacher to retire, which he did.

But the union is there to prevent unfair terminations as well. We saw several good teachers who had run afoul of willful principals, and received poor evaluations as a consequence. In this case, we would also observe and document their instruction, but the outcome would be different. The whole Peer Assistance and Review process provided a set of checks and balances to the evaluation process, giving teachers a chance to improve if they were in fact faltering, and allowing an external audit of the evaluations done by administrators.

Unions are absolutely required to provide legal representation to members accused of misconduct, and that is fine with me. Just as the public defender should not be blamed for crimes, our unions should not be blamed because they make sure due process is followed.

But I think our unions would do well to be more outspoken advocates for educational reform - to be clear advocates for changes in schools that go beyond wages and benefits. As I said at the start, the most important changes teachers want are completely aligned with the interests of our students. We want:

  • Smaller class sizes so we can give more attention to individual students.
  • More time for collaboration and professional development, so we can build strong learning teams at our schools to better serve our students.
  • More meaningful evaluations, connected to solid opportunities for professional growth, so teachers are given useful feedback and resources to improve and grow.
  • Solid systems to respond to issues of discipline so that we can build effective learning environments in our classrooms.
  • Better systems of accountability, including more meaningful assessments, and less pressure to constantly raise scores on multiple choice tests.
  • More opportunities for teacher leadership, so our expertise on each of the issues above can be drawn upon.

All these things are beneficial to students, and all of them should be high on our agenda as members of our unions.

Even the bread and butter issues of salary and benefits are related to the interests of our students. Our students deserve teachers who choose teaching as a career, and invest their hearts and souls into becoming the best teachers they can be. This is tough to do if we must work second jobs to pay the bills, or cannot afford to send our own children to college.

And my colleague Renee Moore in Mississippi has pointed out that teacher unions in the South are very weak, due to the right-to-work laws there. If unions are the source of such great corruption, how is it that schools there do not seem to have vanquished incompetence? The answers are a great deal more complicated. If we are going to succeed, we are going to all need to work together for the interests of our students -- and hopefully help students gain power to act for their own interests as well.

What do you think? Do our unions help or harm our students’ interests? How can we help students gain a stronger voice?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.