Teaching Profession

Survey Finds Teachers Supportive of Unions

By Michelle Galley — June 04, 2003 5 min read
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Bedeviled by accusations of corruption, irrelevance, and mulishness, teachers’ unions will get a welcome respite this week with a national poll suggesting that a large majority of teachers value their unions.

“Stand By Me: What Teachers Really Think About Unions, Merit Pay and Other Professional Matters,” is available for $10 from Public Agenda, (212) 686-6610. The report will also be available online June 4, 2003.

Almost half the teachers who responded to the survey—83 percent of whom were union members—rated the unions as “absolutely essential,” according to the poll set for release June 4 by the New York City-based research organization Public Agenda.

Even so, nearly half the respondents said that unions sometimes fight to “protect teachers who really should be out of the classroom,” and 23 percent said that “sometimes everyone would be better off if the union stepped aside and let the administration fire incompetent teachers.”

The mailed survey of 1,345 randomly selected K-12 teachers who responded from across the country was conducted from late March to late April. The margin of error is 3 percentage points.

Unions were among the topics addressed in the survey, which sought teachers’ views on a range of issues related to the profession.

Teachers’ opinions were collected after allegations came to light of widespread financial mismanagement by leaders of the Washington Teachers Union. But the polling was done before federal and local authorities raided the offices of United Teachers of Dade in Miami while investigating embezzlement allegations. (“Alleged Theft From D.C. Union Yields Probe,” Jan. 8, 2003, and “Authorities Raid Teachers’ Union in Miami-Dade,” May 7, 2003.)

Even though those scandals shook the foundations of the local unions involved, the fallout nationwide may prove minimal.

“Teaching is a very local profession,” said Nancy Flanagan, a teacher-in-residence in Southfield, Mich., for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. “If you asked 100 teachers in Montana what they know about the teacher-union scandal in Washington, D.C., maybe two of them would know something about it,” Ms. Flanagan asserted. “It is a nonissue to them.”

Instead, teachers are more concerned with such questions as, “What the pay structure is going to look like next year, and am I going to get that 45-minute lunch I love?” Ms. Flanagan said. Teachers want “ongoing support” from their local unions to help them with such concerns, she added.

‘A Shield in a Hostile World’

Others suggested that the economy could be a factor in the vote of confidence.

The role teachers’ unions play is more pronounced in harsh economic times, according to Janet Bass, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers, because teachers “have someone advocating for them. Otherwise, the excuse that districts use is that there is no money, when, in fact, there are different ways to split up a pie.”

Still, just because teachers say that without unions they would be more vulnerable does not mean that they necessarily agree with the unions, or even like them, said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Fordham, along with the Broad Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Sidney J. Weinberg Jr. Foundation, underwrote the survey.

“From what I saw, teachers’ view their unions much the way that a person cast in the middle of the ocean would their life raft,” Mr. Finn said. “It’s not that I love my life raft, but that I am in peril ... and I need it,” he said. The unions are like “a shield in a hostile world.”

Only 19 percent of teachers agreed that “at the national level, their union’s policies ‘almost always’ reflect their values and preferences,” while 47 percent said “this is sometimes the case,” the survey says.

“When we asked [teachers] to rate the various services of the union, the political end of it was one of the least important things to them,” said Jean Johnson, a senior vice president at Public Agenda, and one of the report’s authors.

In addition to being out of line with the politics of many of their members, the survey also found that union policies seem to speak the language of veterans.

For example, only 32 percent of the teachers with less than five years of experience strongly agreed that teachers facing unfair charges from parents or students would have nowhere to turn without unions. Meanwhile, more than half the teachers with more than 20 years of experience answered the same way.

That disparity could suggest that teachers are starting to look at unions in a new way, or could just be the result of inexperience among younger educators, said Ms. Johnson, noting that the survey does not explain the split in views on that issue.

But others have clear opinions about why that might be the case.

New teachers “don’t have the institutional memory or history” that veteran teachers have, said Ms. Bass of the AFT. Unions, she added, need to do a better job of reaching out to younger educators. (“Gen-Xers Apathetic About Union Label,” Jan. 30, 2002.)

Ms. Flanagan of the national board had a similar theory for explaining the disparity. “If you hang around long enough, you are going see an out-of-control administrator,” she said. “In any profession, if you ask someone who has been doing it for 25 years, they would have more war stories.”

Still, according to Mr. Finn, the disparity could signal a significant change in thinking. “I think that there is the possibility that new teachers represent a different view of a lot of things in education,” he said.

Other Findings

The survey also found that:

  • Although 58 percent of the respondents said that “tenure protects teachers from district politics” and threats of losing their job, 58 percent also said just because a teacher has tenure does not necessarily mean he or she is capable or a hard worker.

  • Salary increases are more appealing than tenure to some teachers. Twenty-eight percent said they would trade tenure for a $5,000 pay hike.

  • Most teachers are committed to their jobs. Only 7 percent said they are likely to leave teaching, while 74 percent said they “consider teaching a lifelong career.”

  • Seventy-six percent of the respondents believe teachers have become “the scapegoats for all the problems facing education.”

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