Education Opinion

Teacher Unions and the Future

By Jack Schneider — October 28, 2014 6 min read
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Wrapping up their six weeks of conversation, Jack and his guest Julian Vasquez Heilig discuss the importance of teacher unions in K-12 education, focusing particularly on what role such organizations should play in the future.

Schneider: Both of us agree that unions play a critical role in public education. So let’s begin by talking about where we think unions can adapt or improve their work over the next decade

Heilig: Well, before I dive into reform, I want to share my personal context on unions. I grew up in a blue collar union family. My maternal grandfather was a farm worker and later a United Auto Worker. My paternal great grandfather was a United Mine Worker and my paternal grandfather was also a United Auto Worker. My mother was an active member of the Michigan Nurses Association through her career. So as you can imagine, the conversations around the dinner table in my family were not about how unions were the root of all evil in every profession. Instead the conversation focused on safety, a living wage, and other quality of life issues for workers.

I believe teachers’ unions working collaboratively with local communities are perhaps our last hope to oppose the agenda of partial or wholesale privatization of education in the US. There are many empirically-based alternative approaches to reform that are being led by teachers’ unions in a community-based fashion (i.e. charters, local accountability, teacher evaluation). As our nation’s first responders to poverty, I believe that teachers’ unions are now seeing the natural evolution of their mission beyond solely focusing on working conditions to now also include an agenda that more extensively addresses poverty, resource inequality and other important social conditions.

Schneider: Unions do a lot of important work. They aggregate teacher voices so that educators—those inside classrooms, who know students best—can push back against policies that might undermine effective instruction. And they ensure that working conditions are appealing enough to attract and retain high-quality personnel who might otherwise look to other professions. Without the unions, we’d be facing even more of the unintended consequences resulting from highly interventionist top-down reform.

Yet the unions can work against the best interests of the system; it does happen. Rather than acting as gatekeepers exercising an important level of discretion, they can function as iron curtains precluding even reasonable change efforts from being implemented. Look at teacher dismissal as an example. The unions have been right to question the use of test scores in determining teacher effectiveness. Without question. Yet in some districts they have also made it far more challenging than it should be for a principal to control his or her own staffing; the result is that many schools are carrying dying-on-the-vine teachers. It doesn’t happen everywhere; but it does happen. And it gives unions a black eye in the process.

Efforts to break the unions through the courts, like that being pursued by Campbell Brown’s group, are misguided. But can we agree that the unions need to more consistently employ a more nuanced approach that fosters the wellbeing of the teaching profession and not just of its current members? This seems to be an absolute prerequisite if they are going to move beyond working conditions to focus on issues like poverty and resource inequality.

Heilig: The oft-repeated idea that unions stand in the way of teacher quality and student achievement is absolutely ludicrous. For a control group, look to the South, where “right to work” policies dominate the landscape and each of these issues exists in spades despite the absence of collective bargaining.

What is actually standing in the way of our successful schools is not unions, but a society that is largely disinterested in public policy that structurally addresses the poverty of children. The reason why we know that our nation has accepted the status quo is that, for any city, you can envision the lovely schools and the not so desirable schools—regardless of the city, the poor primarily attend the not so desirable schools. Teachers’ unions are a common political target in these times; but the bigger problem is our national lack of interest in poverty instead of persistently vilifying our educators.

Schneider: Sure. Although it’s important to note that even Michelle Rhee doesn’t believe that we should dissolve collective bargaining. Outside of radical free-market ideologues and the generally uninformed, very few observers actually think that American schools would be better off without unions. Instead, the criticism tends to be that unions could play a stronger and more productive role if they worked more cooperatively with state and district leaders—as we recently saw in New York City. I think that’s hard to deny.

Personally, I’d like to see the unions take up teacher professional development as their raison d’etre. I think it would do a great deal to shift them in the direction they need to go—focusing on issues of professionalism and moving us past this silly debate over tenure.

We spend so much time these days fighting over the ability to fire ineffective teachers. But even if reformers were able to adequately define “effectiveness,” accurately measure teacher quality, and then fairly dismiss ineffective teachers, we would still be faced with a major problem: you can’t fire your way to staffing every classroom with a great teacher. We need three million teachers; where are all of the great ones going to come from? Are they currently hiding someplace waiting for a merit pay package?

The answer, as I see it, is to invest heavily in PD—helping struggling teachers improve, and helping the vast majority of teachers who are effective become even more effective.

I think the unions can play a key role here. Because they represent the most thorough national network we have in education. Through two umbrella organizations—the AFT and the NEA—they are connected through state associations and district chapters. It’s a very powerful design. And it could allow teachers to gain greater control of their own destiny. It would infuse the occupation with a higher level of professionalism. It would ease the burden on districts, which can’t currently handle the task. And it might even bring about some common ground for teachers and reformers to begin new conversations. Because right now the unions are too often in a position where they are saying “no” rather than offering a way forward. That isn’t entirely their fault; but it is a problem.

Heilig: I do agree that teachers’ unions should and could have a larger role in professional development. Perhaps they could be the certifying organizations that would allot credit state-by-state, similar to the Continuing Legal Education (CLE) system. In sum, I tend agree with Lily Eskelson’s proposition that the best school-reform ideas come from educators. In fact, the potential impact of unions to lead empirically-based reform alternatives could potentially encompass all of our discussions from the past month—social justice, professional development, charter schools, accountability, school finance, standards, teacher quality, teacher evaluation, and testing.

Educators and their organizations should be at the forefront of our national debate rather than the current power brokers and other squeaky wheels (i.e. random millionaires and billionaires, politicians, and former journalists) who are vociferously seeking to minimize and scapegoat educators.

Schneider: I agree that teachers should have much more of a voice in shaping the national agenda in education. And I think that the unions can play a central role in that. But it will require a shift away from the activities characteristic of trade unionism and toward the territory of professional associations—less like the UAW and more like the American Medical Association. Not entirely. That’s unrealistic to imagine. But movement in that direction is critical not only in terms of maximizing the impact that unions can make, but also in terms of ensuring their long-term survival.

The opinions expressed in K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric 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.