Teaching Profession

Academics Square Off Over Unions’ Role in Reform Effort

October 07, 1998 3 min read
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Teachers’ unions are a popular topic for debate in political circles, but they rarely are subjected to scrutiny by academics.

So when a group of researchers met here recently at Harvard University to take a scholarly look at the role teacher organizations play in school reform, many felt they were entering virgin territory.

“Everyone has an opinion on teachers’ organizations, but we really don’t know very much about them,” said Tom Loveless, a public-policy professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government who, along with his Harvard colleague Paul E. Peterson led the Sept. 23-25 conference, “Teachers’ Unions and Educational Change.”

“There’s very little empirical evidence as to what their impact on education really is,” Loveless said. (“Education’s ‘Dark Continent’,” Dec. 4, 1996.)

Joining some two dozen university professors from across the country were representatives of the two national teachers’ unions and district administrators. The discussion showed that even academics have trouble reaching a consensus about teacher unions.

Differing Views

In an analysis of teacher contracts in 11 districts throughout the country, Susan Moore Johnson, a professor at Harvard’s graduate school of education, offered a relatively optimistic perspective.

Six of the agreements could either be considered “reform contracts” or reflected some willingness by teachers to work collaboratively with administrators and share responsibility for improving student performance, she said. All of the rest were industrial-style contracts that offered little flexibility, Ms. Johnson concluded.

“The general, conventional wisdom about teachers’ unions is that they’re bad, they slow things down,” Ms. Johnson said. “And yet when you go to these districts, you see it’s more complicated than that. In many places, they are the ones pushing for reforms.”

But a separate paper critiquing the contract in Milwaukee painted the picture of an agreement that left little room for educational innovation.

In fact, over the past three decades, the district’s contract has grown from about 17 pages to 174, said Howard Fuller, the director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Milwaukee’s Marquette University and a former superintendent of the city’s schools.

Mr. Fuller said the increasing strength of the teachers’ unions has coincided with gains in per-pupil spending and with a drop in student-teacher ratios. But overall, he said, the collective bargaining process there has worked at odds with school reform.

“It is the contract that is the central most defining document that will determine what will and what will not happen in a district,” he argued.

Power Shifts

Many participants agreed that teacher unions’ ability to shape policy has changed in recent years, but some disagreed about whether they’re getting stronger or weaker.

For example, a case study of the Michigan and Pennsylvania state teachers’ unions concluded that after two decades of successfully pushing for better salaries and working conditions, the unions find themselves defensively fending off school choice initiatives and efforts to rein in their strength at the state and local levels.

In both states, the study found, activist Republican governors have successfully pushed their own education agenda by either ignoring the teachers’ unions or by exploiting a public perception that unions stand in the way of reform.

“Both the governors and the unions have an incentive to fight,” said David Plank, one of the study’s authors and a professor at Michigan State University.

But another paper suggested that the unions are gaining an even greater influence as they work more on professional issues at the national level. Through their role in such bodies as the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, the unions are helping to set high standards and to determine who can become a teacher, said economics Professor Dale Ballou of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He predicted that such efforts produce greater teacher shortages and a push for higher salaries.

Some union members present said the discussion throughout the conference showed the need for more thoughtful analysis.

Often, unions are seen as “monolithic things that are out to destroy public education,” said Ronald Henderson, the National Education Association’s director of research. “I think scholarly inquiry is needed to open up the paradigms,” he said. “Part of the problem is that people don’t know us.”

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