Standards Opinion

The Teachers’ Unions Must Embrace the Future

By Leslie C. Francis — July 30, 2014 6 min read
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My professional career began in the late 1960s, when I joined the staff of the California Teachers Association. It was a period of great political and social turmoil. It was also a time of significant tension within the teaching profession: The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers were battling for membership and organizational primacy.

Concerned about the threat posed by its rival and troubled by the plight of many classroom teachers, the NEA, with which the CTA was, and is, affiliated, pushed for transformation. Staff members were trained in Saul Alinsky’s principles of community organizing. We learned how to bargain collectively. And we stepped up political action.

Not everyone agreed with the aims or the tactics. Changes were controversial both internally and externally, and some longtime organizational loyalties and friendships were damaged in the process. Regardless of the changes and internal upheaval, however, the power and influence of the unions (especially the NEA) grew, as did membership.


Although the rhetoric and the actions of the recent NEA and AFT conventions would suggest that their leaders have yet to awaken to the fact, I believe it is time for another major transformation—one that would move both organizations from an industrial-union model to one that embraces innovation and new ideas.

In 1983, A Nation at Risk brought public attention to the aspects of public education that were not keeping pace with the American economy or societal changes. The report inspired the national-standards movement, Goals 2000, and ultimately the No Child Left Behind Act. Through it all, and with only occasional rhetorical exceptions (and even fewer operational ones), the unions have resisted calls for reform.

Most recently, and despite initial support, the unions’ commitment to the Common Core State Standards seems to have flagged. Witness leaders’ comments, of late, suggesting that classroom standards are fine so long as they aren’t enforced and no penalties are exacted for failure to meet them.

Similarly, union reaction to the Vergara v. California court decision, overturning the state’s laws on teacher tenure, transfer, and assignment, was predictable, but troubling in both substance and tone. Nowhere did I read about a union leader addressing the critical question at the center of the case: Should a teacher’s right to job security trump a student’s right to learn?

The unions’ positions on these issues is puzzling given voter (read: taxpayer) attitudes on many of the key questions.

No Child Left Behind has been law for well over a decade, yet controversies over its provisions continue to rage. Antipathy toward standardized testing has, if news accounts are to be believed, increased. The Common Core State Standards have encountered a buzz saw of opposition from the left and the right. One might then conclude that whatever consensus existed has almost certainly evaporated, and that the unions’ positions on these issues are now more in keeping with the public’s view.

However, such a conclusion, as is often the case at the intersection of politics and policy, would be wrong.

The unions ... must couple their demands for higher salaries with a commitment to enhance the quality of their own ranks."

Current public-opinion research from a number of sources shows that underlying structural support for standards-based education reform, including testing, remains strong, in spite of the unions’ opposition. According to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from June, 59 percent of respondents support common standards. A Gallup poll from April showed 73 percent believe it is a good idea to have one set of reading, writing, and math standards across the country. In that same poll, 65 percent believe that use of standardized, computer-based tests will have a positive impact on education in the United States; and 67 percent think linking teacher evaluations to student test scores will have a positive impact.

In California, results of a June poll by the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California tell a similar story about the Vergara decision. Of the 40 percent who knew about the decision, 62 percent said they agreed with it, while 23 percent disagreed. Thirty-five percent of parents said there shouldn’t be a tenure system at all. When asked specifically about the timeline to tenure, which can be awarded after as little as 18 months in the classroom, 38 percent said two years is “too soon” to award tenure, and 35 percent said “public school teachers shouldn’t receive tenure at all.”

Yet in the face of such sentiments, the unions continue to rail against the court decision, the judge, and even the plaintiffs.

These survey results suggest that education reform has fallen victim to what the columnist E.J. Dionne calls “the politics of false choices.” Parents and taxpayers want standards and accountability, while the education establishment, including the NEA and the AFT, demands that more money be spent on schools and teachers, so long as they aren’t held responsible for what happens (or doesn’t) as a result.

We know that teacher quality is the single biggest factor in how well children learn, yet merely assigning a warm adult body to each classroom is considered sound practice by unions and management. Educators know that assessments should inform instruction, but many of those same educators resist efforts to require the testing of all students.

Where collective bargaining exists, contract protections should ensure due process and protection against capricious or politically inspired discipline or dismissal. Where collective bargaining doesn’t reign, state laws should be enacted and enforced to protect these principles. But, and this is a crucial but, in no state should the protections be so stringent, so inflexible, or so cumbersome so as to allow ineffective teachers to continue to inflict their incompetence on kids. And to argue that such is not the case is a lie. It happens. I’ve seen it happen. Teachers, parents, and students know it is happening.

The unions also must couple their demands for higher salaries with a commitment to enhance the quality of their own ranks through substantial changes in the way new teachers are recruited, trained, licensed, assigned, mentored, and supervised. Current policies and practices have created a profession characterized by, or certainly too tolerant of, mediocrity.

The unions should help schools transition from relics of the past to institutions of the future, and that should start with the total, or near total, destruction of the stagnating “egg crate” school design and the accompanying staffing formula that insists on one narrowly defined “teacher” per “X” number of kids. The antiquated school calendar should be discarded. We should extend the school year and the school day.

Finally, the NEA and the AFT should merge, thereby eliminating the impulse to compete for members—a competition that has reinforced a blind adherence to the defense of the status quo.

We can only hope that a new, merged organization would be at least as concerned with the mission of public education as with the working conditions within schools.

Americans are unequivocal in their belief that educating each successive generation is central to our nation’s progress, and perhaps to our very survival. For defenders of the status quo to argue otherwise is to invite disagreement, then disparagement, and eventually defeat. Public patience will not last forever, and continued resistance to reform will make the inevitable reaction more strident and more destructive.

What we need in the public conversation about education is not more false choices, but rather a commitment to bold leadership on behalf of balanced reform policies. Given the stakes, that really shouldn’t be too much to ask.

A version of this article appeared in the August 06, 2014 edition of Education Week as The Teachers’ Unions Must Embrace the Future


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