Education Opinion

Teachers’ Unions and the Near Future

By Michelle Rhee — June 12, 2014 4 min read
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Michelle and Jack continue their discussion about teachers unions, looking at the role unions can and should play in the next two decades.

Schneider: Despite our differences, and despite our different views on the Vergara case, we both agree that teachers unions are imperfect and important. So let’s talk about how each of us sees unions evolving in the 21st century. What would great unions look like in the year 2024? 2034?

Rhee: I’d love to see teachers unions empowering great teachers to innovate. I talk to teachers all the time and the vast majority are such passionate folks who really think deeply about how to serve their students well. We have a wealth of knowledge in our teaching force. I also think we’ve got innovators and problem-solvers. They do it every day in their classrooms, but they rarely have the opportunity to flex those skills for the good of the broader improvement of public schools.

Unions could, in addition to all the normal stuff they need to do, figure out ways to create the environments where teachers can engage in this way, and incentivize them to do so. From how to turn around failing schools, to how to conduct layoffs, to how to hold educators accountable, I think teachers have a lot of practical ideas that we could work with.

Schneider: I actually agree with you here. As do many labor leaders. The unions are currently the only bodies that connect teachers with each other—the only professional organization equivalent to those that exist in other fields. And the more they orient themselves toward professional growth, and not merely around the negation of work rules and the processing of grievances, the better the profession will be. Such efforts might even help dissolve some of the anemic arguments that frame unions as the cause of poor teaching.

I’d love to see the unions increasingly working to connect teachers with each other, connecting teachers with scholars, and leading professional development. As I’ve said before, our current efforts to build teacher capacity leave a lot to be desired. And the great irony is that accountability mechanisms are being tightened without much emphasis on strengthening schools as learning organizations.

The theory of action for many policy leaders appears to be based upon the notion that teachers aren’t trying—a baseless assumption. There’s room for growth among teachers, just as there is in every field. So if we really care about improving instruction, we should be doing everything in our power to promote that. The unions have a major role to play there.

As to your point about promoting teacher leadership and innovation, I agree again. A few organizations are modeling this kind of work—one here in Boston is TeachPlus, which empowers teachers by connecting them with leadership and growth opportunities. And this is definitely something I’d like to see the unions doing in the next decade or two.

Rhee: I’d also hope that we can engage unions in more solutions-oriented dialogues. At StudentsFirst, we advocate that 50% of a teacher’s evaluation be based on student achievement growth. In Connecticut, the union signed on with a system where that number was 35%. So really, it seems like we might be talking about a difference of 15%.

Could we sit down with the union to choose 30 cities and say, “OK, let’s try to see what they right percentage is. In these 10 cities we’ll use 50%, in these 10 we’ll do 35% and in the last 10 we’ll do 42.5%?” We should try this for three years and see what we can glean about which direction we should be heading in.

I think that kind of dynamic would be so much more productive that this polarized debate we’re in right now where we seem to be arguing about 0 vs 100 when in actuality no one is arguing for either of those extremes.

Schneider: That, of course, would require a cease-fire in the unending attack on organized labor. My analogy may be a bit dramatic, but you can’t ask one party to make concessions, and to engage in a cooperative process, unless there is a show of good faith by the other.

Leaders at the local, state, and national level would need to spend significant time and energy building bridges if they wanted to foster an environment in which union leaders felt like they could cooperate on reform efforts rather than fending off what they view as misguided top-down policies. The new labor contract in New York City, at least so far, seems to be a model in this regard. All of the praise for the recent Vergara decision is exactly the opposite—more signs of hostility.

Rhee: You say that would require a cease-fire against the unions; but I’d say that the cease-fire needs to be mutual. Reformers are under attack every day from unions as well. What I’m saying is that this would be a way to sit down and have a productive conversation instead of lobbing grenades back and forth.

That’s what hasn’t worked and it’s why I thought this blog was a good idea.

The only way we’re going to get beyond the rhetoric is if both sides agree to sit down and talk real solutions.

Schneider: Theoretically I agree with you. But the bottom line is that reformers don’t stand to lose their livelihoods in this process. Nor do they face having their workplaces transformed in ways that they find troubling. A true equivalent would be union leaders coming in and telling policymakers, lobbyists, and philanthropists how to go about their business. That, I imagine, would feel a lot different.

As far as I see it, reformers need to open this dialogue by admitting that they’ve perhaps pushed too hard, in too autocratic a fashion, for imperfect policies. Because what’s the alternative? Union leaders rolling over and saying they shouldn’t have pushed back? No way.

Are there concessions that the unions should make? Absolutely. But that isn’t going to happen as long as there is a push to deny the right to collectively bargain. You don’t get someone to the table by pushing them into a corner.

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.