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State of the Union

Note: Sydney Morris and Evan Stone, co-founders and co-CEOs of Educators for Excellence, are guest posting this week. E4E is a national teacher-led organization working to ensure that teachers have a meaningful voice in the creation of policies that impact their classrooms and careers.

We saw a lot to get excited about from the recent Education Sector survey, "Trending Toward Reform: Teachers Speak on Unions and the Future of the Profession." The findings confirmed something we've been saying since we started E4E two years ago: Teachers overwhelmingly want a strong union. It's what they want from their union that's evolving.

The survey shows that more than three quarters of teachers today (including more than 70 percent of new teachers) say that, absent the union, their working conditions and salaries would suffer. Majorities also agree that they would be more vulnerable to school politics, and would have nowhere to turn in the face of unfair charges by parents or students.

However, these very same teachers are increasingly expecting their unions not to simply protect them, but also to embrace systemic changes aimed at transforming their profession. According to the Ed Sector report, the proportion of teachers saying unions should focus more on improving teacher quality is growing, from 32 percent in 2007 to 43 percent today. It's still not a majority, but as the face of the profession continues to evolve, we think it will be in a few short years.

Unfortunately, union politics haven't entirely caught up with current classroom teachers' desires. While individual union leaders have demonstrated a willingness to embrace change in a few places - New Haven, CT, and Hillsborough County, FL, to name a few - teachers unions in general have yet to embrace the role they could and should be filling as the leaders of the charge to elevate the teaching profession and improve outcomes for students.

Then again, if classroom teachers are dissatisfied with the union's advocacy, we only have ourselves to blame. Most of us don't actively participate in the union. In many local union chapters around the country, less than 20% of current classroom teachers even vote in union leadership elections. And in NYC, the results of the latest United Federation of Teachers (UFT) leadership election - the largest AFT local - tell an important story.

In the 2010 election of UFT President Michael Mulgrew, 63% of the vote came from union members who are retired or are in non-teaching positions. Only 37% of the vote came from active classroom teachers. Nearly half of all retired members cast ballots, yet less than a quarter of active teachers participated. That has to change if we want the union's focus to change.

The question is, do teachers not participate because they feel disenfranchised or are they disenfranchised because they don't participate? We'd argue the former -- the unions currently do little to encourage participation among active teachers and in fact, the UFT recently increased the influence of retirees in union elections.

Even so, the old adage, "If you don't vote, you don't matter," still applies.

Across the nation, teachers cannot sit on the sidelines and expect things to get better. It is up to current classroom teachers to take back the reins of their union, to get involved, to share their voices, and to build the kind of union they want representing them.

--Sydney Morris and Evan Stone

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