Teachers unions have been cast as the villain for depriving students of a quality education for so long that any attempt now to rebut the charge is probably an exercise in futility. The latest reminder of their alleged pernicious influence was an editorial in the New York Observer on Sept. 28 that recited the usual bill of particulars (“Head of the Class”).
But there is another side to the story that needs to be heard. The best way to do so is to look at what would happen if teachers unions were outlawed. Would their disappearance make a significant difference in student learning, which in the final analysis is what matters the most? Consider the following scenarios:
First, principals would be able to fire in one fell swoop all teachers they regarded as ineffective for one reason or another without affording them due process. Where would their replacements come from? The most likely source would be Teach for America, enjoying such favor these days among reformers. Yet there is little evidence that its recruits would do a better job than teachers who have been licensed through traditional programs. But even those who are better would not necessarily stay beyond the first five years, when half of all new teachers quit. It’s important to remember that this outflow has taken place despite the existence of unions.
Second, states would not be constrained in maintaining caps on the number of charter schools. This freedom would supposedly result in better outcomes for students because charters would be able to innovate as they see fit and provide a haven for students fleeing dreadful neighborhood schools. The latter was the centerpiece of “Waiting for Superman.” According to the Wall Street Journal, there are 420,000 students nationwide on a waiting list for charter schools. But once again, the evidence is mixed. Some charter schools are better than traditional schools; others are worse. This finding is noteworthy because most charter schools do not have teachers unions. (Green Dot Public Schools is an exception.)
Third, school districts would finally be able to establish merit pay, the Holy Grail of reform. By linking teachers’ total remuneration to their students’ overall performance (test scores, attendance, graduation rates etc.), principals would ostensibly drive their faculty to do their best, since the cynical assumption is that teachers are now dogging it. But the truth is that teachers already are working as hard as they possibly can under extreme pressure and relentless criticism. Moreover, they are not motivated by the same incentives that shape the behavior of workers in other fields. Unions have little to do with this attitude, which exists before candidates are licensed and enter the classroom.
Fourth, principals would be given the power to run “their” schools as they see fit without interference from restrictive work rules. Yet as I’ve written before, principals have abused their position of authority time and again to demoralize their faculty to the point that the best teachers have transferred to other schools. This flight is not limited to inner-city schools. It has taken place in elite schools that are widely coveted by parents, and it has occurred in spite of the putative stranglehold that teachers unions exert on personnel decisions.
Teachers unions have made serious mistakes. However, in none of the above scenarios would students significantly benefit. There are other more important factors that account for the undeniable failure of too many schools. Nevertheless, when they are cited, reformers maintain that they are excuses, rather than explanations. I can understand the frustration about the glacial pace of school improvement. Patience has its limitations. When people are angry enough, they look for scapegoats. Teachers unions serve as an easy target. While the campaign being waged against them will serve as a safety valve for pent-up emotions, it will do little to improve student learning. That’s a vital distinction being given short shrift.
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.