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Education Opinion

Response: ‘Dynamic Teacher Unions Are Key to Assuring a World-Class Education’

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 13, 2018 18 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What should teachers’ unions look like 20 years from now?

Part One‘s contributors were Brian Guerrero, Nikki Milevsky, David Fisher, John Borsos, Jennifer Thomas, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, and Shannan Brown. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Jennifer, Brian, Nikki and David on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Dr. Manuel Rustin, Jeffrey Garrett, Stephen Lazar, Dr. Debbie Silver, Katy Farber, John George share their commentaries.

Response From Dr. Manuel Rustin & Jeffrey Garrett

Jeffrey Garrett works in public education supporting school transformation in Los Angeles’ highest needs communities. He directs leadership development for principals, APs and teacher leaders for an education non profit. Jeffrey spent most of his career in urban education working in New York City, most recently as principal of a public secondary school serving grades 6-12 in the South Bronx. He began his career in K-12 education as a high school social studies teacher in East Harlem and the Bronx.

Dr. Manuel Rustin is currently in his fourteenth year of teaching high school social science in California. He currently teaches US History, Government, Economics, and a Hip Hop Studies course that he created. In 2012 Dr. Rustin was awarded the Milken Educator Award and was recognized by the Pasadena NAACP with the Ruby McKnight Educator Award. Dr. Rustin earned his doctorate in educational leadership at UCLA where his dissertation, Teacher-driven Change: Developing an Intervention for Street-life Oriented Youth through Action Research, received the UCLA Outstanding Ed.D. Dissertation Award.

They are hosts of the All of the Above is hosted by two passionate life-long educators who seek to bring issues in education to the forefront. Taking a deep, critical look at issues in American schooling today, they are joined each episode by guests who are making waves in education.

They have contributed both a video and written response to this week’s question:

This provocative question starts with a bold assumption, that teacher unions will exist 20 years from now. Historically this would have seemed laughable to even consider. Today it is arguably a 50-50 proposition.

First, it’s important to note that membership of public school teachers in unions has been on a steady decline in recent years already. To add to the problem, in 2016, the Supreme Court handed down a 4-4 split in the Friedrichs v. CTA case, which was one Scalia vote away from stripping the rights of unions to collect fees from their members.

In the new term, a full, Neil Gorsuch laden Court is taking up a new version of the same question in Janus v. AFSCME. It is entirely possible that within the year, the Supreme Court will effectively neuter public sector unions, removing their ability to collect a substantial portion of their revenue.

Should this happen, it would not spell the immediate end to teacher unions, but it would almost certainly begin their undoing. First, by dealing them a mortal wound in the pocket, surely to be followed by political abandonment, and eventually threats to their very existence.

We say this not to suggest that the future is hopeless for unions. We say this because a dramatic redefinition of the role of unions in the teaching profession is the needed next step to circumvent this existential threat.

If unions are to continue to exist and thrive in 20 years, then they must evolve and seize the leadership of our profession. They must be the driving force for professional standards of practice, professional ethics, work conditions that ensure excellence, and they must ascend to the political position many other professional associations occupy as the authority on the policies that shape their profession.

The priority that most unions have historically placed on issues like extensive due process for poor performance, preservation of seniority based tenure, maintenance of the flat hierarchy in the profession, ineffective systems for evaluation, and solely seniority based compensation, must change.

Those stances made sense historically, as teaching was long regarded as a second class profession with a disregarded female workforce, undeserving of the dignity of those professions requiring extensive schooling, unworthy of professional salaries, and not coincidentally, undeserving of the respect of the professions occupied largely by white men.

However, today, the profession has evolved, and as the political climate has grown increasingly hostile to unions, we must confront the reality that those traditional bargaining points are liabilities we can no longer afford, and are impediments to our evolution as a profession.

An association of educators must determine what good practice as educators, and as stewards of the public trust, looks like. This is the space unions must evolve to occupy. The central foci of our political advocacy and organizing must shift to ensuring that teacher preparation programs, schools, and districts change to structurally ensure that all teachers have the conditions needed to be effective practitioners.

This includes things like strong professional learning communities, appropriate time for common planning, a reasonable daily workload, skillful practice with assessment and data analysis, culturally relevant teaching practices, depth of understanding of literacy development, and effective coaching that supports professional growth and development.

If unions are to thrive 20 years from now, they must win back the public discourse about education. The forces of privatization claim that unions prevent there being an effective teacher in every classroom, that they prevent good schools from replacing failing schools, and that they suppress free expression of dissenting members.

Unions will have to evolve to effectively counter these claims and seize the mantle of being the primary institutions that drive accountability, that ensure every classroom has a strong, professional teacher, and that ensure schools and districts serve communities well.

Response From Stephen Lazar

Stephen Lazar is a National Board Certified Social Studies and English teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in NYC and is pursuing his Ph.D. in History at the CUNY Graduate Center:

In 20 years I will be able to retire. I wish I could write about how, by the end of my career, teachers unions should evolve to resemble something more like professional organizations. I wish I could envision a path where, in the most literal sense of the word, teacher unite together to determine the standards of our profession and support all teachers in reaching those standards. I wish I could write about unions becoming the home of respected pedagogical authority.

But I live and work in New York City, where every aspect of my job is politicized, particularly my salary and working conditions, and therefore I think in 20 years my union, the UFT, should look much like it does now: a fierce advocate for educators and our students to ensure that the city, state, and schools are doing their jobs while respecting the time and efforts of those of us working with students over decades, not just over election cycles. My union is, and needs to continue to be, a steady voice for educators and students to ensure that other interests do not exploit us.

Right around the time I was first elected as my school’s UFT Chapter Leader seven years ago, my school hired a new principal. He had taught history for twelve years, and is married to an English teacher. When we sat down for our first formal meeting as principal and chapter leader-elects, the first thing he said was, “Steve, you’re a great teacher. So why would you want to be Chapter Leader?”

I have heard this question too many times. It assumes the stereotype of the teachers union as home to the despondent, bitter, lazy, kid-haters who teach to get summers off. And I must admit, I was guilty of holding this prejudice to some degree when I became Chapter Leader. However, what I have discovered in my interactions with people within the UFT and at the various meetings I attend is exactly what is true of teachers I have met in my career: the overwhelming majority of people who step foot into a classroom want nothing more than to do right by their kids.

Now, there is certainly disagreement on how to do this. I know people who are great, award-winning teachers who have radically different pedagogical styles than I do. They might even do some things that I would counsel the teachers I mentor against doing. But different teaching styles are necessary, as they reach different students. I would never want every teacher in the world to be exactly like me.

The same is true when it comes to educational policy. I only agree with the educational policies of the UFT slightly more often than I agree with the policies of the NYC DOE. I wouldn’t trust either to run schools without the checks and balances the other provides. There are times when change is a good thing, and sometimes that needs to be enforced from on high. There are also times when these “new ideas” are ridiculous and need to be stopped. There is a need for meaningful accountability for teachers. There are also times when the system acts out of expediency rather than in the best interest of students, and the union needs to be there to speak up for our students.

The area that the union is almost always right about though, is insisting that teachers be treated as professionals. This means ensuring that we are compensated in such a way that allows one to teach, support a family, and retire. It would be nice to think that things will change in 20 years and these issues won’t be ones we fight over, but with the politicized notion of education in the cities, there will also be the chance of those willing to sacrifice the long term education of our students for their short term political gain. I will need my union to still be there for me, fighting against that.

Response From Dr. Debbie Silver

Dr. Debbie Silver is the author of the best selling books, Drumming to the Beat of Different Marchers: Finding the Rhythm for Differentiated Instruction and Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed . She co-wrote the new book, Deliberate Optimism: Reclaiming the Joy in Teaching. You can read more about her at www.debbiesilver.com and follow here on Twitter at @DrDebbieSilver:

Teacher Unions in 2037

As a former classroom teacher and member of a teacher union, I have experienced mixed feelings over the years about choices made by the “powers that be” at the national level. However, I have never doubted the importance of teachers standing together and speaking out for what is right for teachers and for students.

It is undeniable that teachers need a voice in determining policy decisions because of our experience, our expertise, and our assignment to the “front lines.” How teachers are treated largely influences how students are treated. We need associations that promote our profession and our students. In looking toward the future of our organizations these are three things I hope teacher unions will do.

  1. Provide strong leadership in securing teacher autonomy.

I can think of few issues that would improve teaching morale more than returning the teaching profession to the teachers. Future unions need to work to build back the national trust in educators and work to return more decision-making to the classroom. Pacing guides and scripted curriculums need to be replaced by empowering teachers to have the authority to act on behalf of the their students in the ways they see best.

Teachers need to have time during the day to work collaboratively to support one another. Teacher unions in the United States should emulate the unions of the world’s top education countries by insisting that teachers have more daily scheduled time free of student assignments and dedicated to professional growth and development. Like professionals in other fields, teacher need regular allocated time to meet with colleagues, act as mentors, observe one another in the classroom, plan together, create shared materials, and give each other feedback needed for growth. In this way, we can cultivate the profession from within and give teachers the authority and the responsibility to police their own ranks.

  1. Elevate the profession by altering tenure policies.

A running complaint in public opinion is the issue of teacher tenure. The perception is that once a teacher is granted tenure, they cannot be removed from the payroll no matter how poorly they perform. Widely publicized tenure abuses such as New York’s City’s infamous “rubber rooms” have angered tax payers and embarrassed competent employees.

Future teacher unions should champion the raising of requirements for admissions into colleges of education, increasing the standards for licensing, and providing internships and residencies for novices. Hopefully unions will fight to increase the number of teaching years before tenure is granted and demand greater care in scrutinizing teachers during their pre-tenure years.

Teacher unions should continue to be proactive in working with teachers experiencing difficulties. They need to maintain a policy of offering counseling and training for struggling teachers who do not meet the standards for professional teaching. Unions can unilaterally represent their members for purposes of due process without necessarily defending the actions of incompetent teachers.

  1. Embrace innovation by empowering local control.

In adding charter schools and alternative schools as affiliates, teacher unions will have to look at allowing more individuality in collective bargaining at the local level. Schools wanting to try an experimental model whereby teachers teach longer hours, use lunchtime to connect with students, or even teach on Saturdays should not have to sacrifice their affiliation with a teacher union to try a new approach to learning. The unions can monitor the data from experimental schools to ensure that teachers and students are treated equitably, but more flexibility should be given to teachers in negotiating their working conditions and curriculum needs.

Innovative technology along with personalized learning will probably change the landscape of traditional schools. Teacher unions need to position themselves as visionaries who are willing to study inventive approaches to improving the teaching/learning process. Action-based research can be facilitated among members through additional grants, training seminars, and opportunities to share. Teachers are among the most resourceful, ingenious people on the planet, and their unions should support them by elevating their local control and encouraging them to stand for what works best for their students, and the needs of their communities.

By 2037, I hope that teacher unions will be working collaboratively with support staff, administrators, school employees and every adult who plays a part in education. I’ve always believed that if all the adults would stick together, the students would win. We owe it to our students to offer them first rate teachers who are adequately compensated, highly respected, and supported by their districts. Dynamic teacher unions are the key to ensuring the integrity of our profession and assuring a world class education for our children.

Response From Katy Farber

Katy Farber is a professional development coordinator, former sixth grader teacher, and author from Vermont. Her latest book is called Real and Relevant: A Guide for Service and Project-Based Learning (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017):

I would like to think that in 20 years we as a society will have decided that teaching as a profession is undervalued and underpaid (severely in several states). I would hope that we will have implemented legislation at the state and national level, and we will have worked toward fixing these persistent problems. All one needs to do is look at Oklahoma, one of the lowest paid states for teachers in the country, and follow the story about how the teacher of the year in 2016, once he started a family, relocated to a higher paying state for teachers. Or read teachers’ stories from my book Why Great Teachers Quit (Corwin Press, 2010) to understand the many challenges faced by our nations’ teachers.

I would also like to assume that schools will continue the shift toward personalized, research and fact-based, inclusive, and relationship centered teaching. That in 20 years, schools will be community centers where brave conversations about identity, current events, and issues take place in a safe environment, where students interact with communities members regularly in service and community projects.

If we are living in the land of my assumptions, then, I think unions should be responsive, dynamic organizations that focus on several issues:

  • Public school funding and issues of equity.

    There is no reason that students in America should have such disparity in their public educations based on where they live. Jonathan Kozol has been writing about this for over 30 years and we have certainly made some progress in this area, but this remains a shame on our nation. Every student in America deserves a right to a high quality public school education, and the unions will continue to focus on that.

  • Build teacher sustainability and voice.

    Teacher’s unions need to help create ways that teachers can have a voice in decision making from the local school to the national level. Teachers need to have avenues for leadership and growth beyond the principalship and be given (or create) opportunities to lead, help students, and stay in the public education system beyond beginning and mid-career experience levels.

  • Provide professional development and resources for teachers and schools.

    The unions could take the lead on helping schools create teacher led, co-constructed, embedded professional development. The experts are often in the building, siloed from each other. Unions and schools can create ways to increase collaboration, sharing, and meaningful professional development.

  • Promote schools as hubs of creativity and innovation. Through grants and gifts, the union can promote schools, teachers, and communities that are creating 21st century learning environments that are student centered, technology-rich, and focused on engaging project based and service learning.

But given the current political climate, I can’t assume any of this.

Teachers unions, in 20 years, very well may be one of main protectors of the public education system that serves everyone, in a country that is privatizing education. They may be one of the main organizations organizing, researching, and advocating about teacher sustainability: working to increase teacher voice, teacher salaries, and teacher professionalism. And teachers union’s will undoubtedly continue to advocate for students, through policy, through recommendations, through media and members.

A lot could change in 20 years. Just look at the last 6 months to consider the possibilities. No matter what happens, the teachers’ unions will need to be responsive and provide venues for teachers and students to have a voice at the table.

Response From John George

John George currently serves as the principal of Dexter McCarty Middle School in the Gresham Barlow School District. He was the Oregon Middle School Principal of the Year in 2014. Prior to serving as a middle school principal, he was a turnaround principal and a district office administrator. George specializes in instructional improvement and turning around struggling schools and districts. Connect with George on Twitter @duckfan66:

I have often advocated for a partnership between unions and school districts that would collaborate on a joint system of observation and evaluation of teachers. If union leadership participated in teacher observation and coaching much of the protectionist barriers to instructional improvement would be broken down.

Imagine if teachers were being provided feedback from fellow teachers, coaches and administrators that only had one goal in mind: Instructional improvement. This would serve to solve the unionized and district mindset of “plans of assistance” that would be truly focused on growth and improvement for the classroom teacher. I believe this kind of collaborative effort would serve to lessen tensions between districts and unions while freeing up time for the two organizations to work and spend more time on more important issues rather than focusing on, arguing, or supporting poor classroom performance.

Thanks to Manuel, Jeffrey, Stephen, Debbie, Katy, and John for their contributions!

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