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Won't Back Down: Union-Bashing Goes Hollywood

At the recent Education Nation meetings, I saw the opening of "Won't Back Down." If you've seen the movie or the reviews, you'll know that it's about a plucky parent, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who organizes parents and teachers in a terrible school to invoke a "parent trigger" law to take over the school. The movie is controversial in large part because it presents the teachers' union, which tries to prevent the takeover, as 100 percent evil, in a time when teachers and their unions are very much under assault.

The movie does a good job of painting viewers into an emotional corner. Gyllenhaal's second-grade daughter is not learning to read, and her incompetent, nearly comatose teacher (and her corrupt principal and uncaring district) do nothing to solve the problem, or even pretend to care. The mom, working two jobs with little money, does her best to change her daughter to a better class, then a better school, and finally tries and fails to get her into a wonderful-sounding charter school. Given all of this, what's a mother to do?

In the movie version (this is not true in real life), the approval of half of the school's teachers is needed to invoke the parent trigger. The mom teams up with a great teacher, played by Viola Davis. If you've seen any David vs. Goliath movie, you can predict the rest, except that it's the union, not the school administration that is cast as Goliath. This is set up by the artificial device of making teacher approval a requirement for parent trigger. (This isn't otherwise necessary since the school administration does a sufficient job of playing Goliath).

So going beyond the movie to real life, are unions part of the problem or part of the solution in school reform? Both. At their best, unions can mobilize the efforts of their teachers around real reform. In the 1990s, New York City partnered with its UFT to transform a large set of failing elementary and middle schools, in what it called the Chancellor's District. An independent evaluation found substantial positive effects on students' reading achievement. Further, the national AFT has been a strong advocate for evidence-based school reform. It eagerly supported the Chancellor's District, as well as other efforts in big cities along similar lines.

Beyond their direct involvement in reform, the unions (and almost no one else) fights to increase teachers' salaries and improve their working conditions and effectiveness. To get the most talented people to go into teaching and stay there, teachers need to be paid adequately and treated like professionals.

I've experienced situations in which union rules create difficulties in staffing and running schools trying to implement reforms, but I've never seen situations in which unions are unwilling to support reforms if they get a place at the table in planning them. Ultimately, unions are teachers, and teachers care about kids. They have to protect their members, but need to be involved in fair ways of evaluating teachers and removing incompetents from their own ranks. At Education Nation, in a panel on the movie, Randi Weingarten, President of the AFT, said that the awful teacher portrayed in "Won't Back Down" should have been fired. I think any union leader would say the same thing.

Ultimately, what makes a difference is good teachers using proven strategies. The movie gives little sense about what the newly liberated teachers will do to improve outcomes for children. The movie's examples of great teaching involved a teacher playing a ukulele to his kids. So the new school is sure to be more fun and more musical, but will it teach kids to read? Wouldn't it be more sensible to offer teachers proven methods (with or without ukuleles), and then deal with the few who won't or can't teach? Failing schools are indeed unacceptable, but blowing them up is not the only solution.

Union bashing is not a path to school reform. Unions can and should be invited into the reform conversation. The focus of reform needs to be on improving what teachers and administrators do every day, and on attracting the best and brightest into teaching. I don't think any union anywhere disagrees with these goals.

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