Education Opinion

Teachers’ Unions Don’t Oppose Change

By Walt Gardner — July 21, 2014 1 min read
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The conclusion of the national conventions of the NEA and the AFT has given many critics an ideal opportunity to lambaste both unions for arguing against “desperately needed changes” in public schools (“Why Are Teachers Unions So Opposed to Change?The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 21). I heartily support change when what is proposed will improve schools, but I have to question the recommendations based on what I’ve seen so far.

First, I agree that assessment is an indispensable part of the educational process. However, standardized tests have been found to be highly unreliable in allowing valid inferences to be drawn about teachers’ effectiveness. That’s why teachers’ unions oppose their use. It’s not because they want to avoid accountability.

Second, I support the right of parents to send their children to charter schools if they believe such schools are better than traditional public schools. But teachers’ unions correctly warn that there will always be students whose parents are not involved enough in their education to take advantage of the options open to them. As a result, these students become collateral damage. If not teachers’ unions, who will speak for them?

Third, I understand why vouchers are popular among minorities. But vouchers or their variants have been voted down in 27 state referendums by overwhelming numbers. Members of teachers’ unions are not the only ones who vote in a democracy. Depicting them as the villains ignores reality.

Fourth, I know that tenure is singled out as the No. 1 cause of failing schools. Yet teachers’ unions rightly argue that abolishing it would leave even the best teachers vulnerable to vindictive principals. The New York Times explained how that happened at Brooklyn Tech, one of New York City’s elite high schools.

Finally, I’d be in favor of merit pay if the evidence showed that it has worked as proposed. Teachers’ unions are merely citing the experience of schools where it has been tried. Teachers are not motivated by the same incentives that drive workers in other fields. Those who say otherwise need to spend a month or so in a public school to understand why.

Change is indeed needed in public schools, but portraying teachers’ unions as rigid obstructionists overlooks the facts.

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.