Teaching Profession

Effect of Unions Hard to Gauge, Scholars Agree

By Bess Keller — May 24, 2005 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Alan D. Bersin, the outgoing superintendent in San Diego, agreed to cut short his tenure after an election there gave allies of the teachers’ union majority sway over the school board.

In running afoul of the union, he was in the company of the schools chiefs in Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and San Francisco, Mr. Bersin said at a conference here last week on research into teacher collective bargaining.

BRIC ARCHIVE

“How does it happen that Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, Roy Romer, Barbara Byrd-Bennett and Arlene Ackerman, all Democrats like me,” he asked, “are virtually at war with their unions?”

Mr. Bersin, who has been appointed to serve as California’s education secretary effective in July, said his conflict with the San Diego Education Association over such matters as whether principals had broad rights to be in classrooms shows the need for reshaping the unions’ role.

But others at the May 16-17 conference sponsored by two Washington think tanks often identified as centrist—the Urban Institute and the Progressive Policy Institute—argued that the unions have used their power at the bargaining table and ballot box to ensure basic and necessary changes such as higher salaries and smaller classes.

Some researchers stressed the potential of teachers’ unions to strengthen school improvement, if only they were partners in making policy.

Speakers strongly agreed, though, that with little previous research to go on, it was almost impossible to give more than tentative answers to any of the big questions tackled by the meeting’s 10 research papers.

Some scholars said researchers were wary of delving into such a politically charged subject as the unions’ role in education. Others said it was hard to begin when primary data sources are in thousands of school districts following labor laws set by 50 states.

Introducing his paper “Are Unions Good for Students?,” Daniel D. Goldhaber, a labor expert affiliated with the University of Washington, in Seattle, and the Urban Institute, answered only half-jokingly, “Beats me.”

Not only do previous studies of unionization and student achievement yield mixed results, he said, but he also found only five quantitative ones to examine.

Other papers at the conference looked at, for example, the sources and extent of the unions’ power, the nature of negotiated contracts, and the unions’ impact on the quality of teaching. The authors ranged from those who have been generally receptive to collective bargaining, such as Susan Moore Johnson of Harvard University’s graduate school of education, to those who have seen it as an unmitigated disaster, such as Stanford University political scientist Terry Moe.

In his lunchtime talk, Mr. Bersin put blame on both district and union leaders for what he portrayed as the San Diego teacher contract’s stranglehold on change. Riffling the pages of the inch-thick document, the superintendent observed that “we agreed to every one of these rules.”

Mr. Bersin’s aggressive strategy for improving teaching and learning was viewed as too top-down by union leaders.

‘Insensitive Treatment’

He reminded the audience, too, that the unions “grew out of the insensitive treatment of teachers,” who did not embrace collective bargaining in substantial numbers until the 1970s. The contracts won at the bargaining table in turn spurred membership. Today more than 80 percent of the nation’s more than 4 million teachers are union members.

But in recent years in five of California’s big cities, Mr. Bersin contended, membership clout has translated into school boards “dominated by employee interest groups,” with students the losers. That same pattern has upped the popularity of mayoral control of districts such as Boston, Cleveland, and New York, he said.

Mr. Bersin, a lawyer by profession who campaigned for President Bill Clinton before being appointed by him as the U.S. attorney in San Diego, suggested that the two national teachers’ unions are helping neither themselves nor the Democratic Party, with which they have long been allied, by riling mayors of both parties.

“The [National Education Association] and the [American Federation of Teachers] pulled out all the stops in the last presidential election,” he said, “and that did not have a union-friendly or a Democratic-friendly result.”

Declaring that increasing public disenchantment with the performance of inner-city schools threatens the survival of public education, the outgoing superintendent proposed negotiating contracts free of many existing rules just for the schools in the most academic trouble.

In an invited response to Mr. Bersin’s talk, a teachers’ union expert at the Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., offered a broader solution for those in both camps who are determined to address low student achievement.

“How about legislation that requires all contracts to specify the union’s and the district’s [joint] goals for student achievement?” said education professor Charles Kerchner.

If unions and districts could not agree on the goals and the steps to get there, he said, they would cede their bargaining rights to an independent panel that would write the entire contract for them.

The papers presented at the conference, which was supported by the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation and the Westport, Conn.-based Smith Richardson Foundation, are expected to appear in a book in the fall.

Related Tags:

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession CDC Director Approves Booster Shots for Teachers, Reversing Panel's Decision
Workers in high-exposure jobs, including school staff, may receive a Pfizer booster shot, based on an assessment of their individual benefits and risks.
6 min read
Houston Health Department LVN Alicia Meza prepares a dose of COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 3, at a Houston Health Department's COVID-19 vaccine clinic.
A nurse in Houston prepares a dose of COVID-19 vaccine. A federal advisory committee voted not to recommend a booster shot for K-12 school staff.
Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via AP
Teaching Profession Opinion ‘A Culture of Care’: How Schools Can Alleviate Educator Stress This Year
It takes more than deep breathing to alleviate the stress teachers feel. Here's how to get to the root cause.
Sean Slade & Alyssa Gallagher
6 min read
shutterstock 740616958 resized
Shutterstock
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Profession Whitepaper
Building Your Financial Security for Retirement
“Building Your Financial Security for Retirement” is a new whitepaper from EdWeek and Equitable to help educators learn how to make plans...
Content provided by Equitable
Teaching Profession Reported Essay Students Aren’t the Only Ones Grieving
Faced with so many losses stemming from the pandemic, what can be done to help teachers manage their own grief?
4 min read
Conceptual Illustration
Pep Montserrat for Education Week