In the midst of today’s deep recession when unions would be expected to be indivisible, a nascent movement is calling that view into question. Since it began in March in New York City, Educators 4 Excellence has signed up 700 teachers who believe that the United Federation of Teachers does not represent its priorities in educating students in the nation’s largest school district. Although the new group’s membership pales in comparison with the 80,000 teachers in the UFT, it is a counterintuitive development that warrants closer examination.
The immediate cause of the formation of Educators 4 Excellence is the existence of seniority rules that force teachers to be laid off on a last- in, first- out basis. This policy means that many highly effective and talented teachers who were hired in recent years are the first to be cashiered. That is exactly what has happened in New York City and in other school districts as well because of budget shortfalls.
But there are underlying causes that play an equally powerful role. Sydney Morris and Evan Stone, the two teachers behind the new group, also believe that tenure should be harder to get and that performance pay should be given to teachers whose students make progress in their classes (“Teachers Break Union Ranks,” Sept. 13, 2010). Although many of these goals echo those of behemoth philanthropies and powerful business organizations, Morris and Stone are not alone. There appears to be a change in thinking about the teaching profession within the ranks of teachers themselves.
Susan Moore Johnson in a Commentary in Education Week explained how veteran and new teachers divided on the issues. As she wrote: " ... many of these new teachers don’t expect to be in the classroom for a lifetime, planning instead to pursue several careers in sequence” (“Union Leaders and the Generational Divide,” March 9, 2010). As a result, the younger teachers are less likely to support their unions. What they don’t appreciate, however, is that so many of the conditions they work in and the protections they enjoy in their abbreviated teaching careers are the direct result of unions. It’s easy to forget that prior to strong unions, collective bargaining was what Albert Shanker called collective begging.
Which leads to the newly released “Waiting for Superman.” Although the producer Davis Guggenheim maintains the film is a documentary, in reality it is an editorial. It depicts teachers unions as the No. 1 menace to school reform because they protect incompetent teachers from being fired. Guggenheim is entitled to his opinion, of course, but he does a disservice by reducing the issue of execrable schools to the existence of teachers unions. The problem is far more complex.
It will be interesting to see if Educators 4 Excellence continues to make inroads, or if it is an aberration. Teachers unions are not saints by any means. I’ve not agreed with all their decisions. But as Richard Kahlenberg wrote: "... for those who see public education as an indispensable democratic institution, crucial to promoting economic mobility and social cohesion, a world without teacher unions would be grim” (“A World Without Teacher Unions?” Sept. 3, 2007). I couldn’t say it any better than that.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check 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.