The Plight of Teachers' Unions

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In late March, Karen Lewis, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, attacked Mayor Rahm Emanuel for undermining the city's schools with a plan to close more than 50 underutilized schools. Earlier this year, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York blamed the local teachers' union for the loss of millions in federal funds, resulting from its unwillingness to accept outcome-based teacher evaluation.

Teachers' unions are under siege nationwide. Criticism by political leaders and education reformers has snowballed. In recent years, government and unions have battled over tenure, teacher assessment, testing, the length of the school day, class size, school closures, and pay for performance. The hottest issues have dealt with reliance on teacher seniority as the basis for job assignments, retrenchment firing, and salaries—a traditional practice that raised few hackles in the past.

What's caused the uproar is that the world is changing. America is moving from a national, analog, industrial economy to a global, digital, information economy. The two economies differ dramatically in their expectations for schools and teachers.


Industrial societies focus on common processes, epitomized by the assembly line. Our schools—products of the industrial age—rely on such processes: Schools enroll children at age 5, sort them into classes, teach them specified subjects for uniform lengths of time determined by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 1906, and require attendance 180 days annually for 13 years. The focus is on teaching.

In contrast, information economies focus on common outcomes. Process is variable. With regard to schools, the emphasis is on learning; the question is whether students have mastered knowledge and skills, regardless of where, when, or how.

In the industrial-era school, the currency of education is time—how long students are taught. The assumption is that all students can learn the same things in the same period of time. In the information-era school, the currency is student achievement, and time is variable.

Herein lies the cause of current conflicts with teachers' unions. They, like schools, are products of the industrial era. They embrace the focus on teaching and advocate time-based rewards to teachers. Salary increases and pensions are based on longevity. Tenure is granted most commonly after three years. Pensions balloon for teachers who spend full careers teaching. Teachers with greater seniority can take the jobs of teachers with less seniority. The last hired teacher must be the first fired in a retrenchment. Given previous expectations for schools and teachers, these were logical practices, and unions have continued to support them.

"Increasingly, policymakers and unions have fundamentally different visions of the work of schools and teachers. This is not to say unions have done something wrong. It's that the world changed around them."

Many policymakers, however, have adopted the information economy's focus on learning. Accordingly, they seek to overthrow the hegemony of time, recognizing that not all students learn the same amount in fixed time periods. Instead, they propose policies tied to educational outcomes: state standards for what students must learn; testing that assesses student progress toward the standards; test-score-based evaluation of teacher performance in advancing student learning; and salary structures that link teachers' compensation to success in promoting student achievement. This agenda flies in the face of historic union policies and is diametrically opposed to an education system in which the currency is time and teaching.

The real problem, then, is not the individual issues that grab headlines. It is that, increasingly, policymakers and unions have fundamentally different visions of the work of schools and teachers. This is not to say unions have done something wrong. It's that the world changed around them. It is also important to note that the situation of teachers' unions is not unique. All of our social institutions—schools, government, media, health care, and finance—were created for an old-style industrial economy. All are out of date and appear to be broken. Each needs to be rethought for the present and the future. Government, so often critical of unions, has many of the same problems: vesting power on the basis of longevity, institutionalizing tenure through redistricting and opposition to term limits, focusing on process rather than outcomes, and engendering rising levels of public criticism.

In the years ahead, the burden will be on unions to develop policies rooted in information-era schools where student learning is the focus. They can play a vital role in building the information-age schools we need for tomorrow and in supporting the teachers those schools will require, or they will be viewed as obstructionist and ultimately become irrelevant. Some union leaders have already recognized the need for this shift, even as they perform a complicated balancing act, with one foot in the industrial era and one in the information era.

Still, the shift is inevitable. Unions can oppose it or lead the transition, preserving what history has shown to be essential while building the new that is needed. But first, they must understand, advocate, and embrace the seismic shift in how schools work.

Vol. 32, Issue 30, Page 36

Published in Print: May 8, 2013, as The Plight of Teachers' Unions
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