Teaching Profession

Newer Presidents See Role of Unions Changing, Study Finds

By Vaishali Honawar — June 29, 2007 5 min read
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The term “teacher union leader” typically evokes a hard-charging labor activist who shares an adversarial relationship with the school district, is focused solely on protecting members’ bread-and-butter interests, and flees from phrases like “school reform.”

But a new report based largely on interviews with 30 local union presidents who each have spent less than eight years in office paints an evolved picture of leaders who are often involved in collaborative relationships with their school superintendents; who have to work constantly to balance the needs of a new generation of teachers with the needs of older members; and who see the importance of framing arguments for improved salaries and working conditions within the context of improved schools and building a better teaching force.

The report released by Education Sector, a Washington-based think tank, attributes the changes to “new realities” in public education that threaten the future of both teachers’ unions and public schools, including unprecedented demands for evidence of student success under state and federal accountability laws. In this new atmosphere, “industrial-style bargaining, which pits one side against the other, is of little use in solving different problems or developing new programs,” it says.

There are also challenges from within, the report points out. Today’s union leaders deal with two very different groups of members: veterans who want to preserve traditional approaches to pay and protections, and new teachers who demand strong support from unions in the first years of teaching, and ongoing training, as well as innovations in pay.

Susan Moore Johnson, a professor of education at Harvard University, who co-wrote the report, said it is often difficult for presidents to satisfy both groups and to present a clear and unified vision of the organization.

“We don’t have an answer about where this will end up, but it is a period of great change and opportunity for the unions,” she said.

Key Players

The authors say that although teachers’ unions are among the most powerful organizations in American education today, and local leaders hold the greatest sway over the educational lives of public school teachers, little is known of how these leaders see the role their organizations do and should play in public education and school reform.

Ms. Johnson said she was surprised to find that the agenda of most of the union leaders the authors studied was “very broad.”

“They recognize the challenges that school districts are facing and realize that they are key players in accountability, reform, performance, and development,” she said.

The report covers unions of all sizes in six states—California, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Ohio. Those interviewed included A.J. Duffy of Los Angeles, Mark Chavez of Boulder, Colo., and Janice D. Brown of Glades County, Fla. Locals studied represent both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Researchers deliberately picked some locals with a reputation for being reform-minded and others that were known for being more traditional in their approach, Ms. Johnson said.

“What we were trying to do was to get a good sense of the range of experiences and views of leaders in both the AFT and the NEA,” she said.

Ms. Johnson said the report shows that the unions of the future—locals that are involved in collaborative relationships with districts, offering professional development to members, and willing to work on school reform—are already present and active in many districts.

“We are operating with an image of the past,” she said, “but the reality has changed, and I suspect that in the next five or 10 years, as the teaching force changes, we are going to see local unions that look dramatically different from the ones that bargained contracts in the ’60s and ‘70s.”

Changing Perceptions

In their interviews, local leaders seek to shed light on some common criticisms. For instance, school officials and union critics have long argued that collective bargaining contracts stand in the way of school progress because senior teachers, who typically have greater transfer rights under union contracts than their junior colleagues do, tend to leave troubled schools. That leaves such schools with high numbers of inexperienced and less-qualified teachers. But in many districts, local presidents said that principals have substantial discretion in hiring and assigning teachers—a claim the report’s authors say was confirmed when they analyzed contracts.

Several districts also appeared to be moving away from the long-term, three-year contract model and were involved in “a kind of a perpetual bargaining,” in which they identified and dealt with issues as they arose. For instance, in Colorado Springs, Colo., the district has a joint council made up of members of two bargaining teams who meet monthly. In Montgomery County, Md., a labor-management collaboration committee meets monthly and can make changes to the contract.

The report also found that union leaders have serious concerns about performance-based pay. But many support paying additional stipends to teachers who hold specialized roles, such as curriculum specialist, literacy or math coach, or lead teacher.

Those close to the subject say it is inevitable that unions and their leaders will move toward a more collaborative, reform-based model.

“Teacher unions recognize that members will do well if students will do well, and no society will tolerate a disconnect between the two,” said Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester Teachers Association. He co-founded and now leads the Teacher Union Reform Network, a group of local leaders who support participation in school improvement.

The report’s finding on the changing face of unions and their leaders, Mr. Urbanski said, is encouraging because until now, most union change has occurred in an environment of crisis. “Now,” he said, “it seems it might be more widely accepted that change is acceptable, and unions will remain viable and will promote change and improvement even before they have to do so.”

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