Education Opinion

Unions and the Concept of ‘Adult Interests’

By Jack Schneider — June 10, 2014 7 min read
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This week Michelle and Jack discuss the role of teachers unions in K-12 education, looking first at whether collective bargaining promotes “adult interests” at the expense of learning.

Rhee: Let’s talk about teachers’ unions.

I’m often accused of being “anti-union.” Actually, that’s not true at all. If I was anti-union, I’d just say so. I believe in workers’ rights to organize, however, and think it’s important in many ways. However, I don’t agree with everything that teachers’ unions fight for. I think one ought to be able to push back on some of the policies that unions are in favor of without being labeled “anti-union.”

When I talk to people across the country, sometimes I run into folks who believe that the teachers’ unions are the biggest problem in public education. I disagree with that notion. I think unions are doing an incredibly effective job at what they are supposed to do, which is look out for the privileges, pay, and priorities of their members. We can’t condemn them for that. What is problematic is not the fact that unions exist or that they’re really effective at protecting their members. I think the problem is that there is no organized interest group in this country with the same heft as the teachers’ union that is advocating solely on behalf of kids. Therefore, the playing field isn’t balanced, and that creates challenges. But I don’t think it’s fair at all to blame unions for this dynamic.

Schneider: Recognizing the importance of unions is a good starting point for this discussion. And I’d like to provide just a bit more historical context here, because I think it’s essential for understanding the role that unions play in K-12 education.

Before the advent of collective bargaining, teachers were frequently exploited. Women were paid half of what men were paid and salaries for all teachers were determined in secretive and often arbitrary fashion. Teachers could be dismissed for their political beliefs, the teaching of sensitive subjects, or in the case of women, for getting married. The abuse is well-documented.

One of the criticisms of the unions is that they structure teaching as blue collar work. In professions like medicine and law, we are told, unions are unnecessary. But the barriers for entry into those professions are much higher than they are in teaching. And there’s a reason for that. We need over three million educators in classrooms, and if entry barriers were too high, we might end up with a teacher shortage. This is exacerbated by the fact that education is publicly financed, meaning that salaries are modest. High entry barriers, combined with modest salaries, will really reduce the number of candidates.

Low barriers to entry, however, make teaching vulnerable as a profession, because there’s a larger labor pool from which to draw—driving pay down, and reducing job security. And that’s bad for kids. Because the best candidates aren’t going to put up with those conditions. Collective bargaining, then, professionalizes teaching and makes it more attractive work.

I’m saying all of this because I think it’s important to establish the fact that teacher interests are not separate from the best interests of children.

That said, I’m interested in hearing more about what, specifically, you think a student-focused group should push back against. What is being done in the service of teacher interests that runs counter to the interests of students?

Rhee: I think that teachers’ unions interests and kids’ interests are aligned a lot of the time. However, I don’t think that’s always the case. If you look at how unions often fight to protect the jobs of ineffective teachers, you can understand it from the perspective of the unions; but it doesn’t make any sense for kids.

Policies like “Last In, First Out” is another example. Research shows that the use of LIFO results has 3 negative impacts on kids:

1) The district loses some of its best teachers. This is not to say that new teachers are all good or that they’re better than any other group. What it says is that among newer teachers there are many effective ones. When layoff lists that were created by seniority are compared to those created by effectiveness, there’s only 15% overlap. That means we’re losing some highly effective teachers through this policy that could otherwise be in classrooms. No one likes or wants layoffs, but when a district is in that unfortunate position, the highly effective teachers ought to be able to stay.

2) It causes more layoffs to occur. Because junior teachers are paid the least, in order to fill the budget deficit more of them need to be laid off. In fact, if layoffs were done by quality instead of seniority, research shows that about 30% of jobs could be saved. That’s a lot less classrooms being disrupted, which is better for kids. Now, we have to ensure that there are strict laws in place that prohibit these decisions from being made based on a teacher’s salary so that schools and districts can’t discriminate against more veteran teachers who make more money. That’s critical.

3) It disproportionately impacts the lowest performing schools. Seniority is typically district-wide seniority. That means that higher performing schools in affluent neighborhoods, with typically more stable teaching staffs, could be untouched by budget cuts; whereas a low performing school with high teacher turnover and 50% new teachers could be decimated by the cuts.

I’ve yet to have anyone explain to me how this policy is good for kids. Some union officials have explained why they believe it’s necessary in terms of “fairness” to members. While I don’t necessarily agree with them, I understand their perspective. But good for kids? Not that I can see.

Schneider: In a perfect world—a world in which schools were sufficiently funded, as well in which teacher effectiveness could be fairly and accurately evaluated—no such policy would be necessary. But we don’t live in that world. At least not yet. And that’s why the unions have refused to budge on seniority.

When layoffs inevitably come, something needs to prevent expensive senior teachers from being fired solely on the basis of their cost. Now, you suggest that we should have laws in place that prohibit such actions. But how would such laws be enforced? We would need a determinant of teacher effectiveness in order to show that job-performance, not salary, is the deciding factor in termination.

Yet our measures of effectiveness are extremely poor. They just don’t work for that purpose. In our dialogue you’ve acknowledged that value-added is a limited tool. VAM is less limited, perhaps, than our worst alternatives. And there are certainly ways to improve upon its use—namely by using it at the school level rather than at the teacher level. At the school level, we don’t need to worry as much about spillover effects, whereby an English teacher might get credit or blame for a history teacher’s instruction. And at the school level we don’t need to worry as much about the non-random sorting that results in teachers being assigned students of different interest and ability levels. But at the teacher level, such tools are too unstable to be used for high-stakes decisions.

These are very real challenges that aren’t going to go away through wishing. So, sure, I agree that “last in, first out” policies are problematic. But such policies exist for a reason. And it’s important to consider what would happen to the profession if senior teachers were routinely downsized—either in error, or as a cost-cutting measure. The lessons from the private sector here are not encouraging.

My position, as it has been on other topics, is that we need to get at root causes. One issue worth tackling, in that regard, is budgeting: to ensure that layoffs aren’t a constant part of life. Another budgeting question to consider is whether schools should receive equal allotments of teachers from the district or, as is rarely the case, equal allotments of funds with which to hire teachers. Of course, we also need to continue to develop more effective processes around teacher evaluation and teacher permanent status.

I think that if the discussion were about root causes, many of which don’t involve collective bargaining at all, the unions would be much less defensive. Because you’re right, they often defend teachers who don’t deserve their protection. But we need to bear in mind why they do that. Their motives are much more complex than their critics tend to suggest.

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.