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Teachers Unions Blow an Easy Chance to Walk the Walk

A couple years ago, in The Cage-Busting Teacher, I enthusiastically agreed with the avatars of "teacher professionalism" that teachers can and should play a much larger role in shaping policy and practice. In that book, as on plenty of other occasions, I infuriated "would-be reformers" by suggesting that they were failing to listen to or acknowledge the insights of those who actually do the work. But I also noted that this kind of professional respect is not an entitlement—not in any field, and especially not when dealing with public funds and the public's children. It must always be earned. As I put it in CBT:

Moral authority doesn't come from saying that one is fighting for students. It comes from a track record of clear, consistent actions to promote great teaching and learning and to defend professional excellence. It comes with demonstrated success and a record of doing things to help teachers get better, to stop districts from wasting time or money, and to ensure that mediocre employees (whether they work in the central office or in classrooms) find another line of work. Moral authority is earned. It's a product of teachers convincing parents, voters, and policymakers that, "We've got this."

There's nothing surprising here. This is what we expect from any profession that earns our trust and respect. High-performing organizations are that way precisely because they build cultures where no one feels like they get a pass. I observed this in a different context last year, contrasting the excuse-making of the mediocre Houston Texans with the critical self-assessment of the eventual-Super-Bowl-champion New England Patriots:

While players on the winning team were calling themselves out for their shortcomings, the star of a team that lost by more than two touchdowns was explaining that his team did all the things that make him "expect to win." The quotes suggest two very different ways of thinking about what it means to play well. The Patriots have internalized a vision that regards excellence as a process . . . That difference in perspective probably had something to do with why the Patriots went 14-2 this year and the Texans 9-7. It probably had something to do with why the Patriots beat the Texans twice this year, by a combined score of 61-16.

I further noted:

The books that have taken the closest look at Bill Belichick and his methods, by authors like David Halberstam and Michael Holley, make clear that there's no secret sauce. The recipe is straightforward. Players are expected to relentlessly focus on doing their job. They are taught that execution is what makes the difference. There's a belief that excellence means focusing on what went wrong and how to do better . . . Ultimately, it's not about dismissing excuses or rejecting excuses, but about creating a culture where people don't want to make excuses. Seems to me that we could use a lot more of that nowadays in school reform, in schooling, and in life.

Anyway, this is a long-winded way of getting to the point, which is that I can't believe that all the various chapters of the NEA and AFT so enthusiastically the rushed to the ramparts last week to excuse the fact that a new Fordham Institute study reported that 28% of district teachers miss more than ten days of school for personal and sick leave. The unions exhibited the precise opposite of an excellence-fueled, no-excuses mindset. As I observed yesterday in National Review Online:

Anyone who's spent any time in classrooms knows the sad truth that little gets done when substitute teachers are in the saddle. This means that more than one-fourth of the nation's district classrooms lost at least two weeks of learning last year, due solely to teachers' taking the day off. Those who spend their time insisting that teachers deserve more professional respect should be livid about this, shouldn't they? They should be furious with slackers who aren't shouldering their load while making it harder to ensure that hard-working, responsible teachers are seen accordingly. After all, if one wants teachers to be seen as professionals, it's vital that all of the nation's teachers—not 72 percent of them—act the part.

Thus, union leaders might have responded by telling their members, "Guys, this is a wake-up call! We all need to walk the walk, so our talk doesn't ring hollow." They could have rallied to the defense of the three-quarters who show up every day, slamming the 28 percent for resting on the shoulders of their colleagues. They could have earned some goodwill by acknowledging the problem and promising to help address it.

I mean, this was easy pickings. All that union leaders had to do was say, "Of course, there are circumstances that need to be allowed for, but we agree that this should probably mean one out of twenty teachers—not one out of four." I suspect that such a response would've merited surprise, admiration, and a whole lot of goodwill. I think it might have done well for teachers and their professional regard.

But we'll never know. Because instead, in state after state, union leaders chose to issue a double-barreled blast of excuses, rationalizations, and complaints:

Carl Korn of the New York State United Teachers insisted the report is "an ideological propaganda document" and told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle that he hasn't seen any evidence that teacher absenteeism is a significant problem. Doug Pratt of the Michigan Education Association protested, "When you walk into a building in the middle of winter, the flu bug that's going around and sidelining students and staff can spread like wildfire . . . Do you want a teacher whose parent or partner is undergoing chemotherapy that morning—and because of the reasonable amount of time they've bargained—gets to be with their family member and take care of what they need to? Or should they be in front of students distracted?" Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, offered, "Fordham is a biased organization that is driven by an anti-student agenda with anti-public education funders."

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. It's striking that so many union leaders decried the study as essentially "anti-teacher"—which makes about as much sense as branding classroom attendance-taking "anti-student." Teachers, more than anyone, understand that attendance is a pretty vital part of what it takes for students to succeed; after all, it's hard to learn if you don't show up to class. The same is true of teachers. 

Now, there are obviously legitimate reasons why some of the nation's three-million-plus teachers may need to miss more than two weeks of school during the year. The chemotherapy example is a heart-rending one (though I'd be surprised if it, or something similar, applied to even one percent of the nation's teachers in a given year). And I agree that it's important to remember that teaching is tough, grinding work where professionals are surrounded by children and can't even go to the bathroom on their own schedule. This all merits consideration when discussing such questions.

But we also all know that learning pretty much stops when teachers are out. And we're talking about more than a quarter of the profession missing more than two weeks each year, above and beyond scheduled breaks and holidays. That's a problem. And the fact that union leaders can't say so is perhaps a bigger one.

Teachers can and should be treated like professionals. But that has to be a two-way street. True professionals hold themselves and their colleagues to a high standard. They demand commitment and excellence. And they need to insist that their representatives give voice to that commitment.

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