Monday, September 17, 2012

Do U.S. teacher unions support or subvert school reform?

What a difference a week makes. 

Last week, asked to choose a stance on teacher unions in the U.S., I wrote piece on the topic for my master's in education. Shortly thereafter, Chicago teachers went on strike. Yes, it must be the power of my writing that made them do it. Cough, cough. 

Here is the paper, edited for brevity, which I wrote in response to a chapter in the book Critical Issues in Education, which asks the question posed in the headline, and outlines the arguments for and against U.S. teacher unions as they relate to school reforms.  

As a member of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union and a resident of the home of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, I’m predisposed to agree with my pal, Billy Bragg.

Be that as it may, I would be very reluctant to strike knowing that my students’ education and profession's reputation are hanging in the balance. There’s something very disheartening about a teacher walking the picket line while his or her students sit on the sidelines (as happy to have an extended vacation as they may be). Says the PR instructor: it’s bad PR.

The appearance of U.S. teacher unions goes back to the early days of the profession, when teaching was considered less a career than, in sociologist’s Willard Waller’s words, “a failure belt…the refuge of unmarriageable women and unsaleable men.” Like me!

Bad working conditions, detached administrators, and a negative perception of the profession sewed the seeds for early U.S. teacher unions. The National Education Association (NEA) formed in 1857 to advance “the profession of education” but was dominated by men and not as “concerned with the personal welfare of classroom teachers.”

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) formed in 1916 and “focused on improving economic aspect of teachers’ lives” and the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 “changed the status of unions by recognizing that workers in private industry had the right to bargain collectively.” At the same time, some courts still considered unions to be “criminal conspiracies.”

“Collective bargaining changed the relationship between classroom teachers and administrators. It promised teachers more pay, better job security, and an audible voice in education.” Today, the NLRA covers private sector workers, the NEA and AFT are rivals for the same teacher base (together, their membership is comprised of 80 per cent of U.S. teachers), and teachers enjoy the promise (if not practice) of better “pay, job security, and an audible voice in education.”

The two positions:

Position 1: “Teacher unions are champions of teachers and school reform.”

The pro position is that unions “have had a positive effect on teachers’ working conditions” in terms of salaries, collective bargaining, status, job security, and to “prevent a teacher from getting fired solely for disagreeing with administrators.” It also maintains, “unions also have been good for students,” and cites Finland, the shining example of educational reform, as having “the highest student test scores” and “some of the strongest teacher unions in the world.”

 Position 2: “Teacher Unions Stand in the Way of School Reform.”

The against position raises the specter of “bad teachers” and “rubber rooms” and wonders, “why the nation has done almost nothing to get bad teachers out of the classroom?”

It also says that unions “have outlived their usefulness,” are for teachers and not students, are apologists for poor teaching and an obstacle for school reform” and agrees, while unions do lead to higher teacher pay, it’s at the expense of everything else (except maybe union dues). Instead of union representation, this side suggests the solution to school reform is “merit pay and quantifiable data.”

The anti-union position in the book makes much of the idea that unions protect bad teachers and don’t support great teachers. However, the reality is that teacher unions don’t just represent bad teachers, but also good ones.

Presumption of innocence wasn’t invented by a teacher union, nor was due process or right to a speedy trial. As much as we might like to rally behind a simplistic slogan, like “bad teachers should be fired and good teachers rewarded,” it’s sobering to remember that few people agree on what makes a teacher good or bad.

The article, Building a Better Teacher, from the NY Times Magazine, illustrates the struggle inherent in the pursuit:
"But what makes a good teacher? There have been many quests for the one essential trait, and they have all come up empty-handed. Among the factors that do not predict whether a teacher will succeed: a graduate-school degree, a high score on the SAT, an extroverted personality, politeness, confidence, warmth, enthusiasm and having passed the teacher-certification exam on the first try. When Bill Gates announced recently that his foundation was investing millions in a project to improve teaching quality in the United States, he added a rueful caveat. “Unfortunately, it seems the field doesn’t have a clear view of what characterizes good teaching.”
If the answer is, as the article suggests, “voodoo,” it’s unlikely we’ll be any closer to objectively defining good and bad teachers anytime soon. For the same reason, I also don’t believe that merit pay is a more reasonable way to solve the problem of school reform.

A key problem with merit pay is “teacher quality cannot be measured solely by changes in student test scores.” Student performance can be a function of many things, including family environment. Would parents agree to be judged on their parenting skills based solely on their kids' test scores?

The other side of merit pay is the recent epidemic of teachers being caught raising their students' test scores. Further, it’s proven to be unsuccessful in other countries. "England ended its experiment with performance pay in the 1890s following public outcry over academic dishonesty and the negative effects of exams on students and teachers."

I believe that U.S. teacher unions and school reform aren’t mutually exclusive ideas and agree with the quote attributed to Albert Shanker: “It is as much the duty of the union to preserve public education as it is to negotiate a good contract.”

- All quotes from Nelson, Jack, Stuart Palonsky, and Mary Rose McCarthy, Critical Issues in Education, Eighth Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2013. 

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